Pro-Choice and Pro-Women: What’s at Stake?

Author Sylvia Thorson-Smith (left) with fellow ACSWP members Jean Demmler (middle) and Beverly Brewster (right)

Swirling around the atmosphere as I write this is the furor over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. In a remarkable movement from margin to center, the experiences of women have become the heart of Kavanaugh’s questioning and ultimately, the decision whether or not to confirm him. New York Magazine entitles an article in its September 17-30, 2018 issue, “The Politics of Anger: Why Women’s Fury Scares People and Why It Should,” and observes that “American women are furious — and our politics and culture will never be the same.”


Social movements have a pattern of gaining momentum gradually and then they erupt with powerful force at the spark of a precipitating event. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the SCOTUS is such an event.

Many women are finding their voices, and they aren’t settling for patronizing dismissals and inattention to their concerns. Two issues that are currently central to women and public discourse are sexual harassment/assault and reproductive rights. I hope other writers for and Unbound will examine what’s at stake as the Kavanaugh nomination proceeds and at least sexual assault charges continue to shape public opinion and the outcome of his nomination. I, however, want to discuss the other issue that underlies the horror that a majority of women have at the very thought of a Justice Brett Kavanaugh ruling on cases involving abortion and other aspects of reproductive health.

It’s not my task to analyze Kavanaugh’s legal record and why it raises such “red flags” for women — and many men. Simply said, we know that the president has promised to get a Justice on the Supreme Court who will strike down Roe v. Wade, and numerous signals suggest that Kavanaugh would be willing to vote with such a majority. What I want to discuss is why this issue is so timely right now. The sociologist in me notes that social movements have a pattern of gaining momentum gradually and then they erupt with powerful force at the spark of a precipitating event. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the SCOTUS is such an event. Americans know that Congress has the authority to tip the cultural movement for women’s rights backward with a swift blow to the one decision that was so crucial to their liberation decades ago.

In 1973, I was a budding feminist in Wichita, Kansas, about to become a graduate student in sociology and women’s studies at Wichita State University. In a few more years, I would become the educator for Planned Parenthood of Southern Kansas. In the early 70s, my husband, Rev. Mike Smith, was a campus minister at the University of Arizona and part of a clergy network that helped women students get to California where abortion was legal before Roe v. Wade. Since our marriage in 1985, we have continued to be fierce activists for reproductive justice.

Twelve years ago, the editor of Horizons, the denominational magazine of Presbyterian Women, asked me to write an article on what it means to be “pro-choice.” Because it contains some important history and key concepts, I include it here. I hope you find it instructive and perhaps useful to share with others. I will follow it with some thoughts about what’s at stake around issues of reproductive justice in 2018 and the future.


by Sylvia Thorson-Smith, 2006

The most basic definition for pro-choice, and the one offered by Webster’s dictionary, is “favoring the legalization of abortion,” which is clearly what was meant when the term was first used in the mid-1970s. Following the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court in 1973, the legality of abortion was challenged and increasingly debated. Pro-choice became the common self-description of people who supported the Court’s legalization. Since then, the term has come to describe those who support the right of women to make decisions about the full range of options regarding their reproductive lives.

Historical Perspective

In order to understand how important the language of choice is for women, it helps to review some of the history of abortion and reproductive rights. The question of abortion has not held much interest in the history of Christianity. When abortion was condemned in earlier Christianity, it was understood to refer to termination well into the process of pregnancy, after ensoulment—the point at which the breath of God entered the fetus. Not until 1869 did the Roman Catholic Church declare that ensoulment (or personhood) begins at the moment of conception.

No Protestant clergy or theologian gave early support for proposed nineteenth-century laws banning abortion in the United States. It is likely that Protestant clergy, often married and poor, understood that decisions about abortion were set in very real-life circumstances that involved suffering and difficult options. Those Protestants who finally did join the antiabortion movement were often influenced by racist and classist arguments that America’s strength was threatened by white, middle-class women’s lower birth rate.[1]


No Protestant clergy or theologian gave early support for proposed nineteenth-century laws banning abortion in the United States.

The mid-nineteenth century was marked by a significant change affecting the lives of women—the first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement. It is sometimes difficult for people today to grasp how very little choice women had, in every arena of their lives, prior to this organized social movement for women’s rights. Patriarchy—the rule of the fathers—was codified into all social and legal institutions. Wives were subject to their husbands and their sexuality was truly not their own in any of the ways we assume today. Furthermore, medical and legal authority converged with religious and familial authority to uphold men’s power over virtually all reproductive and procreative decisions. Women’s lack of authority in the social realm left them without authority in the domestic sphere as well.

By the end of the nineteenth century, women were actively working for increased control over their reproductive lives. Margaret Sanger and others challenged the Comstock laws that made it illegal to send information about contraception (labeled as obscenity) through the United States mail. Little by little, with the help of supportive men (often clergy and doctors),women gained more of a social right to make decisions about the health of their bodies.

Although the organized Women’s Rights Movement became less visible after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 (giving women the right to vote),women continued to assert well into the twentieth century that they were entitled to full human standing and authority under the law to make decisions about themselves. When a second wave of the movement developed in the 1960s reproductive rights emerged as a major issue, intensifying the question, “Who has the authority to make decisions regarding procreation and fertility?” Prior to its ruling on abortion, the Supreme Court established the principle of privacy and applied it to matters of contraception. All people, the Court declared, are entitled to a zone of privacy in which to make procreative decisions that are not the government’s business. Women were the ultimate beneficiaries of the extension of this new reproductive authority. No longer could husbands, partners, fathers and doctors legally prevent women (both married and single) from obtaining and using birth control methods, although it wasn’t until 1965 that the Court declared a ban on the use of contraception unconstitutional.

The Religious Movement for Reproductive Choice

Before Roe v. Wade, both Protestant and Jewish faith communities were active in ministering to women who faced problem pregnancies. By the mid-1950s, most Protestants accepted therapeutic abortion to save the life of the mother and later, to prevent fetal anomalies. Some will remember the case of Sherry Finkbine, who in 1962 was prescribed the drug thalidomide, soon to be known for causing horrific birth defects. Although abortion was prescribed by her doctor, she was refused by a hospital and, after working around the denial of a visa by the United States government, finally managed to obtain an abortion in Sweden. The stark contrast between rich and poor came into public view as Americans began to see that those with money and resources had access to safe medical abortions—and choice—while other women did not.

By the mid-1960s, Protestant and Jewish leaders joined the growing movement to reform abortion laws. In 1967, 21 ministers and rabbis in New York formed the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which, within a year became a national organization of nearly 1,400 clergy. Their common statement of purpose declared “that there are higher laws and moral obligations transcending legal codes” and “we agree that it is our pastoral responsibility and religious duty to give aid and assistance to all women with problem pregnancies.”[2] Functioning like the Underground Railroad, this chain of religious counselors helped women obtain abortions in hospitals and doctors’ offices for years prior to 1973. My husband, Mike Smith, was part of this network in his role as campus minister at the University of Arizona. At the time, states like New York, California and Colorado had legalized abortion, so Mike and other clergy helped women without sufficient resources overcome unequal access to safe, legal abortion services.

These ministers were not mavericks. Both predecessor denominations to the current PC(USA) called for a change in abortion laws prior to Roe v. Wade. In 1970—three years before Roe v. Wade and with the support of United Presbyterian Women—the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopted a report (Sexuality and the Human Community) from the Advisory Council on Church and Society stating, “abortion should be taken out of the realm of the law altogether and be made a matter of the careful ethical decision of a woman, her physician and her pastor or other counselor.”[3]

In the same year, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. affirmed, “there is no consensus in the Christian community about when human life begins” and “the willful termination of pregnancy by medical means on the considered decision of a pregnant woman may on occasion be morally justifiable.” Circumstances regarded as justifiable included “medical indications of mental or physical deformity, conception is the result of rape or incest, conditions under which the physical or mental health of either mother or child would be gravely threatened, or for the socio-economic condition of the family.”[4]

Following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, a full-scale debate about the legalization of abortion ensued on many fronts. At least 20 religious organizations regarded abortion as an issue of privacy and supported the Supreme Court’s decision to extend to women the legal—and moral—right to make abortion decisions free of governmental interference. The two predecessor denominations of the PC(USA) regarded women’s choice in abortion decisions as consistent with their overall repudiation of the historic oppression of women. As massive organizational efforts, led primarily by Roman Catholic clerics, sought to overturn the Court’s decision, representatives of mainline Protestant and Jewish faith communities, including Presbyterians, met to form the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR). Even though their specific positions about abortion varied, these religious bodies joined together for one purpose: “To encourage and coordinate support for safeguarding the legal option of abortion, for ensuring the right of individuals to make decisions in accordance with their conscience, and for opposing efforts to deny this right of conscience, through constitutional amendment or federal and state legislation.”[5]

In 1993, RCAR became RCRC—the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, vindicating that there are many other reproductive issues besides abortion rights, which deserve the protection of privacy and individual choice.

The Meaning of Choice

In the past 30 years, Presbyterians have been deeply involved in the struggle over abortion rights and the meaning of language applied to this debate. Members have not been of one mind on this issue. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to be a member of RCRC, in spite of repeated overtures to General Assemblies urging that we withdraw. Presbyterians Pro-Life, an independent group, works actively to reverse Presbyterian policy on abortion rights and membership in RCRC. However, for more than three decades, the PC(USA) has continued to uphold a basic commitment to choice. It does so through the work of Women’s Ministries and the Advocacy Committee on Women’s Concerns (ACWC), the Washington Office (which advocates on behalf of Presbyterian policies) and Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options (PARO), a network of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA).


To be pro-choice is to be fully aware that decisions regarding abortion will be made. The question is, who will make them?

As a member of PARO and women’s advocacy groups of the Presbyterian Church, I have offered testimony to many General Assembly committees in the past 30 years. Whenever I do, I rely on the following principles, which I think are at the heart of the pro-choice position:

Pro-choice advocates are fundamentally committed to redressing the historic oppression of women.

Choice arguments seek to advance the full humanity and decision-making authority of women, who throughout history have been denied the right to determine the direction of their lives and exercise their reproductive options. It is because of a legacy of denied choice that contemporary women work so hard to preserve the legal and ecclesiastical gains of the twentieth century Women’s Rights Movement.

Pro-choice is not the opposite of pro-life.

These terms reflect different frameworks for understanding issues of abortion and procreation. Pro-choice advocates are committed to choosing life; however, they accept the premise that people of faith and good will, including Presbyterians, disagree about the meaning of prenatal existence. Throughout history, theologians and legal scholars have disputed the point at which a conceptus (the product of conception n) becomes a human life with personhood distinct from the woman who is carrying it. To be “for choice” is not to be “against life.” The 1992 policy on abortion acknowledges, “Presbyterians hold varying points of view about when human life begins. ”The statement also recognizes “diversity of opinion in the church as to whether or not abortion should be legal, ”but affirms that, within the context of limited governmental interest, “no law should deny access to safe and affordable services for persons seeking to terminate a problem pregnancy.”[6]

In certain conditions of pregnancy, abortion is a morally faithful option.

Reformed theology, which guides Presbyterians, recognizes that all life is a gift from God. As human beings who are gifted with life, we are also gifted with the awesome responsibility to make a variety of difficult decision s about life and death. The complexities of life’s situations are heightened in the twenty-first century. Gratefully, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has consistently affirmed that women as well as men are fully capable of making moral decisions, particularly about matters that pertain to their own bodies. Our community of faith has resisted the notion that women should be coerced into carrying a pregnancy to term against their will, by the government or anyone else. Because abortion decisions are contextually considered among other options, the church’s most recent policy (1992) states that “the considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy can be morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision.”[7]

Choice has different meanings, depending on the context of race and class.

It is impossible to disentangle the language of choice from the history of women’s oppression. Historically, the limits on women’s decision-making authority differ according to their racial and economic experiences. In a culture where financial resources guarantee access to reproductive options, including abortion services, women of color and women who are poor have been particularly disadvantaged in their right to choose. It is with attention to social and economic injustice that pro-choice advocates seek policies and laws that guarantee reproductive rights for all women.

Pro-choice and right to choose do not mean “pro-abortion” or favoring “abortion on demand.”

Such language smacks of angry confrontation, quite the opposite of the attitude of most women who make abortion decisions in the context of quiet personal struggle. Many people who are pro-choice cannot see themselves ever choosing to have an abortion and do not think abortion has a preferred status among other options. The language of choice represents an attempt to indicate that difficult reproductive decisions will be made, and abortion is one among other options. Pro-choice advocates do not promote a particular decision. They do, however, contend that women are entitled to make reproductive decisions involving their own bodies, and these decisions may necessitate inclusion of the option of safe, legal abortion. While individual Presbyterian women hold a variety of attitudes toward reproductive rights, Presbyterian Women and its predecessor organizations have long advocated our denomination’s pro-choice policy. They recognize that the lives and moral agency of women are at stake when our church makes policy on this issue. Presbyterian theologian Gloria Albrecht, in her Church and Society article “Abortion in Good Faith,” makes it clear that “we are faced by the truly ‘hard’ question— the question of our willingness to empower every woman to make responsible choices regarding her use of the abilities and opportunities she has to contribute to the fullness of Life.I t is the question of our willingness not to define women solely or primarily by biological capacity.”[8] To be pro-choice is to be fully aware that decisions regarding abortion will be made. The question is, who will make them? The pro-choice answer is women who are gifted with God-given moral agency, whose bodies and lives are most affected by the consequences.

[1] Beverly Wildung Harrison, “Theology and Morality of Procreative Choice, ”Feminist Theological Ethics, edited by Lois K. Daly (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox,1994),218.
[2] “The Challenge of Choice: 30 Years of Affirming Reproductive Choice, ”Church and Society, November/December 2002,13.
[3] Ibid.,14.
[4] Ibid.,77.
[5] Ibid.,15.
[6] Ibid.,83,87–88.
[7] Ibid.,83.
[8] Gloria Albrecht, “Abortion in Good Faith, ”Church and Society, November/December 2002,31.

Pro-Women in 2018

So what does it mean to be “pro-choice” in 2018? To me, fundamentally, it means to be “pro-women.”

Being “pro-women” means looking aghast as eleven Republican men (with no Republican women on the Senate judiciary committee!) prepare to grill Christine Blasey Ford on her charge that Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her in high school.

Being “pro-women” means thinking of all the women who will be left without the legality of abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned by a Supreme Court with Brett Kavanaugh as a Justice.

Being “pro-women” means remembering that women in many states right now do not have access to abortion because there aren’t providers in their state and they don’t have the funds to travel.

Being “pro-women” means realizing that a choice is only a choice if you have resources and access to exercise your choice.

Being “pro-women” means standing against compulsory pregnancy that allows the state in any form to compel women to remain pregnant against their will.

Being “pro-women” means recognizing the insidious campaign to limit and withhold birth control methods that are viewed by some as abortifacents. Being “pro-women” is being “pro-contraception and birth control” so that women (and men) can truly choose childbearing and reduce the number of abortions — even though some abortions will always be needed for particular reasons.

Being “pro-women” means getting angry as women’s hard-earned freedoms, rights, and laws safeguarding reproductive justice are threatened and erased.

In 2018 it’s hard to believe that a Republican —the late former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke — observed in his 2006 autobiography, Bridging the Divide: My Life,

“I found it hard to understand how many of my [Senate] colleagues, who so often railed against government involvement in the lives of Americans, were willing to go into America’s bedrooms and dictate reproductive policy. No law can prevent abortion. Laws can only make abortion more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous, especially for the poor. Who were we, [as] an affluent all-male legislative body, to decide what women could do and could not do with their bodies?”

At a Presbyterian General Assembly in the 1990s, Dr. Leroy Carhart, an abortion provider in Nebraska, spoke to a lunch sponsored by PARO, Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options. Dr. Carhart was wearing a button that I admired. It said simply: TRUST WOMEN. When I commented on it to him, he gave it to me! I’ve worn it at subsequent General Assemblies and elsewhere, and have many requests for ones like it. Dr. Carhart “gets it” — that women are competent agents who have the right and moral authority to make decisions about their lives and bodies. Presbyterian minister and professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, Rebecca Todd Peters, develops this theme in her 2018 book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. I commend it for the scope of its coverage and the topics of its chapters: you shouldn’t have a baby just because you’re pregnant, abortion in real life, abortion policy as the public abuse of women, misogyny is exhausting, the tragedy of flawed moral discourse, reimagining pregnancy, motherhood as moral choice, and celebrating the moral courage of women. Here’s just one excerpt that states what it means to be “pro-women”:

“The heart of an ethic of reproductive justice is the affirmation that women’s capacity to control their fertility — whether that happens through contraception, abstinence, or abortion — is a moral good. Moral good refers to our human capacity to discern what is right and just and to act on it accordingly. For Christians, knowledge of what is morally good must be consistent with an understanding of God’s justice and of God’s desire for humanity and for the common good.”

In January of this year, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Willie Parker speak to a gathering in Los Angeles to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Dr. Parker is an African American abortion provider in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. His book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, details his profound compassion for women and his belief that “helping women in need, without judgment, is precisely the Christian thing to do:

“My job, as I see it, is not to encourage or discourage women to have abortions, but rather to deploy my medical expertise in the service of their free choice, whatever that may be. And for their part, most women are relieved to be, at last, in this judgment-free zone.”

These voices do not get enough play in American public discourse. They need to be shouted from rooftops, and these books need to be given as gifts and quoted in newspaper editorials. Whether readers are Christian or not, they make the case for a progressive morality rooted in reproductive justice. Anyone who’s part of “The Resistance” needs to resist the grip of patriarchal control that still prevents women from leading lives over which they have personal power. The Second, Third, and probably Fourth Wave of the Women’s Movement have rolled through our nation, and all of their awakenings and legal gains are on the line in 2018. November 6 is coming…


A version of this piece was originally published at under the same title, and it is reproduced with permission. The 2006 piece at its core was originally published in Horizons magazine, which is produced by Presbyterian Women.

Author Bio: Sylvia Thorson-Smith was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, attended colleges in Washington and Iowa, and received an MA in sociology and women’s studies from Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. She taught at WSU from 1978-1985 and was the educator of Planned Parenthood of Southern Kansas in 1983-85. She was a lecturer in sociology, religious studies, and gender/women’s studies at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, from 1988-2003. Sylvia served on the Council on Women and the Church of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A in the 1980s. She coordinated a denominational study on pornography for the PC(USA), and wrote/edited the report, “Pornography: Far From the Song of Songs” (1988). She served on the General Assembly Special Committee on Human Sexuality from 1988-1991 and wrote/edited the 1991 report, “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice.” Sylvia has co-edited two books: Called Out With: Stories of Solidarity with LGBT Persons (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), and Body and Soul: Re-thinking Sexuality as Justice-Love (Pilgrim Press, 2003). Currently, Sylvia is retired in Tucson, Arizona, where she’s an active member of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. She also serves on the PC(USA) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and is a liaison from that group to the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns.

Read more from this issue, Make America Just. Period. (A Moral Platform for the Christian “Justice Voter”).

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