Abortion Is a Religious Belief, Legislator Argues

A Montana lawmaker is hoping to enact legislation to protect abortion access on the grounds of religious freedom.

Democratic state Representative Ed Stafman introduced HB 471 that would revise the state's abortion law to provide a religious exemption to prohibition on abortion in the state.

In the bill, Stafman said the Montana Constitution expressly protects the freedom of religion for all Montanans and that "freedom of religion is a strong value in Montana law and practice." He said different religions hold "divergent and deeply held" theologies, religious beliefs and values regarding "when human life begins, bodily autonomy and when abortion is allowable."

In the bill, he is proposing an amendment to the section of the law that outlines religious exemptions for health care workers to preform abortions. The statute says that when it comes to abortion, "if it violates your religious beliefs, you can't be required to participate."

Abortion Protections
Abortion-rights supporters stage a counterprotest during the 50th annual March for Life rally on the National Mall on January 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C. A Montana state representative is hoping to enact legislation to protect abortion access on the grounds of religious freedom. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stafman, who is a rabbi, told Newsweek that implicit in the existing statues is the notion that the question of abortion is a "deeply religious theological question" of when life begins and how to weigh the interest of the fetus against the interests of the mother.

The amendment section states that, "At any time during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy, a pregnant woman has the right to obtain an abortion from a willing health care provider, even when the abortion is prohibited by this chapter or otherwise prohibited under the laws of this state, if the woman seeks the abortion in accordance with the woman's sincerely held religious tenets."

Stafman said: "My bill seeks to say what's good for the goose is good for the gander. So if we're going to protect the religious rights of folks to not participate, we ought to also protected religious rights of pregnant women. So that regardless of what other restrictions may exist in the law, or come into existence at some later point, there is a religious out just like there is for the health care worker."

Montana is one of nearly a dozen states with the right to an abortion enshrined in its constitution. In the state, abortion is prohibited after 20 weeks or after the fetus is viable, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

After Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, many lawmakers moved to enact abortion bans or protections in their states.

"It feels like we're in a bit of a critical time in terms of access, as we're hitting the first legislative session after the Dobbs decision," Minority House Caucus Chair Alice Buckley told Newsweek, adding that a "tidal wave" of anti-choice bills are still held up in court.

Republicans in Montana have moved to reverse the 1999 state Supreme Court case that extended the right to privacy to abortions, while state Democrats have moved to codify the state's abortion protections.

"There is a concerted effort by Republicans to either entirely overturn the right to privacy or to limit it in different ways," Stafman said. "And my view is that if we're going to respect religious rights, we need to respect everyone's religious rights. The argument for the religious right to an abortion has been made in other states amid the wave of post-Roe abortion bans.

In Indiana, the ACLU and the Hoosier Jews for Choice filed a lawsuit to block the enforcement of the state's abortion ban on the grounds that the ban violated the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The lawsuit said many Hoosiers have "sincere religious beliefs that they must be able to obtain an abortion under circumstances prohibited by Indiana's abortion ban" and that while some religions believe that human life begins at conception, "this is not an opinion shared by all religions or all religious people." In December, a judge decided to temporarily block the ban.

In Florida, Congregation L'Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach filed a lawsuit against a Florida abortion ban, arguing that the law violated Jewish teachings, which state that abortion "is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman" and for other reasons. The lawsuit said a law prohibiting Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion violates their privacy rights and religious freedom.

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Buddhist, Jews, Hindus, Mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians and non-religious people believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That included 82 percent of Buddhists and 83 percent of Jews.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, told the Center for American Progress that Jewish law permits abortion and, if needed to protect the life of the pregnant person, requires it.

She said that in Judaism, "we do not hold that life begins at conception" and that abortion bans "theoretically impose one notion about when life begins or the nature of the fetus on an entire nation of people," including secular people and people of different faiths.

"Much of the argument for abortion access has been rooted in a very specific Christian perspective; those who seek to restrict abortion rights are seeking to impose their religious views on others, which is inherently unconstitutional," she said.

The Montana bill was introduced on February 9 and is currently in committee. A hearing in the House Judiciary Committee is expected on February 17.

Stafman said he hopes to show at the hearing that "there's a great deal of diversity of theological opinion among different religions on this question. And if we're going to respect religious rights, we ought to respect the religious rights of pregnant women, at least to the extent that we do for healthcare workers."

Montana Democrats are optimistic about the future of abortion protections, as Republican bills to strip back abortion protections don't seem to be popular among voters.

In 2022, voters defeated the "Born Alive" referendum that would have required medical workers to provide care for infants who survived an attempted abortion or face penalties. A "born-alive infant" is defined as "an infant who breathes, has a beating heart, or has definite movement of voluntary muscles, after the complete expulsion or extraction from the mother."

Buckley said the referendum's defeat was "a pretty remarkable and really strong signal to lawmakers that [voters] value autonomy, privacy and reproductive care.

"And despite the overwhelming majority of voters who voted down that ballot referendum and pretty strong support for Constitution as well across Montana, we've still just seen a number of anti-choice bills coming through," she said.

Update 2/15/23, 4:01 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information and comment from Alice Buckley.

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