The new Texas law that bans most abortions in the state has been welcomed by many of the religious leaders who help bolster the anti-abortion movement. Yet some abortion opponents in U.S. religious circles are wary of the law and questioning the movement’s current direction.
The wariness relates in part to the law’s most novel feature, which some critics view as an invitation to vigilantes: It provides no enforcement role for public officials and instead authorizes private residents to sue anyone they deem to be assisting in an abortion, with the prospect of gaining $10,000 in the process.
The law “has serious downsides” and conveys that anti-abortion activists are willing to engage in “desperate and extremist tactics,” said Charles Camosy, an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University who favors tougher nationwide restrictions on abortion.
“Because it appears to be playing legal games to get around rulings of federal courts, the law feeds the false narrative that pro-lifers don’t have public opinion on our side,” Camosy, a Catholic, said via email.
The law, Senate Bill 8, prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks. It was assailed in a recent column in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent online news outlet, by one of its senior reporters, Michael Sean Winters.
“I fear greatly that the premature implementation of this truly strange law will turn out to be the historic beginning of a backlash against the pro-life movement for which it is ill-prepared,” Winters wrote.
He said the law’s provisions encourage “a kind of vigilante justice we had all thought consigned to old Western movies” and warned that its implementation would likely prompt some women to resort to illegal and potentially risky abortions.
“I am as pro-life as pro-life can be, but I detest the pro-life movement, for its short-sightedness, for its moral myopia, for its viciousness,” Winters wrote. “The pro-choice movement is now energized in a way it has not been for years.”
Amid the furor over SB 8, the Catholic bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, John Stowe, issued a broader critique of some elements of the anti-abortion movement, suggesting they pursued their cause while neglecting other pressing social issues.
“Those who vehemently fight legal abortion but are uninterested in providing basic health care for pregnant mothers or needy children, who are unconcerned about refugee children or those lacking quality education with no hope of escaping poverty cannot really claim to respect life,” Stowe tweeted.
Among staunch supporters of the Texas law, there’s a degree of disdain for abortion opponents who depict the measure as a strategic mistake.
“The pro-lifers who oppose Texas SB 8 play to lose – or rather they play the part of controlled opposition, paying lip service to the unborn, but not actually acting like real lives are at stake every single day,” said Chad Pecknold, associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America.
“Whatever happens to Texas SB 8, it will long be remembered as the moment when pro-lifers started playing to win,” Pecknold added via email.
Implementation of the law has elated many top faith leaders in Texas and other states who’ve been campaigning against abortion over the years, including many of John Stowe’s fellow bishops.
“We celebrate every life saved by this legislation,” said the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which represents the 20 bishops serving the state.
“Abortion does not help women,” the bishops said. “Abortion is never the answer. It is always the violent taking of innocent human life.”
The statement was lauded by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Naumann acknowledged that the law has sparked controversy but criticized President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “responding with radical pledges” to block it and other tough anti-abortion measures.
Like Naumann, some prominent Southern Baptist pastors in Texas welcomed the law while noting its contentious aspects.
“I do believe it’s legitimate to ask if we really want third parties to be able to financially profit from reporting the crimes of others,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas megachurch.
“Overall,” Jeffress said via email, “I’m very supportive of and grateful for this strong affirmation of the value of life by our Texas lawmakers.”
Phillip Bethancourt, formerly a senior public policy official with the Southern Baptist Convention and now lead pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas, said there’s debate about whether the law “is ultimately good or bad.”
“But there’s one community that will be universally thankful for it: those pre-born children for whom this law will mean life instead of death,” he said via email. “We need to see more legislation and not less around the country that does everything it can to protect life.”
Another Baptist pastor, John Elkins with Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria, Texas, said he welcomes the law while wishing it would ban abortion altogether. He hopes congregation members who share his outlook will find ways to assist unwed mothers in their community.
Michael New, an abortion opponent who teaches social research at Catholic University, called the law “unconventional” and predicted it would face multiple legal challenges. Already, it has been targeted by lawsuits from abortion providers and from the U.S. Justice Department.
Nonetheless, New said he was pleased that SB 8 has taken effect.
“Pro-lifers have identified a strategy that, at least in the short term, has succeeded in providing legal protection to thousands of unborn children,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, SB 8 has been assailed by clergy from faith groups that support abortion rights. Among the plaintiffs in a July lawsuit challenging the law is the Rev. Daniel Kanter, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas and a past chairman of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board.
The Jewish Council of Public Affairs, which represents more than 140 national and local Jewish organizations, condemned SB 8 and other anti-abortion restrictions as “dangerous measures” that should be thwarted by federal legislation.