It is the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. More than 35 million women in the United States have had a legal abortion since, making it one of the most common medical procedures performed.
Yet, few issues today are as contentious as abortion, and the battles over access are only become more and more heated. This year alone, states enacted 80 new legal provisions seeking to restrict access to abortion services, representing a sharp increase from 2010. It gets worse-the laws passed this year are more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005-and more than triple the 23 enacted in 2010. Abortion has been a focal point in many of the campaign debates this year, with each of the Republican candidates trying to show how more anti-choice they are. Each has signed the Personhood Republican Presidential Candidate Pledge that would grant legal status to zygotes and embryos, and effectively end abortions and in even some methods of birth control.
There is a religious case for safe, legal, and accessible abortion services. It is true that religious traditions have different beliefs on the value of fetal life, often according greater value as fetal development progresses. Science, medicine, law, and philosophy contribute to this understanding. However, many religious traditions teach that the health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus.
Christian and Hebrew scriptures neither condemn nor prohibit abortion. They do, however, call us to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions. Women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions or accessibility barriers. The scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion should be safe for all women, just as a scriptural commitment to truth-telling means that women must have accurate information as they make their decisions.
In my more than 35 years of working with women struggling with the question of continuing a pregnancy to term or having an abortion, almost every one of them wrestled with what would be best in her particular circumstance, and with what her faith taught her. Few made their decisions alone. Almost every woman involved the most important people in her life. Many faith traditions teach that abortion is always a moral decision and that respecting women’s moral agency means that only the individual woman can know what is right in her own circumstances.
Surely people of faith across the spectrum can agree that we must work together to reduce unintended and unwanted pregnancies and address the circumstances that result in the decision to have an abortion. Poverty, social inequities, ignorance, sexism, racism, and unsupportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely.
People of faith base their support in recognizing that abortion is always a serious moral decision. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. A large number of clergy and people of faith affirm women as moral agents who have the capacity, right and responsibility to make the decision as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances. Many religious denominations have passed policies in support of legalized abortion, including the American Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Union for Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ and The United Methodist Church.
Religious leaders have been in the forefront of the movement for abortion rights for more than fifty years, advocating for women to be able to make their own moral decisions. Leaders of all faiths should offer their counsel compassionately, competently, and justly to individuals and to families. Women must be able to make their own moral decisions based on conscience and faith. It is time for us to recognize that as a country and end the attacks on reproductive justice.
Rev. Debra Haffner is an On Faith panelist, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and Executive director of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health and justice.