Religious Beliefs, Abortion, and the Law

Las creencias religiosas, el aborto y la ley

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
Publication Date: August 13, 2001

In the many discussions I have with those who perform abortions, a very predictable pattern arises. I talk to them about science, and they talk to me about faith.

The pattern begins when I ask the question, "Does an abortion destroy a human life?" The answer I hear is, "I don't know when the child receives a soul." In one breath, the topic of discussion was an observable procedure from the perspective of verifiable science. In the next breath, the topic was spiritual and invisible: when do children receive souls?

This twist in the discussion is not limited to those who provide abortions. It also happens with many others who favor the availability of legal abortion. After all, they argue, since we have religious freedom in this country, people should be allowed to believe what they want about when the soul begins to exist. It would be wrong to impose by law one particular religious or theological position on this matter.

Correct. And the pro-life movement does not seek to require any religious belief by law. People have the right to profess, believe, and practice their own freely chosen set of religious and moral beliefs.

But while we are free to believe whatever we want, there are limits to how far we can go in acting on those beliefs.

In our society, a person is entitled to believe that stealing your car is OK, but he is not permitted to carry out that belief by actually stealing your car. A person, furthermore, is entitled to believe that you do not have a soul, but is not permitted to carry out that belief by killing you. Your life is still protected by the law, despite another's beliefs.

The United States Supreme Court and lower courts have made this distinction in various religious freedom cases. Courts in Alabama and Tennessee, for example, ruled that Churches that had ceremonies in which poisonous snakes were handled could no longer do so, because despite the freedom of belief, the fact was that those snakes endangered the lives and health of the believers. (1) Note that the handling of the snakes in these cases was an integral part of the faith and worship of those religious bodies. The US Supreme Court, furthermore, wrote as follows in Reynolds vs. US, 98 U.S.145 (1878): "Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship. Would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not prevent a sacrifice?"

We often hear about the value of a "pluralistic society." There is, in fact, a lot of legitimate pluralism, in the cultural, religious, ethnic, political, and other kinds of differences among people. Life would be quite boring if we were all the same. Yet a "pluralistic society" is, at the same time, a (that is, one) society, and to remain one society, something has to hold it together. There need to be some norms that everyone adheres to; and that's what makes "a society" different from a jungle. One such norm is that everyone's life has to be protected. We should defend legitimate pluralism. We should also recognize that to invoke pluralism and religious liberty to destroy another's life is an intolerable abuse. Abortion is not simply a matter of beliefs, but of bloodshed; not simply viewpoints, but victims.

The law's criterion for who receives protection should be the verifiable evidence of science, rather that the subjective criterion of religious belief. There is such a thing as religious truth. But whether a baby lives or dies should not depend on whether or not everyone in society has acknowledged that truth. Human life needs protection now. Freedom of belief should never be confused with freedom to destroy others.


(1) See Harden v. State, 216 S.W.2d 708 (Tenn 1948), State ex rel Swann v. Pack, 527 S.W.2d 99 (Tenn 1975) and Hill v. State, 88 So.2d 880 (Ala 1956).

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