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Finding the Intersection of Reproductive Rights, Politics, and Faith

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This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Madison Shockley is the pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California. Originally ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he has served churches in St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Madison writes on a wide variety of subjects, including race, religion, politics, education, reproductive choice, and popular culture. He has been published in numerous outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, ProgressiveChristianity.org, Truthdig, and others. Madison is a boardmember of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, of ProgressiveChristianity.org, and San Diego ACLU.

Sally Steenland: Let’s start with an election question. In the midst of an economic downturn, reproductive rights were front and center in the campaign. It wasn’t just contraception—abortion was a front burner issue, too. For the first time in a long time, a number of Democratic candidates, including the president, openly supported abortion rights—and they won. You spoke out against anti-choice candidates from a faith and justice perspective. What was noteworthy to you about reproductive rights in this campaign?

Rev. Madison Shockley: One of the things I’ve been saying is that the religious right did not go away—they simply changed their clothes. They put on three-point hats and hung tea bags from them. The Tea Party is nothing but the religious right in different garb. So while the Tea Party claimed to be concerned about the economy and bank bailouts, their real passion was social issues. And at the top of their list was, is, and always has been an anti-choice agenda—to deny women the freedom to live their lives through their own self-determination. Look at the Senate races of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in red states, where they were both supposed to win easily. When they made ridiculous and offensive statements about rape and abortion, the public—even in these red states—revolted. These candidates were trounced by their Democratic opponents.

SS: Are you saying their extremism brought clarity?

MS: Yes, and we shouldn’t be fooled by the protestations about the deficit. That is really a secondary issue to them. I think the larger electorate had thought issues around reproductive rights were settled and weren’t going to play a major role in this election. But for whatever reasons—and clearly many of them are honestly motivated—they have not abandoned their agenda, and we should not be deceived about that.

SS: Let me ask you about your advocacy work for reproductive justice and your work as a pastor—you have done both for a long time. A lot of people wouldn’t put “clergy person” and “advocate for reproductive justice” in the same sentence. What’s the connection?

MS: For me it began when I was in seminary some 30 years ago. Beverly Harrison had just published her book, Our Right to Choose. At Union Theological Seminary—which is one of the most progressive in the country and where she was on the faculty—that was the conversation when I arrived. Coming from a very traditional mainline Christian background, it wasn’t something I had thought about theologically. I hadn’t thought a lot about it at all. And so as I joined that conversation it just became very clear to me that no policy that would deny women choice could do so without also denying their personal freedom and bodily integrity.

The notion that a person should be able to control their own body resonated with me as a black person. The heart and soul of slavery was to control someone else’s body, destiny, and life. I couldn’t separate those images. In order to enforce anti-choice policies, politicians would have to take control over every woman of childbearing age until she had passed through that phase of her life and only then release her to live as she might. I found that so offensive. My conscious spiritual life was pro-choice because the freedom and dignity of the individual is also a very important faith category. You can’t separate the two.

SS: When you explain it like that, it is very persuasive.

MS: The sad thing in our country and culture is the assumption that to be a person of faith is to be a person who would deny a woman her freedom and bodily integrity and choice about how she lives out her reproductive life. That has to do with a lot of political and social factors. And we haven’t been as good advocates for our positions as we could be.

SS: Let’s talk about faith communities and leaders who stand up for reproductive rights and justice. You have been involved with the Black Church Initiative at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and you work with your local Planned Parenthood. Can you talk about some of the victories you have had and some of the challenges too?

MS: One of the victories of the Black Church Initiative within [the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice] was breaking the silence in the church about sex and sexuality. That was the theme of the program, “Breaking the Silence,” because silence is death. That is the other side of the issue around choice. The consequences of anti-choice legislation and an anti-choice culture are extraordinarily serious—including the death and shaming of thousands of women who won’t have access to safe abortion care.

The Black Church is right at ground zero for many of these consequences. Teen pregnancy, child pregnancy, lack of medical care. The church didn’t have a language to talk about these things. And “Just say ‘no’” was not adequate. The Black Church Initiative and [the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice] gave churches—black, white and otherwise—a language with which to talk about sex and sexuality, including issues such as teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, abortion care, and all of these matters about how we live our reproductive lives, with an ethical and moral and spiritual dimension. So that was a great success.

At the same time I am not going to say that all the doors swung open. As I mentioned, I learned about this in seminary. Most seminaries in our country—mainline and otherwise—don’t teach the ethics, morality, and spirituality of abortion. It is not a common topic. So most of the clergy we encountered were ignorant of what the Bible does and doesn’t say about abortion. And, of course, anyone who has truly studied the Bible knows that the Bible says nothing about abortion.

The Jewish community—and for Christians we have the Old Testament as part of our tradition—the Jewish community had it before we did. The theology that has grown out of the Hebrew Bible, especially the few passages that allude to miscarriage or a premature delivery, have given them a foundation to build a theology that is pro-choice. Anyone who studies the Bible would recognize that the Bible does not prohibit abortion. It does not speak directly to abortion, and so this fake piety that has promulgated in our culture simply has no basis.

SS: How can we expand this conversation you have had with the Black Church Initiative and with other churches to other communities?

MS: The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is a coalition of 27 denominations and religious bodies. So we do have a fairly broad connection—though certainly it could be larger. What we need to do with our existing groups is give them a larger megaphone and challenge them to stand up and speak out. One would not know that the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and other mainline bodies are pro-choice.

As I mentioned, that is partly the way our media responds to these issues and the tremendous focus the religious right has put on media access. We need to get a larger megaphone. We need to enter the public arena and engage the media in a more forceful way than we have.

SS: You are talking about moral complexity and matters of conscience. And when we are talking about reproductive justice we are talking about more than abortion care because, as you know, women make decisions about becoming a parent within a larger context in their lives. Can you talk about why reproductive rights is a justice issue—and why for houses of worship that work on other justice issues such as poverty and immigration, this fits into that spectrum of justice work?

MS: I want to digress for one moment to talk about the controversy around birth control that arose within the context of Affordable Care Act—that contraceptive coverage should be made available to women without a co-pay. Everyone talked about this as a woman’s issue, and a highly quoted statistic was that 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control. My response was that I think 98 percent of Catholics—men and women—use birth control. Because women aren’t using it by themselves.

Mitt Romney said he lost the election because President Obama gave gifts to various constituencies—one of them being college-age women, who were given free birth control. Well, the Affordable Care Act provides birth control to women of all ages, not just college-aged women.

To speak of it in a narrow way is part of the problem. We need to see that we are all engaged. When you talk about planning a family—and the assaults on Planned Parenthood are reprehensible—being able to plan your family results in being able to raise healthier, happier, and stronger children. And so to think that having access to birth control is a gift to some constituency and not a benefit for the whole population and culture is insane.

SS: And it’s a distortion of what you were talking about in terms of the moral discernment that goes into decisions people make about when they are spiritually, financially, and emotionally ready to have a child. Not to mention the fact that birth control reduces the need for abortions and improves the life of the mother.

MS: Absolutely, but to your point about reproductive justice and, just as you say, the decisions about whether, when, and how many children to have that are the immediate prerogative of every woman, her family, and her faith community—to the extent she chooses to include them—that prerogative is meaningless if you don’t have the means to act upon your decision. And that is what justice is about.

There is no more fundamental reality to being human than the capacity to reproduce. That is essential to our human nature. So to only grant certain persons based on their economic, social, and racial status the freedom to live out their reproductive lives is to do a great injustice to those who are not able to act on their own initiative in a way that gives them the self-determination and dignity that everyone deserves.

SS: I say amen to that.

MS: You can say amen to that.

SS: I have one last question for you, Madison, and it has to do with your being part of CAP’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. You are one of 20 faith leaders who bring unique value to the reproductive justice movement. Can you talk about that?

MS: Absolutely. We are in a pitched battle about reproductive issues. The polls swing back and forth—55 percent this way, 51 percent that way, and the movable middle is shifting around trying to find a comfort zone. On the one hand you have the religious right. They have moral outrage, but what they don’t have is science and law.

On the pro-choice side, you have scientific evidence and the law because clearly the Constitution grants privacy to every human being, including women. It is not forfeited when a woman enters puberty and suspended until she is no longer of childbearing age. But what is missing on the pro-choice side is the moral authority. The religious community has not had as loud a voice as it should—some of that is its own responsibility but also has to do with it not being welcomed into the debate by the pro-choice side.

CAP’s Leadership Institute offers that unique voice. As long as we remain a 59–41 country, no victory for reproductive justice is secure because they will be back at us in four years and six years. But if we can really begin to tilt the culture with moral, legal, and scientific reasons, then I think we can move the country forward and leave these arguments to the far right fringe, where they can reside and do their thing forever.

SS: Sounds like you have given us our marching orders. Thanks very much for being with us and for your good words.

MS: Absolutely—my pleasure, Sally.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page. 

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