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Religious leaders sharply divided over abortion

BY DAVID CRARY

AP National Writer

In the year since the Supreme Court struck down the nationwide right to abortion, America’s religious leaders and denominations have responded in strikingly diverse ways — some celebrating the state-level bans that have ensued, others angered that a conservative Christian cause has changed the law of the land in ways they consider oppressive.

The divisions are epitomized in the country’s largest denomination — the Catholic Church. National polls repeatedly show that a majority of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, yet the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports sweeping bans.

Among Protestants, a solid majority of white evangelicals favor outlawing abortion. But most mainline Protestants support the right to abortion, and several of their top leaders have decried the year-old Supreme Court ruling that undermined that right by reversing the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

For example, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, said he was “deeply grieved” by that ruling.

The decision “institutionalizes inequality because women with access to resources will be able to exercise their moral judgment in ways that women without the same resources will not,” Curry said.

Some religious Americans have gone beyond expressions of dismay, filing lawsuits contending that new abortion bans infringed on their own religious beliefs. Jewish women played roles in such lawsuits in Indiana and Kentucky; in Florida, a synagogue in Boynton Beach — Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor — contended in a lawsuit that a state abortion ban violated Jewish teachings.

Dr. Sara Imershein, who performs first-trimester abortions in northern Virginia, said her Reform Judaism beliefs informed her decision to choose that path.

“I looked more at the liturgy of Judaism and found that it really supported my work,” she said. “I studied with my local rabbi.”

Imershein was in college when abortion was legalized nationwide. Now, at 69, she has seen Roe’s demise.

“Laws that restrict abortion … ignore our Jewish teachings that are very old, and they stomp on our religious freedom,” she said.

In Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism, there also is widespread acceptance of abortion in some circumstances. Most U.S. Hindus are “very much in support of choice,” said Dheepa Sundaram, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Denver; she cited the concept of karma which holds that each person has the liberty to act and face the consequences of their actions — good or bad.

Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Dartmouth College, says the abortion debate is so intractable in part because believers in the opposing camps view the Bible — which doesn’t include the word “abortion” — as supporting their side.

“It shows the pliability of Scripture — the way that each group tries to marshal arguments on its behalf,” he said. “The Bible can be manipulated.”

“What strikes me about both sides is there’s no humility in their position,” Balmer added. “They stake out what they believe is God’s will, and everybody else is a heretic.”

Even within individual churches, divisions over abortion can flare. Bishop Timothy Clarke, pastor of First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, frequently exhorts his predominantly African American congregation to respect those with opposing views.

Clarke describes himself as “biblically pro-life,” yet he criticizes the stringent abortion bans enacted in numerous Republican-led states as “excessive and extreme.”

Referring to laws that would criminalize abortion-providing doctors and deny abortion to victims of rape, he said many people in his church “are saying this is going too far. It’s beyond the pale.”

There is similar sentiment among some U.S. Catholics, says Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a professor of American studies and history at the University of Notre Dame and director of its Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

“There are some horrific stories coming out of pregnant women with severe issues who are being denied health care,” she said, referring to the consequences of some state abortion bans.

“We have to have a more human approach,” she said. “I think we’ll see more Catholics saying, ‘I’m not pro-abortion. But I want mercy. I want health care.'”

As a group, Catholic bishops are unwavering, as conveyed in a statement earlier this year from their conference’s president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio.

“The Catholic bishops of the United States are united in our commitment to life and will continue to work as one body in Christ to make abortion unthinkable,” he said.

A poll last year from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed a clear gap between the prevalent views of U.S. Catholics, and the anti-abortion positions of the bishops. According to the poll, 63% of Catholic adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 68% opposed Roe v. Wade’s reversal.

“On every issue having to do with sexuality or reproductive health, there’s a huge gap between the way lay Catholics think and what the hierarchy is teaching,” said Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice.

“What’s challenging,” she said, “is that even though most Catholics believe abortion should be legal, they don’t speak about it publicly because of the taboo … the fear of being ostracized by their community.”

Manson noted that a 2014 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, found that nearly one-fourth of U.S. abortion patients identify as Catholic.

“There’s an all-male hierarchy telling them they’re complicit in murder,” Manson said. “I wish what bishops and priests would do is listen to these women, listen to their stories of why they choose abortion.”

Among mainline Protestant denominations, there have been official statements acknowledging that abortion is a complex issue, but prevailing sentiment is that last year’s Supreme Court ruling was an injustice to women, particularly those already facing economic hardships and racial discrimination.

“This decision further complicates the struggle and creates division, anger, and chaos in an already divided and conflicted country,” wrote Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops.

Some Protestant pastors have emerged as outspoken advocates of abortion rights; among them is Jacqui Lewis, the first African American and first woman to serve as a senior minister in New York City’s historic Middle Collegiate Church.

She evoked the fear and heartache felt by many of the women affected by the new abortion bans.

“These are the poorest of us, the most disenfranchised and they’re struggling more because some portion of Christianity feels they have the right to decide for other people what is moral,” Lewis said. “It breaks my soul to see religion weaponized this way … it’s the opposite of what religion should be.”

Among the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, by far the largest evangelical denomination, there’s unified opposition to abortion. However, there has been sharp disagreement over whether to impose criminal penalties on women who get abortions.

The SBC’s president, Bart Barber, opposes criminalization of women in such cases and has sparred verbally with Baptist pastors who argue that such women. in some instances, should be considered murderers.

“I think it is unjust, unnecessary, and unwise to include in abortion laws the prosecution of women who seek or obtain an abortion,” Barber writes in a lengthy article. “The abortionist is the murderer, and any law banning abortion should identify the abortionist uniquely as such.”

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AP reporters Tiffany Stanley in Washington and Deepa Bharath in Southern California contributed.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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