Roe and Religion

Contrary to popular belief, religious leaders have long been among the staunchest supporters of women seeking an abortion.

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Contrary to popular belief, religious leaders have long been among the staunchest supporters of women seeking an abortion. (AP/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Contrary to popular belief, religious leaders have long been among the staunchest supporters of women seeking an abortion. (AP/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It may be surprising for some to find out that in the years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, clergy were among the staunchest supporters of women seeking an abortion. Twenty-one ministers and rabbis created the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion—an underground network that counseled women and led them to compassionate, competent doctors who provided abortion care. Although the network had only a handful of clergy at first, it grew to about 1,400 clergy operating on the East Coast during the 1960s to serve women from across the nation.

Rev. Howard Moody—who was born in Texas, lived in New York, and died in 2012 at age 91—created the network and considered it one of his most important ministries. Women “came from all over the country,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “They came by plane and train, and bus, and car.” Women were desperate and needed help. “It was the most humiliating, frightening prospect for women that you can imagine,” Moody said. He’d seen women die from botched illegal abortions and was stirred by compassion to help them.

A few years after the Roe decision, a number of religious organizations voiced support for the decision, even as they acknowledged the moral complexity of abortion and honored the sanctity of life. Their views were articulated in an ecumenical study document on abortion published in 1978 and discussed in a recent article on AlterNet.

In the study document, American Baptist Churches said that, “Abortion should be a matter of personal decision.” The American Lutheran Church agreed, recognizing the “freedom and responsibility of individuals to make their own choices in light of the best information available to them and their understanding of God’s will for their lives.”

The Church of the Brethren voiced support in the document for women who, “after prayer and counseling, believe abortion is the least destructive alternative available to them.” The Brethren took this position so that women could “make their decision openly, honestly, without the suffering imposed by an uncompromising community.”

What is even more surprising than the nuanced views of these faith communities, however, is the early support for Roe from the Southern Baptist Convention. Although they are currently among the fiercest opponents of abortion, Southern Baptists supported the 1973 ruling. From their early days, Southern Baptists have been fervent believers in religious liberty and saw Roe v. Wade in this light. If the government could tell a woman what to do with her body, they reasoned, it could also tell Baptists what they could—or couldn’t—do with their religion.

How things have changed. In the early 1980s, the Republican Party wooed and won the support of millions of religious conservatives, and those nuanced theological truths got buried under a political campaign that claimed God-driven opposition to abortion. Conservatives even altered texts of the Bible to fit their rigid antiabortion stance.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade next Tuesday, however, we must challenge that unbending opposition. We need to remember another way of thinking—one that supports women’s reproductive health and rights through a lens of morality and faith. We also need to remember that when abortion opponents claim a monopoly on God’s truth, their certainty is less than 40 years old.

Looking back on history isn’t enough. We must also focus on what to do in the present and what our vision is for the future. Groups such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Catholics for Choice, Faith Aloud, the Religious Institute, and others are helping to point the way. Each is busy doing a piece of what is needed. These groups are:

  • Arming clergy and faith leaders with compelling messages that are true to their own religious teachings and traditions
  • Educating congregations to connect their religious beliefs and conscience with the moral complexities of life and to claim the sacredness of human sexuality
  • Linking reproductive rights to broader social and economic justice issues such as health care, education, employment, and housing—all of which affect a woman’s capacity to be a parent and to raise a child with dignity
  • Challenging the harsh—and often inaccurate—rhetoric of religious conservatives that stigmatizes women and dishonors their capacity to make moral decisions
  • Urging public officials to support women and families in real and meaningful ways rather than setting up roadblocks that harm their health and limit their lives
  • Laying out the true meaning of religious liberty so that this core American value is not used as a smokescreen to limit women’s access to contraception and family planning

The 1978 ecumenical study document articulated the inherent value of the fetus and the importance of reducing the need for abortion. It also held up values of humility, freedom, justice, balance, compassion, and responsibility.

As we envision a future of health and reproductive justice for all women, those values are more important than ever. We can add to them the words of a just-released affirmation on faith and reproductive justice from CAP’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. It is a credo of belief in the dignity of all God’s people and a pledge to act—individually and collectively—so that all women can flourish and fulfill their God-given potential as individuals and as parents.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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