By Rev. Debra W. Haffner
February 2, 2012
I have been an advocate for safe and legal abortion for more than 35 years. The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade during my first year of college, and I remember thinking, “thank goodness, this fight is over.”
By now, we surely know that this fight is not over. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we will ever reach a moment where the cultural divide over legal, safe and accessible abortion services will finally be settled.
There are many reasons this schism exists, beginning with profound disagreements about when life begins and nonprocreative sexual relationships. But I think that part of the continuing political struggles is caused by the failure of those of use who are pro-choice advocates to articulate the moral and religious foundations for affirming abortion as a morally justifiable decision.
At the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. I was struck by signs proclaiming “Keep Your Laws off My Body” and “A Womb of Her Own.” I felt something was missing the recognition that for most women faced with an unplanned pregnancy, the decision to have an abortion is complex and difficult, often based in her faith, her values and her hopes for her life.
Shortly after the 2004 march, I convened 12 theologians from diverse religious backgrounds to develop an Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as A Moral Decision. These theologians agreed that precisely because life and parenthood are so precious, no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. The Open Letter calls for a religious and moral commitment to reproductive health and rights, including comprehensive sexuality education, contraception and safe, legal and accessible abortion services. Further, the theologians affirmed that 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. More than 1,600 clergy have signed this Open Letter.
There is a religious and moral case for safe, legal and accessible abortion services. It is true that religious traditions have different beliefs on the value of fetal life, often according greater value as fetal development progresses. Science, medicine, law and philosophy contribute to this understanding. However, many religious traditions teach that the health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus.
Christian and Hebrew scriptures neither condemn nor prohibit abortion. They do, however, call us to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions. Women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions or accessibility barriers. The scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing and abortion should be safe for all women, just as a scriptural commitment to truth-telling means that women must have accurate information as they make their decisions.
In my 35 years of working with women struggling with the question of continuing a pregnancy to term or having an abortion, almost every one of them wrestled with what would be best in her particular circumstance and with what her faith taught her. Few made their decisions alone. Almost every woman involved the most important people in her life.
Many faith traditions teach that abortion is always a moral decision and that respecting women’s moral agency means that only the individual woman can know what is right in her own 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, the theological commitment remains: Women must be able to make their own moral decisions, based on conscience and faith.
Religious denominations that have passed policies in support of legalized abortion include the American Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Union for Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ and The United Methodist Church.
Religious leaders have been in the forefront of the movement for abortion rights for over 50 years. All of us who have offered pastoral care to women facing unintended pregnancies know that choosing an 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. The women and families I’ve known who decided to have an abortion searched their hearts, their faiths and their souls to know what “choosing life” meant to them, in their lives and in their circumstances.
The bottom line is that each individual woman must be able to make her own moral decisions based on her conscience and faith. Our role as advocates and as people of faith is to assure all women have that right.