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Spiritual Dilemmas and the Right to Choice

The debate in Congress continues to rage over whether proposed national health care legislation will include a public option, and if a public option can include coverage for abortion services.  Advocates on both sides argue vociferously that public funding either must, or cannot, be used to cover a woman’s right to choose.  Tension is running high, and a key right of women is at stake.  

Unitarian Universalist (UU) clergy have a long history of counseling women on choice issues, and several recently offered their perspective on the moral dilemma of abortion and the importance of keeping freedom of choice available for women.  

Rev. Richard Weston-Jones, a retired minister who served congregations in California, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, recalls the environment that existed before Roe v. Wade:

“My work with problem pregnancy counseling began about 1966 working with the Clergy Consultation Service for Problem Pregnancies in Los Angeles when I was the UU minister in Whittier, California. I continued in State College, Pennsylvania in the early 70's when I headed a consultation service there while serving as parish minister. In 1967 my wife and I became users of the service I had been providing when a contraceptive failure caused her to become pregnant for the fourth time.  We elected to go to Mexico City for an abortion. It was illegal in Mexico at that time, but we worked with an excellent out-patient facility there—quite cloak-and-dagger in how we reached the facility. When abortion became a legal option in the United States we continued to serve women and couples needing assistance.”

Sometimes UU congregations, as well as clergy, are called to action.  In 1984, after prohibitions in Colorado’s funding of public health services placed a restriction on free abortion services, the First Universalist Church of Denver established the Freedom Fund

The Fund’s purpose is to extend religious freedom and equality by offering reproductive choice assistance to women who have few resources.  Women who are in their first trimester are served, and the fund seeks to empower women, to advance their health and choices by allowing each woman to listen to her own voice and exercise reproductive self-determination.

Since 2005, the earliest year for which statistics are available, the Freedom Fund has helped more than 1300 women.  Rev. Nadine Swahnberg, a community minister and pastoral counselor who now serves on the Board of the Freedom Fund, says that “most of the women I have seen, who were seeking abortions, were far too poor to know how they would be able to afford a child. The current economic downturn has drastically increased the number of women applying to the Freedom Fund for abortion aid.”

Swahnberg said, “Assuming that women are effectively controlling their fertility is quite erroneous, for a variety of reasons, including contraceptive failure and the difficulty affording, or using, reliable birth control.”  Swahnberg, who served as a Freedom Fund caseworker between 2001 and 2003, says that “Most of the women I saw were very troubled by their crisis or unplanned pregnancy.  They did not make their decisions lightly.  A great number had been using birth control, and it had failed.  They were shocked and upset when they learn it had failed. A number of the women we counseled had children and were not ready to take on another child.”  

39-year-old Rev. Parisa Parsa, who serves as Senior Minister at First Parish in Milton, Massachusetts recalls, “I was actually called to ministry while working as a counselor at a private abortion clinic. That experience was profound in showing me how deeply women wrestle with the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and how much of the debate around abortion rights centers around questions of when does life begin, at what stage is a fetus a baby, and when does it have personhood?  I was struck by how a huge moral decision impacts women, and how they have to make these decisions while  raising children and in the course of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.  And I was moved by the depth of spiritual searching women did, and by the lack of real resources available to women who were struggling with the decision morally and ethically.”  

Darcy Baxter, 28, is a fourth-year seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. A native of Syracuse, New York, where she attended May Memorial Church, she has counseled hundreds of women about abortion, having worked at the National Abortion Federation (NAF).  Baxter’s ministry is focused on reproductive justice issues, and she currently works on a volunteer basis on a post-abortion hotline and has been a chaplain in a neo-natal intensive care unit and a unit where late term abortions were performed for cases with fetal anomalies.  

“Doing my abortion work was formational in my decision to come to UU ministry,” she said.  “At the NAF I was one of the few people who could comfortably talk about issues of God and spirit.  I’m a third generation UU, have come through About Your Sexuality (AYS) and Our Whole Lives (OWL), and I have taught these programs, and have a level of comfort about talking about these things that isn’t there for everyone.  So doing that work, and seeing what a paucity there was of religious competency…I felt that there was a lot that organized religion could offer the abortion rights movement.

“I was taught that abortion was a safe and appropriate option for people,” said Baxter, “so I had a different type of engagement with the religious issues of abortion. And the number of women that I have talked to that feel this profound shame, that they are doing something wrong…is huge.”  When women she’s counseled would bring up issues about God in their conversations, Baxter said she would try and remind them, “God knows that life is hard, and God knows our hearts, and that we need to make hard decisions.  And, if we are making this decision for the right reasons, God knows that too.

“There is this moment, when you talk with women about abortion, where the guilt and the shame can lift a little and these women can focus on being a good mother to the other children they want to care for and feel equipped to care for.  And you can see the shift in energy and in the conversation, when the women realize that they are doing a hard but right, and even good, thing.”

Is it ever easy?  Baxter said, “No, never easy, but I would say that there are a number of circumstances where it becomes clear what needs to happen.  But never easy.  The circumstances, when you have an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, are not easy.  Women have the power to create and nourish life.  And that kind of power can be unsettling.”

Parisa Parsa echoed similar thoughts:   “The more I think about it in recent days, especially having also worked in a domestic violence shelter, it is a supreme irony that people worry about women making a decision to terminate a pregnancy, but give the same women complete freedom over how children are raised, which involves a much longer period of time and involves many more decisions.  If you really think about what that says, it makes no sense.”

As she contemplates the Roe v Wade anniversary and the future of reproductive rights, Parsa said, “I am probably among the naively hopeful who hope that it won’t be removed…that there are too many who have reaped benefits so that it can’t now be overturned.  The numbers of women who seek abortions, relative to the amount of public rhetoric that suggests that everyone views it as morally repugnant, makes no sense.  So I am fearful for a future without reproductive choice, and how drastic an effect that might have on women’s health and family health.  I don’t consider myself to have my finger on the pulse of public policy, but I worry that there is not enough urgency around this issue, and it’s hard to know where the women’s movement is on this issue any more.  Abortion doesn’t feel like the rallying cause that it used to be, and I can’t say that this is foremost on the minds on young women, because they have always had access to it.”

Darcy Baxter is more pragmatic: “Right now, abortion is pretty inaccessible.  If you have money, resources, you can access it.  But the level of state-based restrictions, and the shortage of abortion providers, means abortion is not easy to come by.  I’ve read things that suggest that if Roe were to be overturned and were to go to a state-by-state basis, things would not change so much.  The states that support this principle would maintain it.  Our relations to abortion doesn’t hinge on Roe.  It hinges on whether people can deeply grapple with what creating life really means, and the limitations we have.  It takes more than legality to make abortion accessible.  It takes moral courage and deep compassion and a lot of work to make it accessible.”  

You can take action:

The Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House health care reform bill prevents women from using their own funds to purchase an insurance plan that includes abortion coverage in the new health insurance exchanges -- taking away essential coverage that most insurance plans provide today.

Senator Ben Nelson's addition to the Senate bill also contains an unworkable and unfair approach to abortion coverage by imposing arbitrary hurdles to secure coverage for abortion care.  Under this provision, women would be forced to write two different checks to their insurance provider—one for abortion coverage and one for the rest of their insurance package.  Nelson’s provision makes it less likely for insurance companies to offer abortion coverage at all and presents a significant security risk to women purchasing this coverage.  Both provisions would take away the coverage that most women have today and as such, they violate the very spirit of health care reform—extending comprehensive health insurance coverage to those who are most in need.

The House bill includes $50 million in funding to states for evidence-based comprehensive sex education programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The Senate health care bill includes $75 million for comprehensive sex education programs and $50 million dollars to the Title V Abstinence-Only program grants to states.  Advocates are currently working with Senate and House leadership to ensure that if the final bill includes funding for sex education, the money is allocated to the most comprehensive sex education programs available with no more funds given to ineffective abstinence-only programs.

Religious advocates in Washington, D.C. and across the country will be conducting lobby visits with key members of Congress between January 19th and 22nd.  We urge you to call your representatives and ask that the Stupak-Pitts Amendment and the Nelson addition be stricken from the final health care bill.

Health and Family Justice

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

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