Over the past 35 years, I have counseled thousands of women faced with unintended pregnancies. Almost every one of them wrestled with what would be best in her life circumstances and with what her faith taught her. Many struggled because they incorrectly believed the prevailing rhetoric that people of faith oppose abortion, that Scripture opposes abortion, and that having an abortion would be a sin. Many believed that a religious woman would not choose to have an abortion, despite the fact that women of all faiths have abortions. Few knew that many faiths recognize that women are 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, and that men have a moral obligation to support women's decision making.
The Christian and Hebrew scriptures neither condemn nor prohibit abortion; in fact, abortion is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, despite it being present in biblical times. Scripture calls us to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions. The scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion should be safe for all women. Religious traditions have different beliefs on the value of fetal life, often according greater value as fetal development progresses. However, the teaching of many religious traditions is that the health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus, a position supported by Exodus 21:22-23:
When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman's husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life ...
The death of the fetus was punished by a monetary fine; the death of the pregnant woman herself required punishment by death. Although this passage is not directly a statement on abortion, it demonstrates that the woman, in contrast to the fetus, at that time had the legal status of an independent human being.
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. Before abortion was legal in the United States, the Clergy Consultation Service helped women obtain safe abortions, and clergy were in the lead in the fight for the repeal of abortion laws. During the past forty years, many religious denominations have passed policies in support of legalized abortion, including the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church (USA), 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, The United Methodist Church, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
It is because of my religious beliefs that I am unwavering in my support for abortion, family planning and sexuality education. It is because life is sacred and parenthood so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. Millions of people ground their moral commitment to abortion in their religious beliefs. We understand that the sanctity of human life is best upheld when it is created intentionally. As religious leaders, we seek to create a world where abortion is safe, legal, accessible, and rarely a decision that women and couples need to face.
Several years ago, the Religious Institute along with a leading group of theologians created the "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision." The central grounding of the Open Letter is that abortion is always a serious moral decision. It can uphold and protect the life, health, and future of the women, her partner, and her family. Almost 1500 clergy have endorsed the "Open Letter", and more than 3600 clergy have signed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing calling for a faith based commitment to access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment.
I, of course, acknowledge that not all religious traditions or leaders support abortion. However, no single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on reproductive health services, nor should government take sides on religious differences. Any attempt to make specific religious doctrine concerning family planning, pregnancy, or abortion the law for all Americans or for the women of the world must be vigorously opposed by those of us committed to religious pluralism.
Surely there is common ground across the religious spectrum to work together to reduce unintended and unwanted pregnancies. Poverty, social inequities, ignorance, sexism, racism, and unsupportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely. And surely people of all faiths would agree that no woman anywhere in the world should die giving birth to the next generation because of a lack of contraception, prenatal care, emergency obstetric care, safe delivery and post-natal services, and post-abortion care.
Religious leaders must not cede the right to speak out on family planning and abortion to those leaders and organizations on the right who claim to speak for all religious perspectives, and we must use our pulpits and our public opportunities to support reproductive justice. Our religious message is clear and simple: Our faith-based commitment to the moral agency of women means every woman must have the right to make her own decisions about when and whether to have children, and every woman must have access to the broad range of safe and legal reproductive health services.
May it one day be so.
Read the full text of the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision.
The Reverend Dr. Debra W. Haffner is the co-founder and executive director of the Religious Institute. She is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and a certified sexuality educator.