Contrary to Far-Right Claims, Many People of Faith Support Access to Abortion

by | May 11, 2024 | Human Rights & Justice

Photo by Aiden Frazier, Unsplash

Contrary to Far-Right Claims, Many People of Faith Support Access to Abortion

by | May 11, 2024 | Human Rights & Justice

Photo by Aiden Frazier, Unsplash

A new survey finds that a significant majority of religious Americans think abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Republished with permission from Governing, by Carl Smith

In Brief:

  • Abortion has become a highly charged issue since the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
  • Efforts to restrict access are increasingly justified by the religious convictions of some public policymakers. A Missouri law, for example, evokes a Supreme Being in its text.
  • However, a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that most people of faith in the U.S. support access to abortion.

By some accounts, just 1 in 8 Americans say that abortion is the issue that will most influence their votes in the coming election season. Even so, it has outsized power to provoke deep disagreement. Directly and indirectly, those advocating bans or strict limits on abortion often evoke religious beliefs in support of their views—but a new report finds that most people of faith think women should have the right to make their own choices.

Abortion Views in All 50 States, from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), analyzes data from its 2023 American Values Survey. Its findings go beyond the attitudes of members of religious groups, but these are of particular interest when questions about the right relationship between religion and policy are in the air.

“There is no monolithic position on abortion rights,” says PRRI CEO Melissa Deckman. “In fact, our study shows that most people of faith support the legality of abortion in all or most cases.” That is true of anywhere between more than half and over 90 percent of those affiliated with the country’s largest religious groups.

There are exceptions. The majority of white evangelical Protestants (72 percent), Latter Day Saints (69 percent) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (54 percent) believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

In terms of numbers, these groups are a relatively small part of the country’s population of faith. Only 14 percent of the country’s white Christians are evangelical Protestants. About two percent of Americans are Latter Day Saints, and fewer than one percent are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As another perspective on the “will of the people,” Deckman notes that more than 1 in 4 Americans has no religious affiliation. In fact, there are more people in this group—often called “nones” by demographers—than practice any one religion. Almost 90 percent of them believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Faith and Policy

According to Pew research, close to half of all Americans (45 percent) think the U.S. should be a “Christian nation.” No issue is more associated with religion than abortion, but even so PRRI’s findings reveal the difficulty of enacting policy on this basis. (Setting aside the fact that millions of Americans practice religions other than Christianity.)

Pope Francis has called abortion an “absolute evil.” PRRI found that a majority of Catholics in the country believe it should be legal in most or all cases. Almost half of all Americans say they are religious, but there is no state in America where more than 16 percent support banning abortion, Deckman says.

Idaho enacted one of the nation’s strictest bans. It became a national flashpoint when challenged by the federal government because it would not allow physicians in emergency rooms to terminate pregnancies if it is necessary to stabilize health emergencies. This conflicts with federal law requiring them to provide emergency care, the government argued.

A Supreme Court ruling on this is pending. A case revolving around issues that have less to do with governance than with belief systems could set the stage for states to reject other obligations to follow federal law.

Only 12 percent of Idahoans support the ban, says Decker. Its real-world consequences have been significant, especially in combination with another law that makes it a crime to help minors get an abortion out of the state.

Reports are that 22 percent of Idaho’s obstetricians have left the state. Half of its counties now have no medical professional specializing in pregnancy and childbirth.

Personal, Not Political

Recently, the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated a Civil War-era (1864) law that banned almost all abortions. Even former President Donald Trump, who is a favorite among many conservative evangelicals, thought the law should be repealed, but the Arizona Legislature struggled to accomplish this, managing the feat by just two votes. Legislators who didn’t want to see the law overturned “invoked their faith” during an hourslong voting session.

Jennifer Reddall is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. The mainline Protestants among her colleagues in the clergy are generally on the same page regarding abortion, she says. None would ever say that abortion is “good,” but they see it as a deeply personal and private decision best made by the people most affected by it, often in consultation with a member of the clergy.

“I am absolutely pro-life,” says Bishop Reddall. “I am pro the lives of babies, but also the lives of mothers, the lives of families and other siblings and the lives of the poor.”

As a member of a faith community who engages with parishioners and leaders of other congregations, Reddall sees disparities between recent laws and their values. “My understanding of the numbers is that they reflect neither the will of people in general nor even the will of people who affiliate with the faith community,” she says.

Reddall has the most respect for those in the pro-life movement who put skin the game and take on the responsibility of fostering and adopting children. These loving actions, she says, are a way of living a fully pro-life moral ethic.

She’d like to see this concern for life reflected in ensuring that children have enough food and parents have financial support if they need it, or access to Medicaid and care for their children. “I don’t hear that same clarity of moral authority there,” she says. Moreover, she’s increasingly finding it necessary to explain to young people that as a Christian leader, she is not anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ or anti-abortion.

There isn’t one religious point of view on anything, Reddall says. Americans are Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim. They may share some common values, but there are are also differences and nuances among them.

“I don’t think legislators are making these laws because they think they are doing what I am looking for, or what my church is looking for,” Reddall says. “I don’t know their intent or exactly who they’re doing this for, but it’s obviously not us.”

Faith and Democracy

Even if abortion isn’t the biggest priority for all voters, it’s become enough of a wedge issue that some who have pushed hard for restrictions are stepping back from it. Democrats think Republican eagerness to limit access may give them a strategic advantage, especially following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The 2024 election will include ballot measures that give voters in some states the chance to override the actions of legislators.

The number of Americans who say they will only vote for candidates who share their views on abortion has increased significantly since 2018, PRRI finds. Overall, it’s grown from 21 percent to 36 percent, and among Democrats from 23 percent to 47 percent.

In a democracy, citizens have the opportunity to affect policy by going to the polls and voting for candidates who reflect their values. The most restrictive abortion policies may not stand if they don’t represent the wishes of the majority of both the general population and the faith community.

“I do question whether there’s long-term sustainability for some of these very extreme policies,” Deckman says. “Because there’s no support for those policies in those states.”

Governing Magazine

Governing Magazine

Governing: The Future of States and Localities takes on the question of what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Governing is a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who are looking for smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change.

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