A scholar of religion, gender and sexuality explains


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(THE CONVERSATION) The Catholic Church’s official line on abortion, and even on any artificial birth control, is well known: Don’t do it.

Surveys of how American Catholics live their lives, though, tell a different story.

The vast majority of Catholic women have used contraceptives, despite the church’s ban. Fifty-six percent of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, whether or not they believe they would ever seek one. One in four Americans who have had abortions are Catholic, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive health.

It’s a clear reminder of the complex relationship between any religious tradition’s teachings and how people actually live out their beliefs. With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that protects abortion rights nationwide, religious attitudes toward a woman’s right to end a pregnancy are in the spotlight. But even within one faith, there is no one religious position toward reproductive rights – let alone among different faiths.

Christianity and conscience

As a scholar of gender and religion, I research how religious traditions shape people’s understandings of contraception and abortion.

When it comes to official stances on abortion, religions’ positions are tied to different approaches to some key theological concepts. For instance, for several religions, a key issue in abortion rights is “ensoulment,” the moment at which the soul is believed to enter the body – that is, when a fetus becomes human.

The catch is that traditions place ensoulment at different moments and give it various degrees of importance. Catholic theologians place ensoulment at the moment of conception, which is why the official position of the Catholic Church is that abortion is never permitted. From the moment the sperm meets the egg, in Catholic theology, a human exists, and you cannot kill a human, regardless of how it came to exist. Nor can you choose between two human lives, which is why the church opposes aborting a fetus to save the life of the pregnant person.

As in any faith, not all Catholics feel compelled to follow the church teachings in all cases. And regardless of whether someone thinks they would ever seek an abortion, they may believe it should be a legal right. Fifty-seven percent of U.S. Catholics say abortion is morally wrong, but 68% still support Roe v. Wade, while only 14% believe that abortion should never be legal.

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