Faith leaders discuss how their religions approach the divisive issue of abortion

While many say the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is the answer to decades of prayer, some faith leaders fear their religious rights will be infringed amid new abortion restrictions. Amna Nawaz spoke with three faith leaders about how their religions approach the issue of abortion.

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  • William Brangham:

    While many say the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is the answer to decades of prayer, some faith leaders fear their religious rights will be infringed amid new abortion restrictions.

    Amna Nawaz has that conversation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tonight, we explore how some of the major faiths view the question of when life begins and how those beliefs should or shouldn't shape the law of the land.

    Joining me now are Rabbi Jen Lader of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, Michigan, Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a constitutional law and Islamic law professor at the University of Wisconsin, as well as the interim co-director of Muslim Advocates, and Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, former policy director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission within the Southern Baptist Convention, currently working in government affairs for Lifeline Child.

    Welcome to you all, and thank you for being here.

    Rabbi Lader, I read something that surprised me. There's a synagogue suing the state of Florida and the governor there, among others, saying that the state's 15-week abortion ban infringes on the religious freedom of Jews.

    And you have said that lawsuit excites you, that you support it. Tell us why.

  • Rabbi Jennifer Lader, Temple Israel:

    There is this sense that anyone who is eight traditionally observant person would align with the pro-life movement, but many religious people are fighting against the dissolution of Roe v. Wade because of our religion, not in spite of it.

    It is a Jewish value to support women and pregnant people's ability to get the medical care they need. And that includes the right to abortion. In fact, our tradition mandates abortion in many instances.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Dr. Quraishi-Landes, you actually wrote an op-ed on this issue. You said that the overturning of Roe v. Wade would also be an infringement on the religious freedom of Muslims. How so?

    Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, University of Wisconsin Law School: Islam actually has quite a range of beliefs on the permissibility, discouragement or allowance of abortion based on different interpretations of scripture, of Islamic scripture, of when life begins.

    So there's a range within all the different schools of thought, starting at the majority opinion, which says life begins somewhere around 120 days into the pregnancy, all the way down to a minority opinion that says zero.

    So, Muslims would choose which school of thought to follow. We don't have the same sort of black-and-white way of thinking about this as it's either a life or it's not a life. There's a range of choices.

    So, when you have an abortion ban, that reduces those choices that Muslims have to zero.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Chelsea, let me get you to respond to what you have just heard there.

    For those who don't believe that life begins at conception, does an abortion ban of any kind, doesn't it infringe on their religious freedom? What's your view?

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, Lifeline Children’s Services:

    We do believe that we're talking about two people. And we believe that both people have a right to live.

    Our perspective is that religious liberty is not ultimate and that governments creating these laws protecting the most vulnerable among us, again, we believe that life begins at conception. So we do believe that this is the proper role of government.

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    Can I…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Quraishi-Landes, would you like to respond?

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    Yes.

    The first question is, what does Islam say Muslims should do in a situation of pregnancy in a difficult situation? But that doesn't actually answer the question of what the state should do with regard to everybody who may or may not be Muslim in a Muslim-ruled place.

    Muslim governments very clearly distinguish between the laws of living life as a Muslim, which are scriptural interpretation-based, and then a different type of law, which is the law of the state. The state should be making laws to serve the general good of all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, Doctor, to this point about where we are now, the point that Chelsea just made, that there's a time that the government should be stepping in, because religious liberty isn't absolute, what would you say to that?

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    For those of us who don't believe it's a choice between a life and a life, then that calculation is very different than those who believe that choice is between a life and a life.

    In India, the right-wing Hindu Party has tried to ban all cattle slaughter because they believe that that's a sacred life. And in a pluralistic society, we have to figure out, OK, how do we make a law that's going to protect all of us and all of our choices, and not impose one view on all others.

    I think this is a question of, where is there harm? Are there going to be more maternal and fetal deaths? Are there going to be more overburdening of the foster care system? Or is it going to disproportionately affect the marginalized and the poor?

    Those are serious harms that I think we have to wrestle with. As a minority religious American, I'm extremely concerned about that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chelsea, what about some of those points there? We know that there are many bans that make no exception for the mother's health, or bans that would force a child to carry and to deliver a baby, which could be very harmful and physically torturous, many argue.

    How do those kinds of outcomes square with Christian beliefs?

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik:

    I don't know a law on the books that doesn't prevent a woman from getting lifesaving care.

    But we view that as saving the life of a mother. I think intent here is important. The intent of an abortion is to end the life of a preborn child. And the intent of miscarriage care or treating an ectopic pregnancy is that life of the mother. And when able, a doctor can and should attempt to save both lives.

    Our position abortion is that life is inherently sacred and valuable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think it's important to point out too there are differing views even within the Christian faith, right?

    I mean, when you look at poll numbers, it's really white evangelicals who overwhelmingly believe abortion is morally wrong and should not be allowed in the United States. So, when you look at that, does this mean that states are now pushing bans that really represent even a minority Christian view?

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik:

    It's a great question. So I can speak on behalf of Southern Baptists, which is the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

    So I would say people advocating for the preborn, it's not just Christians. There are Democrats for life. There are atheists for life. My advocacy on this issue is rooted in my faith. But, again, there are people of different faiths or of no faith who are advocating for the preborn.

  • Jennifer Lader:

    It really fascinates me to hear, Chelsea, when you referenced scripture, because my interpretation of our sacred texts, which shares this foundation with yours, I know, in our interpretation, it is extremely clear that a fetus is not considered a life.

    For the first 40 days of its — of a fetus being inside of a person's body, it's considered mere water, and then afterwards considered it — and I quote — "like as if it were a woman's thigh."

    So this idea that Scripture teaches us that the lives of a person who is carrying a fetus and the fetus are equal is certainly not rooted in my faith tradition. Interpretations lead to consequences in the real world. I'm just so interested in how that difference in interpretation and textual study has led to such varied viewpoints when it comes to this issue.

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik:

    Personhood begins at conception, because anything beyond that is arbitrary; 39 days, is that a person with rights or not?

    We see in Psalm 139 that God knits us together in our mother's womb. And then, in the New Testament, we see — we see Jesus caring for the most vulnerable and proclaiming that.

  • Jennifer Lader:

    And, for us, the most vulnerable in this moment are these people who now are losing access to health care and not able to care for themselves.

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    And can I jump in?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Please do.

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    I would love, I would love to have a theological conversation with my Abrahamic cousins about this, but I don't think it's an appropriate conversation when we're trying to decide what the state law should be for everybody.

    That's my main point, is that this is fascinating. And we can all share ideas about what we think God said. And what — and those who don't believe in Jesus at all can chime in on what they think and we can have great conversations.

    I recognize that it's a really existential concern for those who believe it's a life. But if we reduce ourselves to a conversation about what Scripture says, that's not the place of the state.

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik:

    The issue of abortion, in my opinion, is inherently different. There is a second person involved.

    And so I think the question we need to have a discussion on is, is this about one person's religious liberty or two people's right to live? I would say that just because someone makes a religious argument doesn't mean that you have to be Christian to recognize that it's a distinct life in the womb.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But what about this idea that, if this issue, if abortion is actually handled at the state level, state by state, it would be better for everyone because then it would be more representative of that state's needs and beliefs and values?

  • Jennifer Lader:

    Even if 75 percent of the people living in a state are pro-life, the other 25 percent may need access to abortion or reproductive health care that they would not be able to access.

    If we had a Jewish person where the mother's emotional health or physical health were in danger, but her life wasn't in danger, yet she would not be able to access the health care she needed at that time, and, for us, that's just not acceptable.

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik:

    People get to vote and to share with their state representatives how they want this issue to look in their states.

    So there's definitely a role that people have within their states.

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    We have gone from individuals getting to choose over their own lives to states getting to choose all of our individual lives. That scares me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Rabbi Lader, we're — big picture here is, we're having a faith conversation in — on a legal matter.

    And I'm just curious how you, as a faith leader in your community, view that when it comes to the rights of your community and every other American.

  • Jennifer Nader:

    We try really hard to preach to values and to discuss values within our community in my congregation specifically and keep politics out of it.

    It's not a controversial issue within my congregation and generally within the Jewish community that our religious freedom means having access to health care in a way that makes sense for us and for everybody.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Quraishi-Landes, you hear Chelsea saying, absolutely, her advocacy is rooted in her faith. And millions of Americans do share those values and beliefs.

    So what do you say to those who defend pushing this as a legislative move, because our country's laws have historically been based on Christian morality?

  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:

    A lot of our laws, the abolitionist movement against slavery was very much rooted in Christian values, amongst others.

    I think religion is amazing and motivating human behavior. But it's amazing when it's motivated from the inside, when I myself feel some kind of scripturally bound duty, but it's less effective when it comes from the outside.

    So I can fast in Ramadan, no problem. But when I'm asked to stay on a diet, or if somebody were to force me to fast, it would be much, much harder. And it'd be even harder if it was somebody else's religious values. So, if people really are wanting to limit abortions in this country, I think there's way more effective ways to do that than making bans that are enforced by the state.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Rabbi Lader, what would you say to that?

  • Jennifer Lader:

    It's scary being a religious minority in a country that seems to be leaning toward making legal and political decisions based on this very vocal, very politically active Christian nationalism.

    And if the Supreme Court is able to make decisions that go against the will of the vast majority of American citizens based on the value system and beliefs of a religious group, that is not — doesn't feel safe and doesn't feel a good place for us to be as Americans here today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chelsea, it is very true we are an increasingly diverse nation on faith, right, when it comes to religious diversity or being unaffiliated or even secular.

    So what would you say to the tens of millions of people out there who do not share your views on this matter, but now feel as if your views are being imposed on them?

  • Chelsea Patterson Sobolik:

    Absolutely.

    We all bring our values to the public square, and I think that is part of living in a pluralistic society, where we're able to have these conversations. I keep going back to the little one in the womb, but also moms who are scared right now.

    There are women around the country who are scared. I hear that. I understand that. My very own birth mother was like a lot of the women who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy right now. I completely understand that.

    And we need to respond to that. We need to meet moms and dads where they're at with care, love and resources.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chelsea Sobolik, Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, and Rabbi Jen Lader, thank you to all three of you.

  • William Brangham:

    Thank you, Amna.

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