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Religion and Reproductive Freedom
An Introduction to the Issues
from the Interfaith Working Group


Issues in Human Reproduction

The government, religious bodies and the medical community are all involved in the many facets of human reproduction: sex education, birth control, technologically-assisted conception, marriage, adoption, and abortion.

Religious Concerns

Human reproduction is a contentious subject among people of faith, touching on fundamental beliefs, including: the nature of gender, the meaning and purpose of life, definitions of marriage/family, the role of humans on earth, gender roles, the purpose of sex, risks and rewards of knowledge, scriptural interpretation, and women's autonomy.

Government Concerns

The government must preserve citizens' rights, make rulings when individuals' rights conflict, provide education, ensure adherence to medical safety procedures, prevent disease spread, assure that children are cared for, and document lines of descent to determine inheritance and responsibility for care.

Sex Education

Options for state-provided sex-education include teaching students about sexual abstinence only, teaching that abstinence until marriage is preferred above all else, and giving a comprehensive overview that includes various contraceptive methods and information about sexually transmitted diseases. Many still think there should be no state-provided sex-education of any kind, and there is also extensive debate about the age-appropriateness of some materials among people who do want some kind of publicly funded sex-education.

Abstinence-only education teaches only that sexual activity is bad for students. An abstinence-until-marriage curriculum assumes that all students want to be part of a mixed-gender marriage, and teaches that they should abstain from sexual activity until then. Comprehensive sex education ideally covers every possible subject that will help students make informed choices.

From a religious standpoint, which version (if any) to support, and what specifically to teach within that version will depend on one's beliefs about other reproductive topics. The religious view of knowledge will also be important (neutral, viewing knowledge as a gift, or viewing knowledge--especially about sexual issues--as a bad thing).

The government's interest is in providing a comprehensive education for all students without advocating for any particular religion -- a very difficult a task.

Birth Control Availability

Some believe contraceptives should be available at cost to those who can afford them, available to legal adults who cannot, and/or available to students through public schools. Some religious traditions, based on their view of reproduction, oppose birth control availability for everyone. There are religious traditions that oppose women's autonomy, and as such, are especially opposed to contraceptives for women. Some who oppose sex outside of marriage believe that distribution of condoms in schools encourages adolescent sexual activity. Those who oppose abortion but not birth control often favor condom distribution to reduce pregnancies. The government is interested in preventing the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and children who are wards of the state or supported by state funds.

Technologically-Assisted Conception

Like birth control, the question in technologically-assisted conception is who (if anyone) can access it, what methods are available, and who pays. Most religious traditions have no issues with this, but some feel that conception is God's purview only.

Cloning

Human cloning has rapidly become an issue of much debate, and raises many issues, including guaranteeing human bio-diversity, that are very different from other reproduction issues. The primary medical debate has been over high risks associated with the procedure. Religious groups that believe that a soul enters the body at conception are disturbed by a procedure in which there is no conception per se. For a variety of reasons, most religious groups oppose human cloning,

Adoption

While everyone seems to agree that adoption is good, state and religious institutions may disagree about who may adopt. The government must see to the safety and welfare of state wards. Some religious institutions, however, feel that certain behaviors, attitudes or beliefs disqualify an individual from being a fit parent, or that some family structures are not acceptable. They may oppose policies that allow certain types of adoptions.

Marriage

While marriage is not legally directly related to reproduction, in some religious traditions marriage and reproduction are very closely tied or inseparable. These beliefs, coupled with other beliefs about who is permitted to marry, can lead to religious institutions insisting on limitations on civil marriage which are inconsistent both with the responsibilities of the state to treat all people equally under the law, and with definitions that other religious traditions may have for marriage and family.

Abortion

Abortion is one of the most contentious and violence-inspiring issues in the ountry. The state’s legal interest in a person begins with the issuing of a birth certificate and has not historically included an interest in fetuses. However, prior to Roe v. Wade states could and did outlaw abortion. Under Roe v. Wade, they are permitted to increasingly weigh the fetus' rights against the mother's rights as the fetus approaches viability, but the mother's health is still paramount.

Weighing the rights of a potential legally-recognized human living inside another legally-recognized human is not easy; as with other reproduction issues, religious opinion is varied, but three common positions are: outright support for a woman's right to choose an abortion; discouragement of abortion combined with recognition of the social necessity of keeping it legal; and objection to abortion and its continued availability/legality. The autonomy of women, existence of a soul and the time at which it enters the body, historical understanding of the fetus, and the necessity of procreation are major areas of disagreement.

The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot outlaw abortion, but attempts have been made to prevent government funds from going to abortion providers. Some states heavily regulate facilities where abortions are performed, require parental consent, require waiting periods to discourage abortions, provide state funding for anti-abortion activist groups and/or outlaw travel across state lines for the purpose of getting an abortion. These measures, plus violence and threats of violence against abortion providers, have resulted in fewer abortion clinics. Women pursuing abortions must make long and repeated trips to clinics, a particular hardship for young and poor women. The availability and regulation of pharmacological (drug-induced) abortions is still a matter of legal debate.

Church/State Separation

The Government cannot possibly accommodate all religious beliefs concerning human reproduction, or take a broad interest in preventing or enforcing reproduction without violating Constitutional guarantees of individual liberty. Without infringing upon the government's limited interest, Americans should be able to reproduce or not reproduce, to marry or not marry, to adopt or not adopt as they see fit, and to have access to the knowledge, tools, and medical procedures that make those choices possible, leaving religious organizations to teach their members about the limitations to which they would like them to adhere.

Further Reading

Visit our reproductive freedom links section.


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