(RNS) — The other day, I joined clergy from many faiths in a worship service that, like many others, featured poetry, music, ritual and prayer. But this service was different. Its purpose was to bring blessings on a reproductive health clinic that provides abortions.
With their presence as well as their prayers, 10 diverse faith leaders proclaimed what too few people have heard: Religious people can be pro-choice, not in spite of their faith but because of it.
Too few have heard this, in large part because Christian conservatives have been exceptionally loud and strident in condemning abortion as religiously and morally unacceptable. But their religious understanding of abortion is not the only understanding. It never has been.
The blessing of the Whole Woman's Health clinic in Austin on Tuesday (July 9) in cooperation with Texas Freedom Network and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is one recent example of a long tradition of progressive faith communities supporting women making reproductive decisions according to their own conscience.
Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ members, Disciples of Christ members and Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are among the people of faith who affirm individuals, free of others’ judgment, considering all options for responding to a pregnancy.
While these progressive traditions differ on some matters of belief, they share a core set of values. They believe that each person is created in the divine image with the right and capability to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives.
Because our prophetic teachings emphasize caring for our neighbors, progressive faith communities are called to respond to pregnant people with compassion and affirmation. We know that making reproductive decisions can be hard work spiritually and emotionally, yet we believe God accepts the decisions of conscience each person makes.
Why bless a clinic?
Bestowing blessings on an abortion clinic, however, is more than symbolic. Tuesday's ceremony — and others like it that have been held in Maryland, Ohio and Washington, D.C. — brought solace and encouragement to the clinic’s clients and the health care professionals who serve them.
During our ceremony in Austin, I had the honor of sharing journal entries from past clients. As I spoke their words of honesty and wisdom, I was moved to tears by their strength, resolve and deep faith. We recognize that those who receive care at the clinic may struggle with stigma, shame and guilt that originates not necessarily from within themselves, but from messages taught by their families, communities and places of worship.
Some may feel alone. Some may feel conflicted. Some must struggle to gather the funds needed to pay for an abortion or to arrange for the procedure at the right phase of pregnancy. And their arrivals at the clinic often begin with the unnerving experience of passing through a crowd of angry, jeering protesters.
Physicians, nurses and other staff members at abortion clinics are also subject to intense stress from religiously sponsored foes of abortion who accost them, question their morality, vandalize the clinics and threaten the safety of these professionals and their families.
Our calling as progressive faith leaders is to bear witness to the pain caused in the name of faith and to respond with words and actions rooted in love, compassion and understanding.
Bringing blessings inside abortion clinics as we did this week sends messages to our communities and our leaders.
It tells elected leaders that not all people of faith oppose abortion. It signals to abortion foes that progressive people of faith are defending reproductive health, rights and justice and honoring the reproductive decisions of those who receive abortion care. To the many who see abortion as a gray area, it demonstrates that spiritual and religious people can also respect and affirm the right to choose as a moral good.
For those who are actively involved in organized religion, a clinic blessing can be a rallying point, urging greater solidarity on this divisive issue in these threatening times for reproductive and other freedoms.
We know there are also many who feel a sense of spirituality but may have abandoned organized religion in part because of harsh teachings about sex and sexuality. For them, our ceremony reflects that spirituality and reproductive freedom can coexist.
A physician who joined in a clinic blessing ceremony in Washington, D.C., revealed how the blessing might continue to make an impact in the future. She said that now she would be able to tell clients who may be frightened or emotional, “This is a blessed space.” The Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Austin is also a blessed space, not only because of our ritual of blessing on Tuesday but because providing reproductive health services has always been sacred work. May progressive people of faith continue to join together in the face of today’s stark political and social climate. Together may we create even more spaces that accept and welcome each person’s own reproductive decisions.
(The Rev. Katey Zeh is the interim executive director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)