Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants January 20, 2013

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, I am grateful to have been born and raised in a religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism, that has stood strong through the history of the struggle for reproductive justice. Today, I lift my voice to thank some of those Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists who have gone before, and who labor currently, for women’s equality, health and moral agency.

It’s always risky to call out folks simply because we share an identity, especially a religious identity. It can seem as if we are separating ourselves, or declaring ourselves to be part of a club. For me, this is an act taken to ground myself. As my own congregation prepares to hold an online service honoring the complexity and dignity of all families engaged in making moral choices around reproductive issues, I have been asked, “How dare you speak out about this, as if we all agree?”

I would never believe that a few thousand Unitarian Universalists would agree about anything whatsoever! All the studies show that people of other religions don’t begin to agree either, however, and yet their leaders have no trouble declaring that they speak the absolute truth, God’s truth. They claim that God is pro-life, anti-abortion, against women’s equality. So I, who have spent my life laboring in interfaith coalitions lifting up this other point of view, feel it is incumbent upon me to speak clearly as well.

Here come my thanks, to those who have gone before me and labor still, who ground me in this work, who dared before me and handed their daring to me.

I thank Margaret Sanger, who opened the first clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, violating obscenity laws for telling women how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.  While we certainly challenge her beliefs on eugenics, she had nothing if not bold courage!

I thank all of those who labored for women’s suffrage, women and men, Universalists and Unitarians, allowing politicians to be elected who would support women’s equality. Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Rev. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Rev. Olympia Brown, Julia Ward Howe, Rev. Lydia Jenkins, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and so many others. I lift up your names with gratitude. Amendment 19, 1919. 19 is our lucky number.

I thank all of the Unitarian and Universalist women who worked to make birth control legal and available in the US. I think of the church women, whose names I do not know, who looked through birth notices in Connecticut papers and mailed information to new mothers, illegally offering them birth control access. They weren’t just being kind; they were spoiling for a fight. Eventually they got one, and in 1965, in Griswald v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that criminalization of birth control violated the right to marital privacy.

I thank all of the Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalists who worked to make abortion safe and legal. The women, and leadership, of First Dallas UU congregation moved this case forward. UUs passed statements at our General Assemblies beginning in 1963. Clergy, especially men, were part of founding and leading the Clergy Consultation service. Hundreds of people were involved with this; many of whose names I don’t know. Please share your own knowledge in the comments section!

I thank the religious educators who, in 1967, agreed that comprehensive sexuality education is part of religious education, and began the groundbreaking sexuality education programs that have been part of religious education programs ever since. There are thousands to name here—deryk Calderwood, Rev. Eugene Navias, Judith Frediani, Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, and dozens of other writers and curriculum editors. Hundreds of teachers and youth advisors who have led young people through it.

I thank those who continue to focus their ministries on reproductive justice and sexual morality. I think of Rev. Deborah Haffner, Rev. Robert Keithan, Rev. Kelli Clement, to name only a few. I thank the congregations who are actively engaged with supporting reproductive justice.  There are so many folks to thank here! Please add their names in the comments section.

Finally, I thank the Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Univeralists who have laid your bodies on the line supporting women as they struggle through these difficult choices. People in medical clinics, providing escort services, literally standing by women. I think especially of my late friend, June Barrett, who was shot in Pensacola Florida, while providing escort service to women as part of her service to the Pensacola UU congregation. June’s husband, Colonel James Barrett, and the doctor they were escorting, Dr. John Britton, were killed. As she lay still in the truck, wounded, but not dead, with these bodies beside her, she told herself that she survived for one reason: To continue to help women have access to legal and safe reproductive choice. This she did until her death.

How dare I speak out about reproductive justice? I can honestly say that I have been given this daring by thousands of others upon whose shoulders I stand. Please join us on Tuesday, January 22, at 3 PM and 7 PM Eastern time, for our online service at We’ll be gathering as part of a long tradition.

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