More than one third of American women have had abortions since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. I’ve provided counseling and support to more than a thousand of them. To a roommate in college who had to travel to New York City because legal abortion was not yet available in Connecticut. To countless scared teenagers at a family planning clinic in Washington, D.C., in the late ’70s and early ’80s, including the daughter of a leading anti-abortion activist. To patients in the hospital where I did my clinical pastoral training, many of whom were facing late-term procedures because their fetus had a life-threatening abnormality, others whose own lives were at risk due to a medical complication of pregnancy. To congregants of all ages needing counsel when faced with an unexpected pregnancy or complication.
In more than 30 years of working with women struggling with the question of continuing a pregnancy to term or having an abortion, I can think of fewer than a handful who approached the decision lightly. Almost every woman wrestled with what would be best in her individual circumstances, and with what her faith taught her. Few made their decisions alone. Almost every woman involved the important people in her life in one of the most important decisions of her life. Abortion is a moral decision, and only women themselves can know what is right in their own, individual circumstances.
More than 30 years ago, many religious denominations courageously passed resolutions in support of women’s moral agency and their right to a safe and legal abortion. Despite numerous legal challenges and social, scientific and medical advances, this theological commitment remains: Women must be able to make their own moral decisions, based on conscience and faith. Choosing abortion often means choosing life, especially when making that choice upholds and protects the lives, health and futures of a woman, her partner and her family.
Virtually all faith traditions affirm the sanctity of life. Our faiths also celebrate the blessings of generating life and assuring that life can be sustained and nurtured. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. That is why many religious leaders support responsible procreation, prenatal care and intentional parenting.
Religious leaders who disagree on abortion can still work together to reduce unintended and unwanted pregnancies, and to address the circumstances that result in the decision to have an abortion. Poverty, social inequities, ignorance, sexism, racism and unsupportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely. More than 1,200 clergy have endorsed the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision, calling for a religious and moral commitment to reproductive health and rights, including comprehensive sexuality education, contraception and safe, legal and accessible abortion services.
No single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on abortion, nor should government take sides on religious differences. Women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions. Bishop Olmsted and Sarah Palin are entitled to their own theologies, but they don’t have a monopoly on understanding what it means to “choose life.” The women and families I’ve known who decided to have an abortion first searched their hearts, their faiths and their souls to know what “choosing life” meant to them, in their lives and in their circumstances.
As a feminist, as a clergyperson, and as a person of faith, I supported them, and I will continue to work to support reproductive justice for all.