Atheists refute claims abortion bans violate religious freedom

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Atheist pro-life advocates are pushing back against lawsuits alleging that state abortion bans and restrictions violate religious freedom and promote a Christian definition of life, saying that the right to practice one's faith does not justify "human rights violations." 

As several states have moved to ban or restrict abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer, some lawsuits contend those laws promote a sectarian view of when life begins.

Monica Snyder, who serves as executive director of Secular Pro-Life, an organization comprised of atheists and agnostics, told The Christian Post that the belief that a zygote is the first stage of life for human organisms "is not a religious belief."

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"It's a biological fact," she said. "You don't need to be religious to recognize biological facts, and you don't need to be religious to believe all humans are morally valuable."

In Indiana, five women and the organization Hoosier Jews for Choice argue that the state's ban passed in August outlawing nearly all abortion violates the 2015 Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by former Vice President Mike Pence when he was the state's governor. In December, a judge issued a preliminary injunction against the law finding that it "substantially burdens" religious exercise. 

In another lawsuit in Kentucky, three Jewish women claim that the state's abortion ban violates their religious freedom and alleges that the legislature "imposed sectarian theology." As of Oct. 26, the complaint has been removed in federal court as the Kentucky Supreme Court considers other lawsuits challenging the ban.

According to the Brennan Center for Center Justice, 34 lawsuits have been filed against abortion bans in 19 states, with 31 pending at trial or appellate levels. 

Jewish nurse practitioner Cara Berg Raunick argues that Indiana lawmakers are imposing a "Christian definition" of life on her by asserting it begins at conception. 

"That is a religious and values-based comment," Berg Raunick said in a Dec. 27 statement to The Associated Press. "A fetus is a potential life, and that is worthy of great respect and is not to be taken lightly, but it does not supersede the life and health of the mother, period."

Presenting a hypothetical, the pro-life atheist Snyder questioned whether society would have to allow elective third-trimester abortions in the name of religious freedom if someone's faith claimed that life doesn't begin until the first breath. 

"Historically, some societies believed neonates aren't 'children' until they're named, or fed, or baptized. Would we have to allow infanticide prior to those rituals in the name of religious freedom?" she asked. "No, of course not." 

"Freedom of religion is important, but it doesn't justify human rights violations. Abortion violates human rights by killing human beings," Snyder asserted. "Freedom of religion doesn't justify it." 

Kelsey Hazzard, an atheist attorney and the founder of Secular Pro-Life, echoed these thoughts. 

"Religious freedom has its limits, and the death of a child lies beyond that limit," she wrote. "The American legal system has encountered an analogous issue: may Jehovah's Witnesses condemn their medically fragile sons and daughters to death because they believe that blood transfusions are sinful?" 

"No one doubts the sincerity of that religious belief, but the answer is no: the child's right to life takes precedence," Hazzard continued. "Likewise, the right to life must take precedence over religious, unscientific beliefs about ensoulment at birth."

During an October conference hosted by the pro-life group Rehumanize International, Hazzard presented an analysis of the litigation challenging abortion restrictions because such bans violate the right to religious freedom. 

The attorney asserted that religious liberty claims do not take precedence over a child's well-being, citing various legal cases to support her point.

One of the cases Hazzard cited was Prince v. Massachusetts, a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld a Massachusetts regulation prohibiting children of a particular age group from selling newspapers in public places. Sarah Prince challenged the law that convicted her for taking her 9-year-old niece to sell Jehovah's Witness literature. 

Writing the opinion for the 5-4 majority, Justice Wiley B. Rutledge asserted that past cases established that parents and children have a right to exercise religion, but this was not absolute, citing compulsory vaccination laws as proof. 

"Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children," Rutledge wrote. 

Another case Hazzard cites in her speech is the 1961 New Jersey case Hoener v. Bertinato, where the unborn child of two Jehovah's Witnesses required a blood transfusion due to RH compatibility. Most Jehovah's Witnesses hold the religious conviction that human beings should not use another creature's blood to sustain their lives. 

While the court acknowledged the sincerity of the parents' religious objections, it ruled that it was in the state's interest to preserve the unborn child's welfare and "its right to survive." 

The court stated that "an unborn child is a distinct biological entity from the time of conception, and many branches of the law afford the unborn child protection throughout the period of gestation." 

"The most important consideration, however, is that the viability distinction has no relevance to the injustice of denying recovery for harm which can be proved to have resulted from the wrongful act of another." 

Hazzard contends that protection for the unborn is "finally being restored" following the Supreme Court overturning Roe in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in June.

She said abortion proponents are "free" to believe that life does not begin at fertilization based on religious convictions. 

However, the right to religious freedom does not mean parents are free to make a "martyr" of their child. According to Hazzard, the government has a "compelling interest" in preserving life by preventing abortions. 

Berg Raunick and Hoosier Jews for Choice did not respond to CP's request for comment by press time. 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follower her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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