Here we are. We’ve almost made it. The final days of 2020. So much has happened this year from a global pandemic, an uprising against white supremacy, unprecedented economic downturns, the election of our lifetimes, the death of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. As someone who ministers at the intersections of abortion, faith, and politics, I am regularly asked how all that was 2020 will impact our work going forward. It seems like everything has changed, which it has. Yet, as always, some things remain the same. Through all of this year, turmoil and celebrations, relief and lament, God has been with us.
Earlier this year I was ordained into validated ministry as the Outreach and Faith Organizer for Texas Freedom Network. In this role, I staff Just Texas, our project equipping people of faith across the state of Texas to speak publicly and politically in support of LGBTQ equality and reproductive freedom. Over the past four years, our team has recruited, trained, and designated 25 faith communities in Texas as Reproductive Freedom Congregations. These congregations have had public conversations about how reproductive freedom aligns with their community’s values. They pledge to make their sacred space safe and accepting for everyone. Through the process, they formally vote to adopt the following principles:
- We trust and respect women.
- We promise that people who attend our congregation will be free from stigma, shame, or judgment for their reproductive decisions, including abortion.
- We believe access to comprehensive and affordable reproductive health services is a moral and social good.
This work is so important because women’s reproductive health, including abortion, is the top hot topic that mainline Protestant preachers do not address from the pulpit. Still, 1 in 4 women and people who can become pregnant will have an abortion by age 45. That is one in four people who can become pregnant sitting in the pews of every congregation or joining online worship from their couch have had or will have an abortion. Even more will have pregnancy challenges, such as infertility, miscarriage, endometriosis, access to pre-natal care, or reproductive loss. Professor of preaching and worship, Leah Schade, notes that preachers are willing to address reproductive health in individual conversations or educational spaces, but that keeps these conversations in the shadows, as if our reproductive lives are shameful, stigmatized, and worthy of judgment, not fit for polite company.
In recent years, mainline Protestants have begun to wake up to the urgency of the moment. Women’s bodily autonomy and access to reproductive healthcare for all people are rights that are slowly and methodically being chipped away across the country. What has been taken for granted as a human right is coming closer to disappearing.
Abortion and women’s reproductive health have not always been the hot button issues they are today. In fact, prior to 1973 when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States, mainline Protestant and Jewish clergy supported 250,000 – 500,000 women who needed abortion care. Presbyterians were a part of this group, called the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) beginning in 1967. What started with 20 clergy became a network of 1400 clergy helping women access safe, illegal abortions. God was certainly present in the work of this group and accompanied all who received abortion care thanks to the members of CCS. In 1973, the organization now known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was established, and Presbyterians were among the founding denominations supporting the right to access safe and legal abortions. In fact, most Protestant denominations supported or were neutral on the issue of abortion when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. They saw it more as an issue of individual conscience and of concern to Catholics.
It was only in the mid-1970s that the architects of the “Moral Majority” realized abortion could be the issue to consolidate political power as Republicans were losing on issues of segregation and civil rights. Jerry Falwell did not give his first anti-abortion speech until 1978. If abortion truly were an issue of such moral importance, wouldn’t their voice be prominent immediately before and after 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided? In the following decades, anti-abortion theology and organizing has become a massive movement in faith communities, political organizations, and in legislative bodies across the country. Meanwhile, mainline Protestants have forgotten our prophetic voice and actions that cared for women in tangible ways.
In recent years, progressive faith communities have begun to reclaim our place in the public sphere, speaking morally and theologically on issues of social justice. God is with us as we speak truth to power at every level of church and society. Still, abortion, reproductive health, and reproductive freedom are relegated to church basements and individual conversations, if they are named at all.
It is time to take these stories out of the shadows and bring them into the public conversation. States are passing restrictive laws hindering access to healthcare, scheming to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the same time, advocates in the reproductive freedom world have never stopped working to protect these rights. Across the country, clinic providers care for patients; abortion funds make care accessible for numerous pregnant people; advocates keep watch at state legislatures to fight harmful legislation; and lawyers keep arguing cases for bodily autonomy. They have witnessed the legal foundations of reproductive freedom get chipped away systematically since 1973. With the changes at the Supreme Court, they recognize just how high the stakes have become.
The time is now for people of faith to join the movement for reproductive freedom and to speak clearly that our moral grounding trusts and supports women. This Advent we are again waiting for the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us. God is with us through every twist and turn in our own stories, especially in our reproductive stories. God is with us as we decide when and how to create a family. God is with the teen uncertain about what a positive pregnancy test means for her future. God is with the mom who desperately wants this baby growing within her who just cannot survive life outside the womb. God is with the couple who cannot seem to get pregnant. God is with the trans man discerning how a pregnancy will impact his mental health. God is with the queer couple praying for the adoption to be approved. God is with the couple excited about a pregnancy but who knows they cannot afford to bring a child into this world in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession. God is with the mom struggling through her postpartum depression. God is with the parents who rejoice at bringing new life into the world.
Where God is, there is no shame, judgment, or stigma. The care that all of these people need is a moral and social good.
Even though the political landscape may have changed this year, it is still the time to speak out, to weave together our reproductive stories and our faith stories, to bring them out of the shadows and into the pulpit, our living rooms, and zoom rooms. When we speak out with courage, God is in all of it and with us every step of the way.
Rev. Angela Williams (she/her) is a queer Presbyterian pastor and community organizer currently serving as the Outreach and Faith Organizer for Texas Freedom Network in Austin, TX. She enjoys working with faith communities across Texas to speak publicly and politically in support of LGBTQ+ equality and reproductive freedom. Angela finds life in experiencing music, listening to podcasts, exploring creation, and engaging in theological discussions that go off the beaten path.