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Pro-Choice Clergy Raising Moral, Religious Voice

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Pro-choice religious leaders are seeking to enter in the abortion debate with views different from the Catholic hierarchy and fundamentalist leaders. Through books and forums, these leaders are bolstering the moral argument for reproductive rights.

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Pro-choice religious leaders are seeking to enter in the abortion debate with views different from the Catholic hierarchy and fundamentalist leaders. Through books and forums, these leaders are bolstering the moral argument for reproductive rights.
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Dan Maguire

(WOMENSENEWS)--As women's right to abortion hangs on an increasingly thin political thread, advocates are hosting events in churches and temples that focus on the theological and moral arguments supporting a woman's right to choose.

In the process, they hope to change the way reproductive rights are covered by the media and, in an election year, help inform the voters of what they believe is at stake. They also hope to expand thenews coverage of religious viewpoints on the issue to go beyond those of the Catholic hierarchy and religious fundamentalists.

"The media has ignored the pro-choice religious stance for years," says Rabbi Brickner, senior rabbi, emeritus, at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York. "The media has played and pandered to the Roman Catholic community and their position as though it is in some ways definitive toward reproductive choice."

In the past year, however, religious leaders have begun to speak out more clearly in response to the successes of the Bush administration.

As the U.S. Congress passed and President Bush signed the so-called partial-birth abortion ban--which has no health exception--such religious leaders have begun thrusting themselves and their beliefs into the public dialogue. For too long, many say, the Catholic clergy and religious fundamentalists have controlled the conversation about religious faith and women's reproductive choices.

"Of all the slogans and catch words that have been invented in the past years that have changed the political and legislative climate--it's 'right to life' that gets the prize," says Peter Laarman, a New York minister, who officiated the January pro-choice event at Riverside Church. "It puts everybody else on the side of death where nobody wants to be. And it's therefore politically and to some degree religiously a deadly effective formulation."

Many who are long-time advocates for women's rights are adopting new strategies that emphasize religious belief and ethical conduct.

Donna Bascom, member of the reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom, has developed a role as host of events at her synagogue that put pro-choice forums in a religious context.

"I think we've never faced a bigger challenge to Roe vs. Wade," says the entertainment lawyer, referring to the 1973 ruling by the Supreme Court that ruled women had a constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester and often during the second trimester as well.

"Right now those freedoms are under assault. And we need to tell this government that we're not going to tolerate it."


A Range of Religious Imperatives

Bascom marched for reproductive rights before Roe vs. Wade, which was handed down the year she graduated from college. After more than 30 years, she is still a strong supporter of a woman's right to choose. And she believes that the religious viewpoints must be better represented.

In early March, Bascom hosted an event at the New York synagogue that served as a warm-up event for the major pro-choice rally being planned for April 25 in Washington, D.C.

Keynote speaker Anna Quindlen, author and columnist on issues of sexuality and gender for Newsweek, and Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, shared the podium with Rabbi Robert Levine, the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom.

This past January, Planned Parenthood of New York City chose Riverside Church on the Upper West Side as the setting for a gathering of religious leaders, local politicians and women's rights activists to commemorate the 31st anniversary or Roe vs. Wade.


Books Bolster the Morality of Choice

One of the prominent speakers at that event was Dan Maguire, author of the 2001 "Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions." The book traces pro-choice passages and interpretations throughout the texts of many major religions. From Catholicism to Hinduism to Buddhism, the Maguire finds references that either value the life of the mother over that of the fetus or that define life as beginning after birth.

In his January address, Maguire, an ex-Catholic priest and currently a professor of ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said that the work of abortion providers was "not just good work but holy work," and that they were honoring "sacred, serious choices."

Joan Malin, president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, notes the importance of authors such as Maguire.

"There's an extremist group that seeks to say they have the definitive word and women do not have the right to choose," Malin says. "They don't own that language--within the Bible and within theology there definitely is a pro-choice acclamation."

Alexander Sanger, chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council, also offers a moral basis for abortion in his 2004 book, "Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century."

Sanger, the grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, writes that "having abortion legal and accessible is morally right, not morally wrong." Sanger condemns the current situation in which "abortion is technically legal but difficult for many to access."

Arguing that "a woman has the right to use birth control and have an abortion because the pregnancy affects her body and her body only," Sanger portrays abortion as a personal freedom that should be accessible to every American citizen without "unnecessary government interference."

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Emma Pearse writes about women's issues and pop culture from her home in New York City.

For more information:

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:
http://www.rcrc.org

Catholics for a Free Choice:
http://www.catholicsforchoice.org