Progressive faith activists are lauding President Joe Biden’s moves on Thursday to expand access to reproductive health care, calling his efforts a crucial first step toward undoing an anti-abortion agenda they believe was both oppressive and immoral.
The idea that all religious people oppose abortion is a myth, said Rev. Katey Zeh, CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. People of all faiths and the non-religious have abortions, and as president, Biden has a responsibility to protect their choices, she said.
“As people of faith who support reproductive freedom, we believe that everyone has the capacity to make sacred decisions about their bodies, lives, families and futures,” Zeh told HuffPost. “Any attempt to control, restrict or interfere with that decision is reproductive oppression.”
On Thursday, Biden rescinded the Mexico City Policy, which had blocked taxpayer funding from going to global health nonprofits that provide abortions or abortion counseling. President Donald Trump had broadened the policy to cover all global health aid. Supporters of the policy claimed that it upheld the sanctity of human life, while opponents called it a “global gag rule” that led to increases in unsafe abortions. Republican and Democratic presidents have implemented and rescinded the policy several times since it was enacted in 1985.
The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to look into reversing regulations that prohibit federally funded family planning clinics from referring women for abortions. Trump’s ban on abortion counseling had forced Planned Parenthood affiliates to leave the federal family planning program. The legal process required to change this regulation could take months.
Zeh told HuffPost that her advocacy group wants Biden to continue removing “harmful barriers” to reproductive health care. Laws like the Hyde Amendment, a decades-old policy that blocks federal programs like Medicaid from paying for abortions, are “unjust” and “disproportionately impact those already struggling to survive,” she said.
During his presidential campaign, Biden endorsed calls to scrap the Hyde Amendment. It was a significant about-turn for Biden, who had long supported the Hyde Amendment as a senator.
Biden, a Roman Catholic, has said in the past that, although he personally opposes abortion, he doesn’t want to impose those religious beliefs on other people. Despite the Catholic church’s official stance on the issue, surveys suggest most American Catholics have a similar attitude. About 57% of U.S. Catholics say that abortion is morally wrong, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet, they also believe the procedure should be legal in all or most cases (56%) and oppose overturning Roe v. Wade (68%), the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized the procedure across the United States in 1973.
The national conversation around abortion and faith has largely been dominated by conservative Christians. Opposition to the legality of abortion is confined mainly to white evangelical Protestants and other, smaller conservative Christian groups. At the same time, majorities of Americans, including white evangelicals, believe health care providers who receive federal funding should be able to discuss abortion as an option with their patients, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
Clergy have been part of the abortion rights movement since before Roe v. Wade. Today, some abortion rights activists see increasing access to abortion as a religious liberty issue. Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, told HuffPost that the Jewish tradition affirms that access to reproductive health care, including abortion, is a matter of human rights. Various Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not only permitted but is required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual, she said, adding that many rabbis interpret “health” to encompass psychological health as well as physical health.
“As many people’s reproductive health care decisions are informed by their religious beliefs, denying them access to family planning and abortion services is a violation of their religious freedom,” Katz told HuffPost. “Privileging the religious beliefs of one group while making it more difficult for another group to follow their own faith is a violation of the First Amendment.”
There’s also a strong Christian case for supporting women’s capacity to control their fertility, according to Rebecca Todd Peters, author of ”Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice.” When Christians say that human beings were made in the image of God, that means women are moral agents capable and responsible for making moral decisions that affect and affect their lives, she said. Those decisions depend on personal experiences and religious beliefs ― beliefs that should not be imposed on others.
“Abortion is absolutely a moral decision, as is the decision to have a baby,” she said. “Religious freedom and a healthy respect for comprehensive health care should guide our thinking about public policy about abortion and move us toward repealing all targeted public policy related to restricting access to abortion care.”
As a person of deep Catholic faith, Biden is in a position to help lead a more “open, honest and civil public conversation” around abortion, Peters said, one that recognizes that abortion represents one moment in a long lifetime of reproductive decision-making and struggles, including the struggles of raising children.
“We need to move beyond tired old binary rhetoric that seeks to push people into the false choices based on emotional hyperbole,” Peters said.