When I was a newly ordained, still naive and idealistic, young pastor from South Carolina, I attended a meeting of Clergy for Choice. This was 1989, 16 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. We had gathered as faith leaders because state legislation was in the offing that would curtail that federal right. Using the typical channels of public advocacy, we launched a campaign and held the line. Little did I know this would be the beginning of a career-long struggle to hold the line on reproductive rights, a struggle that has only intensified with each passing anniversary of Roe, the 47th of which just occurred a few weeks back on January 22.
In the days when abortion was not legal, some people might be surprised to learn that clergy were one of the most reliable sources for helping people access abortion. Faith leaders knew what is at stake for some people when faced with an unexpected pregnancy that has the potential to wreck lives and plunge families into poverty. Clergy understood the access divide that afforded safe abortions for women who could pay and dangerous, even life-threatening, abortions for those who couldn’t. Remember, Roe v. Wade only legalized a procedure women have been accessing for as long as women have been getting pregnant. Making it legal helps ensure safety. Making it legal allows for equal access.
In the Christian tradition there’s a clear distinction between what is legal and what is moral. Furthermore, one’s morality is a relationship between the individual and that individual’s God. The whole point of religious freedom in this nation is that each faithful person makes faith-filled decisions according to her read of scripture, the teachings of her tradition, the experiences of those near her, and the reasoning of her own circumstances. The responsibility of the state is to surround her with the resources she needs for whichever decision she makes.
In our current climate, the moral and the legal have changed places. For example, if you work for the state of North Carolina, your health insurance does not cover abortions and some other reproductive health items because the “religious people” of North Carolina don’t want their taxes to support such procedures. They have elected legislators who passed those laws. They call that freedom of religion. I call it a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
We now have people imposing their morality on our nation’s laws. That’s a fundamental shift in the understanding of the “freedom of religion” guaranteed in our constitution. We have a situation where the woman, who is a person, is not valued as a person while the fetus, which is not a person, is granted personhood status. Make no mistake; this line of thinking is a concerted effort to relegate women to second-class status. At the very least, our increasingly restrictive legislation is returning us to the dark days of a two-tiered abortion system where those with means have access and those without don’t.
With a Supreme Court firmly stacked with justices approved of by the anti-abortion movement, who appear determined to overturn Roe, we are facing the biggest threats to safe, legal, accessible abortion we’ve seen since that historic decision in favor of reproductive freedom for all. And now with the current Republican president, lauded and supported by the anti-abortion religious right, we see that it was never about real moral values like truth and fairness and fidelity. It has always been about control.
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland is the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches.