Pious and prochoice
The abortion-rights movement rediscovers religion
Abortion-rights protesters outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., in April 2004. (© Marilyn Humphrie)
IN 1967, THE REV. HOWARD MOODY, a Baptist minister in New York City, founded what he recently described as a ``faith-based organization." Its purpose, he later wrote, was ``to defy an oppressive and unjust law." Moody believed that ``freedom of choice is what makes us human and responsible." His Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network that eventually included more than 1,200 clergy members nationwide, referred thousands of women to doctors known to provide safe abortions in the US and abroad.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade rendered the service obsolete. Religious abortion-rights activists moved on, while their antiabortion counterparts began to mobilize. Over the next three decades, the antiabortion movement became a formidable political force.
These days, however, the religious abortion-rights movement is playing a greater role in the national debate on abortion. The goal, supporters say, is to retrieve some of the moral authority now monopolized by the opposition-in the words of Lois Powell, a minister in the United Church of Christ, ``to take back the language of life."
Powell's denomination is one of a number-including the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian (USA) Churches, and Reform and Conservative Judaism-that officially support abortion-rights, often unbeknownst to their own followers. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, founded in 1973, is an umbrella organization made up of groups from these denominations and from antiabortion ones as well. (One notable member, for example, is Catholics for a Free Choice, long a prominent voice in the abortion-rights movement.)
Although organizations like RCRC are veterans of the cause, they are increasingly active and visible.
``Since the `70s, when we were all marching together, the religious community has been sort of hiding in the weeds. But now they're really coming back to the fore," says Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and the cochair of the Congressional Bipartisan Pro-Choice Caucus.
RCRC dates its first step back into the political arena to 1996, in response to the ``partial-birth abortion" legislation. Since then, its presence has been growing steadily, and especially since President Bush's reelection, it has received more attention from lawmakers and other activists. RCRC lobbied against the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito, filed amicus briefs in several recent Supreme Court cases, and helped draft legislation, including the Prevention First Act, a House bill that would expand access to family planning services for low-income people.
The message of the religious movement diverges from the more familiar abortion-rights arguments. ``Our focus is really on trying to explain to people that you can be religious and pro-choice," says the Rev. Carlton Veazey, a Baptist minister and president of RCRC. Instead of rights, the movement tends to emphasize moral agency and conscience. Like their opponents, they stress the sanctity of life and the obligation to protect the vulnerable. But for them, women and their children are the first beneficiaries of these concerns.
As might be expected, some antiabortion advocates accuse religious abortion-rights activists of betraying, or even exploiting, their faith. Brian Saint-Paul, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, says that Catholics for a Free Choice ``is not a Catholic organization. If I reject the free market economy, and accept Marx's critique of capitalism, I can't call myself a capitalist."
Abortion-rights advocates, however, have had a different response. The abortion-rights movement will likely never be as closely associated with religion as the antiabortion side, and not all abortion-rights activists embrace the approach of the religious groups. But their emphasis on conscience and morality has begun to seep into the traditional abortion-rights movement, and their increasingly active role has the potential to change the terms of the abortion debate-for both sides.
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The religious abortion-rights movement, like the antiabortion movement, grounds its understanding of abortion in the Bible. Abortion-rights religious groups point to what they see as a telling silence in Scripture. ``Jesus never mentioned abortion," notes Paul Simmons, a Baptist minister and author of the forthcoming ``Faith and Health: Religion, Science and Public Policy." ``The apostle Paul wrote all these lengthy letters to the Greco-Roman world, where abortion was widely practiced, with lists of virtues and vices. If anyone was a common-sense moralist, Paul was." But the subject doesn't come up in his counsel, or anywhere else in the Old or New Testament.
In the antiabortion view, life begins at conception. Abortion opponents cite passages such as Jeremiah 1:5: ``Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you." Yet the other side contends that the Bible distinguishes between a person and a fetus. Exodus 21:22-25, for instance, stipulates the punishment for accidental harm done to a pregnant woman. If she miscarries as a result, a fine is owed to her husband. If she herself suffers injury or death, however, ``the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
The religious abortion-rights movement stresses that it presents these biblical readings not to promote abortion, but to endorse it as an option. The movement works toward what it calls true ``reproductive choice," envisioning a society in which education and contraception prevent unintended pregnancies, and widely available healthcare and child care foster conditions supportive of childbearing. The religious right, they charge, has largely neglected these goals in favor of pressing the fight against abortion. ``If you say you don't want to see abortions, let's try to prevent them," says Veazey.
Unlike traditional abortion-rights activists, the religious movement is not shy about acknowledging the moral complexity of abortion. In December 2004, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, caused a stir with an essay in CFFC's journal Conscience, called ``Is There Life After Roe? How to Think About the Fetus." In the article, prompted partly by advances in fetal medicine, she encouraged fellow activists to ``present abortion as a complex issue that involves loss" while maintaining that other values can outweigh that loss.
Such concessions have historically been taboo in the polarized abortion debate. But Kissling has pressed for this more nuanced approach on both moral and strategic grounds, in the hope that honest grappling could restore credibility to a movement often perceived as callous toward the fetus and flippant about abortion.
The broader abortion-rights movement has sometimes found it difficult to shake associations with ``strident" feminists calling for ``abortion on demand." Betty Friedan, who cofounded the abortion-rights organization NARAL in 1969, used that phrase, and the movement has always asserted a woman's right to control her body.
The rhetoric has come a long way since 1969, however. As William Saletan documented in his book ``Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War," NARAL's marketing evolved over the years, grounding its argument more in the right to privacy than in feminist principles.
The message of the religious abortion-rights movement, though, has contributed to a further evolution. Some, especially in political circles, have embraced the idea of moral complexity presented in Kissling's article. In a speech delivered the month after the piece appeared, Senator Hillary Clinton said that abortion ``represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." More recently, in February 2006, a group of 55 House Democrats released an unprecedented ``Statement of Principles" affirming ``the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion" and asserting that ``we do not celebrate its practice." Saletan, who also favors abortion rights, has argued for calling abortion ``bad" and focusing on prevention.
Not all abortion-rights leaders agree with this approach. Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt prefer to highlight the positive consequences of abortion. In a recent Slate debate with Saletan, Pollitt wrote, ``Without abortion, women would be less healthy. . . children would be cared for worse. . .families would be even more screwed up than they already are." And even the abortion-rights activists who welcome the religious contingent bristle at the suggestion that morality and prevention are new to the cause. Women have never been casual about abortion, they say, and their movement has always led the way on contraception.
Nevertheless, the influence of religion is increasingly evident throughout the abortion-rights movement.
NARAL has long stressed that abortion is a decision to be made not by lawmakers or courts, but by a woman, her doctor, and her family. In a recent interview, however, Nancy Keenan, NARAL president, added a fourth party to the decision. Abortion, she said repeatedly, is ``a private decision between a woman, her doctor, her family, and her god."
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a journalist based in Brooklyn.