01/25/2011 07:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is the Role of Theology in the Abortion Debate?

Living as I do in one of the most conservative Catholic dioceses in the country, set in one of the reddest of states, I am accustomed to a daily chant of anti-choice rhetoric. Billboards, bumper stickers, public-access preachers and picketers trundle out slogans such as "Abortion stops a beating heart," or "My mom didn't have an abortion," or simply, "Jesus, I trust in you."

Like everyday traffic, the rhetoric tends to fade into a dull roar. But my ears pricked up over this year's anti-abortion rally on the National Mall. There's a new, discordant note in the choir, one we should give close attention.

For years, the anti-choice movement has been generally known as "right to life." Now, there's a concerted effort to remake it into a civil rights movement for preborn "people." As the Washington Post reported, Catholic priest Mark Ivany told the crowd, "The greatest difference between other civil rights movements and this one is that most of the people affected by Roe v. Wade can't march on Washington." Not to be outdone, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) declared that abortion represents bigotry against unborn children.

In this YouTube clip, you can hear him state that abortion is "child abuse" and try to marshal the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King to his cause.

This marks more than a rhetorical shift. On January 21st, Rep. Smith introduced H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," with 173 cosponsors. It requires that complaints about violations be referred to the Director of the Office for Civil Rights.

Addressing the marchers, Rep. Smith spelled out what kind of civil rights he has in mind: "[L]et us recommit today to even more persevering prayer, fasting and hard work to ensure the human rights of all, regardless of age, race, religion, sex, disability, immaturity or condition of dependency."

Smith may intend those last two clauses to protect shy, underdeveloped teenagers from sarcastic teachers, but I rather suspect he has zygotes and fetuses in mind.

Assuming that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, what would such "civil rights" legislation accomplish? Not much. Constitutional rights trump laws trumped up by Congress.

On the other hand, if Smith et al eventually succeed and a right-wing majority on the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, what then? Not only would abortion again be outlawed, but the death of any zygote or fetus would have to be treated exactly the same as the death of an adult.

The American Pregnancy Association estimates that between 10 and 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage -- technically known as spontaneous abortion. An even-handed application of the law would require coroner's reports and inquests on these millions of annual miscarriages.

Worse yet, such a law would inevitably make the 1987 Carder nightmare a reality for other women. Angela Carder was a 27-year-old cancer survivor whose pregnancy and renewed tumors imperiled her life. Against her will, a court-ordered C-section was performed to try to save the fetus from the anti-cancer therapy she needed. Both she and the fetus died. So much for a woman's right to choose.

For decades now, we've heard that "life begins at conception." Biologically true, perhaps, but science clearly shows that personhood does not. When an egg is fertilized, a certain portion of its daughter cells are destined, if all goes well, to become a placenta. Not even the religious fanatics of the right would argue that a placenta is a person. Moreover, occasionally a fertilized egg will split, and identical twins will be born. Again, no one would argue that twins are one person.

If the science is clear on this point, religion is not. Some religions believe that life starts at "quickening," some at live birth, and some at conception. Such beliefs cannot be settled by a vote.

Here's where choice comes in. A particular theology can never make a good basis for public policy in a pluralistic, democratic society. Nothing demonstrates that better than the abortion controversy. Anti-choice advocates believe they are a majority, but, even if that's so, their position amounts to religious tyranny all the same. A free people must be free to follow the religious traditions of their choice.