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Vice Abbess Ven Sobhana Theri, left, and nuns Samaneri Saddha Jivi and Samaneri Satima pray and chant in the outdoor Sala at Dhammadharini Monastery near Penngrove on Friday, July 22, 2022. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

In North Bay, religious affiliation doesn’t always come with anti-abortion stance

On the question of abortion, the overarching answer for many religious communities is that there is no single answer.

In Islam, while schools of thought establish different thresholds for when and why a pregnancy can be terminated, the life of the pregnant person is generally prioritized.

The same is true in Judaism, which considers a fetus as always secondary, though there is contemporary debate about what health risks warrant abortion and the role bodily autonomy plays in that decision.

Samaneri Satima, foreground, and Samaneri Saddha Jivi meditate in the outdoor Sala at Dhammadharini Monastery near Penngrove on Friday, July 22, 2022.  (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Samaneri Satima, foreground, and Samaneri Saddha Jivi meditate in the outdoor Sala at Dhammadharini Monastery near Penngrove on Friday, July 22, 2022. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

The Buddhist precept not to kill extends to a fetus — but there is room for individual circumstances, personal choice and making amends if the need for an abortion arises.

And similarly in Hinduism, there is no single directive for any practitioner beyond the tenets of valuing life, respecting logic and making the best decision for oneself and one’s community.

Many North Bay religious leaders watching the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade say the perspectives of their communities have not been taken into account in a political conversation they see as dominated by the interests of evangelical Christians and Catholics.

While predominantly Catholic and progressive, the North Bay contains significant contingents of both anti-abortion advocates and non-Christian communities.

Though there has not been an official tally of local religious populations in over a decade, practicing Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other religious minorities altogether number in the thousands.

And their leaders fear their religious freedoms might be threatened if abortion is restricted.

“You can’t say (banning abortions) is religious right when you’re thereby taking the religious right away from another religion,” said Donna Waldman, director of Santa Rosa’s Jewish Free Clinic, which does not provide reproductive health care like abortions but offers other services for the uninsured. “My religion absolutely says you have to honor the life of the woman before the life of the unborn baby.”

Karma an ‘individual’ path

“The questions itself, the premise — what is the faith perspective on this topic — I believe is more a Western take on this concept,” said Sidharth Kaw, a committee member of the North Bay Hindu Center.

Sidharth Kaw, a committee member of the North Bay Hindu Center, meditates at his home office in Novato. Wednesday, July 13, 2022.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022
Sidharth Kaw, a committee member of the North Bay Hindu Center, meditates at his home office in Novato. Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022

“It basically doesn't dictate what an individual should or shouldn't do when it comes to their body or their personal decisions,” added Jayashree Ayyar, secretary of the center, in an email. “Hinduism doesn't even mandate that there is a specific way to worship God, it offers options even for atheists.”

While there are varying scholastic positions among Hindus on when life begins, center director Radhika Sitaraman said, “Religion does not influence personal decisions. Family beliefs, superstitions and societal influences may have an impact, but religion, per se, does not mandate anything.”

Hindus have a reverence for life, and actions are therefore guided by what causes the minimal amount of harm. But, Kaw added, Hindus simultaneously have a deep respect for logic, or the law of Karma, which takes into account all life circumstances.

“Karma determines the path forward, but it is determined by individual circumstances. And, regardless of what, why, or how an action occurs, it is theirs to take, and there is always a path forward for that individual.” Sidharth Kaw

For Sitaraman, these values lead her to support access to abortion, especially in cases of incest, rape, abuse and medical risk. Many in her community agree, she said.

“I actually believe it is a better choice rather than bringing that child into the world and making it suffer,” she said.

In Buddhism, the precept to preserve life is paramount, said Ven Sobhana Theri, Vice Abbess at Dhammadharini Monastery in Penngrove. Because abortion is considered killing, nuns are prohibited from advising anyone to terminate a pregnancy, based on 2,600-year-old directives in the Patimokkha, or Buddhist monastic code.

Still, their tradition acknowledges “there are many other circumstances where the moral choices are not that black and white,” Theri added.

Vice Abbess Ven Sobhana Theri, left, and nuns Samaneri Saddha Jivi and Samaneri Satima pray in the outdoor Sala at Dhammadharini Monastery near Penngrove on Friday, July 22, 2022.  (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Vice Abbess Ven Sobhana Theri, left, and nuns Samaneri Saddha Jivi and Samaneri Satima pray in the outdoor Sala at Dhammadharini Monastery near Penngrove on Friday, July 22, 2022. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

“In one way, we are more absolute in protecting the entire spectrum of life, including the planet, the insects, being anti-war, anti-capital punishment,” Theri said. “At another level, we know that sometimes killing happens, and our attitude is more compassionate and forgiving toward someone that has done killing.”

The choice is up to the individual based on their context, as well as their conscience. All Theri advises is that someone who gets an abortion moving forward “should try to actively do things that are protecting life.”

Hurma and pikuach nefesh

The question of religious perspectives on abortion is more direct in the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Judaism — though the answers to that question, like in Hinduism, are similarly abundant.

To Sameh Hussein, director and coordinator of the Islamic Society of Santa Rosa, abortion is a “very, very serious subject, because it has to do with the lives of two people — the mother and the baby.”

“I can tell you that the vast majority of Muslims in general, men and women, if a pregnancy happens, they look at it in a very sacred way, they look at it as a human being and it must be protected.” Sameh Hussein

In the mainstream Islamic interpretation, Hussein said, a person can terminate a pregnancy before 40 days for “any legitimate reason,” which includes if the pregnancy or birth will cause major hardship. After 40 days, and before 120 days, a pregnancy can be terminated if it risks causing major health concerns to the carrier or the fetus.

At 120 days, Hussein said, “God sends an angel to blow the soul into that baby. So he becomes a human being, or human-being like at that point, and his or her life would have to be protected in every way.” This means that after that time, the pregnancy can only be terminated if it represents a significant danger to the pregnant person’s health.

“I can tell you that the vast majority of Muslims in general, men and women, if a pregnancy happens, they look at it in a very sacred way, they look at it as a human being and it must be protected.” But, Hussein added, “There is big scholarly debate about this. And you have different school of thoughts, too.”

In some Islamic schools, abortion is banned altogether, as is contraception; others take an even more liberal approach to the issue than Hussein described.

HEART Co-Executive Director Aliza Kazmi (Photo by Wajiha Ibrahim, courtesy of HEART)
HEART Co-Executive Director Aliza Kazmi (Photo by Wajiha Ibrahim, courtesy of HEART)

East Bay resident Aliza Kazmi, co-executive director of HEART Women and Girls, a Muslim-focused reproductive justice organization, agreed that there is little consensus on issues like abortion in Islamic tradition. However, she added, Muslims in the U.S. largely support some form of access. A 2022 poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found the majority of American Muslims — 56% — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

In HEART’s education and outreach efforts, the group relies on Islamic scholarship from women and others outside the mainstream, Kazmi said, like Zahra Ayubi, a religion professor at Dartmouth College who calls Islam “on the side of mercy” when it comes to abortion.

“As an anti-harm and public health organization, we also want to bring, in addition to the scholarship itself … people’s lived experiences,” Kazmi said. She referred to the Islamic concept of hurma, or the sacred inviolability of the human body. “We have to do our best, using our free will and our judgment of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s best for our health. I have a responsibility over my body, and my body is sacred.”

Current and past scholars of Judaism agree that if the pregnancy threatens the carrier’s life, it is not just allowed, but required, to terminate it.

“All streams of Judaism see abortion as an obligation to be provided to women when their life is at risk,” said Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah, a Santa Rosa Reform synagogue. “All of us — from the most liberal to the most conservative.”

Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Calif., poses for a portrait on March 21, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Calif., poses for a portrait on March 21, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

The same 2022 poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found 75% of Jewish Americans stated that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the highest proportion of all faith groups surveyed.

The core Halachic mandate of “pikuach nefesh,” or preserving a human life over almost all else, means “it’s an obligation, it’s a mitzvah, it’s a commandment to save the life of the mother,” Gittleman said.

This is because, according to many interpretations, a fetus is not considered a human being. This notion is sourced in several places throughout the Torah and Talmud, including the Book of Exodus, which makes a distinction between the punishment for murder and the punishment for causing a miscarriage.

“When a human life is lost, the penalty is capital punishment,” Gittleman said. “But when a fetus is lost, it’s a monetary compensation.”

At times, the Talmud compares an embryo to water; at others, a fetus is considered a part of the woman’s body. But the Talmud “says unequivocally when the life of the mother is at risk, you can extract a fetus from the womb of the mother limb by limb,” Gittleman added.

Rabbi George Gittleman leads the congregation in song during the Passover Seder at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Calif., on March 27, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Rabbi George Gittleman leads the congregation in song during the Passover Seder at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Calif., on March 27, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

In Judaism and all faiths, a more Orthodox contingent may take a harder line approach in limiting the permissibility of abortion.

“The discourse becomes more complicated as Jewish tradition evolves, but it never leaves that traditional basis,” Gittleman said. “In some communities, a threat to the mother’s life would include mental health. In others, it does not. For me and for most of … the non-Orthodox movement, in the end, one’s right to autonomy trumps inherited tradition. The text may limit protecting the life of the mother, but we don’t. We graft on the right of personal autonomy to the Jewish tree.”

'Our religious rights are being infringed’

Though the range of opinions on abortion is wide within and among local faith groups, local leaders all agreed that restrictions on reproductive rights nationwide undermine religious diversity in this country.

“If you’re asking if our faith is being represented, no, it’s not. In my humble opinion, the (Roe v. Wade) decision is influenced largely by Evangelical beliefs and does not necessarily represent those of other faiths.” Radhika Sitaraman, President of North Bay Hindu Center

Their concerns echoed an amicus brief filed last year in Supreme Court by more than 45 faith-based organizations spanning the religious spectrum, who argued that abortion bans infringe on their freedoms and “the diversity of views within and across religious traditions.” The black-and-white rules, both the brief and locals stated, leave no room for the context and debate that is central to many communities’ religious practice.

“Rather than keep that decision at the level of the individual, what essentially they’re doing is giving authority to the state in the guise of states’ rights to restrict that choice,” said Kaw. “Whether you believe it is right or wrong is irrelevant because what’s happening now is taking the choice away from the individual.”

Though abortion is considered a kind of killing in Buddhism, members of the monastic community are uncomfortable with the anti-abortion movement. Despite its “pro-life” moniker, Theri said, “It appears they’re rooted in creating political divisions and disharmony and disregarding the welfare and the happiness of the parents.”

“We feel we are truly pro-life, but not in that punitive and adversarial style,” Theri said. “The thought that somebody who is involved in an abortion or facilitating and abortion will be put in jail, that would not be our approach at all.”

Anti-abortion advocates and legislators upheld the beliefs of small parts of few religious communities, leaders agreed, at the expense of others.

Radhika Sitaraman, President of North Bay Hindu Center (Courtesy NBHC)
Radhika Sitaraman, President of North Bay Hindu Center (Courtesy NBHC)

“If you’re asking if our faith is being represented, no, it’s not,” said Sitaraman. “In my humble opinion, the decision is influenced largely by Evangelical beliefs and does not necessarily represent those of other faiths.”

Four out of five white Evangelicals believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, the ISPU poll found, more likely than all other groups surveyed.

“When you understand that abortion is obligated to Jewish society, you see that our religious rights are being infringed from a religious legal perspective,” Gittleman said.

Hussein agreed, saying, “From a religious point of view, I would feel that my religious rights were violated if my wife couldn’t get an abortion and her life was at risk.”

This is why it particularly offensive that political anti-abortion fervor has commonly been dubbed “Christian Sharia” in a crude reference to Islamic law, Kazmi said.

“What’s really problematic about that is it’s Islamophobia, and it detracts from the accountability of who is making these decisions … who are using a very narrow definition of Christianity to pass their political agenda,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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