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December 9, 2015 by

What You Don’t Know About Jews and Abortion Access

It’s ubiquitous: Go to any abortion clinic in the United States and you’ll likely see protesters out front chanting the Rosary, holding pictures of Jesus, or screaming about God’s love of fetal personhood. Sometimes affiliated with a local parish, the protesters rant, rave, berate, and cajole, and even if they don’t stop the woman from entering the clinic and having the procedure, they work overtime to get inside her head. Given this pervasive presence, it’s not surprising that most Americans assume that all religions oppose abortion and the use of contraceptives. But they don’t. And never have.

A Time to Embrace: Why the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Movement Needs Religion, a new report written by the Westport, Connecticut-based Religious Institute, corrects this misimpression and briefly traces the history of religious support for birth control, and later, abortion, LGBTQ rights, and the freedom to marry. The report also provides an insightful overview of how and why this support has waxed and waned over the past 85 years.

“Protestant and Jewish clergy were centrally involved in the early days of the birth control movement,” the report begins. In fact, in the 1930s, numerous denominations passed resolutions in support of contraception and formed the multi-faith National Clergyman’s Council to support its promotion. Rabbis, ministers and lay religious leaders also got involved in the American Birth Control League, the precursor of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Then, in 1967, a group of 21 clergy—19 ministers and two rabbis—publicly announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCSA), a well-vetted referral network that grew to include 1,400 professionals and helped more than 100,000 women secure a safe, if still illegal, abortion.  These preachers, the report continues, were outspoken risk-takers who openly touted breaking an unjust law. And they prevailed.

Nonetheless, the CCSA folded after the Supreme Court issued the Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973.

“After Roe there was the feeling that we’d won; we’d had a huge national victory,” Rabbi Jessica Kirschner, a board member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told Lilith. In the immediate aftermath of Roe, activists stopped talking about reproductive health and turned to other concerns, thinking that access to birth control and abortion—and their acceptability—had been settled.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t been.

In addition, by the late 1970s, the religious and secular right wing had morphed into the New Right and was fomenting a Draconian anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-sex, and generally anti-progressive agenda. The media, eager for something new to report, gave movement leaders and the groups they led extensive coverage. Suddenly, says Rev. Debra Haffner, Executive Director of the Religious Institute, the conservative worldview of the Moral Majority, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and anti-abortion groups was capturing headlines. Meanwhile, the dogged daily work of progressive religious groups to support sexual health and reproductive justice was being roundly ignored.

The end result, A Time to Embrace reveals, is that while seven in ten U.S. residents believe that abortion should be legal, fewer than half see it as a moral option. The Religious Institute calls this the morality/legality divide.

Worse, because secular pro-choice groups have steered clear of discussing religion, morality, or relationship or gender ethics, right-wing organizations have grabbed hold of these issues. This has had dire results. First, the Report explains, most heterosexually active women use birth control and one in three will have an abortion at some point in her reproductive life. Secondly, most are people of faith.  

To wit: The Report points out that 78 percent of Americans have a religious affiliation; 58 percent pray every day; 92 percent believe in God; and 54 percent attend a religious service at least once a month. More than a third—35 percent—attend weekly worship. At the same time, they express overt ambivalence about abortion, with 45.5 percent claiming to oppose abortion for themselves or a loved one. Nonetheless, when they unintentionally become pregnant, they race to a clinic for a termination. Small wonder that many later express feelings of guilt, remorse or shame.

The good news is that none of this is engraved in marble. In fact, A Time to Embrace makes clear that there is a great deal that progressive religious leaders and institutions can do to unravel the behavioral negatives promulgated by the right. For starters, clergy can “break silence about sexuality in congregations and work to ensure that all congregations are sexually just.” In concrete terms, the report urges pastors and rabbis to discuss the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and encourage storytelling to help people connect ideology and lived experience.

“The sanctity of human life is best upheld when it is created intentionally and when pregnancies and childbirth are healthy and safe,” the Report concludes. What’s more, it urges congregants to put abortion into a framework that links sexual health with efforts to “ameliorate poverty, social inequities, ignorance, sexism, ageism, environmental degradation, racism, unjust immigration policies, and violence in all its forms, including intimate partner violence which may render an individual powerless to choose freely.”

The report further suggests that people open up about their own reproductive decision-making—highlighting the role of faith in deciding whether to carry a pregnancy to term or have an abortion—as a way to move both communities and lawmakers “from judgment to compassion.”

The goal? Upholding women’s moral agency as a religious value.

For Rabbi Kirschner, this is something of a no-brainer. “Jewish tradition is rich in stories of women who faced fertility issues,” she says. “There are loads of examples of women who cried out to God in their pain. They’re very similar to women who are crying out today so the connection absolutely exists for supporting reproductive justice and women’s sexual health.”

In addition, the Religious Institute has developed resources to enable religious communities to become better advocates. “We’re breaking the silence around sexuality that exists in many faith communities by working in several arenas. We’re pushing seminaries to include sexual health in the curriculum because no matter what the theology is, a rabbi, minister or imam will have to deal with sexual concerns of congregants,” Haffner says. “We’re also pushing the media to include progressive religious voices when they cover sexuality, sexual health, abortion, contraception, or LGBTQ issues so that the average American will be aware that progressive voices of faith exist. Lastly, we’re pushing secular organizations to include religion in their work since it has been ignored to our detriment.”

It’s a huge agenda.

Still, thanks to allies including the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism, and the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Institute is optimistic about reversing the right-wing gains of the past four decades. I certainly hope they’re successful.


Read A Time to Embrace in its entirety here.


  • Bobby5000

    But it’s not an issue anymore. You had two staunch right to life presidents, George W Bush and Ronald Reagan, who did nothing on this issue. There are some 15 Supreme Court decisions providing for abortion rights. When people are trying to address tough issues like policing, why is time spent on what is really not an issue.

    What next- we remember the years when women were denied the right to vote and know some candidates who seek to return us to that dark period. So vote for the candidate who will ensure your right to vote.