Natural Laws?

Several states have recently passed anti-abortion laws, or laws that severely restrict women’s ability to obtain an abortion. In advancing them, legislators have claimed they are representing the wishes of their constituents; but their public comments reveal a religious motive. One legislator even claimed that God told him to introduce restrictive anti-abortion legislation in Florida.

Alabama passed into law a bill that prohibits abortion at any stage of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is in danger. Doctors who violate that law could face 10 to 99 years in prison—making this law the most restrictive in the United States.

A law passed in Alaska prohibits abortions after 18 weeks; but makes exclusions in cases of rape, incest, or medical emergencies.

Utah passed a similar bill prohibiting abortions after 18 weeks.

Another law passed in Missouri restricts abortions after eight weeks of a woman becoming impregnated; including cases of rape and incest.

In April, North Dakota banned second trimester abortions using instruments such as forceps or scissors to extract the fetus. Doctors who violate this law can be imprisoned up to 5 years, and fined up to $10,000; but a woman requesting such an abortion would not be charged.

Effective July 1, in Mississippi, if a fetal heartbeat is detected (usually by the sixth week), no abortion may be performed.

Kentucky also passed a similar heartbeat bill in March; but a federal judge temporarily blocked it.

Ohio passed a “heartbeat bill” in April, although former Republican Governor John Kasich had vetoed similar legislation.

Georgia passed a “heartbeat bill” in May; but it is not expected to go into effect until 2020. The ACLU plans to challenge it in court.

Iowa passed a “heartbeat bill” in May 2018, but a federal judge struck down the legislation in January 2019.

In spite of all the agitation, debate, and shock caused by the swift introduction and passage of these anti-abortion laws in several states, perhaps the most worrisome factor is the religious element associated with them. Florida Republican Mike Hill said the abortion bill he introduced into the state legislature this year was sent to him by God. The “heartbeat bill” that Hill proposed was similar to the one passed in Alabama, except that his bill allowed exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or if the mother’s life is in danger. Hill said he added those exceptions to increase the chances of the bill being passed. It died in committee. “As plain as day, God spoke to me. He said that wasn’t my bill, talking about the heartbeat detection bill that I filed. He said that wasn’t my bill. I knew immediately what He was talking about.” Hill plans on reintroducing the bill next year, but without the exceptions in the original bill in order to align with what he believes to be God’s will.1

On May 16, 2019, Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, has signed the most stringent abortion legislation in the nation, making performing an abortion a felony in nearly all cases. The law prohibits abortion at any stage of the pregnancy, and allows an exception only if a mother’s life is in danger. The law carries a penalty of 10 to 99 years in prison for those providing abortion services, but does not mandate penalties for the woman obtaining the abortion.

Republican Terri Collins, the bill’s sponsor, said she believes the measure reflects the beliefs of the majority of the state electorate. The vote came after 59 percent of state voters in November agreed to write anti-abortion language in the Alabama Constitution, saying the state recognizes the rights of the “unborn.”

Ivey acknowledged that the measure may be unenforceable in the short term, and even supporters expect it to be blocked by lower courts as they fight toward the Supreme Court. “It’s to address the issue that Roe v. Wade was decided on. Is that baby in the womb a person?” Collins said.

“To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” Ivey said in a statement after signing it into law.2 Taken at face value, Ivey’s remarks appear sincere, but taken in conjunction with Mike Hill’s comments, the religious motives of such cases should surely be scrutinized if they reach the Supreme Court.

According to a CNN article published on May 23, 2019, not religion, but politics, is a more accurate indicator of the motive behind recent abortion legislation. Through analysis of the religious views of Alabama legislators who voted for, or against, the abortion ban bill and the official views of the church denominations they represent, one may find a disjuncture between creed and crafted legislation. For example, a Pew Research survey indicates that 80 percent of Episcopalians say that abortion should be legal under all, or most, circumstances, and the Episcopalian Church allows for abortions in cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities. Del Marsh, the Senate leader, is Episcopalian, yet he voted in favor of the bill.

Another example is that although the Catholic Church ardently opposes abortion, Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, who is Catholic, voted against the new law. She explains that she is pro-choice, not because she personally favors abortion, but because she recognizes that such a decision is a personal choice of an individual. What does unite all Alabama legislators according to their vote is political affiliation. All 25 Senators who voted to support the bill are Republicans, and all six who voted against it are Democrats.3

However, exploring the religious motive further, the New York Times published an article on May 16, 2019, “In Alabama, Opposition to Abortion Runs Deep,” in which reporters revealed through interviews of many Alabamians that indeed religion was among primary motives to amend the state constitution to favor the rights of the unborn, as well as to pass the new law banning abortions. In 2014 polling revealed that 58 percent of voters favored laws banning abortions in all, or most, circumstances. Coincidentally (or not?), many of the most powerful denominations in Alabama had begun reviving a strong stance against abortion in recent years, leading up to these legislative changes.

Additionally, reporters contrasted the apparent “pro-life” stance of legislators regarding the unborn with the stark infant and mother mortality rate at the time of birth, finding that Alabama has one of the highest rates of occurrence in the nation, coupled with minimal physicians and health services capable of providing women’s health care. In the article a leading Alabama historian remarked, in reference to the prior statistical information, that in Alabama there is a distinct difference between merely being anti-abortion and pro-life.4

History shows that combining religion and politics results in losses for both. Religion that co-opts the political process becomes a persecuting force. In such circumstances, religion loses its divine character and becomes sullied with the carnal nature of contenders in the ring of power politics. Additionally, religion becomes odious in the eyes of nonreligionists who are forced to comply with a moral mandate that they oftentimes neither understand nor can sincerely embrace. In essence, God’s character is maligned before unbelievers by professed followers who seek political power to bend the masses according to their moral dictates. Even in modern history, such tactics result in the loss of religious adherents, a lesson the Catholic Church painfully learned throughout Central and South America during the 1990s and into this century.

Likewise, politics suffers from such a union with religion. Politicians who co-opt religion utilize such a ploy to appease religionists, but in turn dissociate themselves from the non-religious segment of society, resulting in further division within an already fragmented populace. Politicians seek to blend two distinctly different natures—the political, which so often is guided by prejudices, whims, misperceptions, and egotistical desires with the elevated, ennobling, principles inspired by God and designed to transform humans from a carnal nature to moral beings. By attempting such an impossible union, the political process loses credibility and is instead viewed as composed of hypocrites. In the long run, the overall political process becomes eroded, resulting in lower voter turnout, disrespect for civil institutions of society, and eventually a flagrant disregard for the very civil laws underpinning a democratic society.

Although the sponsors of these bills have used nonreligious language, and instead rely heavily upon a natural law argument, the religious sentiments expressed by many of them, some of which have been highlighted here, belie their real motive. When examined more closely, even natural law arguments are associated with Christian moral philosophy. Anciently, the Greeks advocated for a generic natural law that governed the cosmos under the rule of the “gods” and that was used to establish a sense of justice. That natural law was rooted in paganism.

Centuries later Thomas Aquinas, the renowned moral philosopher of the Catholic Church, “sanitized” Greek natural law theory by integrating it with Christian philosophy, concepts of eternal law, and biblical moral values. Through the centuries since that time, the Catholic Church has developed moral law arguments based on natural law theory. Especially during the mid-1800s, Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler developed a systematic approach to social ills, such as poverty and destitute living conditions, which became the platform for addressing social issues of the twentieth century (his theories were foundational to the encyclical Rerum Novarum, on social justice).

Jacques Maritain, the stellar Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century, systematized natural law arguments and adapted them to a modern global order. He contributed in no small part to the Declaration of Human Rights, formulated by the United Nations in 1948.

By the mid-1900s the Catholic Church developed natural law arguments to address such growing social issues within America as abortion, trade unions, Sunday labor requirements, worker’s rights, and several decades later to weigh in on social debates involving homosexuality, ecological concerns, economic disparity—and abortion (again). America’s fixation with allowing women to choose regarding the care of their bodies, especially with the option of having an abortion for unplanned pregnancies, led Pope John Paul II to promote a “culture of life” in Evangelium Vitae (1995), as well as to refer to its opposite, such as abortion, as a “culture of death.”

When one examines the public statements of those legislators and proponents of the recent anti-abortion bans, it becomes evident that a cross-pollination of ideas has occurred between Catholic natural law theory and Protestant justification for those laws. Thus, although natural law language and arguments are used to justify those anti-abortion laws not being religious in nature, the justices on the Supreme Court should discern the underlying Catholic moral arguments. If these cases should reach the highest tribunal of our nation and a judgment should be rendered, one will be able to determine if all justices on the bench can dissociate themselves from their personal religious persuasion to make a right judgment based on our Constitution and prior Court precedent, rather than on a natural law theory rooted in Christian moral philosophy. Abortion—will it cause our nation to abort the founding principles of our country enshrined in the Constitution in favor of birthing a “new nation” founded upon Christian natural law arguments?

1 https://www.newsweek.com/florida-state-rep-says-god-has-told-him-introduce-abortion-bill-which-allows-1434876

2 “Alabama governor invokes God in banning nearly all abortions”, Kim Chandler and Blake Paterson, Associated Press, U.S. News, May 16, 2019 https://www.apnews.com/7a47ddc761dc4b72a017b0836da3a87b

3 https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/23/politics/abortion-religion-views-alabama/index.html

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/16/us/abortion-law-women.html


Article Author: Ed Cook

Ed Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas, where he currently leads in church religious liberty activities.