The Satanic Temple claims that medication abortion is a religious right
In February 2023, The Satanic Temple (TST) opened a telehealth clinic that offers free screening, virtual appointments, and medication abortion prescriptions by mail for pregnant women seeking an abortion. Currently, TST offers these services only to patients in New Mexico, but it plans to expand into other states.
Over the past several years, TST has filed lawsuits in multiple states, including Texas, Indiana, and Idaho, directly challenging those state laws that restrict abortion. TST is an IRS-recognized religion that denies the authority of God and describes its mission to “encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits.”
This sympathetic veneer belies TST’s insidious repurposing of rhetoric. It cloaks the destruction of human life in elevated concepts of autonomy and individual rights. Exploiting people’s innate compassion, stirring confusion, and instigating destruction of ordered laws more accurately reflects TST’s true diabolical mission.
TST alleges that abortion restrictions in certain states interfere with the ability to obtain a medication abortion and argues that abortion is a protected religious right. Is there any merit to this argument?
The landscape for medication abortion is in flux
This is a complex legal area involving telehealth, abortion laws, and determining what actions fall under religious freedoms.
Estimates suggest that medication abortion accounts for 53 percent of all abortions. Medication abortion terminates a pregnancy by using two oral medications, mifepristone and misoprostol, within the first ten weeks of pregnancy.
Each state has its own telehealth requirements, such as whether clinicians can prescribe medication without a physical patient visit. Several states require in person visits if clinicians prescribe certain medications, including controlled substances or medications for the purpose of inducing an abortion. This is based on the potential chance for abuse relating to controlled substances and risks of these medications.
Medication abortion also must comply with each state’s abortion laws, which vary significantly. Several states (including New Mexico) permit abortion throughout the entire pregnancy, some states permitting abortion to only certain gestational ages, and other states restrict abortion. All states have exceptions if continuing the pregnancy would threaten the life or health of the pregnant woman.
In the coming months the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, which examines whether clinicians can provide medication abortion through telehealth or whether this requires an in person appointment. Originally, FDA required in-person appointments and dispensing to ensure the patient was properly screened and monitored for complications. Medication abortion is contraindicated for ectopic pregnancies, which occur in an estimated 2 percent of all pregnancies, and this condition requires in-person tests to diagnose. In January 2023, FDA removed the in-person dispensing requirement. This outcome of this case will directly impact whether TST and other clinics can provide medication abortion via telehealth.
The Satanic Temple’s legal claims
TST has alleged a variety of legal claims in states that restrict abortion, including arguing that unwanted pregnancy: constitutes involuntary servitude; constitutes a “taking” by the government of a woman’s property to use her uterus for other purposes; violates free exercise of religion; and violates state Religious Freedom Restoration laws. Currently, cases in Texas and Indiana have been unsuccessful based on procedural grounds; the Idaho case is still ongoing. No court has yet ruled on the merits of TST’s legal arguments.
Several other religious organizations have also stated that their religion affirms or supports the right of its members to obtain an abortion or provide abortions as a matter of religious liberty. Some physicians who perform abortions have referred to it as a “ministry,” or even a “mitzvah” (which translates to a commandment of Jewish law) based on their personal religious beliefs.
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Is the Satanic abortion ritual a protected religious right?
However, TST has extended this further by classifying the act of performing an abortion itself as a Satanic ritual – a rite of destruction that is required by the tenets of the belief system. TST’s website describes “the Satanic Abortion Ritual,” refers to the Satanic tenets that it supports, and provides directions for how to complete the ritual. This includes taking the prescriptions, looking into one’s reflection, and invoking a specific Satanic affirmation.
The substance of TST’s legal claims is closely intertwined with the tenets of Satanism – raw individualism, the denial of meaning, and maximum personal power. Pregnancy is no longer a gift or even a challenge. Instead, Satanism classifies the unborn as inconvenient interlopers or parasites that must be destroyed. This is not a benevolent theology, but a selfish and corrosive poison.
About half of states have Religious Freedom Restoration laws, which are designed to carve out exceptions or provide a defense where a law conflicts with a person’s sincerely held religious belief. Even if a court does accept TST’s classification of abortion as a Satanic ritual, this does not necessarily mean it must be legally recognized as a permissible exercise of religion or defense to violating state abortion laws.
Multiple cases have already tested the limits of religious arguments as a reason or defense after people commit crimes. When a man refused to pay his taxes on the basis that tax dollars support abortion and his religion prohibits abortion, he still was charged with criminal tax evasion. Similarly, using religion was not a valid defense when a mother beat her child with a coat hanger for “discipline,” because inflicting dozens of bruises on a child is still a criminal felony. Particularly on point are the multiple cases where people assert that using marijuana is a central part of their religion – even a sacrament – and they must be exempt from prosecution. Courts still say no. Courts reject these arguments because states have a compelling interest in collecting taxes, protecting children from abuse, and controlling illegal drugs.
States that restrict abortion also clearly articulate the reasoning behind their laws, even if public opinion remains deeply divided. These laws are structured to recognize a compelling interest in protecting human life, or, as Idaho describes, “a profound interest in preserving the life of preborn children.” Courts can – and should – reject attempts to dismantle and destroy laws that reflect clarity of purpose and a uniform system for regulating the practice of abortion in each state.
A version of this article was originally posted on Harvard Law Bill of Health.
Katherine Drabiak, JD is a Professor of health law, public health law, and medical ethics in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida.
Image: Edward Jenner on Pexels
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