Because of, Not In Spite of, My Faith

Nancy Northup

It's human nature to want everyone to agree with one's religion or personal moral code. But I also accept that there will always be vast differences among religious and secular perspectives on life. And I believe that government should not help me or anyone else spread our religious beliefs.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a pre-election series
featuring leading voices in sexual and reproductive health advocacy,
showing how shared American values underpin their support for sexual
and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Read them all here

I was born in the heartland – Kokomo,
Indiana – and my family’s eight moves took me to places as different
as Temple, Texas, New York City, and a small town in the Sacramento
Valley. I sold Girl Scout cookies and earned merit badges. I marched
down Main Street playing the flute in my green band uniform. I was co-captain
of my cheerleading squad, pledged allegiance to the Flag, sang "God
Bless America," and went to church on Sunday. I still go to church
on Sunday. My religious faith informs everything that I do in my life,
including my chosen work as an advocate for reproductive rights as a
basic human right. I became a lawyer in large part because my faith
called me to fight for social justice and the equality and dignity of
all people. 

Some people may be surprised that this
bio belongs to such a visible and vocal voice for reproductive health.
We’re used to hearing such biographical attributes for those on the
other side of the debate, but my Unitarian Universalist faith has long
affirmed that laws that proscribe abortion are an affront to human life
and dignity. We are not alone; major religious denominations representing
millions of Americans (including the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian
Church, United Methodist Church and Reform and Conservative branches
of Judaism) support the legal right to abortion.   

The attempt to legislate one set of religious
beliefs about women’s ability to control their reproductive lives
is an offense to a bedrock commitment of America’s constitutional
democracy: freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

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Yet growing fundamentalist influence
over U.S. domestic and foreign policy is making the nation forget its
commitment to religious freedom. This fundamentalist belief–that everyone
must follow one set of religious truths–battles against a more open
view that respects differences of religious beliefs and ethical positions.

It’s human nature to want everyone
to agree with one’s religion or personal moral code. I understand
that well. I taught Sunday school each week out of the desire to pass
along my religious faith and traditions to the next generation. But
I also accept that there will always be vast differences among religious
and secular perspectives on life. And I understand, and firmly believe,
that government should not help me or anyone else spread our religious
beliefs. The government is not a Sunday school.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme
Court grounded the right to privacy in the protection of personal liberty
guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and
it recognized a notion of liberty that includes a woman’s right to make
fundamental decisions affecting her destiny, such as whether or not
to terminate a pregnancy. Since then, the Court has recognized again
and again that religion stands staunchly on both sides of the abortion
issue, and that women and men of good conscience disagree about its
moral implications. As the Supreme Court wrote in Planned Parenthood
v. Casey
, "reasonable people will have differences of opinion
about these matters." 

Given the different opinions that clearly
exist on both sides, what I find most disturbing about the public debate
on reproductive health, especially in an election year, is that the
moral case for reproductive decision-making isn’t injected into the
argument by those who support a women’s right to choose. While I’ve
heard many politicians say that they are pro-choice despite their
religious beliefs, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that he or
she supports reproductive health because of his or her faith.
Perhaps it’s because they feel those who oppose reproductive health
have already claimed the moral stronghold, and that the public can’t
accept that there could be religious grounding on both sides of the

As Americans we’ll never agree on the
validity of religious texts, but most of us agree that the Constitution
is sacrosanct. Religious liberty is tied inextricably to Constitutional
values. While the Constitution dictates that religion should not be
legislated or imposed by government, it also allows that we should have
the right of conscience in making personal decisions about when and
whether to have a child. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote
in Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define
one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of
the mystery of human life." This is precisely why more of us should be talking
about why our faith leads us to protect the health and lives of women
and their families. We can’t protect rights that we don’t talk about.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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