Culture & Conversation Religion

Ministries of Presence and Support: How Clergy Can Become Abortion-Rights Advocates

Latishia James

Half a century ago, a group of clergy formed to help people seeking abortions, even though abortion was illegal in the United States. Today's faith leaders can follow in their footsteps by becoming advocates in clinics, statehouses, seminaries, and their places of worship.

Fifty years ago, a group of courageous clergy joined forces to form the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) on Abortion. In 1967, Howard Moody, the senior minister of New York City’s Judson Memorial Church, co-founded a group of more than 20 Protestant and Jewish religious leaders to offer women with unwanted pregnancies counseling and referrals for safe abortions, even though abortion was still illegal nationwide. The service eventually included more than 1,400 faith leaders committed to empathetic connection with people seeking abortions and linking them with providers.

Those clergy’s activism could have landed them in jail or prompted the revocation of their religious credentials. Though the risks were great, they were not deterred because the women they served would also not be deterred from accessing abortion services any way they could.

The legacy of the Clergy Consultation Service survives in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a direct descendant of the CCS; other faith-based organizations such as the Religious Institute; and Faith Aloud, a program of All-Options. This weekend during anniversary festivities for the CCS in New York, a small group of clergy announced a new Clergy Consultation Service-inspired project to be housed at Moody’s former church in New York. These efforts echo Howard Moody’s belief that, if clergy made themselves available to those who wanted abortions, they would discover a great need for spiritual support and understand clergy’s moral obligation to address it.

It’s time for clergy to take similar action. While abortion is legal everywhere in the United States, for now, the need for compassionate spiritual care and courageous religious voices is still very present. Access is increasingly difficult in many states, and abortion opponents make sure the road to access is often paved with vitriol and shame. Religious-based opposition to abortion has continued to grow in recent times under the new banner of “religious freedom” laws. The current administration is undercutting people’s capacities to make reproductive decisions by packing key positions with anti-choice officials. And while different faiths and religious institutions’ positions on abortion vary, the rich history of religious abortion advocacy has been largely suppressed.

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Now more than ever, religious leaders who encourage healing and reconciliation, rather than trauma and guilt, must raise their voices. There are a number of ways for religious leaders to do so.

Educate and Emancipate Yourself

Religious leaders have a moral obligation to cultivate empathy. The first act in cultivating empathy is to educate one’s self about the people you are seeking to connect with. Part of the original CCS training taught the service’s members about the actual abortion procedure and coached them to learn people’s stories. Stories filled with pain, longing, love, and hope gave clergy a glimpse into the real-life experiences of women and decisions they themselves might never face. The CCS members received a crash course in empathy that inspired even the skeptics among them to become advocates. They were able to tell women what would happen during their abortions and worked to listen without judgment—a skill, supported by their religious views, that many had honed through their work with their congregations and applied to this situation.

I’ve had the privilege of sitting across from someone who was about to or just had an abortion, and I can attest to the impact of hearing that story. Listening to someone who’s had or is considering having an abortion share their hopes and fears goes a long way in shifting perspective. But perhaps more importantly, it goes a long way in helping you separate your own personal feelings from your ability to simply be present for someone else in a time of need.

If you are not familiar with why people seek abortion care or the barriers they face, from targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws to the often intimidating walk to the clinic doors, it’s your responsibility to become familiar. If you are looking for somewhere to start, you need look no further than the powerful work of those who bravely share their abortion stories. The 1 in 3 Campaign, the Untold Stories Project, and We Testify are all wonderful resources that you can access if you do not have someone you can talk to in person.

Interrogating your own feelings about abortion and the people who have them is an opportunity for you to unlearn your own shame and misconceptions about sexuality and reproduction in general. I was raised to believe that denying the desires and needs of my own body was good. Fasting, celibacy, and purification of my thoughts were deemed holy because my body itself was a temple of the holy spirit and not meant to be defiled.

But there was never a conversation about the defilement carried out by others against my body—or how others’ ideas of my body were filled with shame. There did not seem to be space for my Black female self to be sex-positive and holy, or a lesbian and holy, or an advocate for safe and legal abortion and holy.

Reproductive justice has been a part of the journey to find refuge in my own body and to rescue it from forces that would dictate to me what I should do with it and how.

As faith leaders, we have the opportunity to help reshape our society’s relationship to sexuality. But in order to shift the culture, we must first be able transform ourselves. Taking the time to become aware of our own internalized shame and biases is a first, necessary step to be able to connect with the personal experiences of others.

Give Witness Through Public Advocacy

Though our democracy theoretically operates under the separation of church and state, much anti-abortion legislation is introduced by politicians who cite their faith as the impetus for their proposals. Those of us who support legal and truly accessible abortion due to our faith beliefs must also advocate on that basis.

During the Hobby Lobby U.S. Supreme Court case in 2014, advocacy groups gathered in front of the court to support comprehensive health care that included reproductive health. I was fortunate enough to be among the speakers that day. And while I was extremely nervous and had barely completed my first year in seminary, I recognized the importance of my presence as a burgeoning faith leader in that time and space.

If using your prophetic voice at rallies or testifying in front of legislators does not appeal to you, there are other ways you can advocate as well. Calling your local officials and voicing your support while identifying yourself as a person of faith, visiting your state capitol on lobby days, and signing clergy support letters are all other ways you can advocate for reproductive freedom.

Outside of the political arena, our seminaries, divinity schools, rabbinical schools, and other institutions for religious education also need advocates. During my time in seminary, I was surprised that none of my pastoral care classes had a focus on reproductive issues of any kind. My peers and I were not equipped with the necessary tools to provide nonjudgmental spiritual counseling for people experiencing pregnancy, abortion, adoption, or parenting.

It is past time for our education to include these resources. Join me in calling on the Association of Theological Schools to standardize reproductive justice-informed pastoral care as part of general pastoral care studies. But you can start by contacting the heads of your alma mater’s pastoral care and counseling department.

Direct Support

Serving as a chaplain intern in an abortion clinic was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. While I had already been working in sexual and reproductive justice for some time, being asked to provide a nonjudgmental ministry of presence to people accessing abortion care truly deepened my empathy.

It also helped me to unlearn some biases that I did not realize I still held.

One day, I met a young woman who was having a later abortion for nonmedical reasons. I had reservations about later abortions but had never been confronted with someone undergoing such a procedure. I sat face-to-face with that young woman, heard her trembling voice, and bore witness to her tears.

Seeing her shame as she asked me what God would think of her reaffirmed that the mandate of a clergy person is to embody the love of God. My own personal feelings did not matter in that moment. What mattered was that I was being looked to as a conduit for divine grace. How I decided to use the power that young woman gave me in that moment mattered immensely.

My time at the clinic also made me aware of how the fear that some people feel as they enter clinics today is very similar to the fear that women faced when abortions were illegal. The dominant narratives in the media are those of religious people condemning people seeking abortion and characterizing them as immoral individuals or even devoid of humanity.

But what would happen if faith leaders formed a spiritual, and sometimes physical, buffer for patients when they make the often scary walk from car to clinic doors? CCS had more than a thousand clergy providing safe referrals. So why can’t we have an equal number of clergy providing nonjudgmental care in abortion clinics, a listening ear, and a presence that builds women up rather than tearing them down emotionally?

When abortion was illegal in this country, clergy acted as advocates. Now that abortion is legal yet under attack, we need clergy who are willing to be spiritual doulas.

If you are ready to join a nonjudgmental ministry presence and advocate for reproductive freedom, programs like Faith Aloud are ready to receive you. Faith Aloud needs clergy for its counseling hotline to help families sort through the myriad of emotions and questions that they face.

Are you currently in seminary and preparing for your internship year? Consider petitioning to do your internship as a hospital chaplain where there is an abortion clinic.

Teach From the Pulpit

The pulpit is one of the most powerful places within U.S. culture. What one does and says from that place of power matters greatly to the people who look to you for guidance and view you as an authority on spiritual matters. I have had personal experience with faith leaders who have used the pulpit as a weapon of harm rather than a tool of liberation and solidarity with the oppressed.

The likelihood that someone sitting in your congregation has had an abortion, knows someone who has had an abortion, or is struggling with some other reproductive decision is high. What impact do you want to have on them? Is it more important for you to impose a belief on them or to reveal yourself as someone they can trust to meet them with love and compassion?

You can also lead prophetically in study outside of your worship services. SisterReach, a Tennessee-based reproductive justice nonprofit, has created a curriculum specifically for Christian clergy and seminarians, which “includes preaching, teaching, and public messaging resources for those who seek to do reproductive justice work inside (and outside) the wall of the church.”

Leading reproductive justice-informed study using your sacred text can help your members understand real-world issues that have existed since ancient times.

During a sermon I delivered a few months ago, I made the connection between modern and ancient reproductive oppression. I highlighted that today’s anti-abortion stance is less about protecting life and more about the belief that the powerful have the right to control other people’s bodies.

Numbers 5:14-30 (a text found in the Christian and Catholic bibles as well as the Torah) tells a lawful practice wherein abortion was used as a punishment for women suspected of cheating. If a husband began to feel jealous about his wife, he could bring her before the priests and she would be made to drink a bitter drink. If she had not committed adultery, then nothing would happen to her, nor would anything happen to her husband who had falsely accused her. But if she had committed adultery, the logic went that she would become violently ill. We now know that this bitter drink was one of the earliest recorded abortifacients, and we also know that said abortifacients were not always effective.

Whether or not the drink worked in terminating a pregnancy was irrelevant to whether or not a wife had actually cheated on her husband. The forced abortion as punishment reinforced the notion that, even if she were “innocent,” a woman’s body did not belong to her.

While priests no longer rule the courts, clergy today still have much influence over public life. We have a choice to be agents of reproductive oppression or to be champions for compassion and reproductive freedom.

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