Abortion AMA: Can I Get An Abortion If I'm Religious?
Welcome to Bustle's Abortion AMA column, where reproductive rights advocate and Romper editor Danielle Campoamor will speak to experts and medical professionals to answer people's questions about abortion in a way that is educational, unvarnished, and judgement free. Ask us anything.
I grew up Southern Baptist, so my formative years were shaped by Sunday School and weekly church services, Wednesday Bible study, vacation Bible school, and watching my father — a church deacon — walk down the aisle of my congregation to pass the collection plate. But as I grew older I struggled to accept teachings that were so contradictory to my own beliefs. Through my own research and self-reflection, I left my church, and my faith, behind when I was a teenager. So I didn't have to ask myself, "Can I get an abortion if I'm religious?" when faced with an unplanned pregnancy at 23, but, that said, I know many people do. I also know that the answer is one that you have the right to arrive at yourself, based on your own religious or spiritual beliefs and no one else's.
Among the five largest religions in the U.S. — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism — there is not an agreed upon stance on abortion. However, there are some similarities in how various faiths and individual congregations within them approach the subject. To learn more, Bustle spoke with religious individuals and faith leaders to learn how their spiritual beliefs impact their feelings about abortion.
"In my reading, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary consented to becoming the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:38)," Washington-based Evangelical Lutheran Pastor Paul Eldred tells Bustle. "If God Gave Mary that option, why wouldn't we think that all women should have the choice to become a mother or not?" The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's official statement on abortion says that the church, as a whole, is a "community supportive of life," and "the number of induced abortions is a source of deep concern to this church." The same statement also notes that many members within the church feel very differently on this issue.
For Eldred, the creation story in Genesis 1 reveals another biblical argument for access to comprehensive reproductive health care, abortion included. "We are told that God created humanity in God's own image," he says. "We believe this makes every human body holy and that every body bears divine image — this certainly includes the full expression of women's bodies, including trans, non-binary, etc. No one should be able to make choices about someone else's holy and divine body without their consent. God wants our bodies to be healthy, and that means that our choices on healthcare should be our own and are between us, our doctor, and our God."
Many Buddhists feel the same way. While there is no single Buddhist view on abortion, according to a 2009 report by BBC, modern Buddhists consider the decision to abort a pregnancy to be a personal one. "It’s not only about abortion, but about having compassion for life," Yamani Hernandez, 40, from Chicago, Illinois, tells Bustle. Hernandez had an abortion when she was 19, and now works as executive director at the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). Her work, and her choice to terminate her own pregnancy, is reflected in her faith. "I was raised to believe in reincarnation and the idea that spirits and souls are continuing to cycle throughout generations and millennia," she says. For Hernandez, there are multiple existences and, as a result, she is learning lessons and making choices and decisions that are right for her and whatever existence she's in. Then, in a future existence, she will have other chances to make another set of choices and decisions. "It’s just what it is, and a part of my faith is not having the judgment — something isn't 'good' or 'bad,' it just is."
The same BBC report also found that while Hinduism is generally opposed to abortion, the "Hindu way is to choose the action that will do least harm to all involved: the mother and father, the fetus, and society." Islam often teaches that abortion is wrong and forbidden, but many Muslims believe that abortion is permitted in certain cases, i.e. if continuing the pregnancy will put the pregnant person's life in danger. Some schools of Islam permit abortion in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, while others only permit it in the first seven weeks. It should also be noted that the Qur'an, like the Bible, does not explicitly refer to abortion. The way many religions and religious people feel about abortion is based more on personal interpretation than strict religious law.
Let's look at the stats: In a 2014 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights policy and research organization, 62 percent of people who had abortions reported a religious affiliation. Of that 62 percent, 24 percent were Catholic, 17 percent were Protestant, 13 percent said they were evangelical, and eight percent listed another religious affiliation. So if the question is can you get an abortion if you're religious, the answer is: yes. Religious people walk into abortion clinics every single day in the United States, either to procure an abortion or provide one, and they often do so with the support of the faith they espouse.
According to the Pew Research Center, many of the nation's largest mainline Protestant denominations — including the Episcopal church, Presbyterian Church, and Methodists — support abortion rights, and the two largest American Jewish movements — Reform and Conservative Judaism — favor a person's right to have an abortion. Within Islam, which doesn't have a single organizational authority, scholars hold varying views on abortion, primarily with regard to when life begins and when terminating a pregnancy is morally acceptable. Forty-eight percent of all United States Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do 82 percent of Buddhists and 53 percent of Muslims.
But that doesn't mean it's necessarily easy for religious individuals (or anyone else) to access abortion services. Nineteen states enacted 63 new restrictions on abortion, many by so-called "pro-life" politicians of faith. According to Pew, 40 percent of Americans still say abortion should be illegal. Anna Ernst, an Evangelical Lutheran Pastor in Elmhurst, Illinois, believes it is time for religious leaders and people of faith to speak up in defense of abortion rights. "I am concerned for the rights of all women. We cannot go back to clothes hangers and knitting needles. That is not life-giving, and I believe that is not what God wants," she says.
Ashley Underwood, 28, from Ohio feels called to tell her story. "There was a lot of church in my life," she tells Bustle. "I still identify as Christian, although I don't attend church service regularly anymore. I maintain my relationship with God and pray and read the Bible." Underwood had an abortion two years ago, and as a woman raised with Southern Baptist traditions, she believes the experience brought her closer to her faith. "I did a lot of praying, and on the day I went in for my procedure, my daily Bible verse was Jeremiah 29:11," Ashley says. That verse reads as follows, from the New International Version (NIV):
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
"It really [helped me] confirm that I was making the right decision for myself," Underwood continues. "And even though it was an unexpected thing to happen in my life, I felt connected to that Bible verse and knew [my abortion] was going to be part of my past." Underwood notes that the Bible's content is subject to interpretation, and the believer's denomination will at least partly determine how they interpret scripture. After all, there isn't anything in the Bible that touches on abortion specifically. "But there's a lot in the Bible that talks about loving your neighbor and not bearing false witness," Underwood says. "Having an abortion made me a lot more mature, and I felt closer to my faith."
And just like there are religious individuals who choose abortion for themselves, there are religious abortion providers who feel compelled by their faith to provide comprehensive reproductive health services to patients. From Dr. Sarah Imershein, M.D., a Jewish OB-GYN who shut down her private practice, after 30 years, to exclusively perform first-trimester abortions, to Dr. Willie Parker, a Christian OB-GYN who provides abortion care for women in Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Illinois, to Dr. Ben Brown, an OB-GYN in Chicago, Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, and a devout Quaker, health care providers of all faiths are providing abortions to those who need and/or choose it.
"Providing abortion care is part of how I live my faith," Brown tells Bustle. "I am an abortion provider because I am Christian, and I am motivated by my faith to provide the care that I do." Brown grew up in a half-Jewish, half-Christian home, and attended Quaker school as a child. He has also spoken at his congregation during services, talking about how he is motivated by his faith to provide abortion care. "I am a general OB-GYN," he explains. "I love working on labor and delivery, I love delivering babies, I love doing prenatal care, and I'm equally motivated to do those things because I know that keeping patients safe — especially patients who are sick or who have medical complications, or making sure that people who are healthy stay healthy — is also part of that religious work."
Brown also knows that not every person is ready to be pregnant, or become a parent, and believes he needs to be there for those patients, too. "So frequently we hear about providers refusing to perform certain services for patients out of conscience, and I do believe that people have true conscientious objections to participating in certain types of care," Brown says. "If we are standing in the way of patients being able to access care, we're hurting the patients' ability to act according to their best judgments for themselves... and that's not OK."
Dr. Chava Kahn, an OB-GYN in Maryland and Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, and while she isn't strictly orthodox anymore, she still identifies with traditional religion. "It's always clear in Jewish law that the mother's life takes precedence," Kahn says. "I grew up knowing that life is important and that life matters," she explains. "But the woman is present here and her needs take precedence."
It's not easy for everyone to procure abortion services, though, especially if they're afraid they'll be ostracized by their religious community. Thankfully, there are organizations dedicated to providing those services for those who cannot lean on their communities for support. The National Abortion Federation offers a hotline fund, and is the largest national, toll-free, multilingual hotline for abortion referrals and financial assistance in the United States and Canada. Cosmopolitan also provides a comprehensive list of how to pay for an abortion by state, which includes local organizations.
"I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents, and the thought of my community finding out made my stomach churn," Shivana Jorawar wrote on Bustle in a 2017 essay on how feminism and abortion fit into her Hindu faith. When Jorawar became pregnant as a teenager, she only told two friends. "Like Sita, I knew I would end up standing trial and banished. I’d be labeled a pariah in my family and community. I’d be held up as an example of what young women should aspire not to become," she writes. But after moving away from home and becoming more self-assured in her body and her sexuality, Jorawar says she stopped listening to the religious messaging that she thought encouraged and found a way for her Hinduism and feminist ideals to coexist. "I found acceptance. Today, I’m comfortable saying I’ve had an abortion."
I walked away from my faith a long time ago, but I was still the target of religiously-motivated hate and judgment from many of my friends after I shared my abortion story. My relationships were strained, then splintered, then broken, but I was able to find a new group of people to surround myself with; people who didn't judge me for making the best decision for myself, my body, and my future. And while any religious individual seeking abortion services might face criticism like I did, there are also plenty of people of faith who will be supportive and loving. Those people will understand that this decision is ultimately between you and your spirituality. No one else's beliefs are relevant.
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