This interview is the first in a series highlighting the leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute launched in March, which seeks to highlight and strengthen the important work of faith-based leaders working for reproductive justice.
Darcy Baxter is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has counseled hundreds of women about abortion, both as a hotline counselor at the National Abortion Federation and as a volunteer on Exhale’s after-abortion talkline. Prior to pursuing the ministry, Darcy worked as a health and sexuality educator at Howard University. Darcy has served as a resident chaplain on the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center’s Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, as intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, and as adjunct faculty member teaching theology at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.
Sally Steenland: Darcy, the two phrases “reproductive rights” and “religion” are rarely in the same sentence unless they’re in opposition. Yet you are a person of faith, and you support reproductive rights. You say you do so because of your faith, and you talk about the inherent morality in reproductive health issues. What do you mean by that?
Darcy Baxter: There are few things more sacred or precious than the decisions we make about our bodies and our families. So whenever women are making these decisions, they are thinking about what is good and bad, right and wrong. No matter what decision you make, you are invoking your values. I think the moral decision-making process is not talked about enough. It often seems as though women are not thinking about issues of love, justice, right, and wrong when they are making decisions.
SS: There have been attacks recently on women making decisions, not just about abortion, but also contraception, family planning, and the services provided by Planned Parenthood. What is going on here?
DB: We have always had different worldviews in this country. The liberal moral tradition has to do with understanding that coercing people into moral decisions is a bad thing. Individuals and communities must be nurtured and helped in their relationship with the holy and God, and discerning what is right for them. To infringe upon that—honestly, that’s a sin. You are violating a person’s relationship with what they understand is holy or God. When I look at these attacks, I see a lot of hubris—folks who believe they know what others should do with the most precious decisions in their lives. It has been an ongoing battle in the United States with different worldviews and theological views at play.
SS: When we see religious views in the reproductive rights battle, it’s usually on the side of opposition. You—and all of us here—are trying to strengthen and connect those who support reproductive justice and women’s moral decision making. When you look at the major national groups working on reproductive rights and justice, do you see a moral or values narrative as part of their work? Do you see them working with faith groups?
DB: I think it is beginning to happen more. Unfortunately, religion has a mixed reputation. I think a lot of reproductive justice organizations focus on some of the harm that has been done by religious tradition and communities. And a number of liberal religious communities—I think in an attempt at humility—have been somewhat quiet on these issues.
But as conservative religious communities are becoming more powerful and vocal, secular and religious groups are beginning to forge new relationships. For instance, Rev. Becky Turner at Faith Aloud has been doing great work. We also have new generations of young people who are open to spirituality. I think there is a lot of possibility. There has been a history of hurt, so it is about reconciliation and communities coming together to develop an understanding, rather than operating on suspicion and pain.
SS: I wonder if the attacks on contraception and birth control might enhance collaborations between faith communities and secular reproductive rights groups. Abortion is a difficult issue for some faith groups to be active in, but family planning and contraception are widely supported in most faith communities today. Even within the Catholic Church—officially it’s [abortion] no, but in practice, yes. It spreads the lie that what antichoice groups care about is abortion because in fact the battle is broader than that.
SS: I want to talk about women who make decisions to carry a pregnancy to term or not. You’ve been a hotline counselor at Exhale, a postabortion support group. Can you tell us about some of the real lives involved and the reality of the women who call?
DB: Doing counseling with women—that is my grounding. When you talk to women who have made the decision, what you hear are honest women struggling with how to take care of their families. You hear women struggling about money. It’s the number one concern. I can’t tell you how infuriating it is when conservatives rip down the social safety net. I can tell you that if women were guaranteed good health care for their children, and good education, so many more would be carrying pregnancies to term. But they are feeling so burdened, and they’re so scared that they are not going to be able to provide for their kids.
Often they’ll choose abortion and afterwards they might second-guess themselves. But what I hear when I talk to women is that they are trying to get by and do what is right. They struggle with that because I think there is this narrative that doing what’s good should feel good. I see a lot of women making sacrifices for their families, their husbands, or their partners. Even if there is a sense in themselves that they don’t want to go through with it, they feel they need to sacrifice something for the greater good. None of that—nothing in the public rhetoric—even comes close to describing what I hear when I am talking to women.
SS: What you are describing is poignant because it sounds like in some cases women really don’t have a choice. If resources were there maybe they would, but they are so squeezed that they are forced into decisions. If opponents really want to promote strong and healthy families and encourage women to carry babies to term, they should help them be a responsible parent and be able to raise that child. But if you have no money for health care, and if you are already struggling to feed the children you have, how are you supposed to do all that? It’s cruel to load women down with guilt, to stigmatize and demonize them for decisions they sometimes are forced to make.
DB: I honestly might use the word sinful. It is misplacing responsibility and putting a burden on some of the most marginalized. People who have the most power are taking away women’s choices. Women don’t feel they have choices because in the world they are living in, there aren’t enough choices about the things they need to take care of themselves and their families.
SS: When women use birth control or get pregnant, it’s part of their lives and the world in which they live. It’s part of being a sexual human being. You teach sexuality education within churches and religious communities. What has that experience been like? Where are good things happening?
DB: I feel quite blessed because I was raised in a liberal religious tradition. Growing up, I had comprehensive sexuality education, and I have been able to teach that in religious communities. It affirms the goodness of human beings and that we are all made in the image of God. I think religious communities are one of the best places to talk about sexuality because it is such a vulnerable issue and touches the things that are most dear to us. What better place than a religious community where we can talk about our values, about power and sacredness? Some of the congregations on the cutting edge of this work have been the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, and a number of reform Jewish synagogues—believing in a shared theology of the goodness of human beings and of bodies.
When you are 12 or 13, sexuality is really scary. It’s thrown at you on TV, and it’s important within your religious communities to have both knowledge and also what sexuality should feel and be like. You enter the world with an understanding of how to not be exploited, how not to be abused. There is a sense of sacredness to that knowledge. For a lot of religious communities, it can be scary to talk about sexuality. But it’s also amazingly transformative and healing.
SS: What you are saying goes against the conservative stereotype that to talk about comprehensive sexuality in an open way means you don’t have values. What you are saying is that values are embedded in the work that you do.
DB: Absolutely—and again we are talking about different theological traditions. There is a Christian theological tradition—out of which many conservatives operate—that says bodies are sinful, and you should be ashamed and even punished. Then there is a liberal Christian tradition that says no, we are made in the image of God, and that is sacred and profound, and we need to be stewards of the gift of life. They are two opposing theological traditions.
SS: I want to talk about the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, which you are a part of—a project of CAP’s faith team. In March we had a wonderful two-day convening with you and about 20 colleagues—it was thrilling to bring you all together and see this group of strong, dedicated faith leaders.
One of the things we heard was how isolating this work can be. There aren’t a lot of resources; there isn’t a strong infrastructure. When you contrast that to conservative religious groups that have huge amounts of money and organizing, it’s a real David and Goliath situation. Why do you think there isn’t more structure and funding on the side of progressive faith traditions in this work?
DB: I think one of the factors is that liberal religious communities have done a lot of reflection on some of the negative impacts of some strands of Christianity. In an effort to be humble, they have been silent. Also there has been a retreat to individualism. But we are never pure individuals. We are always individuals embedded in communities and relationships. I think there is some sense in liberal faith communities that in order to resist the negative impacts of power, in order to avoid being coercive forces, we need to remain small and quiet. There might even be some tenor of shame or guilt about the negative impacts of some strands of Christianity. That hasn’t helped anybody.
The world needs us not to be small. There is a way to be powerful without being coercive, without being full of hubris, without being oppressive. But it’s taking time for liberal moral communities and religious communities to be powerful without being harmful, without repeating the mistakes of the past.
SS: You have used the term “justice” several times. In describing our institute we call it the “Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute.” Reproductive justice is different from reproductive rights. You say that you are called to reproductive justice—tell us what you mean.
DB: Justice for me invokes a sense of the kingdom of God on Earth. We should be in beloved community together. It is not just about an individual doing right or wrong. It is a network of mutuality and relationships. Reproductive justice is about looking at the fullness of community. We look at all the different ways and all the different things necessary for human beings to unfold that divine spark. As for my sense of calling, I don’t know how to describe it beyond saying it’s a physical sensation that this is what I need to do. That it is necessary and that justice—the beloved community—is the best way to describe that.
SS: As you work on reproductive justice, there are many obstacles. What are some of the biggest challenges that you and the community face?
DB: You’ve named that there is a high level of conservative organizing around this issue. I think that is definitely an obstacle. But actually I think that we can get in our own way. Often times there can be a lot of ego and individual needs interrupting our process for the greater good. There are people operating out of hurt. So a challenge is, as a community how can we help each other heal without ego needs getting in the way?
Often we suffer from understanding the world too individualistically. We don’t understand that we are embedded in community and are interdependent. When I think about the challenges that are accessible for us within reproductive justice communities, they have to do with facing and overcoming an overindividualistic sense of ourselves and our communities, attending to hurts and ego needs that can get in the way. It also is meeting the legacies of racism and sexism that are even in liberal communities and working through them so that we walk our talk. It’s not just talking about justice, but how we treat one another within our communities so that we live up to the word of justice.
SS: That is a very honest assessment, and I think you are right—a lot of challenges are within our control. When you get up in the morning, what gives you hope?
DB: Talking with women—hearing the goodness of women. By and large they’re trying to do the right thing. They’re struggling, and there is kindness and goodness in the world. The other thing in being involved in reproductive justice communities is that there are people within these communities who have loved and supported me in ways I would never have imagined. There is compassion and also a real understanding of “Life is hard. Things get messy, but I’m going to stick by you through it all.”
People are inspiring to me. The level of their compassion and kindness and vision—despite how bad and hard things are, there is this hope that helps me get through my day—those friendships and that community. You talked about David and Goliath, and we are part of a long, long history. We have thrived and overcome before. And I have no doubt that we, living, breathing, working toward building beloved community, working toward justice, that we will succeed.
SS: Well, those words give me hope. Thank you very much, Darcy. Thanks for talking to us.
DB: Thank you, Sally.
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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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative