Strong Clerical Support for a Woman's Right to Choose Does Exist

Anti-abortion clergy are getting plenty of attention in the health care debate, while clergy insisting on access to the full range of reproductive medicine receive little notice. The imbalance is remarkable, given the long history of clergy support for the availability of contraception and abortion care.

As the family planning movement began in the United States a century ago, more than 18,000 women died in childbirth in a year. The laws of the time said birth control was a crime -- even for married women with children. Women were dying, leaving their children motherless, when the means to prevent unintended pregnancy was available. Members of clergy began to help birth control pioneers.

In cities around the country, Presbyterian, Methodist and many other churches opened their doors to house Planned Parenthood clinics. In 1934, the Episcopal Church in America officially endorsed birth control for women who wanted to avoid pregnancy. By the end of the 1940s, all major Protestant and Jewish bodies had joined them. In 1946, 3,200 clergy signed a petition issued by the Planned Parenthood Advisory Council denouncing religious opposition to birth control.

In 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis encouraged its members "to make maximum use" of Planned Parenthood services "as a community health resource." Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church fought to prevent women from using birth control. But many rabbis and ministers joined with Planned Parenthood to make contraceptive services available. Clergy helped Planned Parenthood win those fights.

Then clergy began to fight for legal abortion. On May 22, 1967, the front page of The New York Times announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. More than 1,400 clergy nationwide joined a volunteer network to help women find safe abortion care. By 1970, they had referred nearly 100,000 women for abortions. That year, the state of New York legalized abortion.

Clergy knew that women from around the country would flock to New York for safe and legal abortion care. They also knew that hospitals were not prepared for this influx. So the clergy opened their own clinic. It is a little-known fact that the first legal abortion clinic was opened by clergy, Women's Services, on East 73rd Street in New York City. Thousands of women sought quality care at Women's Services for more than a year, until enough clinics had opened to handle the tremendous number of patients.

Believing that it is profoundly unjust for the state to control the intimate reproductive lives of women, clergy across the nation cooperate with the Planned Parenthood Clergy Network, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and other groups. We come to reproductive justice out of our faith teachings, as well as our pastoral care experience demonstrating the way women and families arrive at informed decisions about their medical needs, including reproductive health. We maintain that no religious leader or government official has the right to force a decision that is contrary to the beliefs of the individual. Justice means that a woman must have control of her own life.

As the United States moves closer to providing quality and affordable health care, the bishops, along with other anti-choice forces, are seeking to implement faith-based restrictions that they could not achieve through legislation or the courts. The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the Affordable Health care for America Act (H. R. 3962) proposes dramatic new restrictions on women's access to abortion coverage in the private health insurance market. Under the newly-passed House bill, Americans will be effectively unable to purchase a health benefits package that includes abortion coverage, even when they are paying for the premium with their own money. This is a tremendous shift from the status quo in federal abortion policy. It is unacceptable that women's health was sacrificed.

Anti-abortion groups are working to torpedo all health reform if they cannot impose their religious strictures on those who follow other religious teachings. Do the moral views of other religions not matter? Jewish and mainline Protestant denominations generally support a woman's right to choose, including the ability to have insurance cover contraception and, if necessary, abortion. We agree with President Kennedy who said, "I believe in an America....... where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."