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Women's right to choose

Progressive clergy affirm abortion as a moral health care choice for women


Frederick Clarkson, an independent journalist, author and lecturer who has written about politics and religion for twenty five years, with much of his work focusing on the Christian Right, has posted a lengthy note reporting on pro-choice religious perspectives.

Among other things he discusses a recent Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as Moral Decision, issued by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

He also reports on a recent poll which shows that “Catholics support both a public option in healthcare reform and a plan that would include funding for abortion.”

Progressive Clergy: Abortion is a Moral Health Care Choice

By Frederick Clarkson  

Wed Sep 30, 2009

Much of the discussion about abortion and public policy in Washington this past year has been dominated by those who advocate for, or say that they have found, "common ground" on abortion. While this approach and its results have been in considerable dispute, particularly as prochoice progressive religious voices have been largely marginalized during this period, I am pleased to report that prochoice religious progressives have found their collective voice and are seeking to get heard -- the Gatekeepers of the various Conventional Wisdoms be damned.

This is significant in part because, popular misconceptions aside, vast numbers of American religious individuals and major institutions are and have been prochoice for decades. Listed in the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as Moral Decision (below) are some of the major American religious institutions that are officially prochoice as well as other data indicating the magnitude of religious prochoice sentiment. It is also significant, because too often, religious identity in general and Christian identity in particular, has been equated with antiabortionism, and allowed to be defined by the Religious Right. This is now, and has always been false; and allowing the Religious Right and antiabortionism to define the breadth and depth of the religious views on this and related matters has been an error of historic proportions.

I want to underscore my own efforts to raise this issue, as mainstream and progressive religion has been at or near the advocacy for reproductive justice for decades. I tried to underscore this in my book last year, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America, part of the mission of the book of 19 essays by 22 writers was to show that the Religious Left was not, contrary to the dictates of certain Democratic Party consultants and Beltway Insiders, not going to abandon reproductive justice, gay and lesbian civil rights -- including marriage equality -- and separation of church and state. These are core values, not peripheral matters to be jettisoned whenever someone thinks it is politically convenient. In these, among other ways, we sought to show what an authentic Religious Left is like, as distinct from the faux religious left that has been created to advance the centrist political agenda in Washington.

Meanwhile, Catholics for a Free Choice has just published a new poll that also casts the views of Catholics with regard to abortion and health care coverage in a startling new light:

    According to a new poll of Catholic voters carried out by Belden Russonello and Stewart for Catholics for Choice, Catholics support both a public option in healthcare reform and a plan that would include funding for abortion. The results show that the views of Catholics have been seriously misrepresented by the US bishops and by conservative Catholics in the debate over healthcare reform. A large majority of those polled, 84 percent, attend church regularly, from several times a week to a few times a year.

    While Catholic voters are split on President Obama's ideas for healthcare reform, they do want to see costs lowered and overwhelmingly support a government plan that would make health insurance available to the uninsured.

    Large majorities of Catholic voters support health insurance coverage for abortions--either in a private or a government-run scheme.

    Pollster John Russonello from Belden Russonello and Stewart said, "We have been chronicling the opinions and voting patterns of Catholics for many years and the lesson of today's survey is consistent with our previous findings: Catholic views on healthcare and abortion are mainstream American views."

But back to where this post began. Today, the Westport, Connecticut-based Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, announced:

    More than 1,100 clergy and religious professionals nationwide have endorsed the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as Moral Decision, upholding "the religious foundations for affirming abortion as a morally justifiable decision." The Religious Institute announced the endorsements as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider amendments to health reform legislation that would threaten coverage for abortion services in private insurance plans that receive federal funding.

    "Already, federal policy unfairly prevents low-income women and federal employees from receiving subsidized reproductive health services, but the new proposals would mean that even more women and families would lose access to these vital services," said Rev. Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute. "Placing restrictions on private insurance plans that make abortion accessible to women represents a serious moral injustice."

    "We affirm women as 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," the letter says. "The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term."

    The Open Letter calls on government leaders to respect religious difference on the question of abortion. It states: "Women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions. We oppose any attempt to make specific religious doctrine concerning abortion the law for all Americans or for the women of the world."

Here is the full text:

An Open Letter to Religious Leaders
on Abortion as a Moral Decision

The full text follows, and is also available in PDF format >>

    As religious leaders, we are committed to supporting people's efforts to achieve spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being, including their reproductive and sexual health. We assist women and families confronted with unintended pregnancies or pregnancies that can no longer be carried to term. We are committed to social justice, mindful of the 46 million women worldwide who have an abortion each year, almost half in dangerous and illegal situations. We seek to create a world where abortion is safe, legal, accessible, and rare.

    Millions of people ground their moral commitment to the right to choose in their religious beliefs. While there are strong public health and human rights arguments for supporting the right of women to safe and legal abortion, here we invite you to consider the religious foundations for affirming abortion as a morally justifiable decision.


    Abortion is always a serious moral decision. It can uphold and protect the life, health, and future of the woman, her partner, and the family.

    We affirm women as moral agents who have the capacit, right and responsibility to make the decision as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances. That decision is best made when it includes a well- informed conscience, serious reflection, insights from her faith and values, and consultation with a caring partner, family members, and spiritual counselor. Men have a moral obligation to acknowledge and support women's decision-making.


    Our religious traditions affirm that life is sacred. Our faiths celebrate the divinely bestowed blessings of generating life and assuring that life can be sustained and nurtured.

    Religious traditions have different beliefs on the value of fetal life, often according greater value as fetal development progresses. Science, medicine, law, and philosophy contribute to this understanding. However, we uphold the teaching of many religious traditions: the health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus.

    The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly.

    It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. We support responsible procreation, the widespread availability of contraception, prenatal care and intentional parenting.


    Scripture neither condemns nor prohibits abortion. It does, however, call us to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions. Scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion should be safe for all women. Scriptural commitment to truth-telling means women must have accurate information as they make their decisions.


    The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by economic, educational, class or marital status, age, race, geographic location or inadequate information. Current measures that limit women's access to abortion services--by denying public funds for low-income women; coercing parental consent and notification as contrasted with providing resources for parental and adolescent counseling; denying international family planning assistance to agencies in developing countries that offer women information about pregnancy options; and banning medical procedures--are punitive and do nothing to promote moral decision-making.

    When there is a conflict between the conscience of the provider and the woman, the institution delivering the services has an obligation to assure that the woman's conscience and decision will be respected and that she has access to reproductive health care, either directly or through referral. We condemn physical and verbal violence and harassment directed against abortion clinics, their staffs, and their clients.

    We must work together to reduce unintended and unwanted pregnancies and address the circumstances that result in the decision to have an abortion. Poverty, social inequities, ignorance, sexism, racism, and unsupportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely. We call for a religious and moral commitment to reproductive health and rights; there must be access to comprehensive sexuality education and contraception, including emergency contraception.


    No government committed to human rights and democracy can privilege the teachings of one religion over another. No single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on abortion, nor should government take sides on religious differences. Women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions. We oppose any attempt to make specific religious doctrine concerning abortion the law for all Americans or for the women of the world.


    Religious leaders have been in the forefront of the movement for abortion rights for more than fifty years. We call on leaders of all faiths to prepare themselves to offer counsel compassionately, competently, and justly to individuals and families faced with pregnancy decisions. We urge them to:

        * Advise and assist adolescent women in involving parents and family members in their decisions, while acknowledging that not every family can offer this support

        * Provide age-appropriate faith-based sexuality education that underscores the importance of planned childbearing and responsible sexual decision-making, including abstinence

        * Encourage parents to talk openly and honestly about sexuality with their own children

        * Counsel women facing pregnancy decisions to reflect, pray, examine their own conscience and faith, and talk with partners and family members

        * Support with love to those who choose adoption or termination of their pregnancies, including providing worship opportunities for those who seek them to mourn losses from miscarriages, stillbirths, and abortions

        * Provide financial and emotional support for those women who carry their pregnancies to term and provide loving community for them after birth

        * Publicly advocate for reproductive rights--including sexuality education, contraception, prenatal care, adoption, and abortion--through sermons, public witness, and involvement in the political process.


    More than thirty years ago, many religious denominations passed courageous resolutions in support of women's moral agency and their right to a safe and legal abortion. Despite numerous legal challenges and social, scientific and medical advances, we reaffirm this theological commitment: women must be able to make their own moral decisions based on conscience and faith. We call for increased dialog and respectful listening with those who disagree with us. With them, we share the vision of a world where all children are loved and wanted. We renew our own call for relational and reproductive justice for all.


    The Open Letter was developed at a colloquium of theologians sponsored by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and funded by the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. Participants included Rabbi Dr. Rebecca Alpert, Temple University; Rev. John Buehrens, First Parish in Needham, MA; Rev. Ignacio Castuera, Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Rev. Steve Clapp, Christian Community; Rev. Stacey L. Edwards, Trinity United Church of Christ; Rabbi Dr. Sue Levi Elwell, Union for Reform Judaism; Rev. Dr. Larry L. Greenfield, Protestants for the Common Good; Rev. Debra W. Haffner, Religious Institute; Frances Kissling, Catholics for a Free Choice; Kate Ott, Religious Institute; Rev. Mark Pawlowski, Planned Parenthood of South Central Michigan, and Leslie Watson Malachi, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.


Many religious denominations have passed policies in support of legalized abortion. They include:

American Baptist Church * Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)Episcopal Church * Evangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaJewish Reconstructionist Federation * Presbyterian Church (USA)
Union for Reform Judaism * Unitarian Universalist Association
United Church of Christ * The United Methodist Church
United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism

More than 40 religious denominations and organizations are members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

More than half (53%) of US Catholics identify themselves as pro-choice, and more than six in ten (61%) believe abortion should be legal.

More than 8 in 10 US Jews identify themselves as pro-choice.

Anti-abortion forces target Planned Parenthood

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, an independent journalist specializing in religion, ethics and ideas, writing for Religion News Service, begins his report:

Undeterred by solid Democratic gains in November’s national elections, religious conservatives who oppose abortion are going on the offensive with a new weapon: a sick economy.

In its largest-ever state-based initiative, the Family Research Council (FRC) is contacting every state lawmaker in the country with a plea to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, one of the nation’s largest providers of family planning and abortion services.

Their argument is fairly simple: lots of organizations need public money now, but Planned Parenthood—with a $1 billion budget and a $114 million operating surplus—isn’t one of them.

“Planned Parenthood has proven that they don’t need federal or state handouts,” says Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Washington-based FRC. “During these economic times, when states are rethinking their investments, subsidizing abortion is probably not the kind of thing that they want to be known for.”

The full story >>

A chance to act for Choice

If you favor women's right to choose, you may want to contact your Senators and Senator Bill Frist today, to defend the possibility of the choice of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) as chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter is the only pro-choice Republican on the committee.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is playing a crucial role in this matter.  You may want to read a little backgrounder about him, below.

Thousands from the Religious Right are calling and e-mailing, and those who favor choice must be heard from too. Also, perhaps let Specter's office know that he has your support.  

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Action Alert

Support Specter--Contact Your Senators Now!

Less than a week after the election, the first battle over reproductive choice has begun. At stake is the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), the only pro-choice Republican on the committee, was expected to head the committee next year. Now, thousands of anti-choice activists are protesting his appointment. Pro-choice people of faith need to make their voices heard, quickly and effectively.

Specter set off a furor last week with an apparent warning to President Bush not to select Supreme Court nominees who oppose abortion rights. On Sunday, Specter clarified his statement. He said that he was merely recognizing the political fact that nominees who oppose abortion rights are likely to be defeated because the GOP does not have the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster.

Specter needs our support.

Call both your Senators at 202-224-3121 (the U.S. Capitol Switchboard) or call or email them directly. Their contact information is available on our website at Just click on Legislative Action Center in the left hand column. Also call Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist at the same number.

More on contacting Sen. Frist:

His Washington phone is (202) 224-3344, but it is mostly tied up today. Direct contact is through his web site, (click to "About Senator Frist" and find the third heading).

Here's a sample message:

I am a person of faith and a values voter. Because of my faith, I support religious freedom and reproductive choice. Therefore, I strongly protest any effort to punish Senator Specter, or deny him the chair of a committee, because of his views. I am hoping and praying that you will not do so.

Faith groups worked so well together during the campaign to energize people of faith, bring new people to the polls, and ensure that people would be allowed to vote. We must continue to build, and we need to act-quickly and effectively-at this time.

Please take time now to call your Senators.

Thank you for keeping the faith for choice.

Rev. Carlton W. Veazey
President, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice


A little background on Sen. Bill Frist from our person in Tennessee, GeneTeSelle:

Earlier this year, Presbyterian Bill Frist, Majority Leader of the Senate, was given special recognition by the secretive Council for National Policy. In 1999 President George W. Bush assured the group about his agreement with their agenda.

The Council does not announce its meetings or invite reporters, but in most years enterprising newspapers (usually not the New York Times) get enough information to print a story.

The Council was founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye with many well-known conservatives as members. Participants have included political figures like Dick Armey, Tom Delay, Jesse Helms, Ernest Istook, Jack Kemp, and Trent Lott; businessmen like Joseph Coors and J. Peter Grace; strategists and publicists like Gary Bauer, Grover Norquist, Oliver North, Phyllis Schafly, Richard Viguerie, and Paul Weyrich; and religious conservatives like Bill Bright, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, Gary North, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, R.J. Rushdoony , and Donald Wildmon. Pat Robertson was chair 1985-86; Paul Pressler, who masterminded the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, was president 1988-90.

Those who think that the Republican Party is a pluralistic organization with a number of different constituencies, each with its own special interests (religious, business and financial, libertarian) are at least partially correct. But the Council for National Policy is in a position to coordinate the agendas of a range of ideologically conservative groups. If there is a "vast right-wing conspiracy," this is one good place to look for it.

Some blogs worth visiting


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Witherspoon’s Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, Witherspoon’s Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


Plan now for our 2010 Ghost Ranch Seminar!


July 26-August 1, 2010



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