Religion and reproductive rights are usually pitted against each other in public debates and the media. But in real life they are not on opposite sides. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 8 in 10 women who have abortions are religious, as are many of the doctors and nurses who provide abortion care. The late Dr. George Tiller, for instance, was a well-known abortion provider and regular churchgoer who was murdered inside his Lutheran church in Wichita, Kansas, three years ago.
Despite this reality, the notion that a person of faith can support reproductive rights seems contradictory to many Americans. And the notion that a person’s faith is a major reason why he or she supports reproductive rights seems stranger still. One reason for such a gap between perception and reality is that antichoice advocates have been successful in claiming religious truth exclusively for themselves. Despite the good work of organizations such as Catholics for Choice, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Religious Institute, and others, opponents of women’s reproductive rights have come to monopolize morality, family values, and God.
But thanks to a newly organized group of gifted faith leaders, that monopoly is now being challenged in a forceful way. The leaders are participants in the 2012 Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a CAP project funded by the Ford Foundation. Leaders include clergy, sexuality educators, advocates, staff from mainline Protestant denominations, scholars, and writers. Throughout the year the institute will provide these 20 leaders with resources and training to strengthen their work and increase their visibility on issues of faith and reproductive justice.
What is reproductive justice?
The term “reproductive justice” refers to much more than just abortion. Reproductive justice advocates work for a woman’s access to a full range of reproductive health care (including maternity and labor care, family planning services, abortion care, and sexual health information and services) and do not ignore the context in which she lives—her connection to family, the state of her community, and her status in the political, economic, social, and spiritual realms. They recognize, for instance, that toxins in her water may affect her fertility, her immigration status may impede her access to prenatal care, and her low-wage job may make her feel that she has no choice but to end a pregnancy that she would otherwise like to carry to term.
For many faith advocates, reproductive justice is intrinsically connected to the work they do in other areas such as health care, education, the environment, the economy, and more. The connections are not hard to see. A woman who decides to carry a pregnancy to term needs food, health care, housing, money, education, and occupational skills in order to raise a child. Each woman needs these essentials—it is her human right.
In their work, many of our faith leaders connect the dots between seemingly diverse issues, proving that justice cannot be a spotty thing but needs to be seamless and whole. The work of our leaders includes providing support to low-income women with HIV/AIDS and striving to end the shackling of women prisoners during labor. Their work also includes empowering girls to learn about their bodies and make healthy decisions and nonjudgmental counseling for women who’ve had abortions.
Some of our leaders are academics whose writings describe the moral complexity involved in a woman’s decision about whether to become a parent, as well as the need to respect her individual conscience. Within our group are clergy who preach on reproductive justice, teach healthy sexuality, testify at public hearings, speak out in the media, and connect religious truths with public debates. Our institute leaders also include advocates and staff of mainline denominations who work on global maternal health, sexuality education, and racial justice.
Pushing back and moving forward
In 2011 states passed 69 laws restricting women’s reproductive rights. The laws included forcing pregnant women to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds, banning abortion after 20 weeks, banning abortion coverage by private insurers, and barring Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortion care from receiving public funding for family planning services.
More bills are making their way through state legislatures this year, including a bill in Ohio that would ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (approximately six to eight weeks into a pregnancy), which is before many women even know they are pregnant. The bill would all but overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark court case that determined that a woman’s right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th amendment included the decision to get an abortion.
The extremism behind this legislation is often couched in religious rhetoric that stigmatizes women and endangers their reproductive health. Now more than ever, we need faith leaders to push back against this harmful rhetoric and set forth moral arguments that support women’s sexual and reproductive health.
In the coming months, we will be reporting on the work of the institute leaders and sharing their voices through podcasts and interviews. We recently posted our first interview—with Darcy Baxter, a Unitarian Universalist minister, sexuality educator, and reproductive justice advocate. Stay tuned for additional interviews and news from this exciting and important group of leaders.
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.