by Alexander Curtis, M.D.
The days of worrying about choosing between maintaining an affiliation with a respectable religious community and supporting a woman's right to have an elective abortion are over. Let me tell you how I know this.
I recently attended a two-day Compassionate Care Training on reproductive decision-making and loss, hosted by Ohio RCRC and the Abortion Conversation Project, with trainers from the national Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. As a medical doctor and a non-religious person, this was not exactly my kind of crowd.
I arrived early to the fancy hotel meeting room. The morning sunlight bathed the room through translucent windows, much like it does in stained glassed cathedrals. It all seemed ethereal. “What am I doing here?” I asked myself. Nearly all of my debates regarding reproductive choice with members of religious communities have been upsetting. Am I foolish to think these two days would be any different?
A few other participants entered the room by the time I finished drinking my first cup of coffee. Young and spirited, they seemed friendly and quickly engaged in substantive conversation. I introduced myself to a man who reminded me of Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present — a jolly giant personality with a kettledrum laugh. His kind eyes and thoughtful responses helped put me at ease. After several minutes of conversation, I noticed two dozen participants had arrived — a diverse array of characters, including a young woman wearing a t-shirt with the message, “The Future is Female.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 1 out of every 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by the age of 45. First-trimester abortions are much safer for a woman than pregnancy or childbirth. Nearly 60 percent of the women who obtain abortions in the U.S. are already mothers and more than 60 percent identify with a religious affiliation (Catholic 24 percent, mainline Protestant 17 percent, evangelical Protestant 13 percent, other religion 8 percent). Abortion rates have been declining in the U.S. since 1975. This downward trend is largely due to the increasing popularity of contraception — with more than two-thirds of women in the U.S. relying on easily reversible methods (pills, patches, implants, and IUDs). Contraception use is also common among women of all religions. Among sexually experienced religious women, 99 percent of Catholics and Protestants have used some form of contraception.
So why would I want to talk with members of Midwestern religious communities about reproductive choice despite unpleasant previous experiences under similar circumstances? As a doctor, I understand the science behind abortion and the dramatic physiologic transformation that pregnancy induces. As a feminist, I support a woman’s right to control her own reproductive destiny. Yet, science and reason alone will not stop religious or political opposition to abortion. If a faith-based group that claims to utilize prophetic witness and pastoral presence to protect reproductive choice is willing to share its insights on how to advance our common interest, then my decision to participate was easy.
For insight into the training, here’s a similar case study that we explored:
Roberta is 28 years old. She grew up in a mid-sized town, played soccer in high school, went to a respectable in-state college and has always identified as being prolife. She and her longtime boyfriend have been married for four years. Roberta is 12 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy resulted from considerable effort and has been celebrated throughout her church community, where her husband faithfully serves as a youth minister. Roberta began taking prenatal vitamins prior to conception, has always stayed physically active, and volunteers as a mathematics tutor at the local elementary school. She’s always done well. However, her dream of a trouble-free pregnancy was abruptly derailed during her most recent prenatal checkup. Roberta’s physician identified a cardiac abnormality that would make carrying her pregnancy to term dangerous. Were she to attempt to do so, Roberta would risk her own life and the life of the fetus. Devastated by their predicament, Roberta and her husband turned to their church community for support. The prayers and sympathetic sentiments — as abundant as they were — fell short of solving Roberta’s plight. What is she to do?
I asked the first question, “What, besides prayer, does Roberta’s church community have to offer?” The group’s responses torrented from every direction.
“Our compassionate care training teaches us to first establish a safe space for Roberta and her husband to continue with their spiritual journey in unison with God,” offered one participant. “What are their spiritual needs?” asked another.
This immediately led into an impassioned discussion, distinguishing Roberta’s medical needs from the elements of her identity suddenly challenged by the thought of an elective abortion.
No one ever questioned whether or not going through with the abortion was in Roberta’s best interest. That is Roberta’s decision to make. Everyone in the room — the nurses and doulas and ordained ministers alike — seemed to understand that. Everyone immediately moved past what I thought would be an obvious impediment and began to assemble a “spiritual first aid” strategy.
“Okay, thinking about our core values, which ones apply most directly to Roberta?” asked one of our facilitators. “Confidentiality” and “respect” were answered back. Such responses could have been heard had the same question been asked to a group of physicians. “Nonjudgement is an important one,” said someone from across the room. “How about intercultural awareness?” answered one of the pastors at my table. “We don’t know very much about Roberta’s culture or her husband’s,” he added. “We shouldn’t rush to any assumptions.”
I was impressed. I simply hadn’t expected to witness such sincere interest in addressing so many of Roberta’s big picture concerns. Throughout the entire training, my fellow participants routinely infused our discussions with precisely that same degree of compassion and conviction.
Each day offered numerous stories of how injustices — racial, gender, and those concerning sexual orientation — were confronted. During dinner, a participant told me how her husband found a second job and built an additional bedroom onto their house in order to foster an abandoned child — adding a sixth person to their family. Several other participants shared stories about their experiences volunteering at abortion clinics to safely escort patients past protesters. One told me, “The louder they yell, the more convinced I am that I’m doing the right thing.” The reasons that compel members of faith communities to help secure a woman’s right to reproductive freedom are truly as diverse as the members themselves.
I have enjoyed many uplifting experiences while promoting abortion rights among advocacy groups and as a member of the medical community (all non-religiously affiliated). But an altered sense of expectation and kindred connection with Ohio RCRC serves as the most important takeaway I acquired from our two days together.
We live in a non-binary world with respect to religion and abortion. A critically important voice risks being silenced when the pursuit of an elective abortion forces a woman to relinquish her religious identity. She need not do so.
Today, it is simply impermissible for a religious community to base its acceptance of a woman on her reproductive choices. Regardless of whether you identify with Roberta or are contemplating an abortion for any number of non-medical reasons, you can be rest assured that devoted members of RCRC’s interfaith ministry are eager to connect with you to offer compassionate support.
Alexander Curtis was raised on a small family-owned horse farm in western Appalachia. A rich array of global adventures informs his decision to return to Appalachia as a protector and advocate for reproductive choice.