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“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion


“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion

Mar 23, 2023 | 2:00 pm ET
By Joe Killian
“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion
From left to right: Maharat Ruth Friedman, Lauren W. Reliford, Leah Libresco Sargeant, Mara Buchbinder.

In the days before Wednesday night’s panel on faith and abortion through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse, a number of people – some of them colleagues – told moderator Mara Buchbinder they shouldn’t be having the conversation.

“Their concern was, we don’t have the luxury of debating competing ethical frameworks at a time when the law itself is under siege,” said Buchbinder,  a professor and vice chair of the department of social medicine at the UNC School of Medicine.

Since a new, conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last June, Republican lawmakers across the country have pushed for – and in some states passed – new restrictions on abortion. In North Carolina, the General Assembly’s GOP majority is discussing limits of between 12 and six weeks, down from the existing 20 week window in which women can access abortion.

In that environment, Buchbinder said, she understands the skepticism about a conversation based solely on faith and abortion.

“Given our pluralist and increasingly polarizing society, I think it’s more important than ever to understand the complex relationships between faith, politics and culture,” Buchbinder said.
Toward that end, Wednesday’s panel brought together Maharat Ruth Friedman, clergy at Ohev Sholom – the National Synagogue in Washington DC; Lauren W. Reliford, a social worker and Political Director for Christian organization Sojourners and Leah Libresco Sargeant, writer and author of the book Arriving at Amen, which examined her conversion from atheism to Catholicism.

The relationship between religion and views on abortion is more nuanced than many Americans acknowledge, Buchbinder said. Gallup Poll data  does show a strong correlation between religiosity views on abortion, she said. About 10 percent of those who said they seldom or never go to church agreed that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. That jumps to 20 percent among those who attend church once a month and 40 percent among those who attend weekly. Those numbers look similar to those who think abortion is morally wrong.

“How religious Americans are is more predictive than their religious identity more generally,” Buchbinder said.

“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion
Mara Buchbinder

Last year Gallup found the three largest religious sub-groups are protestant Christians (34 percent), Catholics (23 percent) those who do not identify as religious (21 percent). Those who identify as Christians without identifying a specific denomination were 11 percent, Jewish and Mormon both 2 percent and “other” at 6 percent.

Wednesday’s panel featured Jewish and Catholic pandelists, but no protestants or those who do not identify with a religious denomination.

“How religious Americans are is more predictive than their religious identity more generally,” Buchbinder said.

For those reasons, painting pro and anti-abortion access sentiments in strictly religious terms is reductive and ignores the long history – and current examples of – religious activism to expand access to abortion.

In North Carolina, the divide is far more partisan than it is religious.

Last month, a Meredith College poll found 57 percent of respondents favored keeping the current 20-week status quo for abortion restrictions or expanding access. About 35 percent favored further restrictions, with just over 6 percent saying they would like to see abortion become illegal in all cases.

Digging into those numbers, the partisan divide is stark. Over three-quarters of Democrats wanted to keep the law as it is or expand access. Nearly 60 percent of Republicans said they want further restrictions on access. A strong majority of unaffiliated voters (almost 60 percent) said they would be for keeping the current 20-week ban or expanding access further.

With both political affiliation and religious dedication clearly playing a strong role in the peoples’ views of abortion, Buchbinder asked the panel how much faith should inform public policy.

“For me, when I talk about faith, I’m talking about an ethical/moral value framework,” Reliford said. “And so I think, if it’s not faith that means something then some common morality – which I believe we have regardless of faith, regardless of belief system.”

There are core human values that transcend faith traditions and can be agreed upon whatever peoples’ faith or absence thereof, Reliford said. Her Catholic faith compels her to help the those in need, she said, but people of various faiths or no faith could come to the conclusion that is a moral good.

“Religion makes a truth claim about the world, the same way as science does, the same way as philosophy does,” Sargeant said. “And each discipline uses different methods to try to sift through which truth claims are correct and which ones are false.”

“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion
Leah Libresco Sargeant

While some frame new restrictions on abortion as infringing on women’s rights and bodily autonomy, Sergeant said, her religion compels her to look at it from the point of view of the rights of unborn children.

Sargreant, who said her conversion to Catholicism led her to accept the church’s anti-abortion view, said she and Reliford have somewhat different interpretations of Catholic faith and what it does and doesn’t compel.

“The one guarantee is that we can’t both be right,” Sergeant said. “At least one of us is wrong and it’s possible we’re both in error. The goal is for us to both live fully in the truth and for our difference to be a spur, especially the more we like each other, and for us to kind of sift the difference and for one or both of us to live more fully in the truth.”

Politics forces us to confront differences about what is true in the world, Sargeant said, because it has the potential to give neighbors power over us.

“When my neighbor votes and when my neighbor disagrees with me out in the world, I can’t just say, ‘Well, they can raise their children however they want, everyone makes their own choice,’” Sergeant said. “They’re affecting my children. And when that goes badly, we have intense division, fear, hatred of each other.”

The best thing Americans can do is force varying claims to truth into civil discussion with each other, she said.

Other panelists, and Buchbinder as moderator, said their faith didn’t compel them to believe someone in a disagreement over how their faith leads them to see the world needs to necessarily be wrong.

Within Judaism, Friedman said, there are a variety of different views on abortion.


“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion
Maharat Ruth Friedman

While some in the more conservative wing of American Judaism celebrated last year’s Supreme Court decision, others say severely limiting or banning abortion creates its own religious conflict. Judaism prizes the life and health of the mother and therefore sometimes supports abortion in ways some governments may not.

On questions of differing interpretations that go to creating a moral framework for conversations like those around abortion, Friedman said, she believes religion should largely stay out of politics.

“I think in that case the religious community should have the humility to say, ‘What I believe may be true for me, but it’s not my place to impose that on anybody else,'” Friedman said.

“More important than ever” UNC Panel talks faith and abortion
Lauren W. Reliford

The larger problem with discussions of rights and abortion, Reliford said, is that it takes place too narrowly.

“Dobbs was an infringement on religious liberties, point blank, period,” Reliford said. “It’s taking a very narrow understanding of Christian thought and applying it to an entire country. To me that’s not right, it’s not acceptable.”

The same thinking that leads to that sort of decision prioritizes the life of unborn children but do not support systems that help families raise those children – including SNAP, Medicaid and

“A lot of people who say they are pro-life are not pro life course,” Reliford said. “They stop caring once the baby is there. They are actively doing things like cutting SNAP, like tryin to make it difficult to access Medicaid, making sure there are not family planning resources for women who know they have high risk pregnancies, to be sure they don’t have to deliver early.”