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Why Religious People Should Support the Rights of Women in Reproductive Decisions

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Lately, headlines have been full of reports of religious condemnation of abortion and birth control. As a person of deep faith, I believe the opposite: I believe that -- as a matter of social justice -- religious people should support the rights of women to make decisions about bearing children, including about abortion and birth control. God's love encompasses all creation. It includes a woman in labor and it includes a woman having an abortion. It does not stop at the door to a women's clinic. For women, justice must include the right to make decisions about sexuality and reproduction.

Many people of faith and religious institutions think that reproductive rights should be protected and expanded, but often they are silent. Women's reproductive rights have been so stigmatized and stripped of moral value by certain religious leaders that it can be difficult to speak up. Ongoing opposition to comprehensive contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their allies is the latest example of stigmatizing women's health care. This is a good time to reconsider why religion should support, not oppose, women's reproductive rights. Here are six reasons:
  1. Religions hold that all human life is sacred -- and include the life of a woman as well as that of a potential child. This belief inspires many religious communities to work for a world in which women are healthy and every child is wanted, loved and cared for. Those religious communities support birth control, safe and legal abortion, and health care for all.
  2. Religions value the responsible and loving use of the gifts of sexuality and reproduction. The decision to become pregnant and have children is one of the most important we make as individuals and couples. We have a sacred responsibility to support the rights of women in this process because women have the responsibility of bearing children.
  3. Planning one's family is a fundamental right and responsibility. It is a key factor in determining the physical, social and economic health and well-being of individuals, their families and their communities. Religious institutions and people of faith have an obligation to contribute -- as other organizations do -- to ethically grounded policy on sexuality and reproduction.
  4. People of faith certainly have differing views on abortion and even on birth control, but most of us agree that God has endowed women with free will and the ability to make moral decisions. Free will isn't a matter of politics or ideology and it's not to be exercised only when it's convenient. An unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy that threatens a woman's health and life requires a decision that is made freely, with information that resources and support are available, whatever the decision.
  5. Reproductive rights are central to the lives of women and girls along with access to education, health care, equal opportunity and human rights. Women's full participation in life and full expression of self requires that reproductive health care and options are available. This is especially true for women who are economically marginalized, who have unintended pregnancy rates that are four times as great as other women. In this country, half of all pregnancies are unintended and about half of those end in abortion. That means one in three women will have an abortion at some point in life. Use of birth control, which some opponents equate with abortion, is virtually universal. As many as 99% of women use it at some point. Access to safe, legal abortion and universal availability of birth control must be a basic part of a woman's reproductive health care.
  6. We are a nation with a rich diversity of religious traditions. Decisions about birth control and abortion are medical decisions and are also decisions of conscience -- what an individual believes is ethical. Since religions have varying views about reproductive rights, enshrining any one view into law restricts the ability of those who disagree to follow their own conscience and religious beliefs -- thus denying them religious freedom.
The harsh and condemning judgments of some religious leaders are troubling. They suggest that abortion is morally wrong, while ignoring the fact that miscarriages and unwanted pregnancies are common. They deny that God is present in these times. In my view, it is sinful to turn away from women who are struggling to make the best decision for themselves, their families and perhaps their future children. There is nothing holy about silence in the face of human struggle and there is certainly nothing religious about shaming a woman who has an abortion. Women deserve compassion and support -- public as well as private -- from their churches, synagogues and temples.

Rev. Knox, Interim Executive Director of Integrity USA, the voice of LGBT Episcopalians and their allies, was the founding director of the Human Rights Campaign's Religion and Faith Program and was appointed by President Obama to the President's Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He will begin his position at RCRC July 16.