May 19, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

A mother and a fetus — one person, not two

Another religious pro-Roe angle.

US Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
US Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky.

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We ought to revive that old-time, pre-Roe, religion according to which an embryo is an embryo, not a person. That’s what I said last week. 

Before 1973, the year the US Supreme Court decided Roe, the most opposed to abortion were Catholic dioceses. Other religions were indifferent or in favor of women’s ultimate authority over their bodies.

Indeed, to argue that an embryo is an embryo, not a person – or that a fetus is a fetus, not a person – was to push forward the cause of freedom of religion and freedom from it. Choice covered both. 

If this court upholds a state law based on a tenet of a sincere religious faith like the idea that a fetus is a person, it’s not only lights out for abortion. It’s lights out for that doubled-sided liberty: freedom of religion and freedom from it.

Analysis by the Southern Baptist Convention found that Roe was consistent with this double-sided liberty. W. Barry Garrett, in 1973 a correspondent of The Baptist Press, said that the ruling was not just tolerable. It advanced “religious liberty, human equality and justice.”

“Does the decision on abortion intrude on the religious life of the people? Answer: No. Religious bodies and religious persons can continue to teach their own particular views to their constituents with all the vigor they desire. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions.” 

He continued:

The reverse is also now true. … Those whose conscience or religious convictions are not violated by abortion may not now be forbidden by a religious law to obtain an abortion if they so choose. 

The decision to obtain an abortion or to bring pregnancy to full term can now be a matter of conscience and deliberate choice rather than one compelled by law. Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.

That’s one pro-Roe religious angle. There’s another. 

By coincidence, it was given fresh circulation Wednesday by a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing about the Supreme Court’s imminent decision on Roe.

Here’s Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who, like the entire House Republican Conference, favors stripping abortion rights:

When I was young, before I learned how babies came about, I thought when they said, “my main my body, my choice,” they were talking about whatever was inside of the woman was part of her body.

The baby is not the body of the woman that it’s inside of. 

It’s another life. It’s not the body of the woman.

To the casual political observer, this seems ordinary. After all, the power of the anti-abortion movement rests of the idea that the “baby” is a life unto itself, completely separate from the life of the mother. Abortion, we are told, is murder on account of a “life” being taken.

Pert near everything about the half-century-long “pro-life” movement presumes, and indeed depends on, two lives being in question. Anti-abortionists believe the law should privilege the “baby’s” life. This sincere religious faith drives the movement for “fetal personhood.”

But what if they are not separate? What if there’s only one life?

What if that, too, were a matter of sincere religious faith?

Well, there’s no if. 

According to Rabbi Karen Kriger Bogard, abortion is not only a matter of a women’s personal autonomy. Access to it is required by Jewish law.

“In the Torah, there’s a story about two men fighting,” she told me. “One accidentally pushes a pregnant woman. There’s no other damage. She has a miscarriage. Exodus says the one responsible shall be fined. 

“The very next verse talks about a life for a life, an eye for an eye. Clearly there is a distinction between what life is and what life isn’t.”

Put another way, if the “baby” were a life, the life of the man who caused the miscarriage would be forfeit. After all, justice calls for “a life for a life, an eye for an eye.” However, “the baby” isn’t a life, according to the Book of Exodus. Therefore, a fine is all that’s required by law.

This is not a fringe Jewish view, Rabbi Bogard told me. Indeed, according to a prominent rabbi commenting in the Torah – or “the law” – “a fetus is considered a part of the pregnant person’s body,” Rabbi Bogard said, “which is equivalent to their thigh” (my italics). 

There’s more. 

“Jewish law distinguishes between when a person is pregnant and when a person is giving birth,” she said. “It says in the Talmud when a person is having trouble giving birth, they should abort the fetus and ‘take it out limb by limb.’ In Jewish law, existing life comes before potential life.

You’re required to put the living before the not-yet living. 

“However, if most of the child is born, we don’t touch it. We don’t trade one life for another. It’s explicit in our text about when life starts.”

Again, this isn’t fringe. 

This is the consensus across reform, conservative and orthodox jewry. A truly marginal view comes from “pro-life” ultra-orthodox Jews aligned with the larger white evangelical Protestant community. 

Today, in a letter to the editor of the New Haven Register, Cecily Routman, president of the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation, said the Jewish consensus is upside down. “Abortion is prohibited in Judaism,” she said. “It is judged to be the unwarranted taking of a life within a life.”

I don’t think Thomas Massie, the Kentucky congressman, intended to express a tenet of his sincere religious faith. (Maybe he did.) But it’s pretty clear, when taken with Cecily Routman’s claim, that believing that the body of the “baby” and the body of the woman are two separate things is an expression of a tenet of a sincere religious faith. 

It’s also pretty clear, to my way of thinking anyway, that the “pro-life” program depends on getting the rest of us – from atheists to Jews to Unitarians to Hindus – to think the same way. By cementing that view in the public mind, the path toward “fetal personhood” is made clear. 

If this court upholds a state law based on a tenet of a sincere religious faith like the idea that a fetus is a person, it’s not only lights out for abortion. (“Personhood” would mean abortion is murder.) It’s lights out for that doubled-sided liberty: freedom of religion and freedom from it.

So repeat after me with as much (religious) feeling as you can.

A fetus is a part of the mother’s body, like her thigh.

One person, not two.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

1 Comment

  1. Kathy Routliffe on May 19, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    Thank you for this.

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