By Hannah Santos and Charlotte Waldman
Last month, the Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity (SACReD) held a convening for justice-oriented people of faith, abortion access activists and leaders from the reproductive rights community. As Youth Organizing Fellows, we attended to represent Americans United and to learn about the fight against religion-based restrictions on reproductive autonomy at the national and state levels.
Featuring the voices of diverse faith leaders, medical professionals and legal experts, the convening underscored the importance of reclaiming reproductive justice as a religious freedom issue.
One of the most striking parts of the convening was the question of why religion is an important part of the abortion access movement. For years, the Religious Right has dominated the conversation on abortion in the United States. As in other areas of discrimination, opposition to reproductive rights has often been justified in the name of religion – and now, being a religious American is firmly associated with anti-abortion beliefs.
However, the Religious Right does not represent all religious Americans. Denouncing these religious anti-choice arguments, the faith leaders at this convening encouraged people of faith to embrace the coexistence of religion and reproductive autonomy. There’s been a capture of “religious liberty” by Christian nationalists to refer to protections of conservative beliefs around sex, sexuality and reproduction. By highlighting the internal diversity of religious Americans, abortion advocates dilute the force of “religious freedom” discourse as a long-established rallying point for the conservative right.
Reclaiming religion leads to a central foundation of the SACReD movement for abortion access: Reproductive dignity is a critical right for all people because of the tenets of faith, not in spite of it.
There are historic roots for this fight. The Clergy Consultation Service, founded 1967 by pro-choice clergy and rabbis, was the largest abortion service in the United States before Roe v. Wade, operating in 35 states and helping thousands of women secure safe abortions. Though often putting themselves at risk, the clergy framed their work as a matter of moral responsibility, arguing that their moral obligation as clergy transcended unfair abortion restrictions in legal codes.
With Roe currently at risk, this work is once again critical. Faith leaders such as Rev. Daniel Kanter, for example, help people in Texas cross state lines for abortion access. He partners with New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and exemplifies their theology with their fundraising motto, “Who is my neighbor?”
On the policy side, 73 Forward, powered by the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), is the Jewish movement for abortion justice. At the convening, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg of the NCJW used classic Jewish sources to explain the central tenet of 73 Forward’s work: Abortion access is a Jewish value.
The conference also explored the interconnected nature of reproductive justice and racial justice. Charity Woods Banes, executive director of the Interfaith Voices for Reproductive Justice (IVRJ), explores theologies of reproductive justice within Black religious communities “to create transformative theological narratives that center Black women and girls.” IVRJ works toward amplifying the voices of Black women within the reproductive justice movement – a movement founded by Black women to address the unique struggles of women of color in achieving healthy and holistic reproductive freedom.
As such, the framework of “Reproductive Justice” extends far beyond abortion access. Reproductive justice cannot be achieved without civil rights, workers’ rights, environmental rights, criminal justice reform, and all the other elements required to sustain true autonomy for healthy families. As we learned at the convening, reproductive justice can only occur when all people have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about their bodies. Separation of church and state in all realms is a crucial part of this interconnected and intersectional struggle for full reproductive freedom.
Along the lines of other examples of faith-based abortion access work, the Reproductive Justice framework unites concrete abortion access work with the revolutionary discourse of liberal theologies. With roots in Black feminist theory and womanist theory, reproductive justice encourages people to push back on interpretations of faith that support oppression. As Dr. Toni Bond, one of the founders of the reproductive justice movement and part of the IVRJ team, announced at the conference, there is an urgent need for religious people to argue publicly that new abortion restrictions, although justified on the basis of religion, in fact go against the Christian tradition of liberation.
As threats to reproductive freedom grow, we must reclaim the religious narrative about abortion. From the Clergy Consultation Service, to Jewish scriptures, to radical Black Womanist theology, the religious voices for reproductive justice are far more diverse than the Religious Right want you to believe.
AU, as the leading advocate for separation of religion and government, is part of the movement to embrace religious freedom as not only compatible with church-state separation, but synonymous with it. A country that does so, by protecting reproductive access and other civil protections from religious opponents, would be better off for it.
Hannah Santos and Charlotte Waldman are members of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship. Hannah is a current Master of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School and holds a B.A. in religious studies and history from Brown University. Charlotte holds a B.A. in history from Vassar College and looks forward to learning more church-state separation at Columbia Law School.