A Time to Embrace: Why the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Movement Needs Religion


On October 20, 2015, the Religious Institute is releasing a new white paper, A Time to Embrace: Why the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Movement Needs Religion. Although mainline and progressive religious leaders played a central role in helping to legalize and increase access to contraception and then abortion services during most of the twentieth century, today religious leaders on the Right who oppose contraception and abortion are more visible in public policy debates, and in many states and in Congress these leaders have been increasingly influential in curtailing reproductive rights. When religious arguments are used to deny people rights, religious voices that support justice are an essential part of the response.

For too long, the sexual and reproductive health and justice movement has not taken into account that the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. More than three-quarters of people in the United States identify with a religion, and more than half attend worship at least once a month. Attacks on reproductive rights have been the most virulent in the South and Midwest, where more people claim religious affiliations. Religious practice has a special salience to many African American and Latino/a people, who make up an increasing proportion of Protestant and Catholic churches.

Religious affiliation helps shape US perspectives on sexuality, contraception, abortion, and LGBTQ issues. Contrary to popular belief, people across religious traditions in the United States express support for sexual rights, sexuality education, and contraception. Majorities of all religious groups--with the exception of white evangelical Protestants--believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

However, our research uncovered a "morality/legality divide" when it comes to abortion. Many more people think abortion should be legal than perceive abortion to be morally acceptable. Although almost seven in ten people think abortion should be legal, just under half do not think it is a moral option for themselves or their family. The existence of this "morality/legality divide" requires sexual and reproductive health and justice activists and professionals to articulate their work as a moral movement grounded in the moral agency of women, people of color, and other marginalized communities as well as larger social justice efforts.

As part of the White Paper, the Religious Institute conducted four surveys with a total of forty-five organizations, denominations and foundations. Although most of the secular organizations reported that they are interested in engaging faith in their work, very few have dedicated resources to doing so. Overall, the secular SRH organization do not have staff working on faith, programs that address faith, strategic plans that address faith, articulated values-based visions for their organizations, or a religious leader on their boards of directors. There has been effective work to combat or contain conservative and Far Right religion's negative reach into sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice issues. Periodically secular SRH and RJ organizations bring a "faith face" to an advocacy issue through a coalition letter or public rally. But few of the organizations have systematically engaged religious leaders or people of faith in their efforts to achieve sexual and reproductive justice.

The sexual and reproductive health and justice movement must develop a stronger relationship with mainline and progressive religious leaders and faith communities. Religious leaders can help SRH and RJ organizations frame their goals as being part of a moral movement committed to social justice. Religious leaders who support reproductive health and rights and have a commitment to the most vulnerable can be found in every state and in every community. They stand ready to be educated and motivated to advocate from their pulpits and in the public square for sexual and reproductive justice. Faith communities in the United States are ready to embrace gender, sexual, and reproductive justice as essential to ensuring liberty for all. With an infusion of resources and a renewed commitment, religious leaders and people of faith can become a mainstay of efforts to secure sexual and reproductive justice as well.

There is a pressing need to address the morality of sexual and reproductive health decisions; in particular, those committed to sexual and reproductive justice must work to close the morality/legality divide and help the US public and lawmakers understand that abortion is a moral decision. Efforts to destigmatize abortion and change the cultural narrative must involve religious leaders at the outset to fully engage morally complex issues. Together, we must shift the cultural conversation from one of judgment to one of empathy, compassion, and affirmation of people's moral agency.

A Time to Embrace ends with a call to action to secular organizations and funders to work with religious leaders and people of faith. Little can be expected to improve until the major foundations and the major secular organizations make a commitment to supporting the engagement of religion in the movement for sexual and reproductive health and justice. The Religious Institute, its network of religious leaders, and its colleague organizations are poised to help educate and empower religious leaders and people of faith. Together, we can create a future where families in all their diverse forms flourish and all people have the ability and affirmation to make their own moral decisions.