Women Have Abortions Whatever Their Religion

We are in the midst of very painful debates in Congress over family planning and abortion care. It’s time to catch our breath, step back and take a broader perspective. There’s an ongoing search for “common ground” on abortion, dreams of reaching an agreement that, once and for all, satisfies everyone involved. For those seeking this elusive “common ground,” a recently released Guttmacher Institute study holds the key.  

The study finds that women of a wide range of faiths have abortions, even when the “official” faith teachings are opposed. So it’s time to stop pretending and get one step closer to our “common ground”—the abortion will happen. No matter how strongly a woman’s pastor may rail, at the end of the day, she will make up her own mind when her pregnancy goes awry or is unplanned. So here’s the “common ground”: once a woman weighs all her options (adoption, carrying to term, abortion) and comes to her conclusion, make sure she has the best in medical care and the support that she deems is right for her.  

It may come as a surprise that a religious woman would have an abortion, yet for many that’s just what happens. She may tell her clergy her story and she may listen carefully to faith teachings and any advice. Then she turns from the clergy and does what she believes she should, regardless of what any pastor, elected official, or radio talk show host thinks. The woman determines and shapes her destiny; and, in another surprise to many, she may in fact have the support of her clergy.  

Religious leaders approach abortion in different ways. First are clergy, including myself and others from a wide array of denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, as well as clergy from the United Church of Christ, Judaism and more) who believe it is morally proper to provide access to all the medical services: pre- and post-natal care, adoption referral, abortion care, contraception and the like. Next are the clergy whose “official” religious teachings oppose contraception and abortion, but nevertheless will quietly and privately support and reassure the woman, even referring her to an abortion provider she can trust. All of these clergy recognize the morality of this “common ground” of ensuring that the woman decides for herself and gets quality medical care.  

Clergy come to respect a woman’s decision by witnessing the complicated realities of women’s lives. She relied on her contraception and is now confronted by an unplanned pregnancy. Or, she wanted to be the mother of a healthy child and suddenly learns that her pregnancy has gone awry. Or, she expected another child would complete her family, until her household income suffered a catastrophic hit, leaving the family unable to provide food, shelter, and clothing for the kids they already have, let alone one more.

As a member of the clergy, I have seen how political posturing on abortion becomes irrelevant when a woman faces her particular set of life circumstances. So when asked by a woman about abortion, I spare her the sermon. If she’s convinced her pregnancy is not right for her, she needs health care, not a homily. Veteran clergy who remember the days before abortion was legal recall the heartache of accompanying a family to the cemetery to bury the young victim of a botched abortion. That’s why clergy came forward to advocate for legal abortion; they wanted to put an end to the tragedies. That’s why many clergy today believe abortion should stay legal. And that’s why it’s smart to give a woman access to safe and affordable abortion care.  

So, it may come as a surprise that a majority of women seeking abortion care are religious. And once that fact sinks in—women of faith have abortions like anyone else—then we can understand why “common ground” on abortion is in access to the medical option a woman decides is right for her. So here is “common ground” on abortion: provide the woman with the medical information she needs. Let her talk to her husband, partner, family, counselor, or clergy as she chooses. Support her as she evaluates her circumstances. Make sure she has access to the care she determines is consistent with her personal faith and her personal situation. That’s the “common ground” that everyone, from clergy across denominations to the woman caught in the middle, has no choice but to affirm.  

As a rabbi and social worker, I spend plenty of time counseling people; I can say that a woman knows whether her pregnancy is right for her or not, and no sermon or political posturing will get in her way. We respect her word as we respect her interpretation of her conscience and faith.

Dennis@FPAOFNYS.org'

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross is a religious advocate and congregational rabbi. He directs Concerned Clergy for Choice for the Education Fund of Family Planning Advocates of New York State, a project that mentors and mobilizes clergy into advocacy on behalf of access to reproductive health care including contraception and abortion care. Rabbi Ross also serves as a rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, N.Y.

Rabbi Ross is author of God in Our Relationships: Spirituality Between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber, and wrote Abortion and Judaism: Jewish Law and Rabbinic Opinion, both through Jewish Lights Publishing. Rabbi Ross has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other publications, and has made numerous public and media appearances.