Missouri's New Anti-Abortion Law Violates Women’s Religious Liberty

Missouri lawmakers have banned abortion at eight weeks, and even earlier if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Missouri lawmakers have banned abortion at eight weeks, and even earlier if Roe v. Wade is overturned. FLICKR/AMY THE NURSE

In some primitive cultures, when a young girl or woman becomes pregnant, she can be forced against her will by the tribe's male elders to bear the child, even if she has been raped.

Welcome to Missouri.

Joining a festering "Us Too" movement of extremely red state governments, Missouri's Republican super-majority and governor have enacted a law they call "pro-life," but that in reality is anti-religious freedom and an assault on the constitutional privacy and reproductive rights of women. In political parlance, it's an unfunded government mandate requiring that all pregnant women bring their pregnancy to term unless their own life is threatened, a stipulation included grudgingly.

Initially, the ban on abortions will apply to women after eight weeks of pregnancy, a time frame bearing no relationship to "life" as defined by the bill's patrons. It appears to have been pulled out of a political hat to make the measure as resistant as possible to meddling by liberal judges. But there's an important caveat: The law's eight-week period vanishes if Republicans achieve their stated end game of repealing Roe v. Wade. At that point, all abortions short of medical emergencies would be banned in Missouri.

As you know, Roe was the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed a woman's constitutional rights to privacy and abortion, stopping states from outright outlawing the procedure. But Missouri Republicans are also targeting the high court's 1992 landmark verdict in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which expanded Roe by saying states cannot place "undue burden" on women seeking abortions until after a fetus is viable.

In the short run, Missouri Republicans' attack on women's rights will not be implemented as actual tribal law. The legislation is certain to be frozen like an embryo in a fertility clinic while the matter slithers its way through the judicial system.

I choose that unsettling analogy for a reason: to call attention to an overlooked detail of Missouri's new eight-week standard. This legislation is governing embryos, not fetuses, much less babies. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the developing organism in a woman's body is officially known as an embryo through the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Only in the ninth week is it labeled a fetus.

The "pro-life" side has a problem when the subject turns to embryos because they differ even among themselves on the definition of life. Most define conception as when the union of an ovum and a sperm, known as a zygote, has been implanted in the uterus. But others believe stem-cell research constitutes murder. Still more apply the term to the practice of discarding unused embryos at a fertility clinic. And so on.

I've been in many debates on this subject — including a memorable one-on-one battle with the late Phyllis Schlafly in a packed south county church — and whenever I've argued that this is a religious question and not a governmental one, the other side has always defaulted to the claim that it is empirical, scientific fact that life begins at conception. But that assertion is belied by their own lack of consensus on the subject.

The corollary should be obvious: Determining the origin of life is a matter of religious, ethical or moral consideration. There's nothing empirical about it.

That's why the government needs to balance women's reproductive rights with those of a developing fetus. I believe the courts have gotten it right with the landmark cases: On one hand, a woman's constitutional right to privacy and to terminate a pregnancy are unambiguous, but that's balanced against the interests of the viable fetus — one capable of living independently outside the mother's womb. I believe the government has not only the right but the responsibility to protect human life at viability — but not before.

There's no denying that people of good faith view this emotional topic differently. Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans and many other Christian denominations believe strongly that life begins at conception. They should be respected for that belief and have unlimited freedom to live their lives according to their faith.

But a substantial number of other major religions dissent. Some regard life originating at a different point. Some see the topic as an ethical and moral matter that must be resolved privately by each individual woman, not religious leaders and certainly not the state. That includes the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches, the United Church of Christ, Reform and Conservative Judaism, Unitarians, Buddhists and Muslims. Not to mention the millions of Americans who don't identify with any faith or who might be atheists or agnostics with their own set of ethics.

In Judaism, for example, references exist in the Talmud to life beginning when the baby's head emerges from the womb, a concept compatible with the Supreme Court's fetal-viability standard. Islamic teachings reference the soul enters the body at 40 days after conception, and views on abortion vary widely within the faith.

Whatever the religious belief, it should be as respected as those of Christian faiths that oppose abortion. The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That pretty well seems beyond debate in this case.

But in Missouri, the travesty we just witnessed didn't rise to the level of debate. Instead, the Republican super-majority flexed its political super-powers and rammed through a show-pony law designed to let the world know that no one can "out-pro-life" us. And even that wasn't quite enough: They had to channel their inner Todd Akin and trot out creepy old men to double down on our new motto as the "Show-Me-Why-Rape-Is-That-Big-a-Deal" state.

It's vile enough that the state would require young girls and women to bring into the world their rapists' spawn — I cannot imagine a more immoral thing — but things became exponentially worse when a mouth-breather state representative from the Bootheel introduced the heretofore oxymoronic phrase "consensual rape" to explain why those girls and women need to pipe down.

That, of course, made headlines. Here's what didn't: The bill banning abortion is accompanied by a state budget allocation of zero dollars to take any steps whatsoever to prevent unintended pregnancies from happening in the first place.

Even in this toxic environment, you'd think that the warring factions could find agreement on steps to prevent the need for abortions. How about public-health campaigns on safe sex, or wider access to contraceptives, or more resources for effective sex education in our schools?

With the new bill undoubtedly tied up in the courts for the foreseeable future, we've got time on our hands. How about some bipartisan legislation? A governor's task force? Is there really nothing than can be done to address the causes, rather than the symptoms, of too many unintended pregnancies? I'm afraid we all know the answer to those questions, because this, sadly, is Missouri.

We're a primitive culture.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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