The moral case for access to abortion

The extreme public controversies around abortion in America create the impression that a schism exists between the pro-choice movement and communities of faith: one side is denounced as sinful, the other written off as fanatics. Those of us who count ourselves as both religious and pro-choice know this kind of oversimplification is dangerous, because it ignores the religious foundations for affirming abortion as a morally justifiable decision.

A majority of people of faith in America support the legal right to abortion.  Millions of people ground their moral commitment to this right in their religious beliefs.  According to a recent Pew Research poll, a majority of respondents from every religious affiliation but one - white evangelicals - said they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That puts them in step with the American population as a whole, nearly 70 percent of which supports the legal right to access abortion.  Surprisingly, almost one in three White evangelicals think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

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Last month I joined more than 1,200 individual religious leaders and pastoral counselors in signing a friend of the court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Texas state law designed to cut off women’s access to abortion by forcing clinics to close. I signed on as one of the leaders of that brief because I felt it was essential for the justices to hear from those of us in the faith community who steadfastly support that women must have access to safe and legal abortion services. 

Religious support for abortion rights is not a recent development. Clergy were a driving force in the movement to legalize abortion in the 1960s, and even conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention supported legislation allowing abortion under some circumstances in the years before Roe.

However, for the past four decades in the years since Roe v. Wade, ending abortion rights has become a central cause for many politicians seeking evangelical voters.  Religious voices on the right continue to disproportionately influence public policy about abortion and threaten to drown out those of us in the faith community who are deeply troubled by the recent tide of anti-choice legislation that has swept America.

States passed nearly 300 anti-abortion restrictions in the last five years, and the Texas law now before the Supreme Court is among the most extreme. So far the law has shut down more than half of the clinics previously operating in the state. If it is allowed to stand, no more than 10 providers will remain - some in very limited capacity – in a state with more than 5.4 million women of reproductive age. Recent research from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project has shown not only that this law has increased barriers to access, but that women who report facing such barriers are significantly more likely to attempt to end their pregnancy without medical assistance. We know now that at least 100,000 Texas women have at some point tried to take matters into their own hands and end their pregnancies without medical care, a life-threatening practice we had prayed had ended four decades ago. 

The Texas measures that limit women’s access to abortion services will do nothing to promote moral decision-making, harm women and their families, and effectively result in coercive childbearing.  People of faith affirm that all people should have the opportunity and the power to control their reproductive lives. If this law is allowed to go into full effect, restrictions on access to abortion could spread throughout the country. Low-income women and communities of color will be disproportionately affected. As a person of faith, I work to assure that all people will have the economic, social and political power to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families. For too many women, poverty, social inequities, lack of access to education, racism and sexism, have constrained their power to choose freely.

The weekend before the Supreme Court hears the most important abortion-related case in decades, congregations across the U.S. will join in a National Weekend of Prayer for Reproductive Justice.  We will be praying for the justices of the Supreme Court to have the spirit of wisdom and understanding, that they may discern how to best support women’s moral agency. We will pray that the attorneys have skill in their arguments, that they may inspire justice. We will pray that the plaintiffs have courage, strength and perseverance.  We will end our prayers with these words: “Bless us as we seek to create a more just world where all people have the right to make their own private reproductive decisions and obtain safe, legal, and accessible abortion services. Amen.”

Haffner is the president of the Religious Institute and an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. 

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