"Religious leaders should be asking for your forgiveness" on abortion – not the other way around

Church leaders are challenging Biden's stance on abortion, but people of faith say his views jibe with religion

Published June 30, 2021 1:05PM (EDT)

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden speak with a priest as they leave St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden speak with a priest as they leave St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

CoWanda Rusk was weeks away from graduating from her Texas high school, and preparing for college, when she learned she was pregnant. "I immediately knew I didn't want to be pregnant," she recounted to Salon.

Rusk had grown up a part of the church where her father was a youth pastor, and she remains a person of faith to this day. "I always rely on my faith for everything, even small decisions — what colors to wear today, what will align with the universe today," she said.

Her decision to have an abortion was no different. Rusk says she got "on the floor and started praying" the moment after her pregnancy test turned up positive. "I know God was with me in all of those moments, and I know I had the love and support and the guidance of something bigger than myself."

At the time, Rusk was only 17 and wasn't too familiar with the complex politics of abortion within the church, within America, or even within Texas. She would eventually need to seek the support of the youth abortion fund and legal support group Jane's Due Process to get an abortion as a minor, as well as help with covering the costs of the abortion. 

Rusk says she decided to have her abortion when she reflected on everything God had prepared for her, like scholarships and her bright educational future. Because of this she knew she had God's support. Since having her abortion, she's actively remained a person of faith and involved in her church, where she continues to organize for social justice, as she believes God intended. Rusk has also connected with We Testify, a program that mentors and supports people who have had abortions, as a storyteller, sharing her experience to empower others and challenge stigma.

Tohan is another storyteller at We Testify, and a Texan like Rusk, who was fresh off of sharing her abortion story with the U.S. Senate in support of the Women's Health Protection Act (WHPA) when she talked to Salon. As a Christian, Tohan is guided by her faith in many parts of her life, but she says religion was unrelated to her choice to have an abortion. 

"My decision was very personal — nothing to do with religion," she said. Tohan recalls initially struggling to justify her decision internally, and knowing abortion was "frowned upon" in religious spaces, despite the lack of clear scripture on it. Someone who was once a close friend of hers was highly critical of Tohan when she shared her story. But when Tohan told her father, a minister and conservative Republican, she was surprised by his support.

"I realized, with my friend, I was putting other people before myself, which I can't afford to do. They're not in my shoes," she said. Her father told her those who try to control other people's reproductive decisions are extremists. "He said, 'I'm a Republican, but I'm not an extremist, because I have sense,'" Tohan recounted. "He said, 'So I'm a Christian. But I'm not an extremist.'"

Earlier this month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft new guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, which will challenge President Biden's ability to receive communion because of his support for abortion rights. This action, of course, is just the latest of near daily political efforts to shape abortion policy around the religious views of some, to the extent that abortion and reproductive care are widely seen as at odds with Christianity and other religions. 

This conflict, Rusk and Tohan say, is an illusion. And the numbers back them up — Catholic people have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholic people. The majority of people who have abortions are people of faith: Most abortion patients surveyed in 2014 have some religious affiliation — 24% said they were Catholic, 17% mainline Protestant, 13% evangelical Protestant and 8% identified with some other religion. People of most faiths also overwhelmingly seem to support abortion rights.

So, where does the illusion of conflict come from?

Progressive spiritual leaders say the religious anti-abortion narrative is new — and entirely political

Born and raised a Catholic, when Jamie Manson was a teenager, she aspired to be a priest — that is, until she learned the Catholic Church doesn't ordain women.

"Women have no decision-making authority in the Church. They have no voice," she said. "They think only men should be able to take leadership, and women are meant to be mothers. That's our most essential vocation — just to give birth and nurture children and family." Manson says when she made "that connection," she realized "the church believes essentially in forced motherhood." 

"That's when I became very lit up about reproductive rights in the Catholic Church," Manson said. Today, she serves as president of Catholics for Choice, an advocacy organization that lifts up the voices of the majority of Catholics who support reproductive freedom.

Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi, scholar-in-residence at the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), author of several books on Judaism, and founder of NCJW's Rabbis for Repro campaign, says she "was a feminist before I was a religious Jew," volunteering at abortion clinics as a teenager. Reproductive freedom is actually a Jewish value, Ruttenberg says. 

Rabbis for Repro exemplifies widespread support for abortion in religious Jewish communities, with over 1,000 Jewish clergy who "have pledged to teach and preach about reproductive health, rights and justice, and show up and do advocacy work," according to Ruttenberg. Last year, Ruttenberg and some of these rabbis and Jewish clergy met with 52 Congress members, and got 29 new co-sponsors on a bill for reproductive rights.

For as long as the religious right has mobilized against abortion, conservative politicians and religious leaders have constructed a narrative of people of faith overwhelmingly opposing abortion, and have asserted the Catholic Church and other religious institutions have always condemned abortion.

This is blatantly untrue, according to both Manson and Ruttenberg.

"This wedding of Catholic identity with anti-abortion politics, it only happened in the last few decades," Manson said. "It's a very reductive understanding of Catholicism. The tradition is much richer and more interesting than that."

It's only because of the wealth and power of the Christian right wing, which is extremely "well-funded, even though it's a minority," Manson says, that abortion is understood as anti-religion, and religion as anti-abortion.

"That minority is so vocal and influential, people automatically equate religion with anti-choice values. And it's simply not true," Manson said. "It's not true for Jews, it's not true for Catholics, it's not true for Christians. We, the religious left, have to really rise up and make our voice heard, claim the moral high-ground in this struggle and not cede all the power to the Christian right."

Catholic bishops' attempt to block Biden from receiving communion, Manson says, is "profoundly sad."

"To use what is most sacred about our church and sacred to Biden, to punish him or try to bully him into changing his views on abortion rights, is very troubling," she said. "The bishops taking part in this are part of a right-wing political agenda in this country. It's very scary."

Ruttenberg says the religious right "picked up" abortion solely for "craven political ambition and white supremacy."

"Up until school segregation they were like, 'Oh, abortion is an issue of personal choice,'" she said. "They eventually lost that fight, for segregation, and were like, what's a good issue that we could pick up to activate our base? Abortion was no big deal up until then. Then they started coming up with these 'proof texts' for why abortion was bad."

Lost in translation?

"There's a verse in Exodus, a story of two men who fight, and one of them accidentally knocks over a pregnant woman, and she has a miscarriage," Ruttenberg said. "As a result, the man has to pay a fine, damages — it's eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life. So basically, if it's a miscarriage you pay money, but if the woman dies, you treat it as manslaughter. The Torah and Jewish texts are straightforward: a fetus is not a person. It's not treated as manslaughter."

According to Ruttenberg, scripture was clear — until "a very funky game of telephone happened." Different translations and word choices presented very different stories, that's now being used by some religious leaders to stigmatize abortion. Manson says the Bible and prominent theologians have demonstrated that abortion isn't as open-and-shut as today's religious right would have you think.

"Two of the most important theologians in the church's history, Saint Thomas Aquinus and Augustine, both believe there were certain stages of fetal development where abortion should be fine, and had different standings about when a fetus got a soul," she said. "The church's teaching has changed. It was only this absolute ban now codified in 1913. The church and hierarchy and right wing laity are not being honest about the history of this teaching."

At the heart of this black-and-white teaching, Manson says, is stigma. This anti-abortion stigma infects even the thinking of progressive, "pro-choice" Catholics. In response to the bishops' move to deny Biden communion, Mansons says a theologian friend of hers cited a bishop who was known to give communion to "murderers, executioners." 

"I was just like, I don't know if that's the analogy I want to be working off of right now!" Manson said. "That's part of the problem with the way abortion is being framed. The conversation especially among progressive Catholics has to move to a place where abortion is not intrinsic evil — it can be a moral good, and it's a freedom that allows women and pregnant people access to other kinds of freedoms, political power, economic power. Let's start there."

The great divide

When CoWanda Rusk heard Pope Francis' message in 2016 that people who had abortions should be forgiven, she says she "cringed."

"Forgiveness happens on a personal level," Rusk said. "I absolutely do not agree with needing forgiveness from God nor other people for making a decision to take care of yourself. That is the most ridiculous thing, the most shaming thing. You did nothing wrong by accessing health care."

If anything, Rusk says, "Religious leaders should be asking for your forgiveness for not using their powers to make sure people have access to basic needs and health care."

Politicians and religious leaders have often tried to compromise, or present the image of compromising, around abortion, when in reality, there is no middle ground on whether pregnant people should be forced to give birth. In 1976, Congress enacted the Hyde Amendment as a budget provision to restrict public coverage and funding of abortion care. 

Reproductive rights and justice advocates have long seen Hyde as an abortion ban for poor people, yet, for years, the ban was upheld by many politicians as a compromise — abortion is still legal, they suggested, but through Hyde, we protect the delicate consciences of people of faith who don't have to pay for abortions.

"It's a lie," Tohan said, simply. "You cannot impose someone else's opinion, or religion, or whatever else, on another person. That is not the 'freedom' they claim to love."

The Hyde Amendment, of course, exists all while people who are more likely to be targeted by police must pay for police departments they may morally oppose, or the inflated military budget. Residents of states that pass abortion ban after abortion ban must also watch as their tax dollars fund state governments' costly legal defenses of these bans in court.

The fact is, bodily autonomy isn't a matter for half measures — you support it, or you don't. And there's a great divide between everyday people of faith and many religious leaders on this.

Ruttenberg sees this divide as primarily one of communication among religious Jews. "Because of the way religious discourse in the U.S. has been so co-opted by the religious right, even in synagogues in fairly liberal communities, congregants are surprised to discover their rabbis support abortion rights," she said. "Like yes, of course we support abortion rights! There has been such a cultural reticence, it's a taboo, thanks to the religious right. We haven't been as good about talking about things as we should be."

Tohan sees this divide as "a cross, a junction, where politics and religion have intertwined."

"A religious leader is not God. He doesn't determine who's a sinner, and who deserves and doesn't deserve forgiveness," Tohan said. "The divide for me is figuring out who you are inside of God — not what your priest thinks, not the Pope telling you who you are. You're so much more whole than that."

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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