An Episcopal priest in New Orleans is sending a strong message to the religious community in his state: I welcome a new Planned Parenthood clinic opening its doors in my community, and you should, too.
Over the past year, a bitter conflict has been raging over the construction of a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Orleans; since it’s the first Planned Parenthood clinic in the state of Louisiana that will offer abortion services, it’s become a flash point in the larger debate over the procedure. Conservative groups have decried the $4.2 million project as an “abortion super center,” while reproductive health advocates have maintained that it’s an important resource for women in the region, who face high rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
The fight intensified last winter, when the New Orleans Archdiocese declared a boycott against all of the businesses that are assisting in the construction and financing of the clinic. “All citizens of the New Orleans area must stand together for a peaceful community, not one with more abortion and more Planned Parenthood,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond wrote in January in the official newspaper of the Archdiocese.
But the Rev. Walter Baer — who serves as the priest-in-charge at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation, located across the street from the new Planned Parenthood location — has a different perspective on the controversy. In a letter entitled “People of Faith Support Reproductive Rights” published this weekend in the New Orleans Advocate, Baer argues it’s a good thing that his congregation is getting a new neighbor.
“I write to express my support for the right of the clinic to be there and to serve the reproductive needs of our community… I also write to make clear that there are many Christians, Christian denominations and many other people of faith who support the reproductive rights of women,” Bear explains. “I am very disappointed with some fellow Christian people and churches who have made threats of exclusion and boycotts to congregants who wish to work with the clinic.”
The Episcopal Church has supported the use of hormonal contraception for decades, and opposes any efforts to limit women’s access to safe reproductive care. While the church only supports abortion in very rare circumstances, noting that it should be a last resort, it does recognize women’s legal right to end a pregnancy.
Episcopalians aren’t alone; many denominations don’t condemn abortion outright and affirm that the procedure is a personal decision for each family. In fact, religious leaders have long advocated for legal abortion care to protect women’s lives. Before abortion was legalized in the United States, a group of 1400 faith leaders formed the “Clergy Consultation Service” to help refer women to safe options, believing it was their ethical responsibility to prevent women from dying from back alley abortions.
“As a parish church that is named for the most wondrous conception in history, we welcome the Planned Parenthood clinic to the neighborhood. It will serve a very important role in education, health screenings, contraception and, when necessary, a safe place for the termination of pregnancy,” Baer concludes.
Pro-choice faith groups have become more vocal in recent years, as they’ve observed reproductive rights being chipped away in the name of religion. After the Supreme Court ruled that some for-profit companies can drop coverage for birth control on religious grounds, for example, some clergy protested by passing out condoms in front of Hobby Lobby stores. “For too long, the extreme Religious Right has dominated the public conversation about religion and sexuality,” Rev. Harry Knox, the president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told ThinkProgress earlier this year.
In New Orleans specifically, there have been particularly contentious clashes between the people of faith who oppose abortion and the more progressive religious communities that feel differently. Earlier this summer, a group of abortion protesters interrupted a local church service to tell the Unitarian Universalist congregants that they don’t have a “true faith” because their denomination supports reproductive rights. That was widely condemned as a disrespectful move.