“When I introduce myself, I tell people I’m a sexologist and a minister. The most likely response is that people laugh,” says Reverend Debra Haffner. “They see those terms as oxymorons, kind of like ‘jumbo shrimp.’”
Haffner, the jumbo shrimp in question, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is also the co-founder and president of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that advocates for sexual health and education—including abortion and contraception access—in religious communities and beyond.
In a political landscape that seems destined to pit Bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist (see: Hobby Lobby), the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBT rights motivated by—and not despite—Christian faith.
Considering where most Americans stand, this makes sense.
According to most major polls, a slim majority of American adults support abortion rights: 51 percent of American adults think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Yet some research suggests that Americans’ thinking on abortion is more complicated than this simple binary—and that more people than previously thought support the right to choose. Only a small minority of the public believes abortion should never be legal, and large majorities think that if a woman gets an abortion, the experience should be supportive, comfortable, and non-judgmental. .
Americans’ stances on abortion are more complicated than the political rhetoric may lead us to believe. Our understanding of religion and reproductive rights should follow suit.
The majority of Americans are religious. Over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, while 22.8 percent don’t identify with any particular religion at all. Despite the growth of these so-called “nones,” over 90 percent of Americans still believe in God.
It’s a statistical inevitability: Many, if not a majority of, Christians in this country support reproductive rights. Of Christians, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used some kind of contraception at one point or another. Over three fourths of Catholics believe that the church should permit birth control, while 53 percent of white Catholics, and 43 percent of Latino Catholics, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Why do I find this so surprising?
“The American public by and large on some level has bought the myth of the far right,” Haffner says, in answer to my unvoiced skepticism. She’s referring, of course, to the myth that religion and reproductive justice are mortal enemies. “The reality is that the majority of people of faith in this country support all of those things.”
In fact, Haffner says, religious peoples’ advocacy for reproductive rights is almost as old as modern birth control itself. “It might surprise you to know that the very first denominational statement on reproductive health and birth control was in 1929,” she tells me.
It does and here’s why: I’m Catholic. Well, okay—I was raised Catholic. Italian Catholic from New Jersey.
In a town where “It’s Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” was still considered a clever punchline, we were Black Sheep Catholics, cultural-heritage Catholics, Kerry-and-Obama Catholics, the Catholics who nuns didn’t like. My mother, a feminist physician who attended Catholic school, was known to get into “disagreements” with church people about contraceptive access, abortion rights, and the war in Iraq.
During mass, I learned to mouth —not say—the prayers for the little aborted fetuses. I learned I would not be permitted marriage in the Church. I learned that I had to choose between my rights as a woman and a queer person, and my belief in God.
So, like youths from time immemorial, I flipped God the bird and pulled my pants down.
Reverend Harry F. Knox says there are a lot of people like me. Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)—a coalition of faith organizations that promotes reproductive health and education access—has a slow, gentle voice with a twang.
“It often surprises people when Christians are pro-choice,” Knox tells me. “This normally comes from folks whose particular faith backgrounds have a narrow view of reproductive health and rights.” This narrow view, says Knox, can sometimes make it difficult for people in the secular reproductive rights movement—people like, you know, feminist journalists—to collaborate with people of faith.
In some ways that’s understandable. When right-wing politicians affront our rights under the guise of “religious liberty,” it can be easy to see politics as a rumble between Obamacare-covered progesterone and, well, God. “We have a few partners who sometimes have trouble allowing the faith voice to be heard because of the very real hurt that has been done in the name of religion to women over the years,” Knox says of this tension. “One of the roles that RCRC plays in the larger movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice is a bridge role in helping our allies deal with that pain.”
Knox would know. First denied ordination in two denominations for being gay, Knox, finally ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, served for years in justice ministry for LGBT people. He came to reproductive rights work through what he calls an “abortion crisis” in his own family.
“The Christian church often seeks to control people through shame,” says Knox. Part of his job, then, he says, is to help people “tell their own stories about sexuality, about their own experience as spiritual people who are also sexual beings, fully embodied, and made in the image of God.”
And Haffner and Knox tell me that Protestants aren’t the only pro-choice Christians. There are, my mother will be delighted to know, Catholics in the game, too. “We say that good Catholics do and can use reproductive healthcare services,” says Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, Domestic Program Director at Catholics for Choice.
Catholics for Choice educates and advocates for sexual health—including, yep, abortion rights—both in religious organizations and the government.
Ratcliffe, and Catholics for Choice’s materials in general, put a lot of emphasis on conscience: The idea that decisions about the morality of abortion, contraception, and other sexual matters must be decided in—as they used to say in mass—“the silence of our hearts.” This line of thinking comes with a real anti-authoritarian streak vis-à-vis the Church authorities. Their very sassy mission statement reveals some of this tension, calling out the “Catholic hierarchy” for its tendency to “punish and publically shame” pro-choice Catholics.
Ratcliffe elaborates: “As Catholics, we actually have a right to dissent from teachings.” She identifies this as a mission of religious liberty. “The idea that someone would tell you what you can and cannot believe, or what you can and cannot access because of what they believe, is anathema to Catholics.”
How did I not know about this group as a little gay kid?
Probably because—to no one’s surprise—both the American and Canadian Conference of Bishops have denounced the organization. (A choice excerpt from the denouncement: “CFFC is, practically speaking, an arm of the abortion lobby.”)
Indeed, the group’s been ruffling papal feathers ever since its beginnings. In the seventies, a woman leader of the group had herself crowned Pope, and a member priest baptized a child who had been forbidden baptism by the Archbishop of Boston because his mother was pro-choice. In 1984, the group took out a full-page New York Times ad calling for the Church to accept pro-choice Catholics. It was co-signed by, among others, two priests, two brothers, and 27 nuns.
Which brings us to the nuns themselves. Lay people aren’t the only Catholics advocating for reproductive freedom—there’s also the nun contingent. Here’s how the most prominent among them got their start. In 1969, a group of women religious with the Catholic Church— many of them radicalized by the women’s movement—created the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), whose support for abortion and contraception rights and belief in the ordination of women continue to fly in the face of official church teachings today.
The organization has been headed for the last few decades by Sister Donna Quinn, herself an activist with a much-storied history. Quinn has been a vocal spokesperson for reproductive rights in (or adjacent to) the Catholic Church for years. She has even volunteered as a clinic escort. NCAN was active most recently in the midst of the Hobby Lobby hullaballoo. The coalition came out in support of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and a “Stand with the Nuns” petition garnered signatures from over 12,000 pro-contraceptive rights people of faith.
“The institutional church men forget that we are women who are educated, articulate, seekers of truth and very, very holy,” said Quinn in a 2012 article in Reuters of her and her fellow pro-choice sisters’ work.
While remaining active in contemporary debates, however, many activist nuns like Quinn are aging. According to some, a new generation of nuns is less inclined to ruffle feathers. At the same time, the overall Church’s influence may also be waning, as more and more Millennials leave the church.
Still, with 65 percent of Millennials identifying as religiously affiliated, the question of religiosity and support for reproductive rights is far from obsolete. And it’s more complicated than the political debate would have us believe, with more young people than ever—even religious ones—supporting causes that have traditionally been met with religious opprobrium, like marriage equality.
For Haffner, the continued relevance of these questions reflects our collective need for meaning.When Haffner tells me that the majority of Americans attend worship services at least a couple times a year I let out an involuntary “Wow.”
Right, because it’s not your friends, she says.
It’s true. I’m a writer for a feminist blog and my voice over the phone sounds twenty-two years old, suburb-raised and Ivy-educated, all of which I am. Two of my four college roommates were presidents of the atheist club. I’ve got “friends are non-church-going” written all over me.
But when I was researching this article—poring over the Religious Institute’s website or the nuns’ social justice writings—I found myself crying. Not hard, not uncontrollably, but I kept getting this lump in my throat. And then it occurred to me, washed over me like a watercolor, like, oh, duh—that I am actually, in a lot of ways, a very religious person. And I think that the polarization of faith and reproductive justice that the contemporary political landscape so naturalizes does us all a big disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think we are all fortuitous conglomerations of cells and St. Teresa was having an orgasm. But I was raised by a family raised on Vatican II, on Sacco and Vanzetti, on the Beatitudes, and every time someone starts talking about the inherent dignity of humankind, and social justice, and mercy, and compassion, I want to weep because I know that my grandmother votes Democrat and is mad about police violence and thinks I should have abortion rights and loves me as a feminist and loves me as a lesbian because she loves God. And God loves the most vulnerable.
Haffner, of course, is onto me.
“An anecdote that is really interesting to me is the number of weddings and memorials and baby christenings I’ve done since I became a minister in the reproductive health field,” Haffner says. “People call me because they still need somebody to marry them, they still need somebody to bury their mother.”
Yeah, you might no longer go to church, she seems to be telling me. You might have forgotten the Nicene Creed when the mass was re-translated from Latin and you might only take the Eucharist at Christmas because you think when you cross yourself and your cleavage jiggles you look like Madame Bovary.
But you know what? You may be back. You may be back because all those things you believe in, all those things about humanity and dignity and choice? Yeah, Haffner seems to be saying. We’re working on that.
“People return,” she says.
This piece was originally published in Feministing.