Religious abortion rights supporters fight for access

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FILE - Caroline McDonald, left, a student at Georgetown University, Lauren Morrissey, with Catholics for Choice, and Pamela Huber, of Washington, join a abortion-rights rally outside the Supreme Court, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Washington. Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors are prominent leaders in the anti-abortion movement, but not all believers think abortion should be illegal. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

On the day the Supreme Court hears arguments in a Mississippi abortion ban case, Sheila Katz plans to be at a nearby church.

It is where the Jewish organization she leads is helping to host a morning interfaith service in support of abortion rights. That gathering, and a planned rally outside the court, are among the ways the National Council of Jewish Women and like-minded faith groups are challenging the erosion of abortion access in the U.S.

“We’re going to start together as diverse groups of faith, to pray and learn and sing together,” Katz said. “That feels like the right way to send the message that we are doing this work because of our faith and not in spite of it.”

Faith groups with progressive views on abortion rights say access is at a precarious point as the conservative-majority Supreme Court considers challenges to two state laws, including a unique Texas measure that prohibits abortions before some even know they are pregnant. The Dec. 1 arguments in the Mississippi case will be closely watched as the state’s 15-week ban – and possibly abortion rights nationwide – hang in the balance.

“Things are dire,” said Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice. “We’re really at the precipice of losing a constitutional right that we thought would be guaranteed to us for forever.”

Beyond rallies and religious services, faith groups backing access have filed briefs that include religious freedom defenses in the Mississippi case -- Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They also have launched advocacy campaigns, called on believers to speak out, contacted lawmakers and published opinion columns.

Those on the other side of the fight, including the religious, also are mobilizing. The anti-abortion movement counts Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors among its prominent leaders.

But Katz and her allies say it’s a misconception that religious Americans in general are anti-abortion. People of faith are among those who support access and get abortions, Katz said.

“For too long, we’ve allowed a small but loud group from the religious right to dominate the narrative, and it’s time we reclaim it,” Katz said.

A majority of Buddhist, Hindu, historically Black Protestant, Jewish, mainline Protestant, Muslim and Orthodox Christian adults support legal abortion in all or most cases, according to Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study.

According to the study, Catholics are split on the issue while most evangelical Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say abortion should be illegal in all or most instances.

“I believe that the God of our understanding is on the side of a woman’s right to autonomy and agency and thriving, and so that means that God is on a woman’s side to choose,” said the Rev. Erika Forbes, an outreach and faith manager with the Texas Freedom Network, a progressive nonprofit that supports abortion access.

Forbes isn’t fighting for herself-- she has already benefited from the reproductive-rights advocacy of others. Forbes said she has had two abortions and went on to get an education and eventually become the parent she wanted to be.

Forbes has organized clergy in Texas to march, testify, and write opinion columns as well as activities like escorting people into clinics. Through her private practice, Forbes, who received her ordination as an interfaith minister from One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York, also has provided spiritual counsel to those considering their reproductive options.

“It is about my children’s children -- that they have the ability to create the lives that will allow them the freedom and the justice and the human thriving that is part of our humanity,” she said.

In August, the Texas Freedom Network launched a Reproductive Freedom Congregation initiative. Interested congregations are asked to publicly affirm three principles, including promising not to judge or shame attendees for their reproductive choices. More than 30 churches have received the designation and others are undertaking the process, Forbes said.

People of faith backing access to abortion is not new.

One example is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The organization has roots in the Clergy Consultation Service that connected women to safe abortion providers prior to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing the procedure nationwide.

Today, one of their biggest hurdles is conveying the diversity of theological views on when life begins in the face of decades of messaging from well-funded abortion opponents, said the Rev. Katey Zeh, CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

“The idea that a particular theological viewpoint would be imposed on everybody is a religious liberty issue,” said Zeh, a minister affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, formed by progressive Baptists who broke from the Southern Baptist Convention during its conservative turn.

Rabbi Joshua Fixler, associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, said his Jewish faith has a different view of when life begins than some Christian traditions, and it has been distressing to see Christian beliefs enshrined in law.

“Based out of a verse in Exodus that Jews and Christians interpret differently, Jewish law says that a woman whose pregnancy threatens her life can or maybe even should get an abortion,” he said.

Fixler, who participated in the National Council of Jewish Women’s Rabbis for Repro initiative and previously worked for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, is a longtime advocate for access to abortion and talks about it during worship services.

With his grandmother’s permission, Fixler has shared her abortion story with his congregation and more broadly in a Houston Chronicle column where he explained how forced shame causes many to keep their choice quiet, and why he supports abortion rights. He wrote that he grew up hearing about her abortion – a decision he said she made and never regretted after contracting rubella while pregnant.

“My community I think is waking up to the possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned,” Fixler said. “I hope that we can mobilize before it’s too late to ensure this right that we come to from a deeply religious perspective.”

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