On May 19, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbot signed into law the so-called “Heartbeat Bill” that would prohibit abortions in the state as early as six weeks, even in cases of rape or incest. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to respond to an emergency appeal by abortion providers, the law went into effect on September 1, 2021. Not only does the law ban abortions, it gives any individual the right to sue doctors who perform an abortion past the six-week point as well as anyone else who helps a woman obtain an abortion.
What does the Texas abortion law mean for clergy?
Under this law, any person who successfully sues an abortion provider or anyone who aids a woman who obtains an abortion could be awarded at least $10,000. This means that a pastor in Texas who counsels a woman who decides to obtain an abortion could potentially be sued. One could easily imagine a disgruntled parishioner or anyone in the community snitching on the pastor, accusing them of aiding and abetting women who obtain abortions. No proof is needed to substantiate the accusation.
Why should clergy outside of Texas care about this new law?
Clergy in states with progressive legislatures and progressive governors and who serve in progressive congregations may think themselves safe from the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale-nightmare that is happening in Texas. But this same scenario is on the verge of being enacted in other conservative states as well. The push to ban abortion is even finding footholds in purple and blue states.
This is because the anti-abortion surge has been a long time in the making. The plans for enacting these laws have been a strategic and tactical focus of Republican lawmakers and conservative influencers for decades. They have been laying the groundwork to enact restrictions and exert control over reproductive rights at the state level across the country. All of this has served to prepare for and hasten a hoped-for overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that ensured a woman’s right to an abortion until a fetus is able to survive outside the womb.
Three other states – Idaho, Oklahoma, and South Carolina – have also passed six-week ban bills this year and are stalled only by legal challenges. And if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of the Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, it is likely that Roe v. Wade would be overturned and the decision on abortions would revert to states.
The silence of progressive clergy on reproductive issues
What have progressive clergy been saying about all of this? According to my research, not much.
Over the past four years, I have conducted two surveys of clergy in the U.S. about how they are addressing social issues in their congregations. In both the 2017 and 2021 survey, they were given a list of social issues and asked which ones they had addressed in their preaching in the previous twelve months. In 2017, of the 484 clergy who identified as progressive, only 10% said they had addressed reproductive issues. Of the 1,729 progressive clergy who responded in 2021, only 6% said they had addressed reproductive issues in the previous year.
In fact, when asked which topics they intended to avoid in their sermons in 2021, reproductive issues ranked as the number one topic progressive preachers wanted stay away from, more than LGBTQIA+ issues, gun violence, and racism.
Conservative clergy are more willing to talk about reproductive issues
In contrast, conservative clergy appear to be more willing to talk about reproductive issues than their progressive colleagues.
In the 2017 survey, of the 40 clergy who identified as conservative, 20% said they had addressed reproductive issues in their sermons in the previous year – twice as many as their progressive counterparts. In the 2021 survey, of the 370 conservative clergy who responded, 29% said they had addressed reproductive issues in the previous year – nearly five times as many as their progressive colleagues. And 17% of conservative clergy indicated that they intended to address reproductive issues in their sermons in the coming year, compared with only 1% of progressive clergy.
With these statistics in mind, I would make the case that one factor contributing to conservatives gaining power and enacting restrictive legislation against reproductive rights in Texas and other states has been the relative silence of progressive clergy on reproductive issues compared with their conservative peers.
Granted, there are many other factors, but I think that at least in the realm of the church, the argument can be made that because progressive clergy have not talked about reproductive rights, this silence has allowed for more strident voices to fill the space.
Why are progressive clergy averse to addressing reproductive issues?
Of course, reproductive issues are complex and complicated. While conservatives have boiled it down to an oversimplified talking point of “protecting the life of the unborn child,” the reality is that it’s much more multifaceted and nuanced. Reproductive issues are about sex – a topic most preachers won’t touch with a ten-foot pulpit. It’s also about the philosophical and ethical question of when life begins – conception? Fetal heartbeat? Viable outside the womb?
But it’s also about the lives of women and girls who are often faced with horrendous dilemmas. These dilemmas are sometimes due to sexual violence. Other times they involve medical issues for mother and fetus. But any decision about reproductive rights raises questions about relationships, sexuality, power differentials, wealth and poverty, race and ethnicity, access to healthcare, and family dynamics, to name a few.
No matter the external factors, however, every aspect of reproductive issues is about the contested space of a woman’s body. And it’s worth noting that none of the abortion laws force men to bear any responsibility for the act that results in pregnancy in the first place. Men’s decisions about how they use their bodies are without consequence, accountability, or punishment in these abortion laws.
Granted, all of this is morally and ethically complicated. But this is exactly why progressive clergy and congregations need to be having these conversations now – so that the violent, heavy-handed position of conservatives that are threatening the rights of women and girls – and the clergy who counsel them – does not go unchallenged.
So what can we do?
I’ll admit, this was a topic I stayed away from as a pastor during my twenty years of congregational ministry. While I would have been fine to talk about this with adults, I hesitated to drop words like “abortion” or “sexual violence” in a sermon with young children present, knowing that this would create an uncomfortable situation for their grown-ups.
If I were in the parish now, however, I would address the issue of reproductive rights. But I would be sure to take preparatory steps before launching a sermon or a forum.
First, I would talk with trusted individuals in the congregation to ask their counsel – not whether I should address reproductive issues, but how. After seeking their advice, I would talk with the church’s governing board. Again, I wouldn’t ask permission, but I would seek their counsel on the most prudent way to do so. Together we might decide that I do a sermon series on reproductive issues – and announce it ahead of time so that those who wish to stay away (or protect young ears) can make an informed decision.
Or a pastor might hold a series of forums on reproductive issues and carefully plan healthy dialogues where people can discuss (not debate) the many aspects of the topic. From the question about when life begins, to how to support women who have been subjected to sexual violence, to the medical factors that can force a woman or a couple to decide to end a pregnancy, all of these and more would benefit from theologically-trained clergy helping their congregations deliberate.
The need for theological education and denominational support on reproductive issues
Part of the reason I did not address reproductive issues in the congregations I served was because I simply didn’t know how. I can’t recall any course on reproductive issues offered when I was in seminary twenty years ago. And while I have not conducted a survey of theological schools in the U.S., my guess is that there are very few such courses currently offered.
So I recommend that seminaries and theological schools offer elective courses and continuing education on reproductive issues for clergy and congregations.
Also, this is a topic for which denominations can provide support for their pastors through discussion groups, educational events, and one-on-one consultations.
We need to equip seminarians and clergy to address these moral and ethical challenges. We need to give them tools and resources for ministering to adults and youth of all genders who are wrestling with these life-and-death decisions around relationships, sex, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Not to mention the social, financial, gender, and racial inequities that make pregnancy and child-raising more of a burden for some than others.
And we need to impress upon seminaries, denominations, clergy, and congregations the consequences of not addressing reproductive issues and inequities in the church. The progressive church’s silence has partly enabled these abortion laws to be passed.
Certainly, clergy have legitimate questions that require guidance.
How do we preach about reproductive issues? What does the Bible say about abortion? About sexual violence? About healthy relationships? And about the just ordering of society that ensures equitable access to all those things that enable a healthy pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing. Things like medical care, a livable income, adequate housing, trustworthy childcare, robust education, and healthy food.
Are these biblical stories and teachings descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, do they give us instructions to be applied today? Or do we need to see them as texts which were written by men in a patriarchal society and thus need to be read critically in light of science, sexuality, and contemporary understandings of human rights?
I’ll admit, I do not have the answers to these questions.
But I think it is past time for seminaries, denominations, clergy, and churches to address them. Our congregations need to be places where we can faithfully engage these complex and nuanced moral and ethical questions. The silence around reproductive issues must end.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).