Clergy who back abortion rights prepare for new role

Anti-abortion Christians have been the ‘only voice in town’

By: - July 11, 2022 1:40 pm

Abortion rights supporters gather at the Unitarian Church in Baton Rouge on June 24, 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

Anti-abortion protestors toting Christian iconography outside an abortion clinic are a common sight. While they garner a lot of attention, their vocal stance is far from the only religious view on abortion. Clergy with a pro-abortion rights stance want to remedy that. 

Rabbi Sarah Smiley, who leads the United Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge, said life is defined as beginning at birth in Judaism.  

“​​Life that is already is more important than potential life,” Smiley said. 

Using that guidance, Smiley said that abortion is not only permissible but required for the wellbeing of the pregnant person, whether that be physically or emotionally. 

Smiley pointed to the Old Testament, specifically Exodus 21:22-25, which discusses the punishment in the case of a physical assault on a pregnant woman. If the woman miscarries, but no other harm is done, the assailant must provide compensation, but if harm is done to the woman, the punishment must match the injury. 

“You are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise,” the scripture reads. 

While the United Jewish Congregation is a reform synagogue, and places a very high priority on bodily autonomy, abortion is permissible in many conservative Jewish congregations as well. 

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The Rev. Rebecca Todd Peters, a Presbyterian minister and scholar on Christian ethics at Elon University, defines parenthood as a calling from God, similar to other callings within the church. 

Peters said that part of a Christian’s responsibility is discerning what God is calling that person to do. That decision lies solely between them and God, Peters argued, adding that the state has no role to partake in or even question that decision. 

Peters argued that the only way that it would be appropriate for the government to take on that role is if everybody agreed with the belief that life begins at conception and that life is “morally, legally, ontologically equivalent to a human baby that is born and breathing and independent of its mother.” 

As that is not something that all Americans, or even all Christians, can agree upon, Peters argued that the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade violates her religious freedom and that of many other religious people around the nation. 

The Rev. Emily Harden, a Presbyterian minister in West Virginia, agreed with that sentiment. 

“​​My denomination holds that this is a kind of private medical decision that is to be made in conjunction with the people closest to you,” Harden said. “Many of us are now living under the religious beliefs of people who I would consider to be very, very extreme. And also, I don’t think I would consider them to be very biblical.” 

With abortion now illegal or heavily restricted in many states, many pregnant people will turn to their communities to help them access care.  For some, abortion funds will help them travel out of state to get abortions. Others will turn to their spiritual leaders. 

Before Roe v. Wade was decided, a network of more than 3,000 clergy members of different faiths banded together under the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion to help pregnant people in their congregation travel to places where abortion was safe, if not always legal. 

Harden speculated that this historical role may be reprised by contemporary clergy. 

“If there are ways that people exercise [their right to abortion care], then I think that I will be joined by many clergy across in working to make that happen,” Harden said. 

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That being said, Harden acknowledged that the church plays a different societal role than it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with older congregants and fewer people coming to weekly services. With those changes, Harden said that the way that clergy are called to aid their congregations might be different than in the past. 

Peters agreed that the role that clergy will be called to is not yet determined, but she speculated that educating will be one role that the church can play.  That education will require both educating congregations on public policy and educating the public on different religious views on abortion, she said. 

Peters said that anti-abortion Christians have been the “only voice in town, so they’ve really colonized that space,” adding that the onus is now on other people of faith to share their views. 

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Piper Hutchinson
Piper Hutchinson

Piper Hutchinson is a reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She has covered the Legislature and state government extensively for the LSU Manship News Service and The Reveille, where she was named editor in chief for summer 2022.

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