Abortion and Faith

A sermon preached by the Rev. Angela Herrera, First Unitarian Church (Albuquerque, NM), July 21, 2019

One of my friends has a t-shirt that says “thank God for abortion.” I do think it’s meant to be a provocative. I think it’s a push back against the religious right, which teaches that God hates abortion. Right? Churches that are against abortion don’t hesitate to talk about it. But among liberal churches, while we are always involved in supporting reproductive justice, including access to abortion, we don’t necessarily talk about it as much in church.

It has been a while since we had a sermon about this topic here at First Unitarian. I think the last time was in 2013. That’s the same year the people of Albuquerque overwhelmingly defeated an anti-abortion referendum on the city ballot. So why now? Why preach on it again now?

Well… I decided to preach on it today because the Supreme Court now has enough conservative justices to reverse Roe v. Wade, and because states are beginning to pass abortion bans that they hope will reach that Supreme Court.

I’m preaching on it now because the media has been reporting lately that both political parties may be too extreme on abortion. That many Americans, liberal and conservative, are actually moderates on this issue. And that’s really interesting.

I’m preaching on it now because religious voices speak out against abortion all the time, trying to make it illegal, and I have a different view, and it’s important for there to be another faith-based perspective out there, especially when big changes are underway.

And I’m preaching on it because almost everyone here has either had an abortion or knows and loves someone who did. Statistically. You may not know you know someone who had one, but statistically you probably do. And so it is not right that abortion should so often be cloaked in secrecy and stigma. Whenever we talk about it openly, it helps us put it in a proper perspective.

We are better equipped as voters when we know more. When we know more, we are better equipped as spiritual people, who take nuanced and in-depth views of things and who do not take religious liberty and the sacredness of life lightly. When we know more, we are better equipped as people who may one day face an unplanned pregnancy, of our own or of a family member or friend. And when we know more we are better equipped for whatever happens next legally and socially. Because no matter what happens next legally, one thing is for sure: there will still be abortions. They just might not be very safe.

According to the Guttmacher institute, by age 45, nearly one in four women will have had an abortion. I searched but could not find Guttmacher’s definition of “women.” I would guess that in the context of their study it probably refers to people who have wombs, whether or not they identify as women, and whether or not they are fertile. That would still leave some women out. But the statistic is still striking: nearly one in four. 23.7%.

I am one of those women. As I shared in the sermon back in 2013, I have had an abortion. At the time, I didn’t tell anyone except my parents and my boyfriend. I knew that if I did, I’d be shamed and ostracized in my small town. In fact, I never told more than a few people until 2013, when I said it in that sermon to about 350 people. It took all my courage to say it then.

I was sixteen years old when I had an abortion. My mom and sister and I were already on welfare, and our family life was unstable. I moved about eight times in three years back then. I was a junior in high school. When I began to suspect I might be pregnant, I went to a pregnancy crisis center. I found it in the phone book. It wasn’t until the test came back positive, and the woman there began telling me how awful and dangerous abortion is, and that it would be excruciating and cause infertility and cancer, that I realized I was dealing with an anti-abortion group. Like many women, I had been tricked by the name “pregnancy crisis center.”

I knew enough to know that what she was telling me was simply not true. I listened politely and then said, “Thanks, I think I’ll have an abortion,” and left. I didn’t like being tricked or lied to.

But the truth was, I didn’t feel as sure as that. Although I had been raised Unitarian Universalist, and our denomination has long supported women’s right to safe and legal abortion. And even though I considered myself a liberal person and a feminist, I felt really conflicted about the idea of having an abortion. Once I knew I was pregnant, it felt like something really sacred was happening. I imagined the child I might have—vividly—and my heart was moved. I felt a connection. I knew I wanted to be a mom someday. I had always known that my whole life, even when I was a little kid myself.

I also knew I did not have much support. It was important to me to be a really good mother, and I knew I was not ready yet. I imagined what it would be like to continue the pregnancy and give a baby up for adoption. Would I be able to do it? I talked with my doctor about what she knew about these things.

I decided not to continue the pregnancy. On the day of my appointment for an abortion, I waited for my boyfriend to pick me up. We had planned for him to take me, and to share the cost, since he was responsible for this pregnancy too. Instead, he stood me up without a word. I got a ride from my mother. I was lucky the clinic was only an hour away. He never paid.

The role of men in unplanned pregnancies—and the lack of any reference to them in abortion legislation—is probably a whole other sermon. Could you imagine if anti-abortion legislation charged men with reckless endangerment of a child for impregnating a woman who did not wish to be pregnant? Law professors Michelle Oberman and David Ball say there are legal grounds for that. It’s just not where our overwhelmingly male conservative legislators choose to put their attention. But I digress.

Although it took me a while to sort out my feelings about that decision, I have never regretted it. I am so grateful I was able to decide to wait to become a mother. It has made all the difference in my life.

It is different talking about abortion when we don’t think we know someone who has had one, than when we do. When my daughter was in about eighth grade, she came home from school one day and told me she thought she was against abortion. She said it like that. “I think I’m against abortion.” I asked about her concerns, and she explained them. I affirmed that they were valid. It’s a complex issue for sure, I said. I shared that several women we knew had had abortions. I asked if she’d like to know who they are. She said she would. So I told her. They are kind, responsible women whom she loves, and they love her. Neighbors, friends, relatives. And me. I don’t think telling her that took away her concerns. That isn’t what I was trying to do. But she realized there must be much more to the issue than it had seemed at first.

For as long as recorded history and longer, women have used abortion to control their reproduction, their health, and their lives. Where safe, legal abortion is not available, the methods used are a testament to the desperation a woman may experience when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Some are mild—taking certain herbs, or trying strenuous exercise. But when those kinds of attempts fail, other options are dangerous and painful: Hot water poured on the abdomen. Being punched or kicked or thrown down stairs. Ingesting poison. Trying to open the womb with sharp objects. Women have done all of these things and more. They have crossed international borders to get abortions. They have risked injury, infertility, exile, going to jail, hemorrhage, infection, and death.

These facts should make it obvious to all of us that an unplanned pregnancy is not merely an inconvenience. It is not analogous to a medical procedure or a period of illness. It is not like donating blood or even an organ—which we would never force someone to do. No. It is something so life altering, that when a woman needs an abortion, she may go to almost any length to get one. Consider this fact: The same number of abortions take place in countries where abortion is heavily restricted as in countries where abortion is broadly legal. The same number of abortions take place in both. But where abortion is heavily restricted, more women are injured or die from them.

Since 1973, in the US safe, legal abortion has been available to almost any woman who can get to a clinic and pay the cost. Since that same time though, anti-abortion legislation has placed restrictions on access. Waiting periods. Mandatory parental consent. Preventing federal funds from covering abortion--- including the insurance provided to federal workers and their families. That’s what the Hyde Amendment is about. It prevents women who work for the government, and their daughters, from having insurance coverage for abortion unless they can somehow prove the pregnancy was caused by rape.

There is a whole category of abortion restrictions known as TRAP laws. TRAP stands for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. These are laws that make it difficult or impossible for providers and clinics to stay open, but do not increase patient safety. Forcing doctors to have admitting privilege at nearby hospitals, even though it is not necessary, and even if the hospitals are religious and will not grant that permission, is one example of a TRAP law. Forcing abortion clinics to be located near hospitals or away from schools is another.

For decades anti-abortion activists and politicians have put up these barriers, to the point that 90% of US counties do not have an abortion provider, and there are six states that have only one abortion clinic in the entire state. The lone clinic in Missouri has a court date in August that may well cause the clinic to be shut down, which would make Missouri the first state in forty-five years to not have a single clinic that provides abortions. More states may follow.

We are now at a point where states are passing increasingly restrictive abortion bans, and Alabama has passed a law banning all abortions except when the mother’s life is at risk. There is no exception for rape, not even of a minor. The law was challenged in court before it could go into effect, and—as its sponsors hoped—it is probably headed for that newly conservative Supreme Court.

Now, as I mentioned at the start, there is some conversation happening in the media about whether the Democrat and Republican parties are in step with their members when it comes to this. It’s especially relevant as the presidential primaries ramp up.

The General Social Survey is a research project run out of the University of Chicago. It has tracked public opinion and feelings about important issues, including abortion since the 1970’s. The General Social Survey reports that 40% of Democrats oppose allowing access to abortion for any reason. Meaning, they might support it in certain cases, but they think there should be restrictions. Meanwhile, 29% of Republicans support allowing access to abortion for any reason. This is not the picture suggested by the political rhetoric.

At the same time, the statistics really depend on how you ask the question. Sometimes the same respondents will give contradictory answers in one poll. When asked whether they supported abortion in the first trimester, 60% of Americans say yes. This is a politically mixed group—I’m not talking about just one political party. 60% say they support abortion in the first trimester. But when asked if they support abortion in the first trimester “when the woman does not want the child for any reason,” the same group responds differently. Then, only 45% say they support it.

This happens with other questions regarding abortion, too; when the wording is changed, the same group will give different answers. Referring to abortion as a “choice” a woman has, for example, seems to be less acceptable to some groups than speaking of it as a “decision” a woman may make. I think decision carries a connotation of discernment and thoughtfulness, while choice sounds a bit cavalier.

In a Spanish language abortion rights video I once saw, a team took to the streets asking questions on camera. It was in a Latin American country—I can’t remember which one now. But I remember the questions. They asked passersby whether they believed abortion should be illegal. To those who said it should, the interviewers asked whether they knew anyone who’d had an abortion. And if the person said yes, the interviewer asked whether they thought that person should be arrested. That gave everyone pause.

The New York Times reporter Nate Cohn writes,

It is hard to reconcile it all. Many analysts or activists have tried, often in ways that show that their own views command majority support. But the most straightforward interpretation may be that the polls aren’t clear because for most Americans, abortion is a difficult, even wrenching issue that they can’t easily resolve for themselves, let alone the country.

The thing is, when you need one you need one. In This Common Secret, Susan Wicklund, a doctor, describes providing abortions to people she recognized from the anti-abortion picket lines outside her clinic. Those protesters just didn’t know what they didn’t know⏤until they found themselves in need of an abortion.

Important life decisions are rarely black and white. Decisions about reproduction are always part of the context and demands of a person’s life. They are often morally complex. Moral complexity is not bad— it reflects the realities of life.

What I know, as a mother and as a minister, is that the decision to become a parent is one of the most profound, sacred decisions a person will make in their lifetime. When I found out I was pregnant again a couple of years after I had an abortion, I was still very young. But I was finished with high school and in a better situation. I chose to become a mother then. I was lucky to have a supportive and trust-worthy partner that time. We are still together, twenty-four years later. And our daughter and the little brother who followed are now grown. Because I had options in each case, my family has had a good life, and I am here telling this story.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I believe that a human life is a sacred gift—and because of that, we should not force a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will. To do so is to disregard her life, and sometimes it would compromise the lives of her other children as well.

I also believe that a tiny, potential human is also a sacred thing. But for one to mature to full personhood and be born⏤that is a gift. It cannot be forced without violating the sacredness of parenthood and of life.

I believe that because each situation is different, instead of interfering with the blunt instrument of legislation, we should ask ourselves how we can respect and support a person who must make the life altering decision about whether to have a child.

And because each woman’s situation is different, we must protect her ability to make her own decision in consultation with those she trusts and with her own faith and conscience.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, religious liberty is important to me. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning—that is one of our core principles. Respect for religious diversity. A woman and the people she trusts to advise her need to be able to follow their own faith beliefs about whether to end a pregnancy. Her options in such a private matter should not be dictated by strangers of another religion or another denomination, or by politicians who do not know her life.

I believe we can have complex views or even grave concerns about abortion, and we can still understand the statistics and agree that the best thing for women’s safety and for religious liberty, and for compassion toward those facing situations we cannot imagine, is for abortion to be broadly legal, safe, and accessible.

And I believe that whether we are okay with the idea of abortion, or whether we are deeply uncomfortable with it, we can share a goal of making abortion less necessary.

To honor the sacredness of life, we should to make sure people of all genders have unfettered access to good quality contraception and comprehensive sex education. To honor the sacredness of life, we should end poverty. We should create the social conditions in which a woman does not have to choose abortion because she doesn’t have health insurance or enough food to provide, and in which a woman does not have to choose abortion because she has no parental leave at her job, and cannot afford to be fired.

To honor the sacredness of life, we should understand “choice” as more than a yes or no about abortion. Honoring the sacredness of life takes into account the wider circumstances of all of our lives, working for a world where most pregnancies are planned, and where all who find themselves pregnant can have confidence that, if born, their child will have a good life, with healthcare, a clean environment, good education, healthy food, love, and a place at the table in our economy.

May it be so.

Amber Royster