"Right-to-life" spokespeople strenuously oppose the characterization of their movement as primarily religious, despite all the evidence (see Chapter 7) about the centrality of religious personnel and institutions in antiabortion organizing. Many liberal Catholics are sensitive to the charge that the antiabortion cause is led by the church hierarchy, or to the association of the "right-to-life" movement with the church, seeing behind it a veiled expression of anti-Catholic bigotry.20 In fact, the argument made again and again about the cross-denominational character of both antiabortion attitudes and antiabortion activism is valid. Yet the emphasis on interdenominationalism obscures the importance of religious symbolism in abortion politics, especially in regard to "fetal personhood." A pluralism of sects does not necessarily mean an absence of doctrinaire religious values and motifs inspiring that idea. It is not religion that is objectionable in "right-to-life" ideology but conservative, antihumanist religion, which contradicts its claim to rest on "science" and reveals its fundamentally narrow, sectarian character. An important part of the struggle for moral hegemony is that being waged within the major religious groups (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish), between their liberal and sometimes feminist tendencies and their orthodox or fundamentalist tendencies.
The religious doctrines underlying antiabortion ideology, taken as a related cluster, are more characteristic of fundamentalist and orthodox sects. These religious doctrines include (1) belief in the existence of an immortal soul; (2) belief that the soul is "implanted" in the fetus from the moment of conception; (3) belief in the doctrine of original sin or the innate sinfulness of human beings, who are "conceived in sin"; (4) belief therefore that souls "killed unbaptized" are lost to eternal salvation and that death before birth is an especially horrible "curse"; (5) belief in divine creation and in the fetus as the "bearer of God’s image"; and (6) belief in the doctrine of "stewardship," that human bodies belong neither to themselves nor to their parents nor to society, but to God, their creator, who alone has the right to kill the "innocent."21
While there is little theological content or consistency to the idea of fetal innocence,22 it is used continually by the antiabortion movement as a symbol to mobilize, not just moral outrage, but religious sentiment, in an attempt to justify an absolute prohibition against abortion. A polemical device that draws on religious signifiers, the notion of innocence constructs the view of abortion as murder and the fetus as helpless victim. It also implies that the fetus is an object of preference—holier, closer to God, than women and their families. Thus, the "absolutist" or "onedimensional" position of the Catholic church and the "right-to-life" movement on abortion "gives the fetus the overwhelming advantage," making conflicting concerns, such as the health or well-being of pregnant women, negligible.23 The church’s 1974 Declaration on Abortion, denying that even danger to a woman’s life is sufficient justification for abortion, makes this perfectly clear:
We do not deny these very great difficulties. It may be a serious question of health, sometimes of life or death, for the mother; it may be the burden represented by an additional child, especially if there are good reasons to fear that the child will be abnormal or retarded; it may be the importance attributed in different classes of society to considerations of honor or dishonor, of loss of social standing, and so forth. We proclaim only that none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another’s life, even when that life is only beginning.24
To a moral tradition that celebrates renunciation and turning away from the human world, the woman who dies in childbirth becomes the supreme "exemplar" of blessed motherhood and Christian "self-sacrifice."25
As represented in testimony in McRae, religious groups that tend to be more progressive, liberal, or humanist in their interpretation of Scripture take a different view of the fetus and the moral issues involved in abortion. Certain Baptist, Methodist, and Reformed Jewish groups, for example, stress some version of the idea of "responsible parenthood" as the ethical basis of abortion decision making, implying that in special circumstances abortion may be seen as a religious duty. These groups, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, hold unequivocally that the woman’s life, health, and well-being and her family’s welfare must take precedence over the survival of the fetus. According to one Baptist clergyman testifying in McRae: "It is for the people themselves to decide on the number of their children, because that is a value judgment. Conscience means moral awareness, and liberty of conscience means the exercise of one’s moral awareness. Abortion presents a matter for individual moral decision, in a matter of ultimate concern respecting bringing a life into the world." In the Reform Jewish view, "Abortion is mandated to preserve a woman’s health and is permitted in the interest of the wellbeing of the woman and her existing family. The position on abortion is seen as a part of the larger principle of choosing life, that is, life in this world, not in the next/’26 Liberal Catholic thinking, too, particularly the natural – law tradition represented in the ideas of Jacques Maritain, while indeed not condoning abortion, contains a humanistic concept of personhood that conflicts sharply with that of conventional "prolife" dogma. Religion, then, or religious sectarianism masquerading as "universal morality," cannot be summoned to settle the "abortion question."