In the weeks leading up to Monday’s Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, there was a slate of reporting about abortion and religious communities. Much of the reporting was ahistorical, inaccurate, and failed to convey that Coney Barrett was not confirmed despite her inexperience and extreme views, but because of her inexperience and extreme views. Coney Barrett has one job: to push the court further right—and this includes ending the ability to legally access abortion care in the United States.
Reporting has largely positioned people of faith as a fundamental barrier to abortion access in the United States, either because they vehemently oppose it or fear repercussions for supporting it. In one striking example of this narrative, an Associated Press article published by The Washington Post featured insights from nine religious thought leaders and members of clergy, eight of whom were men. The men vacillated between hellfire condemnation of abortion and tempered support for “a woman’s right to make decisions over her own body.”
“This framing is shorthanded, sloppy, harmful, and ahistorical,” said Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, the director of spiritual care and activism at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). For more than 40 years, RCRC has brought interfaith and multiracial voices to reproductive health, rights, and justice issues, running directly counter to what Jackson describes as the “tired and disempowering narrative” developed by much of the press.
“What the media does not talk about and what we all need to learn and understand is the history and the role that clergy has played in getting people access to abortion. Today there are many people of faith who are fighting for reproductive health, rights, and justice.”
While Evangelical and Catholic leadership have consistently created barriers to abortion access, the United States has a vast pro-choice religious community, a fact regularly missing from mainstream reporting about Coney Barrett, religion, and abortion. In fact, Coney Barrett’s draconian views do not gel with most Americans’ stance on abortion, and the abortion beliefs of oft-quoted religious leaders do not reflect the opinions of everyday people of faith.
According to a new report and interviews Prism conducted with leaders who work at the intersections of religion and reproductive health, rights, and justice, communities of faith have historically played a part in fighting for abortion access, and they have a key role to play moving forward.
It is an indisputable fact that a majority of Americans are pro-choice. Sixty-one percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and data from the Pew Research Center also shows that a majority of the largest religious communities in the Unites States are pro-choice, including 56% of Catholics, 60% of “white mainline Protestants,” and 64% of “Black Protestants.” In addition, even largely anti-abortion religious groups, including Mormons and white evangelicals, have significant pro-choice minorities.
Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president of Catholics for Choice, told Prism that it has been “fundamentally frustrating” to see extreme figures like Coney Barrett positioned as representative of Catholics.
“Her personal beliefs represent an extraordinarily narrow view on a number of issues, especially abortion and contraception. As an organization, it’s very important to us to make sure the truth is known that she does not represent us or a majority of Catholics,” said Hutchinson Ratcliffe, whose organization released a statement saying Coney Barrett’s confirmation jeopardizes Americans’ moral and constitutional freedoms.
“As someone who believes there is no real economic freedom or social justice without the ability to control our own reproduction, it’s anathema to me that a person would use their faith to interpret our laws in such a way as to impose their narrow view of morality onto all of us. This is completely against what I know to be true as a Catholic. People who weaponize their faith against others, using their faith to deny others basic rights, are wrong. Doing that certainly is not ‘religious freedom.’ It’s totalitarianism,” Hutchinson Ratcliffe said.
This was echoed by Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, the executive director of Women of Reform Judaism, an organization with a robust reproductive health and rights campaign. Feldman told Prism that anti-choice movements have very strategically positioned themselves as having the moral high ground, using religious arguments and short-hand language like “pro-life” to “corrupt and mischaracterize” the abortion debate to suggest that their view is tied to faith, religion, and religious freedom while support of abortion rights is not.
“The government should not impose one religious belief over another,” Feldman said. “The anti-abortion movement has gained so much ground by using the language of religion to convey their anti-abortion messages and make it seem like if you are a religious person, you have to share this view. This is a moment when [pro-choice religious communities] have to be present and vocal and say: We are religious. We are thoughtful, prayerful, faithful people. We take religion seriously, and we believe [people] should have access to abortion.”
For decades, the Christian Right and its many allies in state and federal government have taken an incremental approach to making abortion wholly inaccessible, essentially rendering Roe v. Wade useless for large swaths of the country. This has been the crux of their successful anti-abortion strategy for decades. President Donald Trump has proven to be the icing on the anti-abortion cake, as his administration has done the bidding of the Christian Right in order to maintain power, a phenomenon that investigative journalist and senior research analyst Fred Clarkson explained in a piece about white evangelical support for Trump.
Clarkson works at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates (PRA), where he recently published an essay that makes a bold, well-supported argument: The pro-choice religious community in the United States “could provide the moral, cultural, and political clout to reverse current antiabortion policy trends in the United States.” The problem, however, is two-fold: These communities are not well identified or sought out by abortion advocates, the media, and elected officials, and this “wide and diverse constituency is insufficiently organized by the prochoice religious community itself. But it could be,” argues Clarkson.
Race, faith, and abortion
Clarkson, who has written about politics and religion for more than 30 years, has long argued the pro-choice religious community is a “sleeping giant,” and there is a precedent for members of clergy playing a direct role in ensuring people have access to abortion.
As poor people died from unsafe abortions—including a disproportionate number of women of color—the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) emerged in the 1960s, a history that journalist Amy Littlefield dug into this month in a piece for Truthout.
Before Roe v. Wade, the underground network of mostly Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis was “the largest abortion referral service in the United States,” Clarkson wrote in his essay for PRA, “eventually involving about 2,000 religious leaders who, in addition to helping people obtain safe abortions in the United States and abroad, lobbied for the repeal of abortion laws.”
RCRC evolved from this network, which Jackson said helped at least 140,000 people get access to safe and affordable abortion care. The work was dangerous, she said, sometimes involving “recognizance missions” in which women volunteers pretended to be pregnant in order to go to a doctor and see if they would provide safe, affordable abortion care.
“This wasn’t a perfect movement. It was very white and very male and there were struggles connecting with communities of color, but it was a powerful movement,” Jackson said. “The history is clear: Religious people and religious communities played a direct role in providing access to abortion when it was illegal. This is a critical part of our nation’s history that has been intentionally overlooked. This history can serve as a blueprint, that’s exactly why it’s been buried.”
CCS’ work unfolded at the same time the Republican Party first rolled out its Southern Strategy—a successful effort “to court Southern white voters by capitalizing on their racial fears” and turn “the solidly Democratic South into a bastion of Republicanism,” The Washington Post reported. As part of this movement, Christian schools began sprouting up nationwide, created to preserve racial segregation. Jackson said there is no untangling this deep-seated racism from the ongoing history of Evangelicals mobilizing in the United States—and this includes their overwhelming efforts to end legal abortion.
Historically, there have always been racial motivations for opposing abortion, as Kira Schlesinger outlined in her book Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice. In the 1850s, white physicians like Dr. Horatio R. Storer led medical campaigns against abortion, based on the assessment that “as more middle and upper class white women successfully limited the size of their families, the proportion of white population in America would decline, and they were afraid that free [Black people] and immigrants entering the country would outpace the more desirable American-born white population,” Schlesinger wrote.
There is a through line between these early anti-abortion efforts and anti-choice movements today. As Jewish Currents editor Ari M. Brostoff wrote last year, “Conservative lawmakers and right-wing vigilantes alike have adopted a seemingly new language for describing their antiabortion stance: the white nationalist discourse of the ‘great replacement,’ a conspiracy theory that holds that nonwhite immigrants are demographically ‘replacing’ whites throughout the West.”
It is “critical” for the American public to understand that abortion opponents operate intersectionally, Jackson told Prism. The right has its own twisted version of identity politics that are “intersectionally-driven,” she said. While their intersectional politics center and target white women, white rural people, white Christians, etc., it is clear that anti-choice movements are also thinking about gender, race, and class.
It goes without saying that there are many people of faith in the United States who truly believe that life begins at conception and abortion is murder. Those religious beliefs should not be imposed on others, of course. But there is something fundamentally different at play with racist lawmakers like Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King. While low-income women of color are disproportionately affected by anti-abortion laws, forcing these women to carry unwanted pregnancies is a byproduct of enforcing laws that do not allow white women to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Jackson told Prism that white, vehemently anti-abortion Evangelicals are “never going to publicly say” that they value their whiteness more than their Christianity.
“But they will say, ‘We value life.’ What they mean is they value white lives, or else how can you explain their support of a president who separated immigrant families at the border? How do you explain their silence when Black people are murdered?” Jackson said.
Feldman also said she is clear in how anti-choice movements characterize “life.”
“Those who say they are ‘pro-life’ are pro-fetal life. They do not care about women’s lives,” Feldman told Prism.
Jackson acknowledges that this is “scary and overwhelming” time in the United States, one in which fascism and theocracy are alarming realities. But this moment also presents an opportunity.
There’s a new day coming
Cherisse Scott is the founder of Memphis, Tennessee’s SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization that works closely with African American Christians in the South. In fact, various members of the organization and its board are faith leaders in their communities.
When Scott spoke to Prism, she was celebrating the ninth anniversary of SisterReach and reflecting on the organization’s long, hard journey of building inroads with faith leaders, who are made vulnerable when they are vocal about reproductive health, rights, and justice. Some risk being expelled from their churches for supporting abortion access, but it is a risk they have been willing to take.
The public narrative persists that communities of faith oppose abortion care and that those who fight for sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice are part of secular movements. But Scott said it is often the same people in the pews with her who are fighting for reproductive justice, a framework created by Black women that focuses on the right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children or not have children, and for parents to raise the children they do have in safe and sustainable communities.
While the court, the election, and the fate of the country during a pandemic all seem on the verge of collapse, Scott is choosing to focus on what she can change. Part of this is reimagining churches, and this moment is offering a prime opportunity to do that.
As FiveThirtyEight reported, religious involvement is associated with a wide array of positive social outcomes, including civic engagement. But millennials are leaving organized religion, largely fueled by the strong association between religion and the Republican Party. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed what it looks like to be part of a faith community.
In this way, the pandemic has created a serious challenge for the Christian Right and a tremendous opportunity for pro-choice religious communities. SisterReach’s deputy director just launched her own ministry, where she will be a Black lesbian masculine-of-center pastor, Scott said. Spaces like these are proliferating, and they are shaking up traditional perceptions of what church is and who it is for.
“The anti-abortion movement, the Christian Right, whatever you want to call it, they don’t get to control what church is or what faith is. I think there is a movement growing to reassess what religious spaces look like. People are thinking about the world they want to come into after COVID,” Scott said. “I want a world where I can to go my church and get resources about abortion. I want to be a queer person of faith who feels at home at church. I pray we come into this different kind of world, and I am fighting for this world. After the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, I hope pro-choice religious communities become empowered to fight for this world with me.”
What Scott is describing is very much aligned with a series of recommendations featured in Clarkson’s essay for PRA, namely that pro-choice religious communities need to create organizations outside of traditional religious institutions. Clarkson, who also created an annotated directory of the pro-choice religious community, acknowledges that these communities are “marginalized within religious and political organizations and broadly in public life” and therefore “easily divided and kept from becoming politically powerful.” But these groups constitute an overwhelming majority of the population, and “potentially the voting population,” Clarkson wrote.
The research analyst recommends replicating a strategy that has proven successful for the Christian Right, which is the creation of “parachurch organizations,” religious organizations that operate across denominations and outside of church leadership. Parachurches can be businesses, non-profit organizations, or private voluntary associations comprised of people working together toward a common goal. As an example, the ultra conservative Christian group People of Praise—where Coney Barrett served as a “handmaiden”—is a parachurch organization including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and “other denominational and nondenominational Christians,” according to the organization’s website. Coney Barrett and other members of the group “swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another, and are assigned and are accountable to a personal adviser, called a ‘head’ for men and a ‘handmaid’ for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family,” The New York Times reported.
Parachurches created by pro-choice religious communities would clearly have a fundamentally different focus, but it appears this is a strategy being seriously considered. Jackson could not share specific details, but she told Prism that RCRC is currently working with 15 organizations to explore the parachurch model. Some are faith-based, some are secular, but the organizations are located nationwide and interested in mobilizing around reproductive health, rights, and justice.
“We all have to fight for what we want and it has to be more than Black women, it has to be more than reproductive justice folks, more than social justice folks who say that religion does not have to be a place of harm,” Scott said. “Religion does not mean aligning yourself with white supremacy or with controlling wombs. Religion can be a safe place for us all.”