May 11, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

An embryo is not a child

Let’s revive that old-time, pre-Roe, religion.

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The Senate is going to take a vote today to codify Roe. Preview coverage has it pretty much right. The bill won’t pass, not in the form anyway that was sent over by the House. But passage isn’t the point. 

The point is showing who among the Republicans – and who among the GOP-adjacent Democrats – will go on record as being against enshrining into statutory law the right of privacy, equal standing in society, individual liberty and abortion. Where do senators stand?

When that becomes clear, the Democrats will turn to the American people to decide what should happen next. If you want Roe to be federal law, vote for a Democrat. If you don’t, vote for a Republican. 

(I don’t see a third way. Five Republican justices on the Supreme Court will almost certainly strike down Roe. According to a report by Politico, they are not considering other draft opinions. Alito’s draft, which hints at voiding other civil liberties in the future, is likely the final draft.)


If today’s champions of abortion hope the midterms result in the enshrinement of Roe into statutory law, they’d see the wisdom, usefulness and, perhaps, necessity of undermining on religious grounds the bedrock belief among Republicans that an embryo a child.


Given the debate is passing through the Supreme Court and the Senate on its way to this fall’s congressional elections, perhaps now’s a good time to rethink abortion in terms mostly abandoned after Roe.

I’m talking about a political vocabulary that was by necessity religious, indeed cross-denominational. Abortion’s loudest opponents were usually Catholic leaders. Otherwise, people were indifferent or saw Roe in terms of religious freedom. Here’s what the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service said in 1973 after Roe was handed down.

If the state laws are now made to conform to the Supreme Court ruling, 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.

Remember, abortion became a religious issue only after it was a political one. In the 1970s, GOP operatives realized abortion was an effective vehicle for achieving unrelated goals. For instance, reducing business taxes and regulation but mostly for getting the federal government off private religious schools built on white supremacy.

Since then, the debate over abortion has been increasingly distilled so that on one side, you had religious believers in “the sanctity of life” while on the other, you had secular believers in the ultimate moral agency of women. A religious argument for abortion had been prominent before Roe. Afterward, not so much. It had moved on.

Is an embryo a child?


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That might be the focus of a revival of that old-time religion.

To be sure, abortion champions would rather talk about privacy and freedom to choose. They’d rather leave religion out of it, because the other side has so thoroughly colonized that terrain. I get that.

But most people most of the time don’t get politics. Most of them most of the time avoid conflict. They don’t try to understand. Instead, they rely on feelings that are informed by a variety of religious experience. 

Given the state of the abortion debate, in which the rightwing dominates the religious point of view, that experience will likely be sympathetic to “the child” but hostile toward “the bad mother.”

As long as Roe is law, there’s no need for a religious counterpoint. Things are going to be different in June, though. Very different.

If today’s champions of abortion hope the midterms result in the enshrinement of Roe into statutory law, they’d see the wisdom, usefulness and, perhaps, necessity of undermining on religious grounds the bedrock belief among Republicans that an embryo a child. 

Counterpoint: No, it’s not.

An embryo is an embryo. 

An embryo is no more a child than a tire is a car, a room is a house, a politician is a government. It’s no more a child than the big toe on your left foot is you. A part of a thing is not the same as the whole of a thing. 

Asking people to believe that an embryo is a child is asking them to inhabit a reality that’s upside down, backwards and prolapsed.

To be sure, religions often ask for that. 

But what kind of religion

Not a moral one. 

Not a religion steeped in tradition or scripture or the common law. Traditionally, scripturally and legally, life began at some point on a spectrum between the child’s first kick and the child’s first breath.

Asking us to believe an embryo is a child is a modern idea – which is to say, a conception fully fabricated for political convenience – that used to have currency, still does, for a very specific strain of Christianity. 

Asking us to believe an embryo is a child is asking us to be Catholic. (Most lay Catholics support a women’s ultimate moral agency, though.)

At this point, the abortion argument splits in half. On the one hand, it’s about religion, specifically a good religion versus a bad religion. Abortion wouldn’t be the cause of conflict. It would be a symptom. 


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On the other, it’s about taking seriously an amoral, ahistorical and illogical religious argument. Should we continue respecting a bad religion? Or should we fight it vigorously on equally religious grounds? 

As I said, I get it. Most champions of abortion would rather talk about privacy and freedom to choose. They’d rather cede talk of religion to “the religious.” In doing so, however, I think they make a mistake.

They allow the press corps, no stranger to misogyny, to depict the liberal view of abortion as being the same as the conservative view. 

The rights of one person (a woman) are equal to the rights of another “person” (an embryo). Most people most of the time encounter this framing. Accordingly, they privilege “the baby” over “the bad mother.”

We need to upend that frame – as well as preempt future attempts by the Republicans to endow embryos with “personhood.” In addition to a conventional choice argument, we should revive the spirit of that old-time religious movement for the advancement of abortion rights. 

The strongest asset of the anti-abortionists is the belief that an embryo is a person whom the faithful must save from death.

The only counter is equally religious. 

In the clash of life against life, Mom is the ultimate moral arbiter.

No one else has a say. God is pro-choice.

Those asking us to believe an embryo is a person are zealots speaking for a bad religion that’s increasingly grown unmoored from history, scripture and law. They ask us to believe nonsense. A good religion doesn’t make such demands. It stands for morality and the truth. 

It understands that an embryo is an embryo. 

And a child is a child. 


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

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