The Satanic Temple took the state of Missouri to court on Tuesday on the grounds that its abortion law is in violation of constitutionally protected religious freedoms—but it’s also taking a stand on behalf of science. The Temple’s stance is that we have a duty to act according to the best scientific knowledge available, and that any law claiming life begins at conception is not based in such knowledge.
“The Temple’s beliefs conform to the best scientific understanding of the world, and our laws should reflect the best scientific understanding of the world,” Jex Blackmore, a spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, told Newsweek on the day of the hearing. “When the state says you have to acknowledge that life begins at conception, where you’re basically put in a time out to do so, that’s not science, it’s not a medicine, it’s religious and philosophical in nature and a violation of constitutional law.”
In 2015, a Greene County, Missouri, resident identified by the pseudonym Mary Doe sought a first-term abortion. She knew the state’s informed consent laws would require her to read a booklet claiming human life begins at conception and abortion terminated “the life of a separate, unique, living human being.” So she arrived prepared with a letter explaining her belief in the religious principles of The Satanic Temple, which do not hold that life begins at conception. Per court documents:
Specifically, her letter advised she has deeply held religious beliefs that a non-viable fetus is not a separate human being but is part of her body and that abortion of a non-viable fetus does not terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being. Her letter further absolved the doctors of their responsibility to deliver the booklet to her or to wait 72 hours before performing her abortion, advising them she voluntarily, freely and without coercion was choosing to have the abortion that day. The clinic, however, refused her request.
Doe was instead made to acknowledge her receipt of the literature and not granted the abortion until after the state’s mandatory 72-hour cooling-off period. She was forced to undergo an ultrasound, during which it was suggested she listen to the fetus’ heartbeat.
“I believe she said no,” Blackmore said. “And that’s part of our argument, you shouldn’t be forced into a situation where you’re subjected to shame and guilt for your beliefs.”
The case is the first of its kind, and raises a number of issues at the intersection of healthcare and religious freedom, including whether the state of Missouri is allowed to take a position on when life begins.
Despite the politicization around abortion, the scientific community still doesn’t completely know when life begins. Some believe it begins at fertilization. Some believe it begins with the development of the spine or the brain.
Roe v. Wade holds that life begins once the fetus is viable outside of the womb, but that’s not a clear-cut stage of development either. At 23 or 24 weeks, some babies born prematurely might survive; others might not. Doctors confirm the fetus’ existence by finding its heartbeat, which can be found just three weeks after conception, according to the non-profit Endowment for Human Development. Doe was only a few weeks pregnant when she sought her abortion.
The Satanic Temple is a non-theistic international religious organization that favors strict separation between church and state. It’s dedicated to the promotion of Satanic rituals and rights, but it’s adherents don’t necessarily promote or even believe in evil; just that “undue suffering is bad, and that which reduces suffering is good.” Worshippers believe that the body is inviolable, belonging to just one will alone.