The presidential candidate’s comments at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday challenged the moral monopoly that conservative religious voices have long claimed to have on the abortion debate.
“If you are a person of the Christian faith, one of the tenets of our faith is free will,” Gillibrand said at a press conference. “One of the tenets of our democracy is that we have a separation of church and state, and under no circumstances are we supposed to be imposing our faith on other people. And I think this is an example of that effort,” CBS quoted her as saying at a press conference.
Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have all recently passed so-called “heartbeat” bills, which effectively ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. This week, Alabama adopted a law that makes performing abortions at any stage of pregnancy a felony offense ― even in cases where the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape. The near-total ban is now the strictest abortion law in the United States.
The slate of bills in Republican-controlled states across the country are ultimately aimed at bringing the issue before the Supreme Court, experts say, and potentially chipping away at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.
Gillibrand has pledged that if elected president, she would only nominate judges who are committed to upholding Roe v. Wade. On Thursday, she also promised to make sure women in every state have access to reproductive health care and to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president of the reproductive rights group Catholics for Choice, said Catholic teaching is “crystal clear on the reverence for individual conscience as the first and final arbiter for any moral decision.”
Ratcliffe believes many Catholics support a woman’s ability to make her own decisions about reproductive health because “we know her conscience must guide her to make the best decision for herself and her family in light of her own circumstances and beliefs.”
These progressive Catholic views on abortion reflect a growing fissure between the Catholic hierarchy and lay Catholics. While Catholic bishops have adamantly spoken out against both abortion and artificial contraception, studies show that Catholics in the pews have reached different conclusions.
Catholics are largely divided about Roe v. Wade, according to a 2018 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, with 48% agreeing that it was decided correctly by the Supreme Court and should be upheld, and 40% saying it was the wrong decision and should be overturned.
Most white Catholics (64 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) told PRRI they are opposed to laws that would prevent health care providers who receive federal funding from discussing abortion with their patients.
In practice, American Catholics procure abortions at about the same rate as American women overall, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute.
“Right now, entirely too much of the conversation about women and what we can do with our own bodies is being driven by a group of right-wing male politicians,” Gillibrand said. “It’s time for that conversation to be led by the actual experts ― women and their doctors.”
This article has been updated with comment from Catholics for Choice