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TL;DR: The political arguments on either side of the pro-choice/pro-life debate have virtually nothing to do with religion, so why are the politics and people's positions on this issue so correlated with religious stance?


This is partially inspired by this other question.

I'm trying to keep my own personal politics out of this question, except as background to help clarify and provide context with. That said, there are two very different ways to phrase this question, and the one I picked for the title seemed to be the more neutral one:

Why do politics around abortion affiliate so heavily with religious status?

Of course, some of the information provided in response to the question linked above had to do with the US's somewhat religious nature, when compared to more secular countries. And indeed, demographics such as Muslims and Christians are far more likely to oppose abortion than some less religious demographics, and it is often preached in churches as a matter of faith.

But there's an aspect to this that kind of leaves me wondering: (Again...as background for the question!) I myself am a Protestant who is opposed to abortion, but I don't see much in the Bible that specifically comes right out and says: "Thou shalt not commit abortion." It (and here is where the other potential title for the question comes into play) seems to be just a simple matter of looking at photographs, learning about how DNA is inherited from both parents, etc., then believing that the zygote/embryo/whatever is a person. At that point, it's not so much Scripture, my pastor, my church, or anything else that's directly making me think there's any particular rule specifically against abortion itself; it's just that I (and many demographically similar people) view it simply as another case of a much broader category of wrongdoing - a broader category which most people around the world agree about, even if they do disagree on the specifics.

Now, when someone argues that abortion is not murder, I have heard arguments claiming that an embryo or whatever is currently a part of the mother, claims that it's not mentally developed enough to count as a person, considerations of what may happen to the mother during delivery or afterward, considerations of whether rape was involved, that sort of thing. But even then, we're still not debating this on religious grounds, but on scientific and sociological ones. My own answers regarding these (background, context) would probably generally not be articulated with a Bible, but with things like DNA and historical anecdotes.

So here's what I'm asking: Why is the pro-choice/pro-life debate so attracted to and affiliated with religious status? If we're all approaching this from primarily a scientific and sociological standpoint, what makes groups such as (for example) Christianity and Islam so different on this issue than other groups, and why would this be such a large reason for a more religious country's politics on this to look so different from a more secular one's?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please don't use comments to debate the question matter. If you would like to answer, please post a real answer. If you would like to discuss, please use the chat function. Please try to limit these comments to suggesting improvements to the question.
    – JJJ
    Apr 25 at 16:22

2 Answers 2

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The following answer focuses on the U.S., since that is what I can speak to, and seems to be the focus of the OP. It also focuses on Christianity (rather than religion in general) since Christianity is the predominant religion in the U.S. and the religion I am most familiar with.

I can think of four reasons why religous status is tied to views on abortion.

Some religions do explicitly forbid abortion

While it is true that that the Bible does not explicitly forbid abortion, there are denominations that do explicitly forbid it, such as the Catholic church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. People aligned with these denominations are therefore much more likely to oppose abortion.

Religion impacts how we define life and personhood

Nonreligious people are more likely to see human life as an evolutionary accident, and not fundamentally different from plant or animal life. Thus they assign value to human life based on criteria like feeling pain, intelligent thought, and having desire. Based on these criteria, it is reasonable to not consider an embryo or fetus to be a person.

In contrast, Christians see human life as a sacred creation of God that He has commanded to be respected. Even a small and simple zygote can be seen as part of this sacred creation of life, and so many Christians believe that life needs to be protected even before it has developed feelings or thoughts.

Christians are less likely to see abortion as necessary

The traditional Christian stance is that sex should only happen within marriage. This view is not universal among Christians today, but Christians are still less likely to approve of extramarital sex than the religiously unaffiliated.

In my own religious community (and I suspect in other Christian communities), this stance leads to the the attitude that people shouldn't have sex unless they're willing to care for the life they create, meaning abortion should only ever be needed in cases of rape and extreme medical issues.

Christians are less likely to be feminist

The pro-choice attitude is rooted in feminism. Christians are less likely to be feminist*, and are therefore less likely to support abortion.

*This is true in my anecdotal experience. I can't find hard data on this in the U.S., but this article confirms this to be true at least in the UK.

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  • Judaism requires a woman to have an abortion in certain circumstances. Total abortion bans conflict with Jewish religious law.
    – graffe
    Jul 10 at 13:59
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First, let's clarify one point... Anti-abortion politics is a feature of fundamentalist religion, not of religiosity itself. Obviously many religions counsel their adherents not to have abortions, but in the modern world (as a rule) only fundamentalist sects try to enforce that position through political action and the creation of laws that affect the entire body politic. This is not in-and-of-itself surprising. Fundamentalist faiths...:

  1. are intrinsically connected to religious nationalism: the idea that the political state should be religious in nature, based on the tenets of that fundamentalist faith, and...
  2. consistently portray themselves as the abstract universal norm of their (and all) religion, not as a particular sect within a larger religion among a diversity of faiths.

In other words, fundamentalist sects never imagine that they are imposing their beliefs on others within a greater community. They believe they are enforcing correct beliefs on a community that belongs to their faith, in which non-believers are outsiders who may be tolerated but must be controlled. This is as true of Islamic fundamentalism in the Iranian theocracy and Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar as it is of Christian fundamentalists in the West.

The prominence of the abortion issue in the West (and particularly in the US) has little to do with infants or fetuses, despite appearances. Abortion and contraception were part of the 60s/70s movement to liberate women from their role in traditional patriarchal society, in which daughters were (effectively) passed from father to husband as chattel, under the strict supervision of the church. Children were considered descendants and heirs along the male line, and it was natural in that context to assume that the child's interests outweighed the mother's. The Feminist movement in general and the sexual revolution in particular were an outrage to fundamentalist worldviews — disrupting the authority of father, husband, and church in one move — and fundamentalist sects have diligently trying to reassert that (implicit) social authority through (explicit) legal strategies. Abortion became the counterpoint of that effort because it was an easy target for outrage politics, and the only advance of the feminist movement that could be effectively challenged without an appearance of hypocrisy.

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    Out of curiosity, how do you define a "fundamentalist religion"?
    – Kyralessa
    Apr 25 at 15:33
  • @Kyralessa: Fundamentalism is a reactionary movement that seeks a return to the 'fundamentals' of faith, usually as expressed in literalistic readings of core texts. In the West (the Abrahamic faiths) it has been driven by opposition secular technologism and liberal social policies: The first because it fosters an amoral, cosmopolitan, intellectual worldview that questions established tenets of faith, and the second because it allows for multicultural diversity that undercuts the primacy of traditional religious values. It aims to be a pillar of morality in a rising tide of ambivalence. Apr 25 at 16:36
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    Anti-abortion politics is not limited to "fundamentalist" religions as you seem to suggest. The Roman Catholic Church has been explicitly anti-abortion throughout its history -- well before Protestantism, 19th century U.S. Fundamentalism, etc. Or is the Roman Catholic Church somehow "fundamentalist" by your definition?
    – Null
    Apr 25 at 17:05
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    @TedWrigley The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has an entire committee dedicated to opposing abortion and supporting other life issues (the Committee on Pro-Life Activities) and its website includes a section on pro-life/anti-abortion public policy, and that committee has publicly advocated against abortion (e.g. here).
    – Null
    Apr 25 at 18:16
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Null
    Apr 26 at 13:32

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