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Why the sexual and reproductive justice movement must be a moral movement

Recently, the governor of Texas announced that Planned Parenthood in the state would no longer be able to serve women on Medicaid. Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood across the country continue to preoccupy some members of Congress. The Republican candidates all court their conservative base by proclaiming themselves anti-choice, while the Democrats at their debate all but ignore the subject. Attacks on access to contraception coverage and abortion services are burgeoning across the country. So-called religious freedom bills and lawsuits to allow employers and providers—from bakers and florists to doctors and pharmacists—to deny people their sexual and reproductive rights are proliferating. Too often such attacks on sexual and reproductive rights are presented as the moral and religious response. 

But it’s time for policymakers to know that religious conservatives do not have a monopoly on moral views around sexual and reproductive issues. In fact, the truth is majorities of Americans – across religious traditions – support sexual rights, sexuality education and contraception.  Majorities of all religious groups—with the exception of white evangelical Protestants—believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

{mosads}It is time for the public to understand that the sexual and reproductive justice is a moral movement. It is time to articulate that having an abortion is a moral decision, and that what is immoral is denying women lifesaving education and health services. That’s the key finding from the latest white paper from the Religious Institute, “A Time to Embrace: Why the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Movement Needs Religion,” released on October 20, 2015. 

The white paper outlines how religious leaders in the 20th century helped lead the fight for legalized contraception and abortion. However, in more recent years, faith work within the sexual and reproductive health and justice movement has been under-resourced and marginalized. Most of the major secular organizations and their funders have not prioritized outreach to religious leaders or people of faith. 

The white paper uncovers a “morality/legality divide” in the U.S. that must be actively addressed. Although almost seven in ten people think abortion should be legal, just under half do not think it is a moral option for themselves or their family. This discrepancy demonstrates an urgent need for the sexual and reproductive health and justice movement to articulate the ethical and religious foundations for supporting access to a full range of reproductive health care services. The sanctity of human life is best upheld when it is created intentionally and when pregnancies and childbirth are healthy and safe. It is precisely because parenthood is so precious that no individual should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Efforts to destigmatize abortion and change the cultural narrative must involve religious leaders at the outset to fully engage morally complex issues. Together, we must shift the cultural conversation from one of judgment to one of empathy, compassion, and affirmation of people’s moral agency.  

The white paper ends with a call to action to secular organizations and funders to engage religious leaders and people of faith. Little can be expected to improve until the major foundations and the major secular organizations make a commitment to supporting the engagement of religion in the movement for sexual and reproductive health and justice. The Religious Institute, its network of religious leaders, and its colleague organizations are poised to help. Together, may we create a future where families in all their diverse forms flourish and all people have the ability and affirmation to make their own moral decisions.

To read the entire white paper, go to


Haffner, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, is the co-founder and president of Religious Institute, Inc. and a certified sexuality educator who has been working in the sexual and reproductive health field for more than 40 years.


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