“Reproductive rights” is a legal term. When a woman is making a decision about abortion, she’s not making a legal decision – she’s making a personal, moral decision that involves matters close to her heart – her religious beliefs, moral values, and life circumstances. Yet this is rarely recognized in legal and policy work, and that is having an adverse effect on efforts to preserve support for legal abortion. To claim or reclaim the language of values and morality in a positive way, we have to recognize that reproductive and sexual issues are primarily personal and begin to use moral – as opposed to rights – language when appropriate and sincere.
A decision about abortion is a moral decision in another sense: it can be more ethical – or more moral – to terminate an unwanted pregnancy than to continue it, for a host of reasons, including severe family conflict, the needs of other children, and a woman’s or family’s ability to care for another child. Viewed from the perspective of values-based decision-making, public policy should preserve for the individual woman the ability to make reproductive decisions based upon her understanding of her needs, responsibilities, health, and faith. Government should provide a safe environment for these decisions, offering the space, opportunity and freedom for a woman to exercise her conscience and carry out her decision, free from the coercion of restrictions and obstacles or barriers. There is solid religious and theological grounding for reproductive freedom or choice and reproductive justice (although legal arguments and “rights” terminology dominate the discourse). From the perspective of most Christian and Jewish traditions, reproductive choice is based on the notion that women are moral agents, possessing free will and freedom of conscience – attributes conferred by God on humanity. However, in mainstream media and culture, the equation of religious=anti-choice and secular=pro-choice is well-established, although it is inaccurate.
Legal and policy organizations generally focus on the need for laws to stop government intrusion and protect women’s privacy. Laws may not fully acknowledge the complex process of decision-making and the ambiguity a woman might feel about a decision about abortion – or other reproductive issue, including assistive reproductive technology. When called upon to make personal, often difficult, decisions when faced with a mistimed, unintended, or problem pregnancy or infertility issues, many women and men look to their faith, beliefs, and conscience. Since there is great diversity of opinion about reproductive issues and moral and ethical considerations are specific to various groups and not universal, moral views will differ; that is a key argument for not making laws based on moral (or religious) views. A faith-informed approach to decision-making about abortion can include: (1) acknowledging that the decision is one for individuals to make and that there is no single answer that can be prescribed by the state, and
(2) helping individuals make decisions that are consistent with their faith, conscience and exercise of free will.
Religious freedom as it applies to reproductive freedom is an important concept that does not seem to receive the attention it deserves from legal and policy experts. The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom means the law must not impose any one religious view about abortion or reproductive choice on all of us; in other words, the law must not embody religious doctrine about abortion, including about when human personhood begins and the responsibility of a woman regarding childbearing. The law must protect the individual’s ability to follow her own beliefs and conscience in the private matters of family and reproduction. Respecting religious freedom in this arena also means that we are respecting democratic values around pluralism in our society.
Reproductive justice is another key concept that can broaden our existing legal rights framework and change the way we talk and think about reproductive issues. Reproductive justice concerns underlie and are connected to many social justice concerns, including universal health care, the eradication of hunger, eliminating violence, reducing income disparities, and increasing security through peace at home and abroad. From a values perspective, the concept of reproductive justice opens up a deeper discussion that allows us to connect traditional religious and secular concerns such as poverty, violence, hunger, poor healthcare, unequal educational opportunities, and gender and racial/ethnic inequality to reproductive issues.
New approaches and new thinking about reproductive and sexual issues that include moral, ethical and justice perspectives may break down the existing polarization on these issues, appeal to social justice activists who do not now see the relevance of reproductive issues to their concerns, and open the way to a new understanding of reproductive issues.
Reverend Dr. Carlton W. Veazey
President and CEO
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice