When Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20, he will become the most prominent pro-choice Catholic in the country.
Although the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops opposes abortion and advocates for religous exceptions to birth control coverage, the majority of U.S. Catholics support access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including 56 percent of U.S. Catholics who believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, said she hopes these Catholics will have more of a voice under the incoming Biden-Harris administration.
“We see giving women access to reproductive health care as being pro-life,” Manson said of Catholics for Choice, which was founded in 1973 by Catholics who believe that the faith tradition supports a person’s right to follow their conscience on matters of their own reproductive health.
“We love our faith but we don’t want to see our faith have disproportionate influence in policy,” Manson said. “We do not want to see it misused and become an instrument of harm, particularly to the most vulnerable and the poorest.”
This week, Biden tapped California attorney general Xavier Becerra, a Catholic, as the next secretary of health and human services.
“His record suggests that he sees the issue of reproductive rights through the lens of social justice,” Manson said. Earlier this year, Becerra led a coalition of attorneys general in filing an amicus brief opposing a Mississippi abortion ban that he called “unjust, unlawful, and unfair.”
After four years of Trump administration policies driven by fierce opposition to abortion rights, especially from Christian conservatives, Manson and other faith-based reproductive rights advocates are hoping that the incoming Biden-Harris administration will turn the tide. Advocates are looking to the president-elect to end policies that have curtailed access to reproductive health care, particularly for low-income Americans.
Reproductive health care as a human right
Since taking office, Donald Trump has taken many steps to rollback access to reproductive health care, often through agency rulemaking and executive orders. One of his first actions as president was to reinstate a policy that prohibits any nonprofit receiving U.S. global health funds from performing or mentioning abortion as a method of family planning.
In 2019, the Trump administration applied that rule domestically, rewriting the Title X low-income family planning program to prohibit fund recipients from providing abortion referrals, even when patients request it. The new rule caused approximately one-quarter of all U.S. clinics that received Title X funding to leave the program, according to the pro-choice research institution the Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher estimates that the changes reduced the Title X network’s capacity to provide women with contraceptive services by at least 46 percent.
Reproductive rights advocates hope that Biden will reverse these policies and instead funnel more federal money into comprehensive reproductive health care services.
Cherisse Scott, a former nondenominational minister and founder of SisterReach, a reproductive rights nonprofit based in Tennessee, hopes that Biden “will replenish and invest federal dollars into making sure that young people have access to comprehensive sex education” for K-12 and college students.
“One of the biblical scriptures we use to guide our commitment to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education, is Hosea 4:6: ‘My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,’” said Scott. “Access to education and being empowered to inform if, when, and how you will engage in sex, parenting, or even celibacy is only achieved by an informed and unhindered understanding of our bodies.”
Advocates also hope that Biden will block a budget provision known as the Hyde Amendment. First approved by Congress in the 1970s, the amendment blocks the use of federal funds for abortion care, meaning individuals who get their coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, or the U.S. military aren’t able to access that health care.
“We don’t want to see that in the president’s budget,” said Rev. Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “What we really want is for every person to make the decision for themselves as to if, when, and how they want to parent,” Choimorrow said.
The Trump administration has also offered faith-based exemptions to religious employers who don’t want to offer contraception in their employee insurance plans, as is mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the leadership organization of Reform Judaism in the United States, said these carveouts were part of a broader trend of the Trump administration favoring certain religious viewpoints over others.
“The idea that religious liberty is about restricting people’s rights and allowing one religious perspective to control other people’s opinions is a complete misuse of what religious liberty is supposed to be about,” Person said. “When religious liberty is being used as a way to control other people, that’s religious liberty being used as a hammer.”
Reform Judaism considers abortion to be part of health care and health care to be a human right, she said. “We’re all created equal, and we’re all created in the image of God,” Person said. “So nobody should have the right to say to another person, ‘You can’t make decisions for yourself.’”
While there is much that the new administration can change in the way of health policy, rollbacks in the federal court system and state legislatures won’t be easily undone. Biden will be far from a cure-all, advocates say.
Even if the Biden-Harris administration champions the most expansive view of reproductive rights and justice, “so much, in terms of abortion, sex ed, and Medicaid expansion, happens on the state level,” said Rev. Katey Zeh, CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The RCRC is an interfaith organization of religious leaders for whom access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion, is an expression of religious freedom, according to Zeh. The organization has its roots in a pre-Roe v. Wade clergy consultation service where Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian clergy helped people access safe and affordable abortion care.
“Even going back to pre-Trump, the state of reproductive health rights and justice wasn’t great,” said Zeh. “It’s certainly gotten worse, but it’s not like our aim is to return to where we were four years ago.”
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