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Progressive Religious Leaders Seek to Shift the Conversation on Contraception and Abortion in Texas

Andrea Grimes

Last week, clergy from across the state of Texas gathered at the capitol building in Austin to show their support for access to contraception. Clad in collars, stoles and other religious garb, they stood in the outdoor rotunda to call, publicly, for legislators to stop their ongoing attacks on Texans' freedom to choose when and whether to have children.

Last week, clergy from across the state of Texas gathered at the capitol building in Austin to show their support for access to contraception. Clad in collars, stoles, and other religious garb, they stood in the outdoor rotunda to call, publicly, for legislators to stop their ongoing attacks on the freedoms of Texans to choose whether, when, and with whom to have children.

Praying together, they hailed from congregations large and small, representing mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations, non-denominational gospel and Bible churches, Catholic organizations, and Unitarian Universalist groups. 

“The vision of a beloved community requires that all women have access to safe, affordable health care,” prayed Rev. Valda Jean Combs of St. James United Methodist Church in Waco. “We understand that the emotional, spiritual and economic well-being of women are impacted by the freedom to decide when, or even if, they have children.”

It was a remarkable moment, happening in a state where the conversation about reproductive health care is dominated by conservative Christian lawmakers who tout Biblical family values while slashing family planning funding and dismantling the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, drastically reducing low-income Texans’ access to contraception despite its money-saving, freedom-enabling benefits.

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Leading the charge to change the dialogue around contraception and faith in the state is the Texas Freedom Network, a non-profit religious freedom organization which released a study this month that found that most Texans, even born-again Christians and Catholics, “support government taking action to ensure that Texas women can make their own decisions about family planning, including providing state funding for family planning and birth control programs in the state.” From the study:

Support for state funding for providing access to family planning services and birth control for low-income women is both broad and deep, crossing political, racial, generational and geographic lines. Moreover, strong support exists for access to birth control among religiously observant Texans, including both Catholics and Protestants, as well as Born-again Christians.

While conservative lawmakers seem to believe they have the force of God, the Bible and the public behind them when they gut family planning programs, it seems that in reality, a largely silent majority of Texans do not believe that having faith means eschewing contraception. And their faith leaders are speaking out on their behalf, with 371 religious leaders signing a public petition in support of reproductive health care.

“One thing that’s kept me a United Methodist is that Methodism allows me to think for myself,” said Rev. Richard Bates, a retired minister who says his faith “allows me to make my own choices as I see them.” That sense of God-given personal responsibility is what he says drives him to support publicly funded access to contraception so that Texans are empowered to control their own fertility.

“I should have no say-so in any woman’s pregnancy, to choose or not to choose,” he said. “Each case is unique, it’s theirs. I should not impose myself on them.”

Drawing a direct correlation between faith and politics, legislating directly from a perceived Biblical imperative, has come to be the norm for conservative lawmakers and politicians in Texas. That viewpoint particularly comes to life during events like Governor Rick Perry’s “The Response” prayer rally in 2011, which was promoted and executed with the full force of the gubernatorial office.

Progressives, liberals, Democrats, and even moderates in Texas have been less willing to bring their religious beliefs into voting booths and through the doors of the state’s capitol. Now, activists and clergy members are saying that that has to change, because the widespread negative effects of conservative policies are too dire to ignore any longer.

“In mainline religions, I find a reluctance to speak on issues that have any political connotation,” said Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. She says the focus in many faith communities is on charity work—volunteering at a soup kitchen or a thrift shop—rather than addressing the “root cause” of inequalities, which necessarily involves political activism, public policy and legislation.

In Unitarian Universalism, says Cooper-Davis, there is no divide between a feel-good Sunday morning service and a faith-based obligation to address social injustices which, she says, includes supporting access to contraception.

“We see the ability of women in particular, but families in general, to decide when or whether they want to have children as a kind of a fundamental human right,” she said. “No one should determine for you that you must be a mother, or you must have ‘x’ number children, or that your access is limited and you have to take your chances.”

The crux of the problem is that conservative lawmakers seem to be unable or unwilling to separate the concept of contraception from that of abortion, in what has become a years-long crusade against Planned Parenthood that has had the aggregate effect not of spelling death for the sprawling health care provider, but of weakening or eliminating community family planning clinics and doctors who serve low-income communities. They’re throwing the baby out with the baptism water.

But this is the price evangelical lawmakers like Senator Dan Patrick, a Tea Party talk show host and Houston media mogul, say Texas must pay to rid itself of the evil of abortion and receive forgiveness from Jesus:

“The good news is through the blood of Jesus Christ he forgives, and women who have aborted children need to know that message … I believe this can be the beginning of the end of 75,000 abortions we have every year in Texas.”

Indeed, Sen. Patrick considers himself quite the authority on matters of faith and politics; he titled his 2002 book The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read … besides, of course, the Bible.

This kind of puffed-up rhetoric is par for the course in Texas politics. Where, then, are those who say their faith demands that they work to increase access to contraception and safe abortion care, not reduce it?  The prospect of speaking out against high-ranking officials is daunting, says Rabbi Neal Katz of Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas.

“I’m one of these people who sits around, watches the religious right dominate the conversation,” he says, feeling “impotent to combat them.” He says he doesn’t consider himself a “culture warrior,” but he’s willing to “put [his] face out in public” to speak out against anti-contraception zealots. He appeared at the Texas Freedom Network’s prayer session at the capitol last week to show his support for access to reproductive health care, which he says is not at odds with the teaching of the Reform Jewish community, but in step with them.

“We know that the majority of Texans support women’s health, access to contraception,” he says. “We’re just a silent majority.” Even though he represents a relatively rural, small-town community in East Texas, an area not known for its political progressivism, he says there’s nothing revolutionary about finding ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies. He says his faith tradition “highly values personal autonomy and self-respect,” wherein “my freedom ends where your freedom begins.”

Rev. Katrina Shawgo, a hospice chaplain who attends St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin, says she draws inspiration for her support of reproductive rights directly from the Bible … yes, the same Bible that the Perrys and the Patricks of the world say mandates their attacks on health care.

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we’re reading the same Scriptures,” says Rev. Shawgo. “The main message of the ministry of Jesus that I see is one of liberation and justice, and to me, contraception is tied directly, for women, to their economic liberation, to their emotional and spiritual liberation.”

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