Congress, Abortion, and the Separation of Church and State

The abortion debate is, at heart, a debate over church-state separation.

Take Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL). Responding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ urgings for immigration reform, Lipinski, a Roman Catholic, said last month that he listens to the arguments of bishops and priests in his district, but he considers their opinions on immigration to be less binding than on other matters. “There are some issues that the church speaks authoritatively on, such as abortion, in protecting life,” Lipinski told the New York Times. As for national immigration policy, “There are prudential judgments that are made, informed by Catholic theology, but it’s not something that Catholics are required to follow.” On immigration, the bishops in his district merely “inform.” On abortion, those bishops speak “authoritatively,” and he is “required to follow.”

Lipinski sees nothing wrong in exploiting a public office by enshrining his understanding of his faith. And he is not the first to do so. During the Affordable Care Act (ACA) debates of 2010, former Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI) eventually supported the bill—but only after his parish priest’s reassurance that a vote for the measure would not jeopardize his place in the hereafter: “I will be 81 years old in September. Certainly at this point in my life, I’m not going to change my mind and support abortion, and I’m not going to risk my eternal salvation,” he told the Times. His personal stake secured, Kildee voted in favor of the bill.

Former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) voted against the ACA, despite the urgings of nuns and other Catholics. Stupak said on Hardball, “With all due respect to the nuns, when I deal or am working on right-to-life issues, we don’t call the nuns. I mean, we deal with right-to-life. We deal with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.” When it came to regulating women’s health, Stupak gave his bishops final say.

As a rabbi, I feel as strongly as any religious leader about my faith and national policy. But in contrast to the bishops and others, clergy from many different denominations uphold the morality in protecting women as they make decisions about their bodies and their health, in consultation with their doctors and anyone else to whom they decide to speak—loved ones, trusted friends, counselors, or clergy. We believe that, once a woman decides, she should be able to get the medical care she believes is right for her. Judaism, along with other faiths, affirms that a woman’s pregnancy has a moral standing, but her moral standing and her ability to come to an informed conclusion holds higher ground. What’s more, as a pastor, I can say that women approach this decision seriously—as seriously as you or I might approach any significant decision. What is more, I know that when a woman is convinced that her pregnancy is not right for her, she will do whatever she needs to do to end it, and no sermon will convince her otherwise. So there is great wisdom in respecting her decision, and ensuring that abortion stays legal and women get safe care.

We religious people disagree about all kinds of things, including God, the Bible, and public policy. Like everybody else, we have a right to “inform” the public, but none of us speaks so “authoritatively” that policymakers must automatically honor our demands. Rather, in a land where religion and faith are separate, as they should be, Congress must not play religious favorites by elevating the teachings of any one faith—in this case, the most restrictive, or their own—above the teachings or conscience of others. Instead, policymakers are to establish an atmosphere that allows competing and conflicting religious interpretations to stand side-by-side, to protect men and women as they honor faith and conscience, determine the course of their lives, and plan their families. What is more, as Lipinski, Kildee, and Stupak must know, their bishops do not represent their faithful: Catholic women rely on birth control and legal abortion in roughly the same proportions as everyone else.

The debate about abortion is really a debate about the relationship between religion and government. Abortion opponents are open about their intentions to trample church-state boundaries. It would be wise to take their threats at face value and recognize that they have sway. It would be equally wise to protect women as they come to their own conclusions and receive medical care.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • Plum Dumpling

    Well said. Excellently written. Thank you.

  • fiona64

    I couldn’t agree more, Rabbi. Thank you.

  • Irwin Goldenberg

    Excellent! Thank you.

  • waterjoe

    So a person’s religious beliefs should not translate into support for SNAP, immigration reform, or GLBT rights. Was MLK Jr. wrong in appealing to religion?

    And what about the atheists who oppose abortion rights, like Nat Hentoff?

    • HeilMary1

      Such misogynist atheists then oppose medical self-defense by women. We also don’t indulge pedophile priests in their crimes even though they claim their Roman collars give them super powers from the Constitution to exploit all women as throwaway incubators.

      • RethinkThePink

        Seems there are an awful lot of those lately. Pathetic.

    • RethinkThePink

      What is Nat’s rationale for it?

    • Guest

      Gosh. I don’t Roman Catholic SNAP supporters screaming at congressmen or blocking their access to their workplace. And I don’t them see terrorizing and killing politicians like they do to to those who work at women’s clinics. Support is one thing. Lock step terrorizing and tyranny is another. No MLK was not wrong. You are.

    • DoubleDogDiogenes

      Gosh. I don’t see Roman Catholic SNAP supporters screaming at congressmen or blocking their access to their workplace. I don’t see them calling libertarians baby killers and throwing plastic children at them. And I don’t them see terrorizing and killing politicians like they do to to those who work at women’s clinics. Support is one thing. Lock step terrorizing and tyranny is another. No MLK was not wrong. You are.

      • phillip howel

        Is this your example of sarcasm? Who does this: “And I don’t them see terrorizing and killing politicians like they do to to those who work at women’s clinics.”

  • gabesgrandma1939

    If a legislator’s reason for voting a certain way is because of his or her religious beliefs than that is a conflict of interest and he or she should recuse themselves.

  • nettwench14

    Well said. Unfortunately, the Catholic Bishops only care about their own agenda, which is even further proved by the fact that it is the sisters, not the bishops, who actually work with real people and understand their lives. Yet the bishops are the last word. Appalling.

    • phillip howel

      If the bishops were not running the organization that provides the money and support for the nuns there would be NO nuns to help those who are harmed by abortion: the women who suffer, who weep for their child, the child they cannot hold.

    • neil allen

      The Catholic “agenda” is to show people how to get away with organized child rape, and most of us (especially us ex-catholics) are disgusted by them.

  • RethinkThePink

    In our pluralistic society, when there is a great divide on issues involving civil liberties, we always side with the individual. This is the concept we have to stress in the abortion debate.

  • Daniel Kalban

    Thank you, Rabbi, for standing up for a woman’s right to choose.

    That’s the great thing about being Jewish; we’re way more flexible and accepting.

    • PictishMonster

      And self-congratulatory, the puppy asked sweetly? :-)

  • phillip howel

    Rabbi there is well established medical science that tells us a “new, distinct human being exists” at the moment a sperm joins with the egg; that this new human has it’s own unique DNA, gender is set as are it’s eye and hair color. That Rabbi is proven medical science…. The consensus is the vast majority of American people do not want abortion after 20 weeks, most Americans want limits on earlier term abortions. I suggest sir you speak with people at a pregnancy support center to learn the truth of science. Talk to your friends who are Catholic clergy and learn about the emotional harm that church helps women to cope with or read the studies published in major medical journals to learn of the significant increase of suicide of women post-abortion. I trust you became a Rabbi because you are willing to serve people. Knowledge beyond your books and opinion will help you to serve those who are wounded spiritually by abortion.

  • neil allen

    The Catholic church did manage to dictate policy as they were getting away with rampant, organized child rape for decades. Only those who support child rape are listening to them now.