Earlier this year, I had an encounter that shook me in a powerful way. I was speaking on a panel of religious leaders at a sexuality education conference. I was by far the most progressive person on the panel. A woman who worked at an abortion clinic asked about finding chaplains, as so many of her patients had questions about faith. I answered her question, noting that there are many religious leaders who serve as chaplains at abortion clinics and offering some suggestions about where to go for more information. I also mentioned that many of us offer support and care to abortion providers.
After the panel, she came to talk to me privately and I learned that her parents were pastors and that she had never even considered the idea of her faith and her work as an abortion provider being in harmony. She never spoke about her work with her parents or her faith community. Motivated by I’m not sure what, I asked her if I could bless her, and she tearfully assented. I prayed a blessing on her hands for the compassionate care they provided, I prayed a blessing on her heart, for its love and concern for her patients. And I prayed that God would continue to make God’s presence known to her in her work. She embraced me for a long moment, and then said goodbye.
It was not long after that experience that I made the decision to become trained as an abortion doula. Abortion doulas provide information, emotional, and physical support to people during their abortion procedure. We are in the room with them, and often have time to talk with them while waiting for the provider or nurse to come in and get started.
In general, when the topic of abortion comes up, abstract arguments for and against are centered. Often religion and rights are invoked. What gets lost in this conversation is the living breathing human beings who are making decisions about their reproductive lives. Centering rhetoric over the actual lived experience of people who need access to abortion misses the entire point of Christian values, as our faith is based on the idea of God taking on human flesh and living a human experience.
In Christianity, there is a long tradition of liberation and constructive theologies that take lived experiences into account, and those are the theologies that resonate most with me. When I became an abortion doula, I began to bear witness to the lived experiences that undergird my advocacy for access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. Now I have seen first-hand how the experiences of women seeking reproductive healthcare are not isolated from their values, their communities, and – statistics tell us – for more than half of them, their faith. Their experiences are also not isolated from their daily lives.
In our work at the Religious Institute, we advocate for access to abortion and reproductive healthcare that is safe and affordable for all people. We are guided by the Reproductive Justice framework (RJ) which was created in 1994 by a group of Black women frustrated with the narrow focus of the pro-choice movement. RJ combines reproductive rights with social justice. In particular, the RJ framework emphasizes that access (not just the right) to abortion is critical, and so is access to other resources that allow people to choose to be parents, not to be parents, and to parent the children they do have in safe and healthy environments. In other words, the RJ framework calls upon us to center a person and their lived experience, not an issue.
My work as an abortion doula has allowed me to understand this RJ framework in a much more personal way. As I accompany these incredibly strong women through their abortion procedures, I am struck by how they maintain their focus: on their children, on their health problems, on their economic situations, on their relationships, on their own bodies and what is best for them. On one day in the clinic, I accompanied 17 women in the space of 5 hours. For some, it was about holding their hands and helping them breathe through the pain. Others needed affirmation and validation of their complicated emotions. Still others just needed a warm smile and an assurance that everything was okay. I am grateful to do this work, and to bear witness to the divine in the lives of each of the people I encounter, from the providers to the patients. This is how we move beyond us v. them and pro-life v. pro-choice – by encountering the divine and the human in one another, and honoring it.
Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey (she, her, hers) is the president and CEO of the Religious Institute, a national multifaith nonprofit dedicated to advocating for sexual, gender, and reproductive health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. Marie is a Southern-born product of public schools and universities. She is a social justice warrior and Jesus-follower who has advanced degrees in French literature and divinity, making her marginally employable. She is ordained through Metropolitan Community Churches. In her previous life, Marie taught high school French and Spanish for 20 years.
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