Can religion bolster support for abortion rights?
During the last decade, efforts to chip away at abortion rights have often met with substantial success, and at least some pro-choice stalwarts have worried that their movement is losing steam. Of the many factors contributing to this situation, one often goes unnoticed by secular progressives: Abortion-rights supporters have privileged the rhetoric of “rights” over “right.” In doing so, they have lost not only the moral high ground but also much of their moral grounding.
Enter the religious wing of the abortion-rights movement. The Rev. Carlton Veazey, a Baptist minister and president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), believes that religious organizations offer a moral authority to the abortion-rights movement that secular groups simply cannot provide. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) and a longtime reproductive-rights advocate, agrees. Kissling says that whether progressives like it or not, abortion is a moral issue for most Americans.
“In the ’80s, when we would say — as we still do — abortion is a moral issue, some people in the pro-choice movement didn’t understand what we were saying,” Kissling explains. During the 30 years since Roe v. Wade, the two sides of the conflict have built the rhetoric that now defines their movements. Abortion-rights activists use buzzwords such as “freedom,” “women’s rights” and, especially, “choice.” They couch the issue in legal terms. On the other hand, the rhetoric of the religious right is moral and emotional. When Jerry Falwell speaks of murder and unborn children, he isn’t just voicing his perspective on a difficult issue. He’s tugging at the heartstrings (and God-strings) of millions of Americans.
Catholics for a Free Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice may not get nearly as much attention as Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), but they do play a crucial role in the abortion-rights movement. A recent ABCNews/Beliefnet poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but only 22 percent support a woman’s right to choose unconditionally. Another 23 percent believe abortion should be legal in some cases. Kissling says that while secular organizations organize the approximately 20 percent of Americans who consider themselves avidly in favor of abortion rights, religious groups deal with the large segment of the population that “swings both ways.”
Because religious groups speak for a different constituency, both their message and their strategies differ from those of the secular abortion-rights movement. Kissling says that while NARAL and Planned Parenthood have to be “rough, tough, political players,” the CFFC can play at the edges of the issue. According to Veazey, although the RCRC will partner with any religious denomination that takes an abortion-rights stand, the positions of many such groups contain significant caveats. For them, the issue is more complex than “for” or “against”; Veazey thinks that most RCRC affiliates share the desire, expressed during the 1990s by President Clinton, that abortions be rare, safe and legal.
Veazey often finds himself explaining that the RCRC is not pro-abortion but rather pro-abortion-rights. He says that while many religious abortion-rights advocates may not be comfortable with the procedure itself, they ultimately believe in the moral agency of individuals. “To have a child is a sacred choice; to not have a child is a sacred choice,” Veazey says, adding that “government has no business interfering with a woman who struggles with that choice with her doctor, and more importantly, with her God.”
Moral nuance and legal commitment are the cornerstones of the religious abortion-rights viewpoint. “Some decisions to have an abortion are moral and some decisions to have an abortion are immoral. Big deal. That doesn’t mean you make it illegal,” Kissling says. This view hasn’t always been popular in abortion-rights circles. Kissling says that controversy ensued many years ago when the CFFC ran an ad saying that in a perfect world, abortion would be unthinkable. “There used to be this enormous defensiveness that if we acknowledged moral complexity, we would give ammunition to the anti-abortionists,” explains Kissling. Yet the reverse occurred. In ignoring the moral facet of the abortion question, abortion-rights activists left themselves vulnerable to attacks from the religious right — attacks that may sound credible to idealistic young people who have never lived without legal abortion.
For whatever reason, the climate surrounding the issue has changed since Roe v. Wade. In the 1970s, says Kissling, a young anti-abortion person was considered a “dork.” Now, it’s much more acceptable to say you’re anti-abortion, and so many people do — even if what they mean is only that they personally wouldn’t have an abortion. “I think it’s very easy to be pro-life when you don’t think there’s a threat to losing legal abortion,” says Kissling. “You know, I’m kinda pro-life, but I still believe in choice. And I can afford to be pro-life because everyone can make the choice they want to make.”
Veazey says many young people who call themselves anti-abortion do believe in keeping abortion legal (often with restrictions) but that the rhetoric of choice puts them off. He argues that they think it “sounds too casual — ‘this is my choice’ — like it’s an easy decision.” The religious right has pushed the terms of the debate so far into its rhetorical arena that it’s not difficult to understand why anti-abortion sentiment would be growing. If an ambivalent person has to decide between protecting a grown woman’s choice and unborn child’s life, who could blame her for picking the latter?
The only option is to reframe the alternatives, which is precisely what the religious abortion-rights movement is seeking to do. When a feminist says a fetus is not a child, she will inevitably appear opportunistic to some. Yet when a clergyman says a fetus is not a child, he does so with God’s own moral authority.
Veazey and Kissling say that the secular abortion-rights movement has caught on to this idea, welcoming religious leaders with an open mind even if the two groups don’t always agree. But much of the progressive world has been slow to catch up. Kissling notes that while the CFFC gets good coverage in mainstream publications, progressive media tend to treat religion — especially on the question of abortion — as the enemy.
Kissling isn’t the only one who thinks that progressives need to get back in touch with God. In her June cover story for The Washington Monthly, “Do the Democrats Have A Prayer?” Amy Sullivan argued that in order to win back the White House, Democrats would have to show swing voters that they are hip to religion. Sullivan thinks that Democrats have tied themselves to secular rhetoric because they fear alienating members of their diverse base. Meanwhile, Republicans are attracting moderate religious voters because conservatives are willing to speak in religious terms. Voters want a president whose values they can trust, and in the United States, religion is still an accepted moral litmus test.
This is true not only for white evangelicals but also for blacks, who tend to vote Democratic despite their religious affiliations. Veazey has made a second career of trying to break the silence about sexuality within the black church because he believes that taboo has contributed to high pregnancy and HIV rates in black communities. In 1997, the RCRC asked Veazey to assume its presidency; Veazey accepted the group’s offer — on the condition that its platform expand from abortion rights to reproductive health in general. Since then, he has founded the RCRC’s Black Church Initiative, which includes a faith-based sex-education program, as well as the National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality.
The success of these programs suggests that the most effective way to increase support for reproductive rights in religious communities is through pastors. The infrastructure for advocacy already exists, as many congregations of all faiths promote charity work and social activism among their members. Los Angeles rabbi and RCRC board member Steven Jacobs — who has led interfaith action on issues from civil rights to Muslim-Jewish relations — says that he doesn’t understand why some people think “the sanctuary just isn’t the place for the grit and grime of political values.”
The irony is that while progressives often spurn religious support on political issues because they associate it with the frequently trespassed border between church and state, clerics such as Veazey are advocating the secular position on abortion rights. But the difference between the two perspectives is that religious progressives believe God should be kept out of abortion legislation precisely because of their religious beliefs. According to a Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates poll in 2000, 80 percent of Americans believe a woman should follow her individual faith and conscience in a matter such as abortion, but only a third said their religious denomination favors abortion rights. It’s hard to know whether Veazey and Kissling are having an effect on these numbers, but one thing seems certain: Progressives can only benefit from welcoming religious supporters of abortion-rights into the flock.
Miriam Markowitz is a TAP Online summer intern and a rising senior at Brown University.
This article originally appeared in the 18 July 2003 edition of the American Prospect.