Misha Sanders was starting from scratch. She had recently left an abusive relationship and was in her first semester of seminary, all while caring for her child, a teenager with a serious health issue.
That’s when she discovered she was pregnant. Sanders used the abortion pill, a combination of misoprostol and mifepristone, to terminate the pregnancy.
According to her, the decision was deeply entwined with her religious beliefs, which include respecting full bodily autonomy and caring for others – core Unitarian Universalism beliefs that she practices.
“As a loving mother, the only decision I could make was to focus on mothering this child that I brought into the world and terminating this new pregnancy,” Sanders explained. “It was absolutely the best.”
Sanders now resides in Georgia, which may enact abortion restrictions after six weeks of pregnancy if Roe v Wade is overturned in the coming weeks.
Reproductive rights are under attack in the United States, as states impose stricter restrictions and the Supreme Court deliberates on a case that is widely expected to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.
However, while religious arguments surrounding the issue are commonly associated with the anti-abortion movement, abortion restrictions, according to faith leaders and legal experts, can violate the right to religious liberty. Some organizations are already preparing legal challenges to looming abortion bans.
Religious liberty is guaranteed to people of all faiths by the US constitution, state constitutions, and federal statutes. Abortion is usually considered permissible, if not required, in cases where the patient’s life is in danger. Abortion is legal in Islam for the first 120 days, after which it is considered a civil – not a criminal – issue, and it is legal at any time when the mother’s health is jeopardized. Other believers, including those within Christianity, place greater emphasis on the sacredness of the individual or family in making such decisions than on prosecutors or legislators.
Personal beliefs may even contradict the teachings of established religions; for example, Catholics for Choice believe they have a religious obligation to protect reproductive health despite the Catholic church’s anti-abortion stance.
According to a Pew Research survey published in May, nearly half of Protestants and 56% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in some or all cases. According to a different Pew study from 2014, more than half of Muslims, 82 percent of Buddhists, and 83 percent of Jews believe the same.
Some clergy are opposed to abortion bans because they see them as a “Christian theocratic imposition on entire swaths of our country,” as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, put it.
“There are serious issues of religious liberty here,” Ruttenberg said. “If you prohibit abortion when my religious tradition tells me that I am a) permitted and b) possibly required to obtain abortion care, you are restricting my free exercise of religion.”
The first amendment protects religious rights in two ways: first, the state cannot substantially burden religious freedom; second, the establishment clause prohibits the government from endorsing some forms of religion while condemning others, or from embracing faith-based perspectives on public policy.
For example, if states pass laws recognizing fertilized eggs as people, those laws may violate the establishment clause because such a view is closely aligned with Catholicism but not with other religious beliefs on ensoulment and personhood.
Legal challenges based on religious liberty could be “the next stage of reproductive rights,” according to Awad, and the National Council of Jewish Women is investigating the possibility of such a challenge, according to Ruttenberg.
There is precedent for people with sincerely held religious beliefs fighting criminal charges for law-breaking behavior.
Scott Warren, a No More Deaths humanitarian aid worker, successfully argued that his work assisting migrants crossing the US-Mexico border was consistent with his religious beliefs regarding helping others, and he was acquitted of federal charges in 2019.