Rev. Katey Zeh Is Done With Circular Abortion Debates | Sojourners

Rev. Katey Zeh Is Done With Circular Abortion Debates

Rev. Katey Zeh is done trying to prove that she’s “right” in the abortion debates.

As Baptist minister and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Zeh has participated in plenty of “circular conversations regarding the moral absolutes of abortion.” But as she writes in her new book, A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement, these debates often overlook how abortion always “happens within a person’s real, full, and complex life.”

So while Zeh is an unapologetically pro-choice Christian who aims to “dismantle abortion stigma,” her new book doesn’t try to outline a comprehensive Christian argument for abortion. Instead, Zeh wants readers — especially Christians — to get better at listening to folks who have had abortions, including the 17 people who gave Zeh permission to share their abortion stories. The storytellers in A Complicated Choice include folks with a variety of backgrounds and identities: white, Black, Asian, Latinx; straight, queer; cisgender, transgender; abled, disabled; single, partnered; folks with and without kids; those living in poverty and those with financial means; people who are Christian, Jewish, or atheist.

For readers who have had an abortion, Zeh hopes these 17 stories help de-stigmatize their experience and offer space to express complicated feelings about abortion, including feelings of relief, loss, gratitude, and anger. And for readers who haven’t ever had to decide whether to end a pregnancy, Zeh hopes the book sheds light on how to show up “fully and lovingly for the people in our communities who have abortions.”

Sojourners’ Betsy Shirley spoke with Zeh about the stories Christians tell about abortion — and the stories we’ve often left out.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Betsy Shirley, Sojourners: In your book, you write that both pro-choice and pro-life advocates often lapse in to over-simplified “scripts” about what an abortion experience is like. What are those scripts?

Katey Zeh: For the anti-abortion side, the narrative is that abortion is always harmful to the pregnant person. It’s murder of a child and people who have them are hurt by them and they regret them.

On the pro-choice side, there is this idea that people need to have access to abortion and it is their right to have it, it’s essential to their bodily autonomy, and it’s always a positive experience — or one that people don’t have mixed experiences about. We don’t acknowledge the emotional experience of having an abortion; we talk about it as something that’s empowering, which it is, but it’s also something that people have a lot of feelings about.

What do these scripts leave out?

Because I’m a minister, I think many people feel comfortable sharing their stories with me. And what I’ve often heard from people who’ve come to me is, “I don’t feel like I can actually share my experience with my colleagues or with my peers. I’m afraid that my story might be detrimental to the pro-choice movement because part of my experience are some difficult emotions or feeling of grief about it, or wishing that the circumstances had been different and that I would have been able to make a different decision.” Even if they feel, at this point, at peace about their decision, they don’t feel like their narrative is welcomed in a public way because it bumps up against those scripts of what abortion is “supposed” to be.

Alex, one of the folks whose stories you share, articulates that fear in the book: that in sharing their complicated feelings, their story would be twisted or used to ultimately deny folks abortion. And I’m sure that something you had to wrestle with in writing this book. What made you continue?

Because we don’t create spaces for people to share their [abortion] experiences — especially these more complex feelings about it — there is this gap that people have; there’s a need for community, for support. And any time we don’t feel like we’re allowed to process something that is causing emotional distress or something that we’re wrestling with, people turn to whatever is available to them. And the people who are offering that support often have anti-abortion agendas underneath.

[In the book] I talked about Project Rachel, a space that the advertises itself as a post-abortion retreat that’s free, widely available, and even calls itself therapy, even though the people providing care are not trained therapists. Then they give those folks who are feeling vulnerable a framework, or another script, of why they’re feeling that way: “The reason that you’re feeling this way is because you killed your baby.”

We all should have the spaces we need to heal and to make sense of the things that happen in our lives so that we can move forward. And I think people need a lot more support around this particular issue because of the silencing and the shame and the public messages around it.

Did you grow up in a faith community that was supportive of folks who wanted to have abortions?

I was never really exposed to church life until my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she wanted to go back to church and she invited me to come with her. After she died, I was very much immersed in white conservative, evangelical Christian culture in a small town in the South. And while I don’t specifically remember abortion being talked about, I think it was implied that, that we were opposed to it, especially given the emphasis on purity culture at the time. However, when I think about my mother in particular, really raising me to be someone who had compassion for people whose experiences were different, I don’t know that I ever personally was opposed to abortion. However, I did have that abortion stigma and judgment that I continued to dismantle within myself.

And what has helped you do that dismantling work?

Honestly, other reproductive justice activists really helped me understand what's problematic about not examining my whiteness in this movement and pushing me to understand abortion within the broader frame of reproductive justice.

I suspect when many folks hear reproductive justice, they hear a synonym for “pro-choice.” What does reproductive justice mean to you?

It is really important to talk about the reproductive justice framework as having been created by Black women in the 1990s in response to the predominantly white-led reproductive rights and health movement. Black women felt like their experiences were really overlooked. The emphasis simply on access to abortion really left out all of the different ways that Black women and other communities of color have not had reproductive freedom — reproductive oppression and coercion takes lots of different forms and is often racially inspired.

Reproductive justice is that human rights framework that says we have the right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to raise our children in safe and healthy environments. It’s not simply enough just to have legal access to abortion; it’s not reproductive justice if we can’t parent our children and thrive and have all the resources that we need. So it’s a much more holistic frame that connects lots of different movements and justice issues.

In your first book, Women Rise Up, you talk about stories from scripture and kind of highlight some of their liberative potential for women. What scripture stories offer a liberating view of reproductive justice?

For me, the most liberating story is the gospel story of the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25-34). She is experiencing a reproductive issue and she has tried everything that’s socially prescribed to make her better and it’s only made her worse, sicker, and poorer. All she has left is to reach out for this man named Jesus who is going to be walking through the community — a space she’s not allowed to occupy because of her condition. Yet she still reaches out for the thing that she needs and she’s the catalyst for her own healing, which is a thing that Jesus both feels and then is curious about and is shaped by in the story. She is the catalyst for her own healing and he affirms that and her willingness to share the truth of what has happened to her, not just that day, but in her life, that is healing for her and the community around who hears it and [they are] healed, too.

I often hear folks in progressive Christian circles echo Bill Clinton, saying “We want abortion to be safe, we want it to be legal, and we want it to be rare.” Is that phrasing helpful or not?

It is unhelpful for a lot of different reasons. The first that comes to mind is that it’s not a very humanizing way to talk about abortion, because again, abortion always happens within the context of a person’s full life; why would we talk about it as an “issue” and not as the human reality that it is?

“Safe, legal, accessible” is how I would reframe it; just because something is “safe and legal,” it doesn’t mean that it’s available to everyone.

When we say that abortion should be “rare,” that’s adding this idea that abortion is bad, that it’s morally wrong, and it’s to be avoided at all costs. And what I’ve learned in [from] talking to people is that abortion can be a blessing. Abortion can save lives. Abortion can affirm life. Abortion can be a positive parenting decision. So using a word like “rare” in that context is actually quite harmful to the broader reproductive freedom movement.

I suspect that when many folks hear “abortion can be a blessing,” they have a real strong reaction. What would you say to those folks?

I think strong reactions are good things. They’re opportunities for us to examine why we feel that way. It never feels good to sit in an uncomfortable feeling like that, but I think my invitation would be just to stop and — rather than suppress that and move on — really take the time to honor that.

And start interrogating or asking: Why do I feel that way? What has my experience with abortion been? Do I know anyone who’s had one? What were the messages that I got? I really think it's an opportunity to start asking why we have almost a physical response to an idea like “abortion is a blessing.”

Erin, one of the folks you interview in your book, notes that people know how to care for someone who’s just had surgery but have no idea how to show up and care for folks who’ve had abortions. What does that look like?

There are many different ways, of course, but I think the first is to understand what it can be like for someone to access an abortion to begin with. For people who are going to an abortion clinic, it can often be a very traumatizing experience just to enter the doors. It can be really difficult to get the money for it because so often that portion isn’t covered by insurance. So there can be that financial strain. And there can be the emotional strain of making a decision to terminate a pregnancy, especially if the person doesn’t have the support they need, or maybe they’re making that within the context of an abusive or dysfunctional relationship. So just try and understand: What was that like? And if that person can’t share it with you, do your own work by reading stories. With that understanding, people can respond a lot more compassionately.

Is there a unique role for people of faith?

I think it is tending to those spiritual questions or concerns. So many people, regardless of what faith tradition they were brought up in, an abortion experience can bring back some of those really negative messages that they heard from protestors or from anti-abortion activists. Questions like, “Is God going to punish me for this?” Those are real questions that people have. And a lot of times it’s connected to feelings they have, emotions that they then attach to a theological question. And so I think people of faith in particular can help people rediscover that inner truth that I was talking about in the story of the hemorrhaging woman.

You can ask folks: “What do you think about that?” [You can] also say the truth is that God is with us in all of our experiences. Provide that theological frame: You are deeply loved and cared for by God, no matter what. That’s something that people really need because of the language that they hear and are so shamed by.

This year, the Supreme Court is set up to deliver a verdict on a case that could challenge what Roe v. Wade established. If this does happen, how would you like to see the community of faith respond?

I always like to answer this question with just some broader context: Roe is an incredibly important decision, but it never guaranteed that everybody who has needed access to abortion could get it. The dismantling of access to abortion has been going on for decades. It has escalated in recent years and we’re certainly at a moment where the implications could be very, very broad in terms of how many people are impacted. But I think it’s always important to remember that these stories of lack of access have been going for decades. Even some of the people in the book talk about how it was a near miss for them in terms of actually being able to get access to care. It was very cumbersome.

If abortion becomes illegal in many states, all at one time — which is what could happen — we’re going to see a lot more people needing to travel a lot farther to get where they need to go. The clinics that are still available and providers are going to be inundated. People are going to endure even more of the kind of stress and distress — in addition to going to a clinic, they’re going to be [paying] out of pocket even more and traveling by plane, in a pandemic to get the care they need.

I think it’s going to be about listening to the people who’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time and then asking specifically what can people of faith contribute in partnership with the leadership on the ground?

How do you hope this book shifts the conversation around abortion?

Because of the moment that we’re in, I think people are paying more attention to how abortion has impacted so many people and how difficult it’s becoming to access. There is a real opportunity for us to build our skills around how we listen to someone’s experience that we might not understand — and respond with compassion. I hope that the book will provide like almost a practice ground for us to learn how to suspend judgment, to bring our full attention to the person who is experiencing this or has experienced this, practice that pause when that judgement or knee-jerk reaction comes up, and then respond in a way that centers the needs of the person who has been courageous enough to come and tell us their abortion story.

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