At my Presbyterian church where I am an associate pastor, we openly discuss difficult social issues. Many of my congregants are sharing with me their fears, uncertainty, and anger about the times we live in.
During a recent youth retreat, a young woman said, “Can we please pray for women’s rights in this country? I’m scared of what’s happening.”
Another congregant said: “I’m so grateful that my daughter no longer lives in Texas. If she had lived there when she had that miscarriage, I’m sure we would have lost her.”
A third shared their anger with me, saying, “I’m 92 years old and I remember when abortion was illegal the first time. It wasn’t pretty. I can’t believe that this is happening again.”
These are the fears, uncertainties, and anger that I hear as a woman who pastors women and others capable of pregnancy. As a Christian and a pastor, I believe that the kind of terror women are faced with now is barbaric, unnecessary, and against God’s will for pregnant people and their families. The curbing of reproductive rights in this country is not only a challenge as someone who helps to spiritually care for people as they make reproductive choices, but it also represents a direct legal challenge to my faith’s core tenets about religious liberty, conscience, and spiritual care.
Lost in the conversation about abortion rights and religious liberty is the fact that many Christians are not merely politically in favor of abortion access, but theologically in favor as well. These attempts to restrict abortion care and reproductive rights — even to the point where it puts the lives of pregnant people at dire risk — go against our Christian faith.
Since 1970, my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been proudly (but perhaps too quietly) theologically pro-choice. We recognize that individuals may form differing opinions about the mystery of when life begins — or when “ensoulment” happens — and that Christians have long disputed this question without sufficient biblical evidence to confirm or deny any one position. As theologian Margaret D. Kamitsuka has pointed out in her book Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic, terms such as “personhood,” “ensoulment,” and “life” have meant different things to different Christians throughout history. All of these terms are better understood as representing a process, not simply a moment, in which a prenate slowly becomes a biological and legal person.
However, according to our 1970 General Assembly we also believe, that “the artificial or induced termination of pregnancy is a matter of the careful ethical decision of the patient ... and therefore should not be restricted by law ... abortion [is] a serious matter requiring careful ethical decision and [the] moral choice to continue or to terminate a pregnancy should be [open] to all women, not just the affluent.”
In other words, the choice to have an abortion can also be considered an ethical decision, based on the principle that pregnant people and their partners are created in the image and likeness of God and are full moral agents. For several hundred years, the Presbyterian tradition in the U.S. has recognized that “God alone is the Lord of the conscience” and reaffirmed that “the church is always obliged to respect claims of conscience lest it frustrate efforts to obey the will of God.” Since all people are made in the divine image, they are vested with the ability to discern how God’s will is at work in their lives — and it is not the business of either the state or the larger church to interfere with these decisions.
The PC(USA) is not alone in its theological position on abortion and reproductive rights. The United Church of Christ has proudly declared its support for the reproductive justice movement , affirming that access to both birth control and abortion is a human-rights issue.
While individual clergy, including bishops of the Episcopal Church, hold wildly differing views about abortion, resolutions passed in the Episcopal Church have affirmed since 1967 that they unequivocally oppose “any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them.” In 1994, the 71st General Convention expanded this decision, opposing any government action that, “abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”
Both the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are committed to preventing or regulating abortions, yet these traditions also recognize that preserving the life of a pregnant person and terminating pregnancies where the prenate has no chance of survival is an ethical and responsible reason for receiving an abortion. Lutherans also recognize that other Lutherans might reasonably and seriously disagree.
All told, the denominations that hold these pro-choice positions — or even positions that discourage abortion but allow for it in life-and-death circumstances — account for around 12.5 million U.S. citizens. In comparison, the United States’ Jewish population is estimated to be between 7.5 to 8 million, and its Muslim population is around 3.5 million. At least in some circumstances, restricting abortion access and limiting reproductive rights goes against Jewish and Islamic beliefs, too.
Perhaps this is why religious individuals across many of these denominations have joined together in recent lawsuits with clergy of other faiths to sue states that have abortion bans in place, arguing that the state is violating their religious liberty by restricting rights to abortion.
More so than the complicated theologies around ensoulment, personhood, or liberation, it is the question of pastoral care that feels closest to me.
According to my faith, a woman suffering an impartial miscarriage has a right to an abortion before she becomes so septic that her life is at risk. I have a right to tell her that God loves her no matter what. The aching mystery of why she will not leave the hospital pregnant or with a living child is beyond me, but I know for sure that it is not God’s will that she die. Telling her that she shouldn’t get an abortion to save her life is against my religion. But according to Texas law, practicing my faith is illegal in the state.
According to my faith, a 10-year-old who has suffered sexual abuse by a male family member and becomes pregnant has a right to avoid the very real medical risks of pregnancy and the impact that pregnancy could have on her spiritually and psychologically. I have a right to counsel her and help her get the care she needs to survive the trauma. As a real-life case from last year demonstrates, practicing my faith is illegal in Ohio.
According to my faith, a woman who already loves, cares, and provides for the children that she has but feels that she is not capable of caring for more, has a right to an abortion in light of the real and complex economic, social, and emotional reality of her life. God sees her circumstances, her struggles, and her inner life better than anyone else — especially governments and courts that only deal in abstractions and generalities, not the intimate and holy particularity that these decisions deserve.
But in 21 states, the complicated, biblically-grounded, 50-year-old position held within my tradition is no longer treated as equal under the law with those who hold an anti-abortion position based on religious grounds (a religious position that is relatively new within many Christian traditions). And it is these fellow Christians — many of whom claim a vested interest in religious liberty — who fought, bought, and cajoled state governments and courts to take that religious liberty away from me.
I cannot legally practice my faith in those 21 states.
I wonder if the people who are — intentionally or not — restricting my religious right to accompany people in making these complex, moral decisions around abortion have ever been close to a person considering such a decision.
I wonder if the women in their congregation, who have maybe been faced with such a decision, had to do so in silence, as they knew they might be judged or pitied because of the complex and holy decisions they were considering.
Activists and Christians who are opposed to abortion do not have a right to take my religious liberty away from me and the people I serve.
And if you’re reading this, thinking that this is entirely irrelevant because abortion is murder, know that I’m not trying to convince you that you’re wrong. But I do need you to know that my beliefs are just as grounded in love and my religious convictions as you believe yours to be.