Today We Pray for Women for Whom Pregnancy is Not Good News …

North Dakota’s one and only abortion clinic, located in Fargo, is something of a hub for religious life in the state’s largest city. Volunteer escorts come to the Red River Women’s Clinic (RRWC) from the nearby Lutheran college wearing buttons that say “Jesus Never Shamed Women.” At the same time, a couple of blocks away is a state-funded Christian crisis pregnancy center (one of the city’s nine state-funded CPCs), while across the parking lot anti-abortion Catholics pray downward upon the clinic from a third-floor chapel. The chapel is an outpost of St. Mary’s Cathedral, just five blocks away, whose bulletin announces that the church “goes to the abortuary every Wednesday.”

In the fall of 2010 Tammi Kromenaker, the director of RRWC, noticed something curious while watching the security camera footage one day. The annual anti-abortion “40 Days for Life” campaign, which claims to have “saved” thousands of “lives” since its launch in 2004, was underway and clinics across the country were seeing 24/7 vigils. One of RRWC’s protesters stopped for a minute and began reading from the forty prayers Kromenaker and her staff had put in the windows—one for each day of the anti-abortion campaign:

Day 1: Today we pray for women for whom pregnancy is not good news, that they know they have choices.

Day 19: Today we pray for all pregnant women. May they be surrounded by loving voices.

Day 30: Today we pray for women to throw away their secrets and claim their histories with power and truth.

The woman tapped her “40 Days for Life” sign against her leg as she read. “You could almost see the wheels turning in her head,” remembered Kromenaker. Arriving at the final prayer, the woman put down her sign and left.        

“Reasonable Christian people, when reading these prayers, understand that these are honest prayers for women,” noted Reverend Rebecca Turner, who wrote the prayers that RRWC had posted in their windows—what she calls “40 Days for Prayer.” A United Church of Christ minister, Turner is the executive director of Faith Aloud, a St. Louis-based nonprofit devoted to destigmatizing abortion. They were also responsible for the “Jesus Never Shamed Women” buttons. 

For the past four years, Faith Aloud’s “40 Days for Life” has been used in some capacity by over 200 (mostly independent) abortion facilities around the country, yet anti-abortion conservatives only took notice when a Planned Parenthood in northern California started using the prayers last month. The Six Rivers Planned Parenthood’s “Forty Days” programming runs through April 27 with events at Episcopal, Methodist, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist houses of worship.

Suddenly, with stories in Fox News, Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, and elsewhere, conservative media cast Rev. Turner as a front for Planned Parenthood. The National Director of “40 Days for Life” David Bereit told, “Planned Parenthood has stooped to a new low by exploiting pastors and churches to ‘celebrate’ the slaughter of babies made in God’s image and likeness.” The inclusion of spirituality in the pro-choice movement, the Liberty Counsel proclaimed, was “comparable to the religious leaders in Germany who supported Adolf Hitler.”

Of course spirituality already exists in abortion clinics. Kromenaker estimated that over 80% of the women who come to the RRWC grew up going to church. One of five states with only a single abortion provider, North Dakota is primarily Catholic and Lutheran. Even though women might worry that God will never forgive them or that they’ll go to hell, Kromenaker noted, “They still come for the abortion. Because they’re like, ‘I just can’t be pregnant right now.’” She added, “Every single abortion provider has had a woman who has come in and said, ‘I used to be out on that picket line.’”

Some women are surprised that church teachings don’t match reality: the clinic floors aren’t covered in blood; the evil abortionist is kind and caring; abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer. There’s also the revelation that you have been the first to cast a stone. “For some women it’s a huge lightbulb over their head. They’re literally like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have judged other people—they’re just like me.’”        

A short Faith Aloud video is played upon request for women in abortion clinics across the country, including the RRWC. “Whatever you decide to do, I want you to know that God is with you. God is with you right now in the abortion clinic,” Rev. Turner, wearing her collar, tells viewers in a gentle voice. “The Bible says that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” For women who struggle to integrate their reproductive choices with their spirituality, Kromenaker said, this message speaks directly to them. A common response is “Thank you, that’s what I needed to hear.”     

There are a number of religious groups working within the pro-choice movement. The DC-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice focuses on policy, with a youth wing that trains 16- to 30-year-olds to do advocacy and education work in their communities. Catholics for Choice focuses on changing the Church’s stance on abortion and contraception. Faith Aloud positions itself as a service provider for women who choose to have an abortion.

In Rev. Turner’s experience, many of the women who vote for legislators to roll back abortion rights at the state level are doing so while having abortions—they’re just ashamed. So Turner’s approach is to focus directly on the Christian women who have abortions instead of on policy work. “We’ve got to reach them with an entirely more compassionate version of their own religious faith,” she told RD: a hearts and minds, approach. Turner added, “As a movement, we will never be able to change the laws back to being pro-woman until women themselves are voting pro-choice.”

Christian women can own their abortions—or they can repent. There are entire ministries devoted to women who regret their abortions, like Rachel’s Vineyard, a Christian “therapy” retreat funded by Priests for Life. The church bulletin at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo contains an ad for Rachel’s Vineyard aimed at those who have “suffered from the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of a past abortion.” Sometimes repentence for past “sins” is tied to joining the picket line in hopes of preventing other women from having abortions. Karen Santorum, Rick Santorum’s wife, may well be on a related version of that trajectory, repenting for having spent her 20s living with a man, 40 years her senior, who helped found an abortion clinic.

“Women who are having abortions, especially religious women, feel that their only option is to go ahead and have the abortion, say that they really didn’t have any other choice, [and] go ask some religious leader to forgive them for it,” Rev. Turner told RD. She added, “We’ve got to help them find a way to say, ‘I am religious, and I did have an abortion, and I’m not going to apologize to a bunch of men for that.’”

This year, the anti-abortion “40 Days for Life” began on February 22, Ash Wednesday, at 258 locations. (The campaign is active each spring and fall.) On Good Friday in Fargo, Bishop Samuel Aquila of St. Mary’s Cathedral led the stations of the cross on the sidewalk in front of the Red River Women’s Clinic.

“40 Days for Prayer,” by comparison, doesn’t necessarily follow the Lenten calendar. At the Six Rivers Planned Parenthood in Humbolt County, California, today is Day 36. “Today we pray for the families we’ve chosen. May they know the blessing of choice.”