Did You Just Send That Woman To a Church To Get Help with an Abortion?

Did You Just Send That Woman To a Church To Get Help with an Abortion? April 8, 2013
Photo Credit: Carl Gregg

Today, in the year 2013, when we reflect on what it means to talk about reproductive justice, we are inherit a strong history. To remember how we reached this present moment, we invite you to hear ten landmark changes in the history of reproductive justice.

Because we have to begin somewhere, it is significant to note how long contraception has  been a controversial in our nation. In the 1850s, amid opposition from conservatives and feminists alike, the first rubber condoms are mass-produced in the United States. Less than 40 years later, condoms were the most popular birth control method in the country.

1916 – Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in Brooklyn, offering counseling, birth control information, and supplies to local women. Nine days later, the police close the clinic and arrest Sanger and her staff under charges of “maintaining a public nuisance.” Has there ever been a time you or someone you know felt compelled to take a stand for reproductive justice?

1919 – The 19th Amendment to the Constitution passes, granting women’s suffrage. The U.S. Senate approved the constitutional amendment by a vote of 56 to 25 after four hours of debate. The measure was passed in large part due to the efforts of Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, whose organizing of picket lines outside the White House resulted in their arrest and subsequent hunger strike. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to have been alive when this shift happened. — when women were first able to cast a ballot? At the same time, how sobering to consider that women have had the right to vote for less than a hundred years in the United States of America. 

1960 – Following harmful clinical trials on women in Puerto Rican housing projects, the first oral contraceptive is approved in the U.S. In its first four years, more than one million women use “the pill,” though it was not made available to all married women for another five years and all unmarried women for 12 years. Unlike with women getting the vote, more of you here today are can perhaps either remember a time before the pill was widely available or have friends and family who watched this change happen in our society. Can you imagine how different many people’s lives might be, including your own, without the invention and availability of “the pill”?

1963 – The Unitarian Universalist Association becomes the first religious tradition to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice.

1967 – The first of its kind in Unitarian Universalism, the annual Fall Conference of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) focuses on sexuality and provides resources for working with parents and youth. The conference resulted, in part, in the idea for a faith-based curriculum that addressed real life issues emerging for UU young people, which evolved into “About Your Sexuality” (AYS) and subsequently “Our Whole Lives” (OWL).

1973 – In their watershed decision, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion in the United States. Having ruled in previous cases, Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird, that married couples and single people have a federally protected right to privacy, the court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy is “broad enough to encompass her decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.”

1994 – The framework of “reproductive justice” is coined by the Black Women’s Caucus at a national conference in Chicago, aiming to move away from “choice”-based language to integrate ideas of reproductive health with social justice — creating the combined term “reproductive justice.”

2009 – While serving as a Sunday usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas, Dr. George Tiller is shot through the eye and killed by an antiabortion activist. Tiller was the medical director of a women’s health clinic — one of just three locations in the United States where late-term abortions were available to women. His patients were almost always physically endangered by, or had extraordinary difficulty with, their pregnancy.

2012 – The UUA becomes first religious tradition to endorse reproductive justice with their Congregational Study/Action Issue, “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling.”

What surprised you, excited you, or challenged you about these dates in the history of reproductive justice? How has your personal experience and historical context affected your approach to reproductive justice?

The term “Reproductive Justice” refers to both reproductive health and social justice, similar to how we talk about working for “Racial Justice” or “Immigration Justice.” Embedded within this phrase “Reproductive Justice” is the hope of changing the broken, embittered debate between the so-called “pro-life” and “pro-life” camps.

One definition of Reproductive Justice is “The right to have children, to not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments….” Similarly, speaking to the inadequacy of the current paradigm, Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun, has said:

in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

Reproductive Justice is an attempt to name the broad conversation that we need to have about the connections between “The right to have children, to not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments….”

Talking about reproduction potentially raises such a large range of responses from joy to sadness, from pain to frustration — to all of these experiences and emotions at the same time and in the same person. But there is an even greater risk that in never raising these issues of reproduction publicly in socially-progressive, open-minded congregations, we lose the opportunity of supporting one another and expanding our understanding around this vital and intimate part of our lives.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is in the first year of a four-year focus on Reproductive Justice. And the wisdom of choosing to focus on Reproductive Justice at this particular juncture is perhaps at least twofold. First, even though this past January marked the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in “Roe vs. Wade,” the underlying issues are far from settled. Looking back forty years later on January 22, 1973, one physician said, “the news came over the radio. It was just an overwhelming feeling. I got tears in my eyes….at least it was all over, finally…never again the fear, the threat of going to prison…the fear of the woman not being able to get service. It was a new day.” And it was a new day. But fast forwarding four decades to today, and tracking the activity of state legislatures, “with 43 abortion-restricting provisions enacted just last year, 2012 has been referred to as the second-worst year for abortion rights [since Roe v. Wade]. Although that’s less than the 92 abortion restrictions passed in 2011. And in addition to incredibly restrictive recent legislation passed recently in North Dakota and Arkansas, I saw three major headlines about Reproductive Justice this past Friday alone: (1) “White House Fights Catholic Church Subpoena On Birth Control,” (2) “Morning-After Pill Ordered To Be Available For All Ages Over The Counter By Judge,” (3) “Lucy Flores, Nevada Legislator, Receives Threats After Admitting She Had An Abortion.”

A second reason that there may be wisdom in choosing to focus the attention of the UU movement on Reproductive Justice at this time because UUs have historically been trailblazers in the struggle for Reproductive Rights, and there may be ways in which UUs are uniquely poised to continue to contribute to future entries on that timeline quoted earlier.

For example, consider this story from an article in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World:

I said into the phone, “I know this is going to sound crazy. But it’s the only thing I can think of right now. There is a Unitarian Universalist church 100 miles from you. Give them a call.” This was not the typical advice we gave to women calling our national abortion hotline. Melissa lived in a big midwestern state. She had little money, two kids, and an unplanned pregnancy. The closest abortion provider was over 500 miles away. Even though Melissa was enrolled in Medicaid, both federal and local government forbade using tax dollars for abortion services. Things were looking pretty bad for Melissa. And in that moment of desperation, a moment all too common among my hotline experiences, I told Melissa to go to church. “I am really not kidding. Call them,” I said to Melissa. “Tell them you just talked to this abortion hotline and the counselor you spoke to was Unitarian and told you to call. It sounds crazy, but this church is not like a lot of other churches. It is part of our tradition that we support women like you. Maybe there is a doctor in the congregation. Maybe someone in the congregation knows somebody.” After I hung up the phone, another counselor peeked over the cubicle divider and looked at me kind of strangely. “Did you just send that woman to a church to get help with an abortion?” “Yes. Yes, I did.”. . . I did not think twice because church was the only place my parents could send me to get a high-quality comprehensive sexuality education. I did not think twice because while I was growing up, my minister told stories of being part of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a pre-Roe v. Wade network of Protestant and Jewish clergy who connected women with safe abortion providers. I did not think twice because Unitarian Universalists, Jews, and Buddhists have been even more supportive of legal abortion than those who identify as religiously unaffiliated. I did not think twice because the Roe v. Wade legal case was forged in the basement of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. The freedoms we enjoy today have been hard won on the backs of trailblazers from Margaret Sanger to Lucy Burns and Alice Paul — from the plaintiffs, lawyers, and judges who were part of landmark legal rulings to nurses and doctors who put their own lives at risk to empower and stand in solidarity with an individual woman’s choice. We have inherited a strong history. At the beginning of this four-year focus on Reproductive Justice in the UU movement, what part might you play, what part might we play? I’m grateful to be with you on the journey and in the work of justice.

For Further Reading


1 The timeline is excerpted and adapted from “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling, Leader Resource LR 1:4.” The original version is available at http://www.uua.org/documents/washingtonoffice/reproductivejustice/curriculum/lr1-4.pdf.

2“The right to have children, to not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments….” — this definition of Reproductive Justice is from SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective (http://www.sistersong.net).

3Joan Chittister — quoted in an interview with Bill Moyers (November 12, 2004), available at http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript346_full.html.

4 The Guttmacher Institute provides the following statistics that also need to be part of broad conversation about Reproductive Justice:

Nearly half of all pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these end in abortion.

• About half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy, and nearly one-third will have an abortion, by age 45.

• The overall U.S. unintended pregnancy rate remained stagnant between 1994 and 2006, but unintended pregnancy increased 50% among poor women, while decreasing 29% among higher-income women.

• Overall, the abortion rate decreased 8% between 2000 and 2008, but abortion increased 18% among poor women, while decreasing 28% among higher-income women. [Thus, decreasing poverty rates could also help decrease abortion rates.]

• Some 1.21 million abortions were performed in 2008, down from 1.31 million abortions in 2000.

• Nine in 10 abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

  • A broad cross section of U.S. women have abortions:
    • 58% are in their 20s;
    • 61% have one or more children;
    • 56% are unmarried and not cohabiting;
    • 69% are economically disadvantaged; and
    • 73% report a religious affiliation.

For more details, see http://www.guttmacher.org/media/presskits/abortion-US/statsandfacts.html. See also the http://www.1in3campaign.org/,

a grassroots movement to start a new conversation about abortion — telling our stories, on our own terms.… As we share our stories we begin to build a culture of compassion, empathy, and support for access to basic health care. It’s time for us to come out in support of each other and in support of access to legal and safe abortion care in our communities.

5 “Delegates pick reproductive justice as next UUA Congregational Study Action Initiative,”available at http://blogs.uuworld.org/ga/2012/06/23/delegates-select-reproductive-justice-as-next-csai/.

6 The flyer on “Reasons for Selecting Reproductive Justice…as the next UUA Study/Action Issue” is available at http://www.uuridgewood.org/vertical/sites/%7BB7B4E9B8-EA33-4E3E-A5DE-C3EC857FE4DA%7D/uploads/CSAI_talkingpoints_v2.pdf.

7 The six-week UUA “Reproductive Justice Curriculum for Congregations” is available for free at http://www.uua.org/reproductive/calling/curriculum/.

8 The physician quote is from “Roe v. Wade at 40: Carole Joffe looks back on ‘A New Day for Abortion Providers,’” available at http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2013/01/roe-v-wade-at-40.html.

9 “43 Abortion Restrictions Were Passed In 2012, Second-Most of All Time,” available athttp://www.policymic.com/articles/22172/43-abortion-restrictions-were-passed-in-2012-second-most-of-all-time.

10 “White House Fights Catholic Church Subpoena On Birth Control,” available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/05/white-house-fights-catholic-church_n_3024899.html.

11 “Morning-After Pill Ordered To Be Available For All Ages Over The Counter By Judge,” available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/05/morning-after-pill_n_3019579.html.

12 “Lucy Flores, Nevada Legislator, Receives Threats After Admitting She Had An Abortion,” available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/05/lucy-flores-abortion-threats_n_3017717.html.

13UU World article — “What is reproductive justice? Women need more than a right to choose. Unitarian Universalists are joining a broader movement seeking reproductive justice,” available at http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/284019.shtml.

14We stand on the shoulders of giants — The 12th-century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres said, “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size” (Fred Shapiro and Joseph Epstein, The Yale Book of Quotations, 57).


The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg)

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