The Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, Hindu priests, and Muslim clerics of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have been infuriating religious conservatives since 1967.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg and Rev. Barbara Gerlach bless an abortion clinic in Bethesda, Maryland.
In 2018, reproductive choice seems to be under greater threat than at any other time in recent US history. In the first few months of this year, Mississippi approved the earliest abortion ban in the country, Kentucky attempted to ban a procedure used in second-trimester abortions, and lawmakers from South Carolina to Ohio began considering the complete and total prohibition of abortion.
But an unlikely group in Washington DC is fighting back. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) is a national organization that brings together pro-choice faith leaders and summons the moral force of religion to protect reproductive choice by offering access to abortion, sex education, and contraception.
“Many are surprised to find that religious people are also pro-choice,” says spokesperson Mollie Katz. “When people take a moment to digest that, they often are very happy to find out our organization exists.”
The RCRC was founded in 1967, some years before abortion was made legal. At the time, it functioned as an underground railroad through which women could receive safe access to an abortion. “The founders would quietly research and vet providers so that where needed they were able to refer women to safe and respectable doctors rather than leave them to the back-alley butchers,” explains Katz.
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The coalition uses scripture and theological perspectives to support their work, claiming that their combined religious beliefs (which range from Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism to Earth-centered spiritualism) compel them to advocate for access to reproductive healthcare. At the heart of their work is pastoral care training, which equips spiritual leaders to give non-judgemental, all-options counseling to women with unintended pregnancies to help them come to the right decision for their conscience and circumstance, rather than pressuring them with shame, dogma, and anti-abortion psuedo-science.
Reverend Millie Peters has worked as an RCRC-affiliate for years, and now heads Kentucky’s Concerned Clergy for Choice group. “As a faith leader, my moral duty is to speak in support of a woman's sacred and constitutional right to make decisions for herself,” she tells Broadly. “Christian scripture tells of Jesus doing good and never judging nor shaming anyone. We are compassionate people who respect human dignity, and our responsibility is to speak for quality healthcare; a basic religious value.”
Members of the coalition also aren’t afraid to leave their churches and take their duty of pastoral care directly to abortion clinics. RCRC-affiliated clergy in religious garb can be seen serving as clinic escorts to women seeking care, whilst opponents from other faith perspectives stand nearby protesting and condemning them to hell. Members of the coalition also bless abortion clinics, Peters adds. “When Planned Parenthood opened its new state-of-the art facility a couple years ago near downtown Louisville, in one of the poorest zip codes in America, I wrote a blessing ceremony and clergy of various religious affiliations participated,” she says.
Reverend Dr. Cari Jackson, a member of the RC’s executive management team, believes that a woman’s right to choose—and the essential work performed by reproductive healthcare providers —is sacrosanct. “Despite what some conservative religious and political leaders contend, the place of decision-making that women enter before they walk across the threshold of a clinic is sacred,” she tells Broadly. She has also participated in the blessing of reproductive health clinics: “For me, these are communal affirmations of the sacred medical work they perform.”
She hopes that such blessings can repair some of the damage done to individuals and to our collective culture by others in positions of spiritual authority. “We live in a very self-righteous, judgmental, discriminatory, and shaming society. Much of this way of relating-to and looking-down-on others has been shaped by religious leaders. I grew up in that context and saw how broken it left people.”
The coalition rejects the shame and stigma that religious conservatives have long attached to reproduction and sex. “We want to prove that many faith groups see sexuality as a gift from God,” Katz says. “There are religious communities that recognize the sacredness of sex and sexuality and support women using their God-given rights and capabilities to make decisions.”
Religious women are just as likely as anyone else to consider an abortion, as Planned Parenthood CEO Staci Fox explains to Broadly: “One in four women will get an abortion in her lifetime. And that statistic holds true even in conservative and religious communities.” Whilst much of the anti-choice rhetoric does come from religious groups, Fox explains that some of Planned Parenthood’s most ardent supporters are from the faith community. That’s because, she believes, they “understand that reproductive rights are inextricably connected to social justice.”
Across the board, American views on reproductive issues are harder to predict than you might think. Religious affiliation, political leaning, and age are not clear predictors of who does and doesn't support reproductive freedoms. Many people's views fall in the middle somewhere with an overall 57 percent of Americans in support of legal abortion, according to a 2017 Pew survey.
"We define religious liberty as the right of a woman to make thoughtful decisions in private consultation with her doctor, her family, and her faith ."
The RCRC, however, has experienced its share of aggressive resistance from certain religious groups and media organizations bent on pushing an anti-choice agenda. “News organizations try to discredit our faith or the authority of our clergy,” Katz explains. LifeFacts, a website from anti-abortion news organization LifeSiteNews, describes the RCRC’s pro-choice position as “nothing more than an accommodation to modern secular beliefs, and it flies in the face of the Bible and the historical position of the church.” The Christian Post has also reported on how a blessing performed by Jackson at a Bethesda abortion clinic left one Christian leader feeling “revolted.”
But the Coalition will continue to stand firm for women’s right to choose: “Until now, pro-choice religious leaders have been silent while the opposition has a well-organized, well-financed system, pronouncing hatred, ridicule and judgment and shame on individuals' private decisions,” explains Peters. “We define religious liberty as the right of a woman to make thoughtful decisions in private consultation with her doctor, her family, and her faith. The beliefs of others should not interfere.”