Abortion Access

Why Reproductive Freedom Needs Church-State Separation

  Rachel Laser

Editor’s note: This blog post by AU President and CEO Rachel Laser originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of AU’s Church & State magazine.

Last month, I had occasion to take a trip to San Francisco to participate in an exciting event that one of our supporters put together. The event – about the relationship between church-state separation and reproductive freedom – featured Monika Bauerlein, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones magazine, facilitating a conversation between Stacy Cross, the head of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, and me. 

There was so much to love about this discussion. As Monika said, it was unusual to be on an all-female panel and not have it be about women’s leadership. Stacy is an incredibly powerful leader and opened with a heart-wrenching story about her grandmother, who died from an illegal abortion – but for a generation no one knew that was the cause except for one family member.

All three organizations turned out people for the event. I was proud that though ours was the only one based in D.C., we still had a huge showing. (Thanks to all you committed San Fran members who came out on a cold, rainy night!) It was also fun to hear from people who approached me after the event to say they weren’t familiar with AU before but that “we rock”! Yeah! I know you members already knew that, but consider this a reminder that we need your help in continuing to spread the word about AU.

So, what’s the link between church-state separation and reproductive freedom? It’s actually notable how many of our older members have told me that repro­ductive freedom is at the heart of their support for Amer­icans Uni­ted. Why? They remember well a time when powerful rel­igious groups held enormous sway over the govern­ment’s policies in this area. They fight for church-state separation in large part to preserve a woman’s ability to make her own decisions about her body. At the heart of reproduc­tive freedom is religious freedom!

Which brings me to another highlight of this event – an article I came across from the Baptist Press, written just after the Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973. This publication of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) praised the ruling for nothing less than promoting freedom of conscience for all.

The words of the article are too good not to quote:

“Question: Does the Supreme Court decision on abortion intrude on the religious life of the people?

“Answer: No…. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions. They are free to practice their religion according to the tenets of their personal or corporate faith. The reverse is also now true since the Supreme Court decision. Those whose conscience or religious convictions are not violated by abortion may not now be forbidden by a religious law to obtain an abortion it they so choose. … Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

This was the position of the SBC directly following Roe! In fact, in 1971, the SBC passed a resolution that can be characterized as quite pro-choice, which it reaffirmed through 1976.

The SBC’s position did not shift until Jerry Falwell Sr. gave his first anti-abortion speech in 1978. What accounted for the change?  As AU member and journalist Katherine Stewart explained in The Nation, the Religious Right settled on a strategy of using abortion as their “unifying issue” and the SBC’s “theology changed dram­atically in order to service this new purpose.”  The SBC has remained staunchly anti-choice ever since.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Let’s always remember that we have separation of religion and government, as much as anything else, to thank for this right.

And let’s never forget that we have Americans United to thank for fighting tirelessly to stop those who do not believe in reproductive freedom from imposing their religious (and political) beliefs on the rest of us. That’s why we sued the Trump administration and the University of Notre Dame over the rules the adminis­tration first issued in October 2017 allowing bosses and universities to deny their employees and students access to contr­cep­tion – perversely in the name of “religious freedom.” 

You know, I hear that Amer­i­cans United is a pretty cool organization. Your friends should join!

Rachel Laser is presi­dent and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

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.

Act Now