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Kate Bennion: Abortion ban violates religious freedom

Utah’s trigger law violates the rights of Jews, Muslims and even Latter-day Saints.

(Kaiti Sullivan | The New York Times) A service at the Lower Miami Church of the Brethren in Dayton, Ohio, June 26, 2022. The congregants, split roughly evenly between Black and white members, with a few Latino worshippers, were divided about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they still broke bread together.

On Friday the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Utah’s abortion ban, SB174, went into effect. This ban is part of a wave of similar “trigger laws” across the country that experts warn will negatively impact the health and well-being of anyone who can get pregnant. It is likely to result in criminalization of pregnancy loss, increase poverty, and cause unnecessary death and suffering.

Our state leadership seems unbothered by this, so let me speak instead to a value our conservative leaders do seem to care about: religious liberty.

SB174 subjects the entire state of Utah to our disproportionately LDS legislators’ own religious beliefs. By making abortion illegal without documented proof of reported rape or incest, fetal inviability or imminent death of the gestating parent, it enshrines a limited, narrow reading of the LDS handbook policy on abortion into law.

This is a theocratic move, a clear violation of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because different religions have different stances on when life begins, abortion restrictions are inherently religious ones.

SB174 directly violates the religious freedom of the Jewish community, for example, for whom abortion is permitted and sometimes even required.

It violates the religious rights of Muslims, who have varying interpretations on abortion; pro-choice Christians; and those who aren’t religious: freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion. Utah’s ban imposes the religious beliefs of a few on everyone in the state.

Even for Utah’s LDS residents, this ban is a violation — and an embarrassing, fundamental misrepresentation of core LDS principles. Though the ban attempts to subject Utahns to a strict interpretation of an ever-evolving handbook, there’s a larger LDS value at stake, a “divine law” Brigham Young said “has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come.” What is this law? “Every intelligent being must have the power of choice.”

In LDS theology, agency is the critical point of this life, God’s greatest gift, so important and urgent and cosmic an issue it sparked an all-out war in heaven – Christ Himself was willing to die to ensure everyone everywhere kept this gift. If I can’t make the decisions about my own body crucial to my life, health, safety, family, finances, well-being, even will to live, what “power of choice” do I actually have? With this ban, Utah’s leaders are playing the role traditionally ascribed to Satan: seeking to control others and take away their ability to make choices.

The ban’s supporters purport to “protect the unborn.” But if abortion truly was murder or “like unto it,” it would not be permissible in the LDS tradition even in cases of rape, incest or life or health risk — which is technically every pregnancy — and it is. These “exceptions” point not to the absolute evils of abortion, but instead to a larger belief: that individual circumstances matter, that existing life takes precedence over potential life, and to the necessity of being able to seek care based on circumstance, on need, and on personal revelation, even. Pregnant people must be able to respond to the changing situations of their own lives and determine for themselves and act on what is right for them to do according to their own beliefs, not those of their lawmakers.

It is my belief that pregnancy and the other ways people build their families can be holy acts of creation. As co-creators with God, we have a sacred right to decide when, how, and to what extent that creation takes place in our own bodies, including making the choice to postpone, cease, or forgo that life-changing, life-risking work and creative labor.

It is not a choice for the government to make. Our agency, our power of choice, and our religious rights, including the right to seek abortion care, must be protected by law. Anything else is a gross violation of both the Constitution and the gospel principles that many of Utah’s leaders profess to uphold.

Kate Bennion

Kate Bennion is a full-spectrum doula, writer and educator from Cache Valley.