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I recently returned from visiting a theocracy where, until 1996, at least 30,000 girls as young as eleven were condemned to a lifetime of slave labor in religious institutions for the crime of being unmarried and pregnant, a rape victim, or an orphan. I stood before one of these gulags, a stone building with crosses atop wrought iron fences, where malnourished girls labored 70-100 hours a week and were severely beaten if they dared to speak.

I visited a town where in 2012 a young dentist died in a hospital from a miscarriage when her request for a common life-saving procedure was denied. “We are Hindus, and our religion allows the procedure,” the couple pleaded. “Your religion doesn’t matter,” doctors said. “Our religion forbids the procedure as long as there is a fetal heartbeat.”

Two years later in that same city, bones of 800 babies were found in a pit; the babies died of malnutrition because religious caretakers deliberately limited the time mothers could nurse, causing these babies to scream from hunger pains all night while their imprisoned mothers could hear them but not reach them, thus ensuring a mortality rate of about 50%. (Redmond, The Adoption Machine).

In the capital city, I discovered a small plaque commemorating another type of church-operated institution with the names of little boys who died from beatings or suicide, following what one survivor described as “daily” sexual abuse. I grieved for all the victims of this theocracy including my great-grandmother, who was taken from her parents at age five and subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse for ten years before she managed to escape. Although the majority of victims are now forgotten, many in unmarked mass graves, the soul-crushing cruelty of that theocracy left a dark legacy, affecting many generations.

This 4th of July I did not celebrate Independence, although I had two ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. I celebrated our founding fathers who understood the importance of separating church and state. I remembered ancestors imprisoned and murdered by men intent on doing God’s work and empowered by the unity of church and state: Women burned at the stake in 15th century Europe; Huguenots slaughtered during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 16th century Paris; a Puritan accused of witchcraft in 17th century Salem.

Now, in the 21st century, our President, a self-confessed sexual harasser, defender of pedophiles and homicidal dictators, has nominated another Supreme Court Judge who has a record of hostility toward reproductive rights. With Kavanaugh’s confirmation, we will likely see diminishing of all human rights. Five Justices will override the will of the majority of Americans, taking us back to the 19th century, aligning the U.S. with both Islamic and Christian theocracies.

I fear that the religious intolerance of the past could easily return if the wall between church and state is dismantled by our Supreme Court, so I feel compelled to argue for freedom of conscience:

1. Those who oppose reproductive rights assume that pro-choice woman don’t have the intelligence, wisdom, and moral judgement to make our most intimate and personal medical decisions.

2. It is both demeaning and frightening to realize that the majority of women and LGBT citizens may soon be denied their freedom of conscience by judges and politicians representing male-dominated, right-wing Christian religions. “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on Christian religion.” –John Adams

3. The religious right has no respect for the many churches that support choice and LGBT rights. The religious right defines religious freedom as freedom to impose their dogmas on others, rather than freedom for all to live according to their own inner light.

4. Abolishing legal and safe abortions will not stop abortions. Worldwide half of all abortions are performed in countries where abortion is illegal. (The Lancet, Nov. 2017) While early abortions are safer than childbirth, laws that delay or limit access only insure that women die. (National Academy of Science, 2018).

5. There is a kind and effective way to reduce abortions. A 2012 study of more than 9,000 women found that when women got no-cost birth control, the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions fell 62-78 percent. (Guttmacher Institute).

Roberta Ray of Butte is a longtime educator with a Ph.D. in speech communication from the University of Southern California. Early in her career she volunteered with pregnant young women in a Wisconsin prison.

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