Abortion Access

The Religious Freedom Dilemma: Politics Are A Threat to Reproductive Justice

  Sabrina E. Dent, DMin

This month has been filled with so many ups and downs. The outcome of the Supreme Court cases Trump v. Pennsylvania and Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru has huge implications that go beyond the concerns of birth control and ministerial exemptions. For me, it continues to raise the question: Whose religious freedom? Whose human rights? I ponder these questions as I think about the politics of Washington, D.C.

AU’s president and CEO, Rachel Laser stated it well in a recent press release about the ministerial exemption case: “Today’s decision demonstrates how the Supreme Court continues to redefine religious freedom – twisting what is meant to be a shield that protects us into a sword to harm others. The court elevates a distorted notion of religious freedom over fundamental civil rights.” This is a major point that should not be missed by religious and nonreligious leaders as it pertains to the dignity and worth of every human being. The politics of Washington continue to put vulnerable people and populations in the line of fire when we fail to name what we see for the sake of “respectability politics” and finding common ground.

When people’s lives and livelihoods are being threatened, we have a moral obligation to speak up. For example, if we are talking about access to birth control and affordable health care as a religious freedom issue, we should not be shy about talking about reproductive justice as a human right for women of color, LGBTQ, low-wage earners and the working poor. In these arguments, we must learn to recall and remember the stories of history that point to why justice needs to be centered in these discussions. 

From 1846 to 1849, James Marion Sims, known as the “father of modern gynecology,” performed surgeries on at least 10 enslaved women without the use of anesthesia. As noted and fact-checked in a recent USA Today article, one woman named Anarcha suffered through over 30 painful surgeries performed by Sims. Fast forward to 1951 during racial segregation, when physicians at Johns Hopkins University unethically took the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks without her consent to perform medical research.

In today’s political climate and era of President Donald Trump, there are many more recent examples that I can provide including famous women of color like Serena Williams. Rather, simply read the data as provided in this 2017 CDC report that highlights 63% of the 454 reported pregnancy-related deaths were preventable. (This was only from 14 maternal mortality review committees that volunteered the data.) To frame it appropriately and bluntly: These numbers reflect children without their mothers, partners or spouses without their significant other, many families without their primary caregivers and sources of income which potentially bear long-term implications for the surviving members of these families.

Thus, reproductive freedom is not just about religious freedom or one’s right to choose birth control or to have an abortion; it is about everyone being empowered to make decisions about our bodies and our health. It looks like communities of color and rural areas having equitable resources and funding to provide and sustain healthy living. This translates into adequate medical facilities and even healthy food options as well as programs for the women and families in these areas. That is justice. That is pro-life. That is freedom.

The words reproductive justice should not be up for debate in discussions around any advocacy tables that affirm the human dignity of people. There are many Black women like Cherisse Scott with SisterReach and Charity Woods with Interfaith Voices for Reproductive Justice who are leading the charge in these areas. Listen to them. Trust them. Consult with and support them.

My commitment to religious freedom and church-state separation issues is not divorced from my convictions about centering marginalized communities in these discussions – that is racial and religious minorities, LGBTQ people, and low-income people. I hope to continue the work alongside people who are willing to speak up louder than the chatter of selfish white men in power and degrading politics. Will you join me?

Dr. Sabrina E. Dent is senior faith adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. If you are a faith leader or a nontheistic celebrant/chaplain who would like to work with Americans United, email us at [email protected].

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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