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The Road to Freedom of Choice

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As an African-American born in the Deep South during the late 1930s, I lived without certain freedoms. At the outset of the civil rights movement, I became aware of how much I lacked. People of conscience praised God for the hard-fought advances in school desegregation and voting rights, but we knew that the journey to equality was just beginning.

Then, as a third-generation Baptist minister, I began to see a new truth emerge, one that would light my path for the next five decades—that our basic rights were imperiled if any one person lacked the means to achieve what others in America took for granted. To me, and many of my contemporaries, this included reproductive freedom.

Before the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, women of color and women in lower socio-economic groups had few options except unsafe back alley or self-induced abortions. The Supreme Court decision saved the health and even the lives of countless women and expanded their freedom and dignity. We believe a woman’s right to choose — like the other civil rights we have fought for — was fundamentally lodged in the Constitution.

Yet on Sunday, April 25, we must take to the streets of Washington, D.c=, to march once again for freedom and justice for women. I will march because I am convinced that women’s lives will be at risk without the ability to make reproductive decisions. Roe has already been so weakened that it is no longer accurate to say that there is “a right to choose.” The most vulnerable women are poor, young, abused, unaware they are pregnant, without health care, or living in states with highly restrictive laws or limited or no services, but all women are subjected to intrusive and harmful policies.

We depend on our government to protect us and safeguard our families. But every year, nearly one million teenage girls from all economic and ethnic backgrounds become pregnant, putting their young lives at risk. This is a public health crisis, yet federal funding for responsible family planning and sexuality education is being cut back and our tax dollars are being poured into unproven abstinence-only programs. Such harmful government policies are irresponsible and immoral.

The Biblical passage that keeps running through my mind as I prepare for this momentous event is associated with the civil rights movement: “Let Justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.” For women, reproductive rights are civil rights. For women, justice requires the freedom to make decisions, including reproductive decisions. I believe faith communities have a responsibility to protect the ability to make moral choices, including reproductive choices.

People of faith are coming in unprecedented numbers to the March, drawn by the call for “choice, justice, access and health.” The huge interfaith contingent will gather under the banner of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Capitol Reflecting Pool for a powerful and inspirational service. Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Buddhists, and many, many other faiths will come together to demonstrate religious support for women.

Of course, not all religious people agree with me that women — not government — are best able to make the most private decisions of conscience about families and children. Some politicians and clergy claim that their religions mandate that they oppose abortion rights, family planning, and even responsible sexuality education. I respect the teachings of their religions but I reject their insistence that the rest of us adhere to their beliefs.

My faith does not require the government to forbid women, or men, from making choices about their future and the destiny of their family or to withhold information about contraception from teenagers. It teaches me that women, and men, can search their conscience and come to a responsible understanding about moral questions.

Legislating one religious view about the beginning of life strikes me as an affront to people of other religions and just plain wrong in a nation with such a great diversity of faiths. I will march because I respect varying beliefs and because I will not trample on the rights of others.

The March for Women’s Lives will make history not only for its size and strength but far more importantly for the message it sends to all Americans — that reproductive health and choice is a basic right and freedom. Like many other people, I work on a continuing basis toward the day in which every child is truly welcomed and women, men and families have the resources to live healthy, responsible lives in safety and love. On the day after the march, the real work of building that society begins.

Rev. Carlton W. Veazey is the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

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