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Encore: Religions don't agree on when life begins


A Louisiana lawmaker has introduced an antiabortion bill that describes human life as, quote, "created in the image of God." That bill would ban abortion from the moment of fertilization. The question of when life begins came up during oral arguments last year in the major abortion case that's currently before the Supreme Court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Mississippi's solicitor general to explain why the state should be allowed to ban abortions. She called this a religious question.


SONIA SOTOMAYOR: It's still debated in religions. So when you say this is the only right that takes away from the state the ability to protect a life, that's a religious view, isn't it?

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon reports that major religions disagree about the answer.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Kaitlyn didn't want an abortion. She wanted a baby. But last year, when she was about 16 weeks pregnant, doctors told her there was a fatal problem with the fetus, and her choices were to terminate or wait for a stillbirth. Through the process, Kaitlyn says she was guided and comforted by her faith.

KAITLYN: In Judaism, life and breath are essentially the same thing. So in Judaism, life begins when you take your first breath.

MCCAMMON: Kaitlyn lives in Kentucky, one of about two dozen states where most abortions could soon become illegal if the Supreme Court issues a decision in line with a draft opinion leaked last week that would overturn Roe v. Wade. She asked that we only use her first name because she's worried her job could be affected if it's widely known that she had an abortion. She says in her understanding of Judaism, the decision was fundamentally hers.

KAITLYN: God has offered me a solution to my suffering, which is, you have medical options available to you to end this pregnancy. I didn't need to suffer any more than I already was.

MCCAMMON: Kaitlyn says her husband was supportive of her decision, but he wrestled in his own way.

KAITLYN: My husband's faith is different than mine. You know, he's not anti-choice at all. But this was difficult for him - one, because, of course, he wanted this child as well, but also because his faith feels differently about it. And it gave him just a different set of struggles, just a different set of questions with God.

MCCAMMON: Polls suggest that while a majority of Americans support abortion rights and oppose overturning Roe, views on abortion are closely tied to religion. Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian and nonreligious Americans express some of the strongest support for abortion rights in surveys. Within Christianity, there is a wide variety of views.

RYAN ANDERSON: The answer is going to be that, you know, every human being matters from the moment that they first come into existence.

MCCAMMON: Ryan Anderson is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. As a Catholic, Anderson believes that human life begins at conception. He opposes abortion.

ANDERSON: And no human being should be denied equal protection of the law. No human being should have their life destroyed.

MCCAMMON: But a majority of American Catholics, along with Black Protestants and white mainline Protestants, all say abortion should be allowed in most or all cases. That's according to a survey just out from the Pew Research Center. White Evangelical Christians express the strongest opposition to abortion, with more than 70% saying it should always or mostly be illegal.

Margaret Kamitsuka, professor emeritus of religion at Oberlin College, argues that within the Christian tradition, there's significant ambiguity about abortion. She notes it's never mentioned in the Bible.

MARGARET KAMITSUKA: Which is quite stunning because pretty much every other moral issue is talked about, from divorce to gluttony and robbery and so on. But abortion is not talked about.

MCCAMMON: More than half of American Muslims support legal access to abortion, according to Pew. Zahra Ayubi is an associate professor of religion at Dartmouth. She says historically, defining the beginning of life has been less important for many Muslim thinkers than questions about how to preserve it.

ZAHRA AYUBI: And the preservation of life is really often understood to be the mother's life, because that is the life that exists.

MCCAMMON: Amicus briefs in the case have come from a wide variety of faith groups with widely varying positions. A brief from the Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that religion is at the heart of antiabortion laws and that, quote, "government has no business requiring citizens to comply with the religious beliefs of those who are in power."

For Kaitlyn in Kentucky, her Jewish faith was essential in helping her work through the difficult decision to end her pregnancy after she learned the baby she'd been expecting would never survive.

KAITLYN: And it was very clear to me, in the role that faith played in my life and my decisions, that as much as I didn't understand it, God didn't mean for me to have this baby.

MCCAMMON: Kaitlyn says it will go on a long list of unanswered questions of faith.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.