Like many people who hold religious beliefs and are also pro-choice — and indeed, who are pro-choice in part because of the emphasis on goodness and respect for human rights that are ingrained in their faith — I’m tired of the right-wing anti-abortion campaign claiming that they have a monopoly on God. Skim the Bible for the word “abortion” — you won’t find it. The Bible doesn’t condone nor condemn abortion. It does, in one instance, represent it as a property crime (you cause a woman to miscarry, and you have to pay her husband a fine):
“And if men struggle and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
If a fetus is the full equivalent of a human life, shouldn’t the man who caused the woman to miscarry be expected to pay with his life?
Luckily, other faith-friendly pro-choicers are coming out on the offensive, and demonstrating that support for reproductive rights is not only not immoral, but fitting within a religious code that values justice and human rights.
The Interfaith Prayer Breakfast has been part of Planned Parenthood’s annual convention for four years. Most ministers and rabbis at the breakfast have known the group far longer.
Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that became Planned Parenthood, drew clergy members in the early 20th century by relating the suffering of women who endured successive pregnancies that ravaged their health and sought illegal abortions in their desperation, said the Rev. Thomas R. Davis of the United Church of Christ, in his book “Sacred Work, Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances.”
In the 1930’s, Jewish and mainline Protestant groups began to voice their support for birth control. In 1962, a Maryland clergy coalition successfully pressed the state to permit the disbursal of contraception. In the late 1960’s, some 2,000 ministers and rabbis across the country banded together to give women information about abortion providers and to lobby for the repeal of anti-abortion laws.
“The clergy could open that door because the clergy had a certain moral authority,” said Mr. Davis, who is chairman of Planned Parenthood’s clergy advisory board but whose book is not sponsored by the group. “They balanced the moral authority of the critics.”
The role of religious communities in securing abortion rights cannot be emphasized enough. Religious leaders took a look around and saw, for example, that 20% of hospital admissions for pregnancy-related problems in New York and California were the result of dangerous illegal abortions. They saw that poor women were more likely to be maimed or killed by their illegal abortions. They saw that even for the women who were able to secure safe illegal abortions — and thanks to a handful of conscientious providers, these women did exist — the shame of having to go underground for a basic medical procedure was deeply harmful. They saw that, even after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, low-income women like Gerri Santoro (caution: graphic) still lacked the basic resources to make reproductive rights a reality. They saw, basically, that limiting reproductive rights hurts women.
And so they mobilized. Clergy, along with activists, community members and police officers, organized the Jane network, which connected women with safe clandestine abortion services. Should such a service become necessary again, progessive religious people will continue to be some of our strongest allies.
As the scrape of silverware quieted at the breakfast, the Rev. W. Stewart MacColl told the audience how a Presbyterian church in Houston that he had led and several others had worked with Planned Parenthood to start a family planning center. Protesters visited his church. Yet his 900 parishioners drove through picket lines every week to attend services. One Sunday, he and his wife, Jane, took refreshments to the protesters out of respect for their understanding of faith, he said.
Mr. MacColl said a parishioner called him the next day to comment: “That’s all very well for you to say, but you don’t drive to church with a 4-year-old in the back seat of your car and have to try to explain to him when a woman holds up a picture of a dead baby and screams through the window, ‘Your church believes in killing babies.’ ”
Mr. MacColl said of the abortion protester: “She would, I suspect, count herself a lover of life, a lover of the unborn, a lover of God. And yet she spoke in harshness, hatred and frightened a little child.”
Mr. MacColl quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: ” ‘Sometimes the worst evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good.’ ”
The crowd murmured its assent.
Then Mr. MacColl challenged them. “The trouble is, I find myself reflected in that woman,” he said. “Because I can get trapped in self-righteousness and paint those who oppose me in dark colors they do not deserve. Is that, at times, true of you, as well?”
This time, people were silent.
He makes a good point. It is easy to demonize those who disagree with you, particularly when they’re just as passionate as you are. The difference, of course, is that a passion for limiting rights and oppressing an entire segment of the population tends to be a less salient argument than fighting for basic human rights and individual autonomy.
“The more we are able to cultivate the capacity in every person — women and men — to make informed ethical judgments both in ourselves and our society, the more we are coming into relationship with the transcendent, with God,” said the Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary.
“Human existence as a materialistic quest for power and dominance, a crass manipulation of fear and intolerance for political gain, drives us apart both from one another and from God,” she said. “For what does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”
UPDATE: Allow me to clarify a minor point. I wrote about this because I thought it was interesting, not because I think that religious beliefs should at all influence legal standards. They shouldn’t. That should be obvious enough from everything I’ve ever written here.
And, not to criticize anyone in particular, but I’m quickly tiring of the legal strawman that is too often propped up in response to any assertion or observation. If I say, “I think it’s really abhorrent that Neil Boortz said that Rep. McKinney looks like a ‘ghetto slut;‘ if you support him by listening to his show, now might be a good time to stop,” it doesn’t mean that I’m trying to legally infringe on Neil Boortz’s legal right to free speech (and I’m not the government, so, you know, that would be tough for me to do either way). And if I say that religious people have had, and continue to have, an influence on abortion rights, it doesn’t mean that I think religion should dictate law on abortion. Ok, bitch over.