Pro-Choice Religions Vow to Speak Out for Choice

Pro-choice religious groups and women's advocates vow to work hand-in-hand to keep abortion legal, saying pro-choice religious institutions must speak out vigorously and demonstrate that moral people can be both deeply religious and pro-choice.

Frances Kissling, Catholics for a Free Choice

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-A majority of Americans believe that abortion is a personal decision and still feel a connection to mainstream religious tradition, according to the ecumenical group, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The group released polling which suggests a peaceful coexistence between deep religious faith and a pro-choice viewpoint. The survey results, according to the organization's president, also challenge the perception that to be pro-religion is to be anti-choice and that to be pro-choice is anti-religion.

The poll results were released last week at the first meeting convened by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice of leaders from the religious pro-choice community and from the feminist community. Organizers cited concern about the support of the new administration for conservative views as a prime reason for the gathering.

“I am sick and tired of people thinking there is only one religious voice-the religious right,” said Rev. Carlton W. Veazey last week at a conference of religious and feminist leaders in Washington. “People need to know that choice is there, constitutionally and theologically.” Rev. Veazey is a minister of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is an interfaith coalition that supports reproductive choice on religious grounds. It includes mainstream faith traditions, such as the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reform and Conservative Movements of Judaism, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., as well as the Young Women's Christian Association, the YWCA.

The results of the nationwide survey of 900 registered voters, conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, were released at the conference. Pollsters reported that when values-based language was inserted into a pro-choice support statement, agreement with the statement increased.

For example, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “Abortion should remain legal,” 50 percent of those polled agreed. The outcome shifted when the issue was framed in a personal and moral context. Sixty-eight percent of those polled agreed with the statement: “I may not choose to have an abortion but I would not take that choice away from other women.”

Three-Fourths of Those Polled Call for Government Hands Off Abortion

Seventy-four percent agreed with the statement: “Abortion is a complex issue that is better left in the hands of a woman, her doctor, her family and her God.” And 78 percent of those polled believe that a person can be religious and pro-choice.

Pro-choice leaders urged religious leaders to be more vocal in their support. And religious leaders urged the pro-choice community to make use of the power of faith communities. “People of faith are the great untapped resource of the pro-choice movement,” Rev. Veasey said.

In a panel discussion billed as the Reproductive Freedom Leadership Forum, Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, urged clergy who supported reproductive choice not to hesitate when delivering the message of reproductive freedom.

“Our adversaries never worry that their words are right or wrong, and we can learn from them,” she said. Pointing out the longstanding connection between religious leaders and the pro-choice movement, Feldt challenged members of the clergy to “speak out yet more, in all of the venues that are available to you.

“You have so many opportunities to use the pulpit to reclaim that moral voice that was the original impetus of the pro-choice movement.”

Before Abortion Was Legal, Religious Groups Helped Underground Network

During the period before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, religious leaders joined sympathetic medical professionals to help women find safe alternatives to back alley abortions. The Clergy Consultation Service, organized by Reverend Howard Moody and Arlene Carmen in 1967, provided women with referrals to ethical doctors who would perform abortions in safe, sanitary settings.

The underground network grew to include more than 1,400 ministers and rabbis, before abortion was legalized. Today's Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is an outgrowth of the Clergy Consultation Service.

The Catholic Church's prohibition on abortion and artificial contraception is more damaging to women's reproductive health than the attitudes of the religious right, a speaker told the audience. “The greatest threat to reproductive freedom worldwide is the Roman Catholic Church,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. She said that many people are afraid to speak out against the leadership of the church.

“We have no compunction about criticizing the Rev. Jerry Falwell or the Rev. Pat Robertson, but no one says anything about the Conference of Catholic Bishops. The religious community-Episcopalians, Jews, Methodists and others-is scared to death of being called anti-Catholic,” Kissling added.

A practicing Catholic, Kissling called on religious leadership from higher up in denominational organizations to take a stand. Without the voices from the top levels speaking out, she said, the message will not have the sufficient power.

The recent revelation that priests in Africa were raping nuns and then demanding that they seek abortions at Catholic health care institutions was but one more example of the worldwide suffering women face in the name of religion, she said.

“If this scandal with the priests in Africa happened among feminist leaders, they would close us all down,” added Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. She suggested that other mainstream denominations looked the other way at the abuses of the Catholic Church. “We have to be tougher on the Catholic Church-we are letting them off the hook,” Smeal said.

Pro-Choice Clergy and Women Call for Close Cooperation

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, added that while she was proud to stand with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, religious leaders must be more bold in delivering their pro-choice message.

“Religious leaders have a way of holding legislators accountable. The mainstream religious community has to come out more strongly, with a louder counter-voice to the religious right,” she said.

But Rabbi Steven Jacobs urged the pro-choice movement to work toward including the religious community as it takes the pro-choice message public. “We should have a place at the table. When Ellie (Smeal) speaks on college campuses, we should be there with her.”

Kissling agreed. “No pro-choice event should take place without a representative from the religious community-both in the public dimension and in the planning.” Smeal responded that while she would welcome the involvement, there might be some resistance to a religious presence at such programs, given the patriarchal nature of mainstream faith traditions.

With the stakes so high, speakers agreed that all groups must work together to insure that abortion remains legal.

“People from all progressive movements must gather together to talk about how to fight off the religious right,” Smeal said.

Ann Moline is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.