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Faith Leaders Fight for Reproductive Justice at the State Level

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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.

Cathy Levy is the executive director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a state affiliate of the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice focuses on public education and advocacy and this year worked on voter engagement. The coalition also works with congregations on faith-based comprehensive sexuality education programs and provides compassionate clergy counseling for women and families through a free hotline. Cathy works with youth at religiously affiliated colleges and universities in Ohio to build leaders for reproductive health and justice. She is also the regional coordinator for Raising Women’s Voices and sits on the Ohio Consumer Council, which is working on to implement the Affordable Care Act in Ohio. Cathy is a member of the Center for American Progress’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute.

Sally Steenland: Let’s start with recent news from Ohio, where the legislature failed to pass two bills that would’ve harmed women’s reproductive health. One bill would have defunded the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics and the other—the so-called Heartbeat Bill—would have banned abortions, in some cases before a woman even knew she was pregnant.

Why did these bills fail and how was the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice involved?

Cathy Levy: The Planned Parenthood bill failed because of the large coordinated opposition that the women and families of Ohio provided, as well as the professional, medical, and clergy communities. Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, along with our allies, was extremely active in getting the word out to our members, and we coordinated clergy to testify in opposition.

We all highlighted the huge cost to women’s health. The bill was wasteful to taxpayers. And really the whole situation was motivated by ideological folks trying to punish Planned Parenthood in spite of its long service to women’s health. So it really was a glorious display and impressive to see all the facts lined up and hear all the wonderful stories of how Planned Parenthood had literally saved the lives of women in Ohio.

We count this as a short-term victory and fully expect our conservative state government in 2013 will resurrect some version of the bill. Maybe they’ll tweak it, but we’ll be ready to fight them again.

Looking at the Heartbeat Bill—we renamed it the “Heartless Bill.” It would’ve outlawed abortions with no exceptions for incest, rape, or the health of a woman. Again, Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice worked closely with our allies to oppose it. With clergy members, we used emails, letters, and testimony. The pro-choice coalition again lined up stellar groups of OB/GYN doctors, clergy, and experts on mental health and domestic violence. The logic and compassion shown by the witnesses, however, was actually not the key factor in stopping the bill.

I think, and everyone else in Ohio feels, that the bill was stopped because of the nuances of constitutional law. What really happened was that the anti-choice people in Ohio were fighting among each other. They were trying to determine if the Heartbeat Bill had passed—which would have been the most extreme antiabortion bill in the country—it would have been challenged all the way up the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court had overturned it—and it is clearly unconstitutional—that would’ve strengthened Roe v. Wade. Sen. Niehaus, the current president of the Ohio Senate, was not willing to take the chance of strengthening Roe v. Wade, and so he stopped it. In 2013 we will have new Senate leadership. Of course, we will again have a fully conservative government so it’s hard to say whether they will re-resurrect this bill.

SS: I read that the presidential election had something to do with the Ohio bill—that if Mitt Romney had been elected, the thinking was that he might have been able to make a conservative Supreme Court appointment, increasing the odds of overturning Roe v. Wade—and that would’ve been good for the Ohio bill. It gets complicated.

CL: I am really glad you brought that up because I do think that was a factor in delaying the decision. The process of going through courts takes so much time that it’s hard to time these things, and I think the anti-choice side was concerned. We were also concerned because we didn’t want to take the risk that Roe v. Wade might be overturned.

SS: I want to ask you about other laws on the books in Ohio. You have a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion, a parental consent law, and state-mandated counseling.

A number of states have bills similar to these. Depending on how they are phrased in public opinion polls, a lot of the public thinks they are reasonable. What do you say to that?

CL: This is an ideal space for our faith voices to be brought forward. I think many legislators look at these restrictions from their own perspective. They say, “Maybe an extra day would help someone make a better decision.” Or, “I’d want my daughter to consult with me on such an important issue as the future of a pregnancy.” But they are all thinking about it from their own perspective. People of faith and leaders such as ourselves need to ask them to think more broadly about such restrictions to abortion access.

Let’s say, for example, you are a young girl and the person who impregnated you was your own father or a friend of your family, and your family was not so conducive to this kind of problem solving. What would you think of these kinds of restrictions?

Or what if you were going to school, working a job, and taking care of kids or siblings, and the clinic was far away? Would a two-day trip make sense in your situation? In fact, I know someone who was in this situation. My friend, let’s call her Lynn, worked at a factory, was trying to fit in hours at a community college, took care of her elderly mother, and had a two-year-old. She was hospitalized with heart palpitations, and the doctors looked at her schedule and said, “You don’t have time for sleep.” Her life was not conducive to a two-day waiting period.

Those with power can travel. They can take vacation time. They can move in secret if needed. Those with less power suffer from these restrictions. My bottom line as a person of faith is the coat hanger, which is what people will be driven to in these kinds of situations. Is that what God would want for his beloved daughter? My faith teaches me to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.

SS: Your examples illustrate why reproductive rights is a justice issue. What if the woman who is working in a factory doesn’t own a car? As clinics are getting sparser in states, what if she is paid by the hour and has to miss work? What if she can’t afford child care? These are clear justice issues for someone who is making a very difficult decision.

CL: One of the benefits of all of these brutal assaults is that we have fantastic allies on the pro-choice side, and we have grown powerful because of that. Our main backbone is our clergy. They are the ones that bring the faith voice and the moral dignity to this fight. They write letters to the editors, provide the free counseling to women, and when they testify, have a lot of weight. We also get tremendous professional support from our national RCRC organization and affiliates across the country, even grant support.

Our Freedom of Choice Ohio Coalition is led by NARAL, Pro-Choice Ohio, and Planned Parenthood advocates of Ohio. They put together pro-choice groups in Ohio such as Women Have Options, National Association of Social Workers, American Civil Liberties Union, and so on. We collaborate on responses to the legislation and work together fantastically.

We also have a social work agency called Choice Network that helps people with parenthood, adoption, and abortion. We refer people back and forth between our counseling and theirs because they are about social services, and we are about faith questions.

When people learn about the faith-based aspects and morality of reproductive justice, that is when the light goes on: It’s when they see the sacredness in our sexuality, decision making, and the way we steward our family life.

SS: You are one of the leaders in our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute—and one of the things we do is to connect reproductive justice and faith. For some people this connection is a surprise. How do you bring the two ideas together?

CL: Well you know it is very easy to do, especially with people of faith, because spiritual people are all about justice. We work for reproductive justice because of our deep faith, not in spite of it. We want women to be able to express their God-given talents and passions. To be able to do that, they need access to reproductive health care and comprehensive sexuality education. They need resources to deal with abuse and rape, access to education, jobs, and health care. They need to be free of violence. All the social justice issues connect. You cannot be “one-cause people” but instead need to be “justice people.”

There is that great thought in the Abrahamic traditions: What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. It is from Micah and makes so much sense.

SS: I want to go back to the election for a second. For the first time in a long time, Democrats were openly pro-choice in their campaigning—and many of them won. A number of pundits are saying that proves that we are a pro-choice nation, while others say that is not true. What’s your take on what the voters said or didn’t say about women’s reproductive rights at the ballot box?

CL: I think the pundits nailed it, and we are in a rising tide of progressive social policy around reproductive justice, gay marriage, immigration reform—you name it. I believe the public is not going to tolerate the conservative agenda. The reason I say this is because the people who voted this way are going to make up America’s future. Look at the Millennials—the 18- to  30-year-olds. They voted progressively, and their generation is bigger than the Baby Boom generation.

People of color voted this way. Now they currently make up less than 30 percent of our population, but in some states they swayed the election. When you look down the road to 2050, the Census Bureau predicts that people of color will compose more than half the population. This is good news because diversity brings innovation, creativity, and hard work. It has benefitted our nation from the very beginning.

I have been following the emergent Christianity movement that has been developing in the past few decades. It throws out the bad and keeps the good. Certainly the bad tries to create a “Christian nation” and the good would be the kind of Christianity that respects religious freedom.

Conservatives right now are still in backlash mode. Several states—including Ohio—have a Republican House, Senate, and governor, in spite of a split electorate. So Ohio is 50–50 in terms of our people, but we have a very conservative government, partly because of some of the worst gerrymandering in the country. It’s going to take generations for us to fully reach our vision, but we all do our part.

SS: I want to ask about the Affordable Care Act. It is the law of the land, and each state has its own implementation policy. You are working to make the law a reality for Ohio’s families. How are things going?

CL: Alliances and good leadership have been very important. We have a strong consumers’ coalition that is very active with the public and the government. Gov. Kasich has held back on committing to Medicaid expansion. He wants to let the state budget process dictate it. But as people of faith, and others in the Consumers Council, we are all committed to advocating for Medicaid expansion. It is the only way for low-income people to have access to health care without continuing an unsustainable emergency room model, where the hospitals are not compensated and the system is not going to work.

Under the new health care law, providing preventive care such as birth control and cancer screenings and well-baby check-ups is not only compassionate, it makes economic sense. I understand the trepidation that people have about this sort of big and expansive reform, but each aspect of health care reform, including Medicaid expansion, is necessary in order to make the whole effort work. So we should give it a chance. The model came from Republicans and conservatives and was refined by Democrats. Let’s give it a shot. Once we see how it is working we can improve it, but if we pick at it and take parts out we won’t know how the project works.

SS: One last question. You were talking about how divided the population of Ohio is and said that some of the bills you defeated are probably going to be reintroduced. As you look ahead, what are some of the challenges you’ll be facing? And what will you be looking forward to?

CL: We have a great opportunity to build on the momentum of our successes in November with stopping those two bills. We’ve shown the power of coalitions and the power of educating the public. We’ve shown the influence of women in the voting booth. And we’ve shown that when people of faith speak up about reproductive justice we really can change the world. So we know that we have this opportunity. We also know that our opposition is ready to move in Ohio. So what we’ll be doing is being reactive to what comes, as well as proactive in continuing our education and our capacity building.

One of the things I have learned in my growth as a spiritual person is that there are 366 verses in the Bible that say we should not be fearful and should trust God. One of my favorites I just found today is from Timothy. It says, “God gave us the spirit not of fear, but of power, of love, and of self control.” So we are not going to be fearful. We are going to go forward with the power and love that we feel within the movement and with our partners.

SS: We say amen to that. We are so grateful to you for your work in Ohio and for being part of our Institute. Thanks for speaking with us today.

CL: Thanks for everything you have done for us.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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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