Ellen was raised in a Catholic household and went to a Catholic university. It was an undisputed fact that she was largely pro-life. That is, until she found out she was pregnant. Suddenly Ellen — which isn’t her real name — was on the fence.
“My perspective entirely changed when it was happening to me,” she said.
After taking weeks to consider her options, Ellen ended up scheduling an abortion. While she’s glad she didn’t have to go through with an unplanned pregnancy, Ellen remains conflicted about her choice.
“That was probably what made the decision the hardest for me, my Catholic viewpoint,” she said. “I’m still having a battle against myself and my faith.”
Ellen wasn’t comfortable being identified by her real name partly because she has yet to tell her staunchly pro-life family — aside from her brother — about her abortion. She’s only told a few other people in her life. She said that following the “emotional experience,” she was handed a paper with some post-abortion counseling options. But that wasn’t enough.
“I really wanted someone to talk to about what I had gone through who understands my religion,” she said. “I felt so alone.”
The Religious Right tries to say it owns these issues, but the majority of religious Americans support sexual health.
This disconnect between faith and reproductive rights is a common challenge that many religious women — and their larger communities — face in United States, despite common portrayals of religious communities being rigidly against progressive sexual health care.
To anyone following the national conversation about reproductive rights, including the recent political efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, religion may seem like a rather polarizing tool. Using religious fervor to garner support and attack opposing views has traditionally been a reliable tactic for pro-life politicians — including current GOP presidential candidates . But does it paint a realistic picture of how the country’s religious population actually views reproductive rights?
According to a recent study by the Religious Institute, it’s far from it.
“The Religious Right tries to say it owns these issues, but the majority of religious Americans support sexual health,” said Rev. Debra W. Haffner, President of the Religious Institute. “It’s time to change the conversation.”
The year-long study found that the majority of religious Americans (excluding evangelicals) support legalizing abortion, and that more religious women get abortions in their lifetime than those who don’t affiliate themselves with a religion. Additionally, nearly 90 percent of the country’s religious population uses some form of birth control that isn’t “natural family planning,” the non-hormonal method of tracking women’s monthly cycles that’s sanctioned by the Catholic Church.
Those results aren’t surprising to some religious groups who are already working in this space. John O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, a faith-based reproductive rights organization, believes the perceived disconnect between religion and abortion rights is blown out of proportion.
“I know when it comes to votes, Catholic voters don’t listen to the bishops,” O’Brien said. “You have to look at the numbers. Among ordinary Catholics, reproductive rights and abortion are very accepted. It’s just the politics that warp social beliefs.”
However, the study also found that while the majority of people support legal abortion, a majority also believes that abortion is not morally acceptable. The study found that morality alone is the key piece missing in reproductive rights advocacy.
“We have won the rights movement,” Haffner said. “Now it’s time we win the moral movement.”
Of those surveyed, 100 percent of foundations and faith-based organizations and 89 percent of secular organizations agreed it was important for the reproductive health and justice movement to better engage religious leaders and people of faith.
But who should take the reins?
Rev. Harry Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said it’s entirely up to the clergy. Pro-choice groups, women, and families have already faced enough “terrible damage” brought upon them by religious organizations
“We as faith leaders need to end the silence on this,” Knox said. “We must meet women at home in their own faith communities and let them know their faith supports their decisions. We have to equip ourselves to do our part.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of abortion patients are affiliated with a religion. But many of these women, like Ellen, feel like they’re betraying their faith in the process.
When Ellen first discovered she was pregnant, she visited a crisis pregnancy center — one of the faith-based organizations led by pro-life advocates that often disguise themselves as reproductive health clinics — to get answers. But there, she was pressured by the staff to continue her pregnancy, and wasn’t offered any other options. Ellen ended up visiting an abortion clinic for more information. While she went through with the abortion, she said she remains confused about what effect it has on her faith.
“I’d really like to talk to my priest about it,” she said. “I go to church and listen to what he says, but I don’t understand how I relate to it now that I had an abortion. It would be nice to not hide that part of me.”
This is the dynamic that Knox wants to change. “It’s important for people to feel comfortable bringing their whole spiritual selves into a clinic, and know that it’s okay,” he said.
Knox stressed the importance of engaging the religious “movable middle” — people who may want to take action, but aren’t sure how to best contribute or participate. Encouraging this group to advocate for reproductive health in a way that includes faith may be key to closing this divide.
From O’Brien’s perspective, religion is already a big part of reproductive health organizations — whether they know it or not. He said he’s found that most staff at these types of organizations get in it for “social justice,” which is a huge piece of a person’s faith and ethics.
It’s important for people to feel comfortable bringing their whole spiritual selves into a clinic, and know that it’s okay.
The bigger issue on the horizon, he said, is making sure that religion isn’t wielded as a tool to restrict reproductive health. A slew of states have been pushing to expand “religious freedom laws,” which could allow businesses to discriminate against certain groups of people or certain legal rights based on their religious beliefs. And women’s health may take the brunt of these laws: Religious freedom was the argument at the core of the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, when the Supreme Court ruled that private companies can legally refuse birth control services to their employees based on their moral objections to contraception.
“The fact that organizations can take government money and not adhere to the same rules as everywhere else, that’s the real discrimination of religious rights,” he said. “Evoking God in this way is distasteful.”
The recent Religious Institute study drives home this point in its analysis: “Opponents have rallied their members and exerted political pressure at the state and national levels, with claims that God and morality are on their side. The media echo these claims by who they choose to feature.”
“When religious arguments are used to deny people rights, only religious voices that support justice can authentically respond,” it concludes.
Despite her experience, Ellen said she remains largely pro-life, and hasn’t abandoned her religion in the process.
“I really thought it was the best choice for me,” she said. “But my beliefs are too important. I just wish it didn’t have to be a battle.”