Religious Perspectives on the Abortion Decision: The Sacredness of Women’s Lives, Morality and Values, and Social Justice


There is a long tradition of religious support for reproductive rights on moral and religious grounds. The views of the denominations and religious organizations comprising the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), as well as those of other denominations, suggest how faith can illuminate our understanding of the moral and ethical underpinnings of reproductive rights and perhaps increase support for reproductive rights.This essay outlines some of the religious values that favor reproductive freedom, including women’s moral agency, the sacredness of both women’s lives and the developing life of the fetus, and respect for pluralism and the religious beliefs of others. By presenting these views, we show that the common assumption that religion necessarily opposes abortion rights, which has been spread through popular culture and media, is a fallacy.

In Part II of this essay, we discuss ways in which Christian and Jewish religious traditions support, rather than oppose, women’s reproductive rights. From the perspective of most Christian and Jewish traditions, reproductive freedom is based on the concept that women are moral agents, possessing free will and freedom of conscience. In the view of many traditions, a woman who makes a reproductive decision is making amoral decision-a decision that involves her understanding of right conduct, her relation to a moral community and, for some traditions, her sacred responsibility to be a co-creator of life with God. RCRC members hold that, because the abortion decision implicates a woman’s religious beliefs and moral values, the law should not side with one religious perspective over another but should protect a woman’s ability to decide based on her own views. In cases where a choice has to be made between the health or wellbeing of a woman and the fetus she carries, the majority of religious denominations and traditions give primacy to the woman’s life, with the notable exception of official statements of the RomanCatholic hierarchy’ and some Jewish traditions. A brief review of the historical involvement of religious groups in the quest for women’s reproductive rights shows the diversity of faith-informed support for women as moral agents and trusted decision-makers in reproductive matters.

In Part III we suggest that incorporating the concept of women’s moral agency into our discussions about abortion would strengthen support for reproductive rights. While religious doctrine should never be the basis for law or incorporated into law, sound public policy on abortion in a pluralist society such as ours should protect the ability of individuals to act in accordance with their own beliefs and should acknowledge the diversity of religious views regarding abortion rights and reproductive freedom. Shifting the discourse about abortion to emphasize the complexity of women’s lives and the morality of the abortion decision could, we argue, help advocates of reproductive rights strengthen their arguments.

Finally, in Part IV, we argue that having a fuller understanding of the moral complexity of the abortion decision could influence a wide range of social policies, such as access to contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, and prevention of violence against women. It could also broaden abortion rights advocates’ focus to include other equality and justice concerns, such as the availability of employment, workplace and child care issues, and the availability of adoption and prenatal and postnatal health care. From a religious perspective, abortion does not exist in a vacuum but is part of a continuum of behaviors and choices that involve values, beliefs and options. As a society, we can have a greater appreciation of the need for resources and services that help individuals deal with reproductive issues if we consider the abortion decision in a holistic context, closely related to all other aspects of a woman’s life.

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