When the Supreme Court in June overturned the constitutional right to abortion, its decision did not mention the word “religion” once. Rather, it dismantled the unenumerated right to privacy that undergirded the right to abortion for almost 50 years and returned the legal question of abortion to each individual state.

Still, for decades, those within the anti-abortion movement have been animated by the belief that life begins at the moment of conception, making abortion, in their view, both a sin and a crime. A central tenet of Roman Catholic teaching and a view held by a majority of evangelical Protestants, this belief has informed the politics of many religious conservatives who dominate the Republican Party – and who made appointing conservative justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade a well-known priority.

Why We Wrote This

Do abortion bans impose one theology’s view on when life begins? Rabbis and others are suing, saying new bans impinge on the free exercise of religion when it comes to protecting women.

Yet as the legal questions surrounding access to abortion return to the states, a growing number of abortion-rights advocates are now pressing the claim in state courts that abortion bans constitute both an establishment of religion and a violation of religious liberty.

“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of the court challenges to come,” says Rachel Rebouché, dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia.

New York

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says there are situations in which it would be her religious duty to help a woman get an abortion.

And for her, as for many who follow the traditions of Judaism and other faiths, states that now ban or severely restrict access to abortion services are placing burdens on her own sincerely held religious beliefs and her ability to exercise her faith freely.

“Religious freedom is meant to be a shield to protect, not a sword to harm,” says Rabbi Ruttenberg, scholar-in-residence for the National Council of Jewish Women. “Abortion bans absolutely impose one theology onto the nation, on people who hold other theologies and on people who are not religious, in a way that is deeply problematic.”

Why We Wrote This

Do abortion bans impose one theology’s view on when life begins? Rabbis and others are suing, saying new bans impinge on the free exercise of religion when it comes to protecting women.

It is a mitzvah, or religious duty in her tradition, she says, to preserve the life, health, and well-being of a pregnant woman, regardless of the timing. And even though every state law that currently bans abortion contains language allowing for exceptions when a woman’s life is endangered, many doctors have been uncertain about when, exactly, a woman’s life can be considered at risk – leading to medical complications. This not only does harm to women, the rabbi says, but it also constrains the free exercise of her religion when it comes to protecting women.

“For rabbis, this has become a very significant legal issue for us as we talk to our congregants and our community about the full breadth of their lives, including their reproductive lives,” Rabbi Ruttenberg says.  



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