Shhh…Don’t Speak of Abortion: Roe v. Wade at Thirty-Six

Rev. Anne C. Fowler, Rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, told me a story about a Catholic nun who once told her that while she didn’t know about the morality of abortion, if we were to have the right, then everyone should have access.

The moral of Rev. Fowler’s story cuts to the core of the politics of abortion in America. Though nominally a right under Roe vs. Wade, decided thirty-six years ago today, the reality is that there are many obstacles—some insurmountable—to both receiving and providing abortion care in the United States. And yet, strange as it may seem, there remains a steady silence about abortion which, according to pro-choice leaders, is party due to the stigmatization of abortion. The result is that much of what passes for discussion is really just an elaborate avoidance of the subject.

The latest high profile exhibition of this avoidance is the “Governing Agenda” recently published by two Democratic Party-aligned Washington, DC-based think tanks, Third Way and Faith in Public Life. This document—two years in the making, and endorsed by a variety of prominent evangelicals—and the process by which it came into being have been met with both accolades and tough criticism. Intriguingly, the document does not actually discuss abortion, that most controversial of subjects on which it claims to have found common ground.

Is the Agenda Broader or Narrower?

In a letter to President Obama and Congressional leaders, the principal authors of the “Governing Agenda” summarized their goal as “Reducing abortions through common ground policies.” They explained, “We agree on a goal of reducing abortions in America through policies that address the circumstances that lead to abortion: preventing unintended pregnancies, supporting pregnant women and new families, and increasing support for adoption.” The method, most agree, is a good one. It advocates the use of comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically accurate sexuality education with an emphasis on abstinence as a way of reducing unintended pregnancies.

But pro-choice leaders contacted by Religion Dispatches feel not only left out of the conversation, but see in the “Governing Agenda” a product that continues to stigmatize abortion and does nothing to further the conversations that are most needed.

The notion of “abortion reduction,” has been a cornerstone of the so-called “broader agenda” of the conservative evangelicals promoted by Third Way and Faith in Public Life. But Rev. Fowler sees a certain “political expediency” at work:

Abortion reduction is not a position that recognizes the reality of many women’s lives. I mean we talk about the incarnation. And the incarnate reality, the moral reality of women’s lives is that sometimes abortion is the best moral choice.

Fowler, who has been a longtime leader in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and has served on the board of Planned Parenthood adds that, “what is missing from this document is any acknowledgment of women’s moral agency and their capacity to make honorable sacred decisions for the welfare of their families and for themselves.”

”What is missing from this document,” she continued, “is recognition of the sacredness of all life, and a moral tradition that allows us to weigh relative values, of potential life versus a lived life in its full spiritual complexity.”

”What is missing from this document is any invitation for faith leaders, both pro-choice and pro-life with whom we disagree, to talk about abortion—and other choices involving women’s reproductive health and to model that dialogue to the country.”

The idea that abortion is sometimes the best moral choice is the view of many major religious institutions representing tens of millions of American Christians, Jews, Unitarians, and others. Many of these institutions are represented in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), including major mainline Protestant denominations (such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ), the major bodies of American Judaism, and such organizations as the YWCA.

Rev. Carlton Veazey, President of RCRC and a member of RD’s advisory council, wrote recently in commemoration of the 36th anniversary of Roe: “I call on the faithful to protect the lives of women and children by fighting to ensure that reproductive health care is accessible and that abortion services are safe, legal, and available.”

“The reality,” he continued, “is that the cycle of poverty often revolves around unintended and unwanted pregnancy. A woman living in poverty is four times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy and five times as likely to have an unintended birth as her higher-income counterpart. The link between family planning and overcoming poverty is well established.”

The Stigma

Melanie Zurek, executive director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project also hears the silence that surrounds abortion. While she also welcomes the possibility of expanding access to excellent sexuality education, she says that “abortion needs to be part of the conversation.” But she avers that it is also necessary to “remove the stigma against abortion that prevents that conversation from taking place.”

But the notion of “abortion reduction” as presented by Third Way, Faith in Public Life, and their evangelical allies, presumes that abortion is analogous to a dread disease, the incidence of which must be “reduced.” This recasting of the language of anti-abortion moralism into something akin to epidemiology stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream religious traditions of tens of millions of American Christians, Jews, Unitarians, and others. Within these traditions, abortion is often a moral choice, and in any case, women are fully capable of deciding when and under what circumstances to make that choice, without direction from the state or other uninvited agencies. In short, abortion reduction is a term that is imbued with the very stigma that Fowler and Zurek say is a principal obstacle to engaging in a coherent conversation, even in disagreement.

Zurek notes that the prevention strategies involving education and access to contraception would take time to work; and that fully half of all pregnancies are unintended and take place disproportionately among poor women. “There are both economic and health consequences to delays in abortion care,” she warns. “One of the consequences of barriers and delays is that the longer they wait, the more complicated and expensive a procedure it becomes.”

Regarding the “Governing Agenda” of Third Way and Faith in Public Life, however, she notes that “it is not only a matter of having the prevention work and catching up to the reality of unintended pregnancies. We know from the experience of other countries with terrific sexuality education and available contraception that there will always be a need for abortion care.”

In addition to the silence in the political arena, Zurek points to the silence in the health care system, where abortion is not integrated into the training of health care professionals “because it is so stigmatized,” she says. This same culture of stigmatization causes many patients to avoid even talking with their regular physicians about it, preferring instead “specialized settings” like Planned Parenthood.

As a result, access to abortion care is a significant problem of health care delivery in the United States. A major study by the Guttmacher Institute found that some 87% of US counties lack a single abortion provider. The study notes a long-term decline in the rate of abortion in the United States, but could not determine whether this was because of increased access to and use of contraception, or due to the lack of access to abortion providers. And yet, even of the competing plans to reform the health care system currently being debated, and of the many ideas being discussed, Zurek says: “I don’t know of any agenda that proposes to better integrate abortion into the health care system.”

And of course, since the abortion-reduction agenda is an explicitly anti-abortion tactic, albeit not one embraced by all sectors of the anti-abortion movement, it stands to reason that an increased focus on prevention and adoption would likely eclipse the need for improved access to abortion as part of a society-wide program of age-appropriate, medically-accurate sex education and access to family planning services.

Zurek is also concerned that the abortion-reduction agenda overlooks the many barriers to abortion faced, particularly, by low-income women and those from rural areas. An additional set of barriers are what she describes as politically-motivated regulations. She offers, by way of example, the laws in some states that require a physician to mention a link between breast cancer and abortion; a link, she notes, “that has been disproved on numerous occasions by science.”

The Abortion Access Project has several initiatives targeting issues of access due to the long, sometimes vast, distances between abortion providers faced by women in rural areas, as well as those issues faced by low-income women.

“Women in places such as Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas share a troubling commonality,” AAP reports on its Web site. “Because of where they live, these women face daunting barriers to get safe abortion care if and when they need it. These least-access states have the most restrictive laws and the fewest number of abortion providers. These states also share other traits: low levels of contraceptive care, high rates of poverty, and strong anti-abortion cultures. With little help to prevent pregnancy, few financial resources to help pay for abortion care, and the threat of isolation or even harassment within her community, the health and autonomy of a woman living in one of these states is at risk.”

Pro-choice Religious Leaders find their Voice

While the abortion-reduction agenda has gained considerable currency in political circles in both parties, pro-choice religious leaders are increasingly finding their voice and are seeking to be heard.

Rev. Debra Haffner, Director of the Westport, Connecticut-based Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, declared in a recent blog post that “[it is] false advertising to promote this report as evangelical and progressive religious leaders coming together.”

”The fact is,” she continued, “that this is a report by, in the words of U.S. News and World Report, a ‘coalition of prominent evangelical leaders.’ In that it expands their previous call for abortion reduction to include for the first time a call for comprehensive sexuality education and family planning services, it’s an important step forward.” She observes, however, in questioning the inclusiveness of the project, that four out of the five speakers on the press conference call announcing the Governing Agenda, “identified themselves as pro-life.”

Haffner maintains “that one cannot label oneself progressive without a commitment to sexual justice” and that she “would be delighted to help these two organizations bring truly progressive religious leaders to the table to discuss these issues. But until we’re invited, expect us to continue to speak out.”