One is an 18 year old student. She worked to become the first person in her family to go to college, but now an unwanted pregnancy threatens to derail her entire future. Another is married and has three children who are finally old enough to be able to start working again and help her family get out of debt. Her pregnancy was an accident and she and her husband know that a fourth child will plunge them into poverty. Another is a 15-year-old girl, raped by her father.
These are the kind of women in America who are faced with the difficult decision of what to do in the event of an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. They consult their families and partners. They seek advice from doctors and clergy. Then they make the decision that suits them. But now an onslaught of politicians across the country – the vast majority of them men – is rushing to take that choice away and make it for them. That’s what awaits us now that the United States Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, 50, on abortion.
Americans who intend to force women to have children against their will come in many varieties. Some are politicians looking to score political points. Others see abortion rights as part of a package of social changes – women’s rights, gay rights, etc. But I know others who oppose abortion rights for genuine moral reasons. They have a deep religious view that life begins when a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell. They believe that to terminate a pregnancy, even the day after conception, is to take a human life. I do not question the sincerity of their convictions. But they have no right to impose these religious beliefs on everyone.
When does human life really begin? This is not a scientific question with a scientific answer. It is a matter of religious faith. And not all people and all religions share the belief of some Christian conservatives that life begins at the time of fertilization. National Public Radio recently interviewed a young Jewish woman from Kentucky who wanted her baby, but her doctors told her the fetus was dead. Her choice was either to have an abortion or to carry that doomed fetus inside her for five more months and be stillborn. Her faith, she says, helped her navigate this difficult choice. “God has offered me a solution to my suffering, which is that you have medical options available to you to end this pregnancy.” Now, with no legal restrictions on their way, abortion prohibitionists are racing to force women like her and countless others to bend to their religious will.
Following last week’s court ruling, women in eight US states are now prohibited by law from having an abortion at any time during their pregnancy. Another 13 states will have bans in place within a month. This concerns 26 million women of childbearing age. Some of these laws will put doctors in jail for five years and more if they perform an abortion. Other states are considering punishing women. Many of the new laws make no exceptions for victims of incest. The Republican governor of Nebraska, and others, want to force women to bear the children of their rapists. In Missouri and elsewhere, lawmakers plan to make it a crime for a pregnant woman to leave the state to have an abortion where it remains legal. In some states, women who experience the trauma of a miscarriage will soon have to prove to law enforcement officials that they did not have an abortion.
Whatever your position on this issue, we need to be clear about what is happening. A religious minority imposes its religious vision on everyone. Public opinion polls have consistently shown that most Americans support abortion access and nearly 60% of Americans oppose last week’s court ruling. A religious minority has succeeded, for the first time in history, in taking away a constitutionally protected right. And anti-abortion politicians are not done. Their next goal is a federal abortion ban that will extend to all 50 states. The “free exercise” of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. People whose religious faith tells them that life begins at conception have every right to hold that belief and to make their own choices based on it. They are also free to try to persuade others of their point of view. But what they are not allowed to do is use the coercive power of government to impose their religious views on others. Muslims in America do not require state laws to require Baptists to wear headscarves. American Jews do not try to force Catholics to circumcise their baby boys.
Angry protests will fill the streets. Don’t pretend that these women need to accept things, get over them, and have babies. Make no mistake about the situation we find ourselves in as a nation. If a religious minority succeeds in imposing its demands on the rest of us – over something as personal as forcing a woman to give birth to a child against her will – then all bets are off on what freedom will mean. personal in this country in the future, on every issue.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and an occasional columnist for CNHI News Service.