Today marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that guaranteed women the legal right to have an abortion. Yet the 40 years since have not been easy, and the ruling by no means ended the fight between pro-choice and anti-choice advocates. As a person of faith and a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, I’ve had the opportunity and the blessing of being a pastoral presence for women and families considering, or who have already had, abortions.
I often think of a woman named Sarah, who came to me searching for understanding and justice after deciding to have an abortion. As we prayed together, Sarah spoke words that I’d heard from so many other women—prayers of thanksgiving for delivering her through a difficult time, prayers of grief that this had to happen. More than anything, as she told me later over coffee, Sarah prayed that God would help others understand what she knew God already did: that she had this abortion out of love. Love for the children she was already trying to raise and love for the potential child who she knew she could not parent.
I carry every woman’s story with me, but Sarah’s struck me particularly hard because she articulated so clearly what I often heard in those discussions. Her abortion was an act of compassion, and she had come to me hoping to find a little of that compassion mirrored back to her.
Sarah had to navigate a number of obstacles before she was able to exercise her right to a legal abortion. She had to take two days off from work, causing her to lose badly needed wages. She felt isolated, alone, and scared throughout the experience.
The Supreme Court decision protected her right to an abortion, but Sarah needed so much more than a legal right: She needed support. She needed the ability to tell her family and her employer what she was doing without fear of shame or stigma. She needed a safe place to discuss her feelings about her pregnancy and to consider all possible options without fear of judgment or pressure. She didn’t just need a legal right—she also needed justice.
In recent years the movement for reproductive health, freedom, and access to abortion has shifted from the language of rights to the language of justice. This shift has provided an opening for faith communities. Because of the willingness to go deeper and broader than legal rights, faith leaders are able to have holistic discussions and examine the role that economic, cultural, religious, and other barriers play in reproductive decision making.
Abortion is just one of many family-planning options, and any limitation on a person’s ability to live the reproductive life they choose—including whether or not to be a parent—is a violation of justice. Faith communities recognize that while legal access to abortion and other reproductive services is important, that is just the beginning, not the end, of the story. As we look to the next 40 years, I hope that this shift toward justice will grow and that people of faith will play a critical role in this movement.
“Choice” is not often thought of as a biblical value, and while the Bible affirms the value of sacred conscience—particularly for women regarding their own reproductive lives—the word abortion never appears in scripture. Yet justice is a word found throughout the Bible and is a concept held sacred by many faiths.
Justice is not merely about an absence of legal restrictions—justice is also about living in the right relationship with God and with all of our brothers and sisters in God’s family. When we restrict someone’s ability to find the services they need and restrict the ability of doctors to offer needed health services, there is no justice. When a person who wishes to be a parent cannot get a job or access to health care or all the other things that make parenting possible, there is no justice. The handmaiden of justice is compassion, and that was precisely what Sarah sought in my office. When such compassion is denied, there is no justice.
There is much people of faith can do in order to achieve reproductive justice for all. As the debate shifts from rights to justice, there is an opportunity to change the narrative that claims that to be religious is to be anti-choice.
On the 40th anniversary of Roe, we must commit ourselves to moving forward. We must work to undo the stigma and guilt that harms women when opponents use the cloak of faith to mask their attacks on women and sexuality. We must work to tear down restrictions—both in the law and in our hearts—that stand in the way of any person or family living the sexual and reproductive life to which God calls them. We must choose justice. We owe it to ourselves—and we owe it to Sarah and all of those like her.
Rev. Matthew Westfox has served a ministry of reproductive justice for more then six years as a preacher, activist, organizer, and pastoral caregiver. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he is a member of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.