Tolerance or Bigotry

Laura Beers

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog about my decision to have an abortion. It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, and the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. Abortion is a common procedure. An estimated one in three British women and one in four American women will have an abortion by the time they’re 45, yet most women who have terminated a pregnancy keep their decision secret, driven often by a sense of guilt and shame. I would not have shared the story of my own abortion but for the threat posed to abortion rights by the Trump administration’s nomination and ultimate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had previously argued in a dissenting opinion in the DC Court of Appeals that a young woman did not have a right to ‘abortion on demand’, and that the majority had ignored the government’s ‘permissible interests in favouring foetal life, protecting the best interests of a minor, and refraining from facilitating abortion’.

As I type, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are making their opening statements in the confirmation hearings of Trump’s third appointee to the US Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. The Democratic senators are highlighting the threat to the Affordable Care Act if Barrett is confirmed, hammering home that the court is scheduled to hear Texas v. California on 10 November, a week after the presidential election. The case could invalidate the ACA, automatically removing the protections for patients with pre-existing medical conditions; the prohibitions on charging women more than men, and on life-time caps on reimbursement for medical bills; and the mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to women. Senator Patrick Leahy shared the stories of two of his constituents, both women, who had benefited from the ACA. Real women’s health and safety, he argued, would suffer from Barrett’s confirmation.

Neither Leahy nor any of his colleagues emphasised that real women’s health and safety would also be harmed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade were Barrett to be confirmed. Democratic senators made two lone references to reproductive rights: Richard Blumenthal highlighted the threat to ‘a woman’s right to decide when and how to have a family’ were Barrett to be confirmed, and Sheldon Whitehouse made a brief reference to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s role in defending ‘women’s reproductive rights’ in her dissenting decision in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007). ‘Legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures,’ Ginsburg wrote, ‘do not seek to vindicate some generalised notion of privacy; rather, they centre on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.’

Abortion rights are women’s rights. And opinion polling shows that the majority of Americans support those rights, or at least support maintaining the right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Yet Barrett has been unambiguous about her belief that the court overreached in Roe, putting those views in writing in 2006, 2013 and 2016. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has been coy about whether Barrett’s confirmation would lead to Roe being overturned. In the first presidential debate, Trump denied that Roe ‘was on the table’, and Pence claimed in the vice presidential debate that he could not presume to know how Barrett would rule in a case revisiting Roe. On the campaign trail in 2016, however, Trump asserted that his ‘judges will be pro-life’, and there is no reason to think Barrett would not make good on this pledge.

Why aren’t Democratic senators making more of Barrett’s views on reproductive rights? As with so much else in American politics, the answer lies in the country’s historically ambiguous relationship with religion. The US Constitution enshrines the separation of church and state, yet religion plays an outsize role in American politics. Any judicial decision Barrett may take on abortion would doubtless be framed in non-religious language, but it is clear her views are largely informed by her Catholicism. ‘The dogma lives loudly within you,’ the Democratic senator Diane Feinstein said when Barrett was up for confirmation to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.

During their opening statements, the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee made much of the idea that, in questioning whether Barrett’s faith will affect her decisions, the Democrats are attacking ‘religious liberty’. Ben Sasse, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley all hammered hard at this point, with Hawley suggesting that his Democratic colleagues were trying ‘to bring back the days of the religious test’ for Catholics. Joe Biden has fallen into the trap. ‘No one’s faith should be questioned,’ he said today. ‘Let’s keep our eye on the ball. This is about whether or not in one month Americans are going to lose their health insurance.’

Probing Barrett on whether she would seek to shape the laws that govern all Americans – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and everyone else – in accordance with her personal religious beliefs is not bigotry, it is tolerance. Biden is a practising Catholic. If elected, he would be only the second Catholic to sit in the Oval Office. In all probability, he would not have wanted his wife or daughters to have an abortion. Yet he has never sought to impose his personal faith and convictions on the women of America, because he respects the separation of church and state.

The Catholic Church opposes abortion, even in cases where the foetus is fatally ill, as Pope Francis reiterated last year. Yet he has also gone farther than any of his predecessors in extending forgiveness to those who have had an abortion. I am a Catholic. I talked at length with my priest as I struggled with the decision to terminate my pregnancy. I cried as I confessed my abortion, and asked for and received absolution after the fact. My faith was central to my personal struggle about my own reproductive choice. No part of me thinks that my religious beliefs should have any impact on another woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions.


  • 13 October 2020 at 9:52am
    Joe Morison says:
    I have real difficulty understanding why, but am grateful that, so many religious people are unwilling to impose the moral values that come from their faith on other people when imposing our ‘ordinary’ moral values on others - whether it’s our belief in the wrongness of murder or fox hunting or fly tipping - is generally considered part of the deal. Is it because the believer is less certain of them because they are based on faith? Or is it a practical argument, that to live in a world where people tried to impose their faith based values would just be too conflict riven? Or is it that such values are in a different catagory, one that God expects believers to keep to themselves?

    For me, a woman’s right to choose is based on the fact that, at least at the beginning, a foetus is nothing more than a potential and therefore has no rights. This view would seem to fit in with the Bible which, in its great emphasis on the importance of bodily resurrection, suggests the soul and the body are indistinguishable. But if I believed, as many Christians do, that the fully formed soul enters the body at the moment of conception, I would find the conflict between the woman’s right to control her body and the foetus’s right to life a real dilemma; and whatever conclusion I came to, I’m not sure that I’d believe I would have to keep it to myself just because it came from faith. I can only say, thank God I’m not religious.

    • 13 October 2020 at 1:47pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      I’d like to make clear that just because a potential has no rights, doesn’t mean one can’t be emotionally attached to it; one can love a potential, one can invest all one’s hopes in it. I wouldn’t like to belittle the idea of someone being deeply upset by exercising their choice.

    • 16 October 2020 at 10:09am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Joe Morison
      Especially if the one emotionally attached and investing one’s hopes is the sperm donor who has no rights whatsoever over whether that ‘potential’ will be allowed to be realised.

    • 18 October 2020 at 8:05pm
      Jim Macfarlane says: @ Joe Morison
      The opinion is available that, by scriptural tradition, the beginning of life is with the breath - God breathed life into Adam, the Spirit (literally 'the breathing', or some such, hence respiration, etc) breathes a new creation into the apostles and what have you. This is the line that the Lutheran pastor and liberal Christian celeb Nadia Bolz-Weber takes in her book on sexuality, and I assume she isn't the first person to come up with the idea. There is, of course, no specific prohibition against abortion from one end of the bible to the other, though the Catholic tradition (which matters a great deal to Catholics) has opposed it for a very long time, since Augustine at least I believe. For that reason, the Bolz-Weber line is unlikely to convince the Catholic hierarchy, though it is very telling that conservative evangelicals (who purport to venerate the bible over tradition) simply ignore any such arguments.

      As a leftwing Catholic, I oppose laws against abortion, since it is manifestly impossible to argue on secular grounds that a foetus is a person, and moreover the results of such prohibition are uniformly monstrous. I think, as I suppose you do, that this does not exhaust the moral question of abortion; precisely the job of a church is to be there for people in their regrets, and the reduction of the Catholic church to a sort of single issue campaign against abortion has unfortunately served to stunt its pastoral response to what is usually a complex personal situation. It's good that Laura Beers had a priest who took his job seriously on this point; not nearly all of them do.

      The same, of course, could be said of some of our other sexual prohibitions. It seems to me perfectly logical that one might support the right to divorce while acknowledging that we rarely find participants in ongoing divorces on their best behaviour, from the old-fashioned 'love thy neighbour' point of view. Christian traditions, including the Roman Catholic, have vast riches for this sort of muddy moral problem, so it is desperately disappointing that we are so easily held captive to this sort of legalism.

  • 17 October 2020 at 5:34pm
    Arthur Blue says:
    One if the things which I find peculiar in this argument is that so many who as Christians loudly proclaim the foetus’s absolute right to life are seemingly quite happy with a whole variety of other lethal acts, from drone strikes to judicial execution and nuclear war.

  • 18 October 2020 at 4:26am
    Alices Restaurant says:
    "Abortion rights are women’s rights." Perhaps in some parallel universe, but no such right listed in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Efficiency of lifestyle is another issue, but has nothing to do with "rights". The right to terminate a foetus based on constitutional law is a fraud, a placating fantasy. Terminate at will, but don't hang it on the Constitution.

  • 18 October 2020 at 4:02pm
    Richard Burt says:
    Thank you for writing this. Democrats have not even tried to block restrictions some sates have placed on a woman's right to abortion. It's a very bad time for feminists.

  • 23 October 2020 at 10:12pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    Over the last forty years, Republican presidents have placed ten justices on the Supreme Court, compared to only four for Democratic presidents. Every time this happens, we see articles warning that abortion rights are about to be wiped out forever. (I believe the Supreme Court occasionally makes decisions on other issues too, but no one ever seems bothered about those. Perhaps they are all uncontroversial.) And yet, after all this time, abortion remains resolutely unbanned. Yes, it has been restricted in several ways, but the great overturning of Roe v Wade has never come. Why is this?

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