Religious Leaders: Time to End Silence on Reproductive Justice

We have recently observed the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s decision that ostensibly established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. But in much of the country, that right is in retreat.

Religious and political leaders eager to have the tenets of their faith written into civil law have pushed through a wave of restrictive state laws, while pastors and politicians who believe women must be free to make their own decisions were either silent or ignored.

President Obama can alter that dynamic in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night by calling upon Congress to end the ban on public funding of abortion and instructing the Justice Department to challenge the constitutionality of state laws the impede women’s access to reproductive health care.

This is a critical moment for the conversation about reproductive health, yet there is surprising ignorance about several key facts. At current rates, 30% of American women will have an abortion by the age of 45, and of those 60% are already mothers, 70% report a religious affiliation, and 25% have been to a service within the month before their abortion.

Women having abortions are far more numerous and much more similar to the rest of the population than most of us recognize. Yet, in the national debate on reproductive justice, conservative religious leaders command vast audiences, while the women who are affected by the harsh laws these leaders promote are almost invisible. Because they are invisible they are easy to stereotype, and once stereotyped, they are easy to punish.

Since 2010, at least 305 restrictions to safe abortion access—more than in the previous ten years combined—have been passed by primarily red state legislatures. Laws that claim to protect the health of a woman—by forcing clinics that can’t meet a hospital’s surgical standards to close—actually deny women the care that they need. Unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds invade the body of a pregnant woman in an effort to shame and manipulate her decisions. A welter of state and federal legislation makes it difficult, if not impossible for poor women to afford either contraception or abortion.

We know from multiple studies that three out of every four women who are denied an abortion are thrown into poverty within a year of the denial. We know too that access to contraception and exposure to comprehensive sex education significantly lower the instances of unwanted pregnancies. Yet political and religious leaders who support abortion rights and access to contraception have been timid about making the moral case for reproductive justice.

And our silence has allowed those who oppose access to affordable reproductive health services to paint themselves as the only people of conscience and principle in the current debate.

Religious leaders, in particular, must articulate the simple fact that while people of faith vary widely in their beliefs about when and whether ending a pregnancy is morally acceptable, a vast majority of the American people believe that decisions about pregnancy should be made by a woman, in consultation with her partner and physician, and perhaps her clergyperson—not by the government.

On Tuesday, President Obama, who ran on a pro-choice platform and was reelected with the votes of millions of women and the men who care about them, should make it clear to the nation that the burden of laws that limit women’s access to reproductive health care falls disproportionately on women who are poor, and that it is sinful to deny to the needy that which we reserve to ourselves.

If the President will take this courageous step, we pledge that ministers, pastors and rabbis all over the country will stand in their own pulpits and call his actions blessed. It is time for the silent to speak up on behalf of the invisible.

The Rev. Harry Knox is President and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

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