The small town where we lived in Maine — Waterville, population 12,000 — had one local physician who performed abortions and one anti-abortion protestor who stood across the street from the hospital every Monday displaying the usual propaganda ad imagery. From time to time, I engaged this lone protestor, not only because I disagreed with his view and found his display disturbing (and because his standard anti-abortionist co-opting of Jeremiah 1:5 to buttress his case is simply wrong), but also because the physician whom he was protesting was also the obstetrician who delivered my oldest child.
It seemed the least I could do for the doctor who brought my child into the world was to challenge the man who, on a weekly basis, called him a murderer of unborn children. Not to mention, arguing with a narrow-minded zealot can be a pleasant diversion from the daily rigors of academic life, especially with a zealot unfamiliar with the complex, nuanced Jewish view on the subject that, in the end, prioritizes the physical and mental health of the living mother over the unborn child.
The main lesson I gleaned from these periodic debates was the infrequency with which one side or the other has a change of view, not least of all because one side of the debate has telescoped this complex issue into a narrow theological question: Does an abortion entail terminating a living being, and is thus contrary to the deeply held sanctity of life shared by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pretty much every other religious community on the planet?
A debate over this question is ultimately irreconcilable for no other reason than it consists of an argument based on faith, which is typically immovable, confronting an argument based on scientific conclusions. This is one of the reasons — perhaps the main reason — why debates over abortion, in Waterville and elsewhere, so often devolve into impassioned shouting matches in which someone changing their opinion is rare.
The loud and angry nature of the debate over abortion, moreover, masks a crucial distinction between the debate over abortion generally and the debate over the legality and legitimacy of Roe v. Wade. While the latter was a Supreme Court case and decision that emanated from a broader debate over abortion, the oft-overlooked central issue in Roe is not the moral or immoral nature of terminating a pregnancy. Rather, the issue is, generally speaking, a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion; and, more impactfully, whether or not a woman of limited means has the right to have a safe abortion.
The truth — which anti-abortion activists will admit only with great reluctance, if at all — is that a woman of significant means, even a devout women who belongs to a community where abortions are taboo or or lives in an area where they are outright prohibited, can have a safe abortion covertly without fanfare, controversy or backlash.
Let's not kid ourselves: more than a few pious opponents of abortions have used their ample economic resources to travel to another city, state or country, and engage the services of an obstetrician to terminate the pregnancy of a wife or daughter — without anyone from their community of like-minded opponents of abortion ever knowing. This is not an option available to a woman of limited means, those who cannot afford to take time off from work for travel and recovery and to pay out of pocket to engage privately the services of a qualified physician.
In other words, piety and theological beliefs notwithstanding, favorable economic status grants women of means — even conservative women of means — the very right to choose that anti-abortion activists would deny to lower-income women. Roe v. Wade closed this economic disparity by allowing physicians and hospitals to provide safe abortions legally to women of limited economic means, and thereby spare these women from the medical complications and other horrors of enduring this difficult moment in a “back alley.”
Opponents of this landmark decision have for a half-century used a sleight of hand to divert attention from this social issue by waving a theological one and rebranding their position as "pro-life" rather than admit a callous and deliberate willingness to deny a poor woman the right to safe and healthy medical care. Many have also embraced more recently the misguided islamaphobic mantra that Muslim immigrants are trying to impose their laws on the rest of us — an ironic claim by those who trying to impose their own religious belief on everyone else.
Whether from a Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any other theological view, a willingness to mistreat those in need falls somewhere between highly problematic and patently immoral. The biblical prophets, no less than their Christian and Muslim successors, preached at great length about the divinely-ordained obligation to help the poor and other have-nots of society.
Religious belief and devotion is a fundamental right of American citizenship and of American life. Yet, like other fundamental rights, the right to embrace one's religious belief has never meant the right to impose it on someone else.