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Dispatches from Jackson: How to Talk About Abortion In a Religious, Southern Setting

Robin Marty

Ever since I arrived, I've been trying to find the magic key to beginning a conversation around abortion. Can a professor of religion help me find it?

Mississippi is a state that holds its religious beliefs in the highest regards, and in that light Jackson is a quintessential Baptist town. Christianity touches nearly everything here, from the legislature to schools, the businesses they frequent. Even the local theatre scene is influenced by the deeply held faith of so many of the city’s residents.

If women and girls in the state are ever going to have full access to all forms of reproductive health care including birth control and abortion, it will need to be accomplished in a way that is complementary with and not in opposition to the faith of the people of the state.

It’s a realization that I finally began to grasp on my second day in town. As a fairly secular person who doesn’t see religion as an everyday presence in my world, I was probably more attuned to the symbols of the Christian faith throughout the house in which I stayed. There were crosses in the bedroom and a needlepoint message to the Lord on the desk where I worked. To me, these are the signs of a deep devotion to God. To my host, and to many of the people I’ve met here, however, these are just the standard knick-knacks of a life where religious belief is simply the default.

The first preconceived notion I had to reject was the idea that reproductive rights and devout religious beliefs were automatically in conflict with each other. That one was fairly easy to overcome. All you need to do is look back to the sixties and the beginning of the first effort to legalize abortion, and the number of clergy who fought for women’s civil rights, when religious leaders across the country provided the counseling and underground network that helped get women to doctors who would provide expensive and illegal but ultimately safe abortions. The spirit of those early leaders lives on in the state based “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice” groups that can be found in Indiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, among others.

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To open up the ability to talk about abortion in a state like Mississippi, the conversation may need to stop trying to avoid religion, but embrace it head on.

“Religion is a powerful cultural force for many people, and I think that is especially true in the South,” said James Bowley, Ph.D., a Professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson. Bowley is a firm believer in the role of religion in public policy, especially in a social justice context.

“Religion is extremely powerful in shaping world views and in shaping everything in their nature,” explained Bowley. “Because of that, religious leaders are extremely powerful.” 

Bowley believes though that the influence of those leaders may be starting to wane, leaving an opening for more people of faith to explore some of issues that before were presented to them as absolutes. “In the last 20 years we have seen in all segments of society people being willing to go against their religious leaders. As that trend continues then religion will be less powerful but in the United States and particularly in the South, religion continues to be a powerful force.”

Bowley believes that what appears to be a growing hostility among some religious leaders toward both abortion and birth control hasn’t been growing at all, but is the result of a previously unengaged Evangelical movement that was called into politics and policy by influential leaders of the Religious Right, first in the 80s as part of the Moral Majority, then later in the 90’s as religious conservative movement rose into power. “Before that, Evangelicals and fundamentalists more or less eschewed participation in politics, and instead were content to be spiritual in their churches and spread the gospel rather than work in politics. I don’t think there has been a major shift in people’s positions from liberal to less liberal when it comes to protecting women’s reproductive rights. The people who were against women’s reproductive rights and reproductive health were always there. They just weren’t active before.”

They may not have been active before, but they are now, and they are setting the policies cutting off access to full range health care, effective sex education and prevention strategies, and even affecting the maternal and child mortality rates in the state. Still, it is the policies of the religious leaders currently being translated into legislation, not as much the “people in the pew,” as Bowley refers to the everyday church goers.

“It seems that more and more people in regards to religion are becoming less interested in just promoting the dogma of their own particular sect, and more interested in engaging in ideas that are common to everyone.”

To support his theory, Bowley points to recent polling in 2010 and 2012 that he says shows a more open-minded faith community more welcoming to new ideas from other sects. He also sees the growing acceptance of gay marriage as a sign of a new wave of Evangelicals who may break from the black and white belief system of their church leaders. “That shift didn’t happen because religious leaders changed their minds. Instead, people started thinking about it differently,” explained Bowley. “They have neighbors who are gay or lesbian and think ‘You know, they are not that bad.’ I think something like that could happen here [with abortion] as well.”

How do we make it happen? Once again, the answer is to stop talking about abortion, or at least, stop saying that word itself. “Change the language,” advised Bowley. “Talk about it as women’s reproductive rights. Don’t talk about it as abortion rights. It is a much larger picture than that. This is about women—who owns their bodies, who gets to decide these things for them. The terminology matters a great deal in framing the debate and winning the debate. Positive demonstrations like this where people aren’t yelling and screaming. Where people are being civil and engaging each other in civil ways. That can be appreciated in society.”

Religious leaders were one of the keys to bringing reproductive rights to all women in all states during the years leading up to Roe. Bringing them back to the table may be the key to returning those rights to those of reproductive age in Mississippi.

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