The first time I had sex, I confessed. Not to a priest, but to my mother, who was kind of amused by my guilt. I cried in her lap about whether I’d be able to wear white at my hypothetical wedding, and we both realized I’d somehow become religious. By sending me to Catholic school (because our local school district wasn’t the best), she’d opened my life up to daily doses of Catholicism. And even though I’d spent most of my pre-teen years trying to avoid communion and confession, I’d somehow swallowed the belief that premarital sex made me unclean. To my mom’s credit, she didn’t laugh. She rubbed my back, explained that I could wear whatever I wanted, and told me that she’d schedule an ob/gyn appointment for me.
At a different point, when I found out I was pregnant, I was much less interested in religious decorum. I knew, unequivocally, that I wasn’t ready to have a child. And though that sexual partner didn’t want me to get an abortion, he couldn’t change my mind. In a desperate attempt to get me to see things his way, he told me I was killing his “seed.” (It didn’t work.)
This person wasn’t religious, and in the year of our Lord, 2019, no one would accuse me of being devout either. But as our government continues to dismantle access to abortion in the name of propriety, I’m struck by the insidious way that religion seeps into our seemingly secular worldview. Even among those of us who aren’t religious, biblical terms like “seed” slip out and hint at a time (before science) when people thought that babies lived inside of sperm. And my insistence that having consensual sex made me impure? Likely influenced in part by my religious schooling.
I’m not alone. The United States of America is a pretty religious country. Seventy-eight percent of people identifiy as at least slightly religious, according to the University of Chicago’s nationally representative 2018 General Social Survey, and one in four people with vaginas will have had an abortion by their 45th birthday. It’s pretty obvious that a large swath of religious people has also exercised their right to end a pregnancy, but the idea that abortion conflicts with religious ideals is repeatedly used to undermine access and shame people who made the choice they felt was best for them. To a casual observer, it may seem like religion and faith belong to those who are strictly opposed to abortion, and in extension, to a person’s right to access the medical procedure.
But that’s not true. There are plenty of people of faith who hold pro-choice views—you just might not hear from them that often. So, in an effort to better understand this worldview, we spoke to nine people of faith—some clergy, some religious scholars, and some laypeople of faith—about their pro-choice views, and how they reconcile their religious beliefs with their political ones. Of course, the beautiful thing about religion is that everyone interprets and practices it in their own unique and personal way. The point of this story is to show the ways that a handful of pro-choice people connect their faith to their views on choice, not provide an exhaustive, definitive catalog of how religions view abortion.
Here’s what they had to say.
1. “What any one person would do in this situation shouldn’t infringe upon someone else’s right to make a different decision.”
Reverend Emilie Townes Ph.D.
Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School
“I’ve listened to all of the arguments about when life happens, and I think of something my mother, who was a scientist, once told me. She said, ‘As scientists, we can run the experiments. We can give you explanations for how things happen on a cellular level. We can do all these things, but at a certain point it becomes a mystery, and in that mystery is God.’ And I think she’s right on target with that: This is something that God handles, and what any one person would do in this situation shouldn’t infringe upon someone else’s right to make a different decision. It is a choice that calls for deep discernment.
I do know that we need to be a lot more responsible once life gets here. We focus so much on the unborn that we fail to see that we have a miserable safety net in this country when it comes to helping women and children have healthy lives with adequate health care. We should ultimately be caring for folks wherever they are.”
2. “Islam is all about compassion.”
Board Director, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Planned Parenthood Action Fund
“I grew up with a very personalized form of Islam. My mom was really focused on allowing me to choose my faith. She was a single mom, and she raised me to understand the value of my reproductive rights, including abortion.
For me Islam is really—I can’t emphasize this enough—all about compassion, and that translates into giving rights to women. If I felt that I needed to have an abortion, then it’s my decision, and I don’t need any lawmaker to make that decision for me.
It’s complicated because we don’t really have a set group of rules in Islam about what is allowed in terms of abortion. There are so many different interpretations. For women who are questioning what to do, the thing to remember is that most interpretations of the Quran come from men. We have the same right to read the Quran and to make our own interpretation. We have the right and the competence, no matter what these leaders say, to make decisions about our sexual and reproductive health.”
3. “According to some interpretations, a fully formed human being is one that is outside of the womb.”
Rabbi Jessica K. Shimberg
Spiritual leader at Kehilat Sukkat Shalom
“There is a verse in the book of Exodus that talks about the consequences if a pregnant woman is struck unintentionally. It essentially says that if someone inadvertently strikes a pregnant woman and she loses the pregnancy but survives herself, the attacker is not liable for homicide. But, according to this verse, if the woman dies, it’s considered murder. So, from our earliest commentary on Hebrew scripture, it is interpreted to mean that if a woman who is pregnant is struck, her life is what is valued, and the fetus is of lesser value.
We treat that fetus with a great amount of respect, but until it exits outside its mother or the person who is carrying it, it is not a life. According to some interpretations, even later on in pregnancy, there’s never a question—a fully formed human being is one that is outside of the womb.”
4. “The Quran doesn’t really give guidance on abortion.”
Educator and journalist
“I came from a struggling immigrant family. My father was dealing with mental illness and my mom was raising two kids far from home. When she found out she was pregnant with me, she was actually told by people, ‘You should have an abortion; you can’t bring a child into this world.’
Clearly, she didn’t do it. She said it was something she didn’t feel conflicted about religiously—it was just her own personal choice. In Islam, the soul is supposedly breathed into a fetus at 120 days, so before then, abortion is permitted. Some will say abortion is only acceptable in cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormality, not in cases of poverty. Others say God is compassionate and the decision falls with the parent. Ultimately, the Quran doesn’t really give guidance on abortion other than to say life is precious. So it depends on the interpretations of the texts written by scholars, and it depends on who you choose to follow, which once again comes down to choice.
I think that highlights why it is so important, as a Muslim woman, for me to speak out about choice, knowing what my mom went through and then later being in a position where I made the same choice. That’s why I’m pro-choice, and I think that’s why a lot of Muslims are pro-choice.”
5. “Taking choices away from people doesn’t respect humans as a whole.”
“Hinduism is polytheistic, which means there are multiple spiritual powers that are portrayed in the female and male form. A lot of the teachings revolve around karma, which mostly involves respecting one another, and reincarnation, which involves coming back to this world as a different living creature. Although it isn’t directly stated, I see a Hindu argument for abortion in that taking choices away from people doesn’t respect humans as a whole. For anyone making the choice whether or not to have a child, it isn’t taken lightly. It’s something they carry with them their entire lives. And for Hindus, it goes beyond that and into the idea that the choices we make here may be carried beyond just this life. But it’s still a choice, and it’s different for each person. It’s not black and white.”
6. “People are thinking seriously about their circumstances.”
Reverend Rebecca Todd Peters, Ph.D.
Presbyterian/Christian social ethicist
Author of Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice
“If we think about the broad moral teachings of the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Bible, there is a lot of emphasis on justice and how we structure societies to reflect it. And if we look to the New Testament, the teachings of Jesus, those teachings are often about how we interact with the people around us. Part of those teachings come from parables that Jesus tells. But they also come from how Jesus lived his life and the people that he surrounded himself with: people on the margins, people who were sick, or lepers, tax collectors, widows, and the poor. His actions and teachings reflect the sentiment of not just caring for your neighbor, but loving your neighbor as yourself.
Some of the people who end their pregnancies are people of faith and some of them aren’t. But all of those people are thinking seriously about their circumstances. And Christians that I have known, talked with, and read about in studies are thinking, ‘Do I have the emotional, physical, and financial resources that I need to be the kind of parent that I want to be and that my faith calls me to be?’ They are trying to discern what it means to live a good Christian life, and they are thinking about their actions as part of that call to be faithful and responsible Christians.”
7. “I’m nobody’s judge.”
Fitness model and activist
“I actually grew up within the Bible Belt in the Midwest, and my mom was a minister. She traveled around the U.S. and spoke in and started churches in the Christian faith.
The God that I believe in and the God also present in Christianity is centered around love. Anyone who has an abortion should be met with grace. Being a part of the Christian faith most of my life, I’ve never read that Jesus shamed anyone—he met them with compassion.
I have postpartum depression and all these different factors, so I understand that someone needs to do what’s right for them whether you believe in that choice or not. I’ve also had an abortion myself. Already having a son and knowing how having another child would impact my life, I just thought that abortion was a better choice for me. I’m nobody’s judge. I know at the end of the day, whether someone chooses to have a child or to terminate a pregnancy, the people that are judging aren’t really going to be there to help raise the child, or be there when the young mom has to go back to school, or be there to help navigate her mental health.”
8. “This conversation is taking place inside a worldview that is virulently patriarchal and misogynistic.”
Reverend Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
Author of Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne
“Someone I knew who was a devout Christian got pregnant when she wasn’t ready to get married and wasn’t ready to have the baby. She decided on her own that she was going to have an abortion and asked me if I thought God would still love her. I said, ‘Absolutely. God loves you. Whatever it is you decide and whatever it is you do.’ Then she asked me to go with her. I will never forget that because we had to pass through one of these gauntlets of people who have Christian paraphernalia and claim they’re Christian. They screamed at her and cursed at her—well, they cursed at all of us—and that hatred and vitriol, there’s nothing pro-life about that.
I think that this conversation about reproductive choice—and it’s not just the ability to terminate a pregnancy, it’s also increasingly about in-vitro fertilization and access to birth control—is taking place inside a worldview that is virulently patriarchal and misogynistic. It’s not just that there are some people who have religious beliefs that differ from mine or interpret scripture differently than I do, we’re talking about a worldview in which women are not perceived to be equal human ethical subjects. And I think that always has to be part of this discourse.”
9. “If you have made this decision, you have weighed it on so many different levels.”
Christian theologian and essayist
“What pushed me to really say, ‘OK, you have to start talking about your abortion’ is that there has been this open attack on reproductive rights, and pro-life arguments are often left unchallenged from a spiritual level.
I wanted to remain a public voice within faith communities that says that if someone decides this is a decision they have to make, then the faith community should walk with them. I believe that if you have made this decision, you have weighed it on so many different levels and still said, ‘This is the best decision for me.’
There is this assumption that pro-choice Christians have no allegiance to scripture. That’s fundamentally not true. Many of us are looking at the totality of scripture, and we’re looking at the fact that the arc of the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation shows us the story of a guy who loved. It shows the power of community during dark times and in darkness. There’s a scripture that essentially says, ‘Everywhere that I go, God is with me.’ If that scripture is true, that means God is with us in an abortion clinic, and wherever God is, God’s love is there.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity.
*Name has been changed upon request.