SHULTZ: Imposing our religion on others

Jim Shultz

One of them is an 18-year-old student. She worked relentlessly to become the first person in her family to go to college, but now an unintended pregnancy threatens to derail her whole future. Another is married, with three children who are finally old enough that she can start working again and help dig her family out of debt. Her pregnancy was an accident and she and her husband know that a fourth child will throw all of them into poverty. Another is a 15-year-old girl, raped by her father.

These are the kinds of women in America who face the difficult decision of what to do about an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. They consult with their families and their partners. They seek guidance from their doctors and their clergy. Then they make the best decision that is right for them.

But now an onslaught of politicians across the country (the vast majority of them men) are moving fast to take that choice away and make it for them. That is what lies ahead now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the 50-year-old Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion.

The Americans who are intent on forcing women to bear children against their will come in many varieties. Some are politicians just looking to score political points. Others see abortion rights as part of a whole collection of social changes (women’s rights, gay rights, etc.) that need to be forced back into the bottle so that America can be 1950 again.

But I know others who oppose abortion rights for genuine moral reasons. They hold a deep religious view that life begins the moment that a sperm fertilizes an egg. They believe that ending a pregnancy, even the day after conception, is the taking of a human life.

I do not question the sincerity of their beliefs. But they do not have a right to impose those religious beliefs on everyone else.

When does human life actually begin? This is not a scientific question with a scientific answer. This is a matter of religious faith. And not all people and not all religions share the belief of some Christian conservatives that life begins at the moment of fertilization.

National Public Radio recently interviewed a young Jewish woman in Kentucky, named Kaitlyn. She wanted her baby, but her doctors told her that the fetus had a fatal condition. Her choice was to either have an abortion or carry that doomed fetus inside her for five months more and have it be stillborn.

Her faith, she says, helped her navigate that hard choice. "God has offered me a solution to my suffering, which is you have medical options available to you to end this pregnancy.” Now, with no legal restrictions in their way, abortion prohibitionists are using the coercive powers of government to force women like her and a multitude of others to bend to their religious will.

In the direct aftermath of last week’s court decision, women in eight U.S. states are now prohibited by law from having an abortion at any point in their pregnancy. Another 13 states will have bans in place within another month. This affects 26 million women of childbearing age.

Some of these laws will throw physicians in jail for five years and longer if they perform any abortion at all. Other states are making plans to punish the women. Many of the new laws make no exception for victims of incest. Nebraska’s Republican governor, 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 seek an abortion somewhere else where it remains legal.

In some states women who suffer the trauma of a miscarriage will soon have to prove to law enforcement officials that they did not have an abortion.

Regardless where you stand on this issue, we need to be clear about what is happening here. A religious minority is imposing its religious view on everyone else. Public opinion polling has consistently shown that a majority of Americans support access to abortions and nearly 60% of Americans oppose last week’s Court ruling.

A religious minority has succeeded, for the first time in the nation’s history, in taking away a right protected by the Constitution. And anti-abortion politicians aren’t done. Their next objective is a federal ban on abortion that will reach across all 50 states.

The “free exercise” of religion is carved into the First Amendment. 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 to their view.

But what they do not have a right to do is use the coercive power of government to impose their religious views on others.

Muslims in America are not demanding state laws to require Baptists to wear headscarves. American Jews aren’t trying to force Catholics to circumcise their infant boys.

Protests, angry ones, are going to fill the streets now. Do not pretend for a minute that these women need to just accept things, get over it, and have the babies.

Make no mistake about the situation we are in now as a nation. If a religious minority in America succeeds in imposing its demands on the rest of us — on something as fundamental and personal as forcing a woman to give birth to a child against her will — then all bets are off about what personal freedom will mean in this country going forward, on every issue.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be emailed at

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