I recently watched a special about the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It included interviews with advocates, lawyers, women, and clergy. The only religious leaders were men opposed to abortion rights. It echoed much of the discussion about moral values following the election: to be against the right to choose an abortion is mostly presented in the media as the religious and moral position.
It is not.
For more than fifty years, many religious leaders from diverse denominations have affirmed the moral agency of women. Before Roe, courageous and compassionate clergy counseled millions of women faced with unintended pregnancies and helped them obtain abortions. More than thirty years ago, many religious denominations passed resolutions in support of women’s right to legalized abortion. During the past thirty-two years, our religious commitment to women’s right to abortion remains the same: women must be able to make their own decisions based on their personal conscience and faith. It is a commitment that is shared by millions of people of faith across the country.
Today, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing releases a new “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision.” Written by diverse theologians representing Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic traditions, the Open Letter outlines the religious foundations for affirming abortion as a morally justifiable decision. It affirms women as moral agents who have the capacity, right and responsibility to make decisions as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances. It addresses such emerging issues as services for adolescents, provider conscience clauses, and bans on specific medical procedures.
The theologians who developed the statement once again considered how to articulate their respect for human life, including the life of the developing fetus, while affirming their support for the right to choose an abortion. They concluded that it is precisely because life is sacred that it not be created carelessly – people must have access to sexuality education and information, contraception and high quality prenatal care. They recognized that poverty, social inequities, sexism, and racism must be collectively addressed, for far too many women are virtually powerless to address individually the circumstances that result in unintended pregnancies. The theologians noted that religious traditions have different beliefs regarding the value of fetal life, usually according greater value as fetal development progresses, but affirmed a fundamental teaching of most religious traditions: the health and life of the woman take precedence over the life of the fetus.
Although many progressives agree that “abortion should be safe, legal, and rare,” the Open Letter goes further, maintaining that we have a moral imperative to ensure access to abortion services. The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by a woman’s economic, educational, class or marital status, her age, her race, her geographic location or her lack of adequate information. Current or proposed measures that limit women’s access to abortion services – by denying public funds for low-income women; coercing minors to obtain parental consent and notification instead of providing resources for parental and adolescent counseling; denying international family planning assistance to agencies in developing countries that offer women information about pregnancy options; and banning certain medical procedures – are harmful to women’s lives and well-being.
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The Open Letter recognizes that in a pluralistic society, the government cannot privilege the teachings of one religion over another. No single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on abortion, nor should the government take sides on religious differences. More than 40 religious denominations and organizations support the right to safe and legal abortion. It is unconscionable to legislate specific religious doctrine concerning abortion for all Americans or for the women of the world.
Ultimately, the decision to continue or to terminate a pregnancy is intensely personal. Every parish-based clergy person in America works with women, couples, and families struggling with unintended pregnancies or very wanted pregnancies that become threatened by fetal abnormalities or women’s dire health conditions. The Open Letter calls on leaders of all faiths to prepare themselves to minister compassionately, competently, and justly to individuals and families faced with pregnancy decisions.
When I became involved with the abortion rights movement over 30 years ago, I did so out of a personal concern for my life and future. Today, I do so out of a personal concern for my daughter, her friends and my congregants, but also out of my passion and commitment to relational and reproductive justice. Standing up for our moral values requires nothing less.
Reverend Debra W. Haffner is the director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. The Open Letter is posted at www.religiousinstitute.org.