WashU Expert: Stakes could not be higher in Supreme Court abortion case

Griffith: Many ‘Americans feel some discomfort with the most extreme versions of self-described “pro-choice” and “pro-life” positions’

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected this week to make its first major ruling on abortion rights since President Trump took office. The case, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, challenges Louisiana’s law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Every abortion case that reaches the Supreme Court has high stakes, but Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, says “the stakes could hardly feel higher right now.”

Griffith, who is the author of “Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics,” says that abortion was not always such a politically and culturally divisive issue. In fact, in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, Protestant Christians were overwhelmingly in favor of abortion access.

She argues that it is time to put away uncompromising and extreme rhetoric and truly listen to one another to find solutions that honor both the sanctity of life and a woman’s right to choose.

Griffith, who is also the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, discussed the Supreme Court case, the history of the abortion debate across religious/political lines and a way forward:

What makes this case so important?

The Louisiana case feels enormously important to people on all sides of the abortion debate, precisely because the ruling will signal just how much the Supreme Court may have changed since 2016 and how far the current justices are willing to go to overturn past precedent. A win for the state of Louisiana will result in many other states passing more restrictive legislation, while a loss will be greatly reassuring to pro-choice advocates for abortion access.

If SCOTUS upholds Louisiana’s law, what will that mean for the future of Roe v. Wade?

For the past decade, the strategy of abortion opponents tired of waiting for the overturn of Roe v. Wade has been to make abortion harder and harder to access. Many states have enacted laws requiring certain types of counseling for pregnant women that would discourage abortion, waiting periods for those seeking abortions, parental consent and other barriers to abortion. The latter includes what pro-choice advocates consider to be unnecessary and burdensome regulations for abortion clinics and their staff, such as what is at stake in this case: the requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges to local hospitals. If SCOTUS rules in favor of Louisiana in this case (contrary to the court’s decision against Texas in a nearly identical case three years ago), supporters of abortion rights fear that access to safe abortion will soon be gutted throughout the country, even if Roe nominally stays on the books. The stakes could hardly feel higher right now.

Last week, SCOTUS affirmed LGBTQ rights in the workplace and blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA. From your perspective, does this signal a court that is not so reliably conservative? 

I don’t know that I think these decisions signal a court that is not so reliably conservative as much as a court that is not reliably authoritarian or subject to Trump’s dictatorial demands about what they do. Trump recently tweeted “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” In other words, he genuinely seems to think that he can signal what he wants them to do and that either they do it or they “don’t like” him.

Has abortion always been such a politically and culturally divisive issue?

No, and in fact it’s a crucial story that most Americans have forgotten. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many polls were taken to determine the views of the American public regarding abortion. Overwhelming numbers of Americans favored some measure of legal abortion, including a slim majority of Catholics. Protestant Christians were overwhelmingly in favor of abortion access, at least in the early stages of pregnancy; although many also believed that there were some less sympathetic cases that might not be so deserving. So the public’s views were wide ranging and complicated, including among Christians across the board, but most agreed that abortion should be safer and more accessible than it was at that time.

The suddenness of the 1973 Roe decision really generated chaos — if not right away, then gradually over the remainder of the 1970s. Interestingly, a number of Southern Baptist leaders and other conservative Protestants praised the Roe decision when it first came down. Over time, folks who did not want women to have full access to abortion during the second trimester or past fetal viability came to feel extremely uncomfortable with the broadness of the Roe decision. Many conservative Protestants were influenced by Catholic anti-abortion activists such as Phyllis Schlafly as well as the fundamentalist Baptist Jerry Falwell, and attitudes in those Christian circles shifted strongly toward the anti-abortion side.

Do the partisan views of abortion mirror societal views?

Polls today consistently show that large numbers of Americans feel some discomfort with the most extreme versions of self-described “pro-choice” and “pro-life” positions. Many abortion opponents say they would be willing for there to be exceptions or even the allowance of abortion in very early stages if the abortion rate overall were reduced and later-term abortions outlawed. And while the most vocal advocates of unrestricted abortion access tend to speak in uncompromising terms about the right to choose, many on the ground express some willingness for there to be restrictions on abortion somewhere after the first or second trimester. We don’t have a clear map of all citizens’ views on this issue, but we definitely know there are far more in-between positions than “no abortion allowed ever” and “no restrictions on abortion ever.”

Is compromise possible? Is it possible to be Christian and to value both life and a woman’s right to choose? 

“Compromise” may be the wrong word to use here, because no one wants to compromise her or his own values or integrity. But are there positions that value both life and choice? Absolutely. And most people on all sides of this debate are adamant that they do value both life and women’s right to choose but that they define these values differently than folks who oppose their views. Christians, by the way, are just as diverse as the rest of the U.S. population when it comes to views on abortion: Media depictions tend to show more of the Christian anti-abortion side, but countless American Christians believe in some degree of access for abortion and many are quite liberal or progressive in their views. In short, there is no single “Christian” position on abortion, whatever some say, only different interpretations of what Christians are called to believe and practice.

The official Catholic position that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder from the time of conception has evolved from theological teachings that were debated for centuries among church theologians (all celibate men, as advocates for abortion access like to point out, at least until recently); and there has not ever been consensus on this dogma among Protestants as a whole. One could say that the conservative evangelicals who have adopted this position in the years since the 1973 Roe decision have undergone a kind of Catholicization in their views on abortion, even as the attitudes of the vast majority of American Catholics toward contraception have been Protestantized (in the sense that Catholic couples use birth control at the same rates Protestants and other Americans do).

How do gender inequality and biases play into this debate? 

Is the opposition to abortion motivated by gender politics, and in particular the fear of women’s sexual freedom? Yes, absolutely. Are patriarchal views the sole motivating force of all people who oppose abortion? Certainly not. Gender plays an important, even vital role in these debates. But abortion also entails the questions of when life begins and what constitutes murder. There are Catholic feminists who view abortion as murder, and we can understand the consistency of that position even if we do not adhere to it ourselves.

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