Lately, my work has steered me to reflect on a topic that doesn’t often come up in “polite conversation” and certainly not in polite religious conversation. And yet, there’s a deep theological undercurrent to this work. I’ve been talking, writing, and speaking about access to abortion care. Or, more specifically, the lack of access to abortion care that many low-income women experience because of two federal amendments. The Helms and Hyde amendments prohibit U.S. federal aid from funding abortions both internationally and nationally, and by doing so create an economic injustice for low-income women.

The Helms amendment (1973) prevents federal aid from funding abortions internationally “as a method of family planning.” In practice, overly cautious enforcement of the Helms amendment has prevented support of abortions even in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother. The Hyde amendment (1976) prevents Medicaid in the U.S. from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

My organization, the Religious Institute, takes the position that abortion is a serious moral decision, and that women are moral agents who have the capacity, right and responsibility to make the decision as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances. (See our Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision.) But what happens when the right to “choose” an abortion is subverted by laws that effectively deny that choice to low-income women, women of color, and women whose reproductive healthcare is provided by Medicaid or U.S. foreign aid?

What happens is that we end up with a double standard. If you can afford to pay for an abortion (or if you have private health insurance that covers the procedure), if you are able to take several days off work, if you can wait out the “waiting period,” in general if you are able to jump through the hoops of a system that assumes you have not thought through, prayed through, and talked through your decision, then you are able to get access to a legal medical procedure. Otherwise, not so much.

Back in 1994, black women activists coined the phrase “reproductive justice” to highlight the intersectionality of issues such as race, class, and poverty on the struggle for reproductive health and rights. As SisterSong says, “Our options for making choices have to be safe, affordable and accessible, three minimal cornerstones of government support for all individual life decisions.”

While some “pro-life” politicians have made it clear that they seek to ban abortion entirely (and restrict access to contraception to methods that are acceptable to them), what they have succeeded in doing with Helms, Hyde, and myriad state laws restricting access to abortion is to ensure that low-income women are denied access to abortion care. Justice demands that access to a legal medical procedure should not be compromised by how much money a woman has or where she lives.

I know that it’s hard to have conversations about abortion because it has become an “issue” that is highly charged and politicized. But I believe that people of faith have an opportunity to change that – to move the conversation from one about rights to one about values like justice, individual conscience, and moral agency.

2 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political – “Polite” Conversation

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