Texas Clergy Are Taking a Stand Against the New Abortion Law | Sojourners

Texas Clergy Are Taking a Stand Against the New Abortion Law

 The U.S flag and the Texas flag fly over the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

When the Supreme Court last week refused to block a new Texas law — which bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy and allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone who “aids or abets” someone getting an abortion after six weeks — faith groups like Texas Right to Life and the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops applauded.

But Rev. Erika Forbes, a spiritual adviser and one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to block S.B. 8, called the law “a direct assault” on the religious liberty of clergy.

“We’ve taken a sacred vow to provide care and comfort, and now that's in jeopardy,” Forbes told Sojourners. “The vow to provide care and comfort, to hold someone's hand in the midst of their crisis — that's not a legal issue, that's a human issue.”

Forbes isn’t alone in her concern: Clergy across Texas told Sojourners the new law could impede the care they give as part of their ministry. These pastors and faith leaders argue that offering people seeking reproductive care counseling, spiritual guidance, or even material assistance like bus fare or car rides to appointments — any of which could make them the target of lawsuits under S.B. 8 — is part of how they live out their faith. And many are ready to shoulder the consequences of that work, some posting messages of support and using the hashtag #SueMe.

“What I will be trying to do as a spiritual director and in any pastoral capacity is to convey to the people that I work with that they can put me at risk,” Rev. Erin Jean Warde, an Episcopal priest and spiritual director, told Sojourners. “I'm willing to be a person who, regardless of this law, will help them find the care that they need.”

Rev. Shelby Dean Nowland, associate pastor and student minister at New Church UCC Dallas, said he and his partner, who is also a pastor, have discussed ways their denomination could help provide transportation for people.

“I think the biggest conversation that I'm hearing now from clergy is: ‘I'm going to help get you the health care you need no matter the risk,’” Nowland said.

Out of reach

The law prohibits abortion after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, which typically happens around six weeks into pregnancy or two weeks after a person’s missed period. Abortion providers across the state halted most abortion services on Sept. 1; many clinics have posted notifications to their websites noting their compliance with the new law and listing the restrictions on what services they can provide. And some clinics have stopped doing abortions altogether to avoid lawsuits. For many Texans, accessing abortion services now means crossing state lines — if you have the means. According to the pro-choice research organization The Guttmacher Institute, leaving the state would add on average 3.5 hours each way to a person’s drive, potentially requiring an overnight stay — putting the service out of reach for people making low wages.

“Part of the reason I think the pro-life/pro-choice conversation is so complicated is because it's tied up with white supremacy,” said Rev. Aurelia Dávila Pratt, lead pastor at Peace of Christ Church in Round Rock, Texas. Dávila Pratt says that because white people often tune out in conversations around white privilege and white supremacy, they can’t see the details, like that people of privilege are more likely to know they’re pregnant before the six-week mark.

“Until white folks and people of privilege can reckon with their privilege and the blind spots, they'll never understand how damning these types of policies are for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our societies,” she said.

The lawsuit Forbes joined seeking to block the abortion ban pointed to these disparities, saying the burden “will fall most heavily on Black, Latinx, and indigenous patients who, because of systemic racism, already encounter substantial barriers to obtaining health care, and will face particular challenges and injuries if forced to attempt to seek care out of state or else carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.”

According to data from Texas Health and Human Services, Black patients made up 30 percent of the state’s abortions in 2020, while making up 12 percent of the state’s population. Immigrant rights groups say the new law will make immigrant people more fearful of seeking health care. RAICES, a nonprofit agency that offers legal services and other aid to immigrants and refugees, has vowed to disobey the law.

Rev. Hannah Hooks, pastor at Shorter Chapel AME Church in Giddings, Texas, said watching a host of new laws, including S.B. 8, a new voting restrictions law, a permitless carry law, and others, go into effect is exhausting — “it's almost like watching a toddler have a tantrum.”

“It may be the brown and Black women right now. Rest assured if they get that, if they put their foot on our necks long enough, guess who else's neck is going to be next?” Hooks said. “It has been proven that when Black and brown people receive rights, it benefits the whole. We don't keep our gifts, our freedoms, our liberty to ourselves; we share. And coming with us on this journey, joining us in this journey, benefits everybody.”

‘We will band together’

Nowland said many of his clergy friends are “following in the heritage of those clergy in the ’60s,” pointing to the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of pastors, priests, and rabbis formed in 1967 to help people seeking abortion services in a pre-Roe v. Wade context. The group offered counsel and referrals to reputable doctors who would perform safe abortions.

Warde said Texas has a strong network of faith leaders who oppose the latest round of abortion restrictions. She has a “Christian hope” that the groups “will band together and we will support each other and get people the access they need, regardless of these laws.”

One local network of support is Just Texas, a faith-based progressive advocacy organization, which launched the Reproductive Freedom Congregations initiative in 2016. The initiative provides training and support for religious congregations that are affirming of reproductive health services, including abortion, as “a moral and social good.” Currently, 25 Texas congregations are part of the network, and the group says at least another 70 are in the process of becoming designated.

Rev. Angela Williams, who leads the organization with Forbes, said their goal is to tell reproductive stories that are often stigmatized in the church — stories of infertility, miscarriage, complicated childbirths, and abortion.

“We're going to keep having conversations, weaving together our faith and our reproductive story — getting folks to tell their own stories free from shame, judgment, and stigma,” Williams said. “... It's big, long-term, generational work that we're doing.”

In a June Quinnipiac poll, 58 percent of Texans said they support Roe v. Wade; 55 percent said they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, should Roe be overturned and the decision left to the states. Nationally, white evangelicals are the least likely to support legal abortion: According to 2018 Public Religion Research Institute data, 30 percent say it should be legal in all or most cases. The split varies widely from there, with majorities of Black Protestants (56 percent), white Catholics (52 percent), Jews (70 percent), Muslims (51 percent), and the unaffiliated (72 percent) saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

While public opinion on abortion has remained relatively stable over time, most people in the U.S. are somewhere in the middle, saying abortion should be legal or illegal in “most” cases. Rev. Amelia Fulbright, transitional pastor at the Congregational Church of Austin, said she sees a range of opinions in her work.

“But I think it’s such a taboo thing to talk about,” she said. “One of the mistakes we’ve made in the church is just not talking about these things — not talking about reproductive life in general except in baby dedications. It’s always framed in terms of the positive and not these complicated things that people are wrestling with and feel like they have to do in silence.”

For pastors, much of the work around abortion involves dialogue, whether at the congregational level or one-on-one.

“One of the things I feel really passionate about in this conversation is that, as a priest, my job is to enter into grief when other people might want to move away from it,” Warde said. “... What these laws are doing is they're taking an already grevious time and doubling down on that and making it more difficult for these people who are seeking the best option and the best care for their life situations.”

Future challenges

A week after S.B. 8 went into effect, efforts to blunt its impact are widespread. Planned Parenthood of Texas obtained a restraining order against Texas Right to Life, temporarily preventing them from suing, though private individuals still can. The original lawsuit, for which the Supreme Court declined to provide an emergency injunction, could still make its way through the state system. Others are waiting for individuals to sue under the new law in order to challenge it.

Pro-life groups are cautiously celebrating the new law, while looking forward to future challenges to Roe: This fall, the Supreme Court will review a Mississippi law that bans abortion at 15 weeks, which was blocked by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Students for Life has created a toolkit to equip people to “Search out, Sue, and Shut down abortionists in the Lone Star State.”

Many clergy who spoke to Sojourners pointed to early organizing efforts in their church networks.

“We progressive clergy in the state of Texas — like all good Texans — are gonna fight like hell to make sure people's rights are protected. And we’re just doing the best that we can so that women and all persons can truly live free in this state,” Nowland said.

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