The six-week abortion ban and freedom of religion

Janice Weiner is a Democratic state senator representing Iowa City and a member of the Iowa Senate State Government Committee, where Republicans ran the bill that received final approval as House File 732.

During the time-limited debate on Iowa’s six-week abortion ban on July 11, the Iowa Senate—predictably—ran out of time. You can’t say everything that truly needs to be said, argue all the inaccuracies and vague language and failures and exceptions that sound good on paper but have shown themselves, across this country, to be paper tigers, in a matter of hours.

One important argument that fell on the “time certain” cutting room floor: freedom of religion. I’ve reorganized the freedom of religion portion of my constitutional arguments speech into this article.

In this country and in this state, we enjoy freedom of religion—specifically, freedom from government establishment of religion.

Iowans have the right to believe what they want to believe. The Puritans fled England and came to America because they wanted it. It’s why Catholics and Quakers and Jews came—and the sect that left Ronneberg, Germany to found the Amana colonies. We also enjoy the right not to believe in any religion.

What we don’t have is the right to impose our religious views on others.

It’s really that simple.

I may be the only Jew in this chamber, but I’m far from the only adherent to a religion in this state that disagrees with the very specific religious viewpoints that comprise this six-week abortion ban.

This bill is a religious treatise masquerading as a law. It is not based on medical science or the best evidence-based medical practices. It has nothing to do with public health. It is a treatise with which many religions—not just adherents to my own—view as wildly out of line with their own religious teachings.  

The Iowa Constitution’s bill of rights includes Article I, section 3: “The general assembly shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In light of the post-Dobbs wave of anti-abortion laws, a number of cases have been filed around the country on freedom of religion grounds.

In Missouri, a group of fourteen clergy, representing seven different denominations, was recently granted standing to sue. Plaintiffs include an Episcopal bishop, an orthodox Jewish maharat, a United Methodist Pastor and state legislator, as well as Reform rabbis, and United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist ministers. They brought suit, in Rev. Blackmon v. Missouri, based on the proposition that abortion bans impose one narrow religious doctrine on everyone and that these bans violate the separation of church and state under the Missouri Constitution.

Here in Iowa, when so many, from Governor Kim Reynolds on down, couch their objections to abortion and support for the six-week ban (or even a complete ban, starting at conception) in religious and biblical terms, it telegraphs that the bill is a sectarian, religious approach that seeks to impose one narrow, dominionist religious view on every person in Iowa.

Since I came to the legislature in January, I’ve listened to it detailed in prayers; I’ve listened to it described in rallies; I’ve listened to it when anti-abortion activists rallied and prayed in the rotunda; I’ve listened to it when they speak to the media and when their surrogates speak. The religious grounding and intent are crystal clear—proponents take pride in it.

Yet it is far from the only religious viewpoint. Here is another of many:

In Judaism, the lives of living, breathing human beings—pregnant women—are paramount.

This flows from one specific section of Torah—Exodus 21:22-23—which recounts a story of two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. However, if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life.

The rabbinical interpretation is that the men did not commit murder because the fetus is not a person; it is treated as a situation that warrants financial damages for injury, not restitution for homicide. The primary concern is for the well-being of the person who was injured—in this case, the pregnant woman.

For me, life begins at first breath. We aren’t alive if we’re not breathing, and we commonly say that a person dies when they draw their last breath.

As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explained in a piece in The Atlantic, written just before Dobbs was issued, a fetus is regarded as a potential life. When a pregnancy or labor endangers a pregnant person, abortion is explicitly called for to save their life. Beyond life-or-death situations, Jewish law permits abortion in situations where carrying the fetus to term would cause other serious health or mental health issues.

Jews are permitted to terminate a pregnancy, and when our lives are at stake, we may be obligated by Jewish law to do so. Government intervention that would prevent the free exercise of these religious tenets constitutes an infringement of First Amendment rights. Here in Iowa, that would be a violation of Article I, Section 3 of our Bill of Rights.

Most secular conversations center on the question of whether abortion is a right. In Judaism, we talk about responsibilities, to one another and to God.

Judaism places a significant emphasis on individual responsibility and free will. This includes the ability to make personal decisions about one’s own body and reproductive choices. Jewish law acknowledges that each situation is unique and complex—as with almost everything in Judaism, there are gradations. It is the responsibility of the individual, in consultation with their healthcare professionals and, if they wish, their rabbi, to make informed decisions based on their own unique circumstances.

Life at first breath. Breathed their last breath. Responsibility to those who are living over potential life.

This is my religion, my moral and ethical compass. I’m not asking you to accept or adopt it. That is the beauty of freedom of religion—we each have free choice, including the freedom not to have the views of another religion imposed on us.

The Torah, the Bible, and the Koran do not contain or control our secular laws. Our secular laws are found in the Code of Iowa, which must align with the Iowa Constitution. The Iowa Constitution forbids the establishment of religion by the state.

Iowa is not a theocracy. The state cannot impose a religion on us. I believe that House File 732 would do so.

Addendum: The night Republicans passed the six-week ban, July 11, Governor Reynolds’ office issued a press release announcing that she would sign the bill on Friday, July 14. The next morning, the governor’s office announced the bill signing would take place at the Family Leadership Summit, a major conference sponsored by The FAMiLY Leader, an evangelical Christian organization which I would characterize as out of line with what most Iowans believe.

Their website splash page states, “Inspiring the Church to engage Government for the advance of God’s Kingdom and the strengthening of Family” (capitalization theirs, not mine).

They have the absolute right to have those views, but they don’t get to impose them on you or on me. By choosing to sign the bill into law there, Reynolds doubles down on the religion underpinnings. I believe that House File 732 codifies one religious viewpoint.

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  • first breath

    Thank you for your thoughtful explanation. There are many religions and many beliefs. It is wrong for one religion to impose their beliefs and craft laws based on their religion.

  • Personal - not societal - faith

    Personal faith — the belief in a creator that cannot be explained — has been corrupted by religion, which is nothing more than imperfect humans codifying how to express that belief. Since all faith is personal, it makes no sense for everyone to be expected to conform to such a codification. If you consider yourself a person of faith, trust in yourself and your faith, not what someone dictates your faith should be.