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At the Intersection of Faith and Reproductive Justice

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Faith and reproductive justice: we rarely hear these words in the same sentence. Instead, we associate faith with the belligerent protester outside an abortion clinic or sex ed curriculums that shame young women for their sexuality.

But what if faith could fuel a movement that supports women and families in having real choices over their lives and their bodies?

On this week’s Making Contact, we head to the crossroads of faith and the struggle for reproductive justice. We’ll hear from people like Dr. Willie Parker, Toni Bond Leonard, and Katie Zeh, who are making these visions a reality.

Special thanks to Center for American Progress for allowing us to broadcast excerpts of the “At the Intersection of Faith and Reproductive Justice”, a panel that took place in Washington D.C. July 2017. Thanks also to the Mary Wohlford Foundation.

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  • Dr. Willie Parker, OB-GYN, Author, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice
  • Toni Bond Leonard, Consultant, and Founding Mother of Reproductive Justice
  • Katey Zeh, Writer, Strategist, and Educator
  • LaShawn Warren, Vice President, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, Center for American Progress
  • Jocelyn Frye, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress


  • Host & Episode Producer: Vera Tykulsker
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Marie Choi, Monica Lopez, R.J. Lozada
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin 

More Information:

 “At the Intersection of Faith and Reproductive Justice” Transcription


[Vera Tykulsker VT] Faith and reproductive justice: we rarely hear these words in the same sentence.  Instead, we associate faith with the belligerent protester outside an abortion clinic or sex-ed curriculums that shame young women for their sexuality.

But what if faith could fuel a movement that supports women and families in having real choices over their lives and their bodies?

On this week’s Making Contact,

[Dr. Willie Parker WP] “We’ve made women bystanders in their own lives.  We’ve turned them into public space.  We talk about an issue that occurs in the context of their lives and their bodies but we don’t talk to women who are at risk. We don’t talk to women who’ve had to make that decision. So one of the things we have to do is pull the cover rather than referring to people who are pro fetus or pro birth but then those same people people deny access to the resources necessary to parent with a modicum of dignity. We have to stop calling them pro-life.

[VT] We hear from people like Dr. Willie Parker who are making these visions a reality.  Dr. Parker is one of the few remaining abortion-providers in Mississippi.  He is  Black, male and Christian. And his commitment to reproductive justice is rooted in all of these identities.

[WP] And so when I talk about being an abortion care provider finding the personal ability to become a provider in the context of what had held me back for 12 years was reconciling my faith identity as a Christian with my chosen craft as a woman’s health provider. That doesn’t gel for many people when I acknowledge those two identities. It also didn’t gel for me not because I was fundamentally opposed to abortion. It was that I had the luxury as a man who was not at risk for impregnating somebody not having to think about an unplanned pregnancy and what to do with that at all.

And so it really came down to Dr. King’s sermon addressing the Good Samaritan put me in a crisis of values around being defined by what you choose to do as opposed to what people give you credit for. I had to reconcile what it meant to be a women’s health provider and to say no to women when one in three (now almost one in four) women in their reproductive lives need abortion. And I was a women’s health provider and found myself unable to provide that care. So now I say that I am a women’s health provider who in a comprehensive way provides women health care to include abortion not despite my Christian identity but because of it. Because the compassionate aspect of Christianity is what compels me to act on the compassion that I feel for my patients.  And so what I essentially had to do was to find that there was nothing mutually exclusive about my faith identity and my chosen craft.

 [Jocelyn Frye JF] And do you find when people talk about faith issues in the public sphere, you know more often than not if they’re talking about reproductive health and they’re talking about abortion, the lines are drawn very starkly. You know you’re on one side or the other and more often than not the faith perspective is viewed as sort of anti-abortion. Why do you think that is?

[WP]  I think one it’s the default observation of the patriarchal custom of controlling women’s lives by primarily controlling their reproduction. I think it is an a-historic narrative of what the religious position has been on reproductive health and particularly pregnancy. I personally am older than the pro-life movement. If you look at the fact that the first overt political opposition to abortion happened in 1980 with the rise of the Moral Majority in 1980 I was a senior in high school and had become a Christian at 15. So this whole notion that Christians in particular fundamentalist Christians have always held the position that abortion is immoral is a relatively new one.

I think the effect of conflation of politics and the extreme religious values where Abortion and Reproductive Health have been politicized allow people to assume that if they are Christian then they have to be conservative and so de facto If you a Christian authentically Christian you must vote politically conservative which has been Republican politics. So I think it’s been this really blurring of politics and religion to the benefit of very narrow interests of controlling the reproductive lives of women. And so when someone says there’s nothing mutually exclusive about being a person of faith and supporting reproductive rights they’re alleged to be not authentically Christian and I simply beg to be a counter narrative and to differ.

We’ve made women bystanders in their own lives.  We’ve turned them into public space.  We talk about an issue that occurs in the context of their lives and their bodies but we don’t talk to women who are at risk. We don’t talk to women who’ve had to make that decision.  And it also leaves us with a fallacy that we know who the women who have abortions are.  When I was the medical director of a planned parenthood here, I did abortions for women who were staffers for senators on the Hill. I did abortions for teenagers from southeast DC.  I did abortions for teenagers from affluent communities in Bethesda.  In Mississippi I see doctors, lawyers, nurses, and I see poor women from the Delta.  So when you ask me who the women who seek abortions are, if you look in the mirror you have a pretty good representation of who they are.  How do we remove the veneer of legitimizing people by, like what you say a culture of life or a pro-life? Those kind of titles and that kind of jingoism subordinates critical thinking.

So one of the things we have to do is pull the cover rather than referring to people who are pro fetus or pro birth but then those same people deny access to the resources necessary to parent with a modicum of dignity. We have to stop calling them pro-life. We have to refer to them as being anti-abortion or pro-birth and then call into question the internal inconsistencies about being against abortion and contraception. And so we have to change the conversation and move away from common ground and more civil discourse to honest disagreement.  But I say first we have to deconstruct the notion of allowing people to, under the moniker of saying “life,” and having that term be very nebulous and let it mean whatever people want it to mean, to really calling out what it means politically. When you are against abortion and contraception that means that you’re pro-natal, pro-birth and and that is ultimately anti-woman and it’s patriarchal.

[JF]  If you were to walk into your ideal community of faith that was supportive of reproductive justice and all these issues you’re talking about what would you see and what would you hear in that community?

[WP]I would see a community that was definitive but not narrow. That they were clear about the religious and spiritual framework and orientation that they held but that they were clear that it was unique to their lived experience and that it was not one that stood in superiority to other faith traditions and understanding.  I would see a human rights based approach to religion and spirituality. That it would be very much integrated with the reality of life as it is. I would see a community, since I am Christian and there is a notion about heaven, I would see a community that was heavenly minded but was equipped to be earthly good. That they were able to address the issues that the compassion of their religious tradition would call them to, will allow them to be agents of change in a world that is complex pluralistic and that that they would not create and zero sum realities on the basis of religious identity. It would really be a world house and a world community and religion would be a hall with many rooms versus a house with only space for one.


[VT] That was Dr. Willie Parker, one of the few remaining abortion providers in Mississippi.

It’s not just abortion providers who are making connections between faith and reproductive justice.  Women on the front lines of the Reproductive Justice movement have also been reflecting on this as they confront the religious right.

Up next, we hear from Toni Bond Leonard, a founding mother of the Reproductive Justice movement; and Katey Zeh, an educator and reproductive justice advocate. LaShawn Warren, vice president of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative moderates.


 [LaShawn Warren LW]  Why did you and other African-American women decide to coin the phrase reproductive justice? Could you provide a little bit of historical context for that?

 [Toni Bond Leonard TL]: So in June of 1994 there were 12 of us who were attending a conference in Chicago. And it was about universal health care reform. It was during the Clinton administration and we were the only 12 black women at this conference and so we did what black women do. We caucused. And so we got in, I believe it was Loretta Ross’ hotel room, and we talked about what would health care, true healthcare, look like for women of color specifically for black women? What were our unique health needs? And we began to talk about our health needs within the context of our lived experiences and said that we can’t separate our social historical location from our ontological existence. And that is how reproductive justice got birthed.

After that Loretta Ross then took the framework that we had began to create. And I have to add that as a part of that out of that meeting came this historic ad  a signature ad signed by eight hundred and fifty three I think black women from around the country saying that black women have unique reproductive health care needs that aren’t just centered around abortion but include the full spectrum of reproductive health services and also are closely linked to our ability to access economic resources to live in safe communities, are attached to our unique health issues around for instance fibroids and access to well women care and pre and post-natal care and access to contraception. And so these eight hundred and fifty three black women signed on to the signature ad and it was published in Politico and The Washington Post.

And after that Loretta kind of spearheaded the charge of further fleshing out the reproductive justice framework. And so literally taking black feminist theory merging it with the human rights framework and applying it to reproductive politics and at the heart of reproductive justice is this intersectional analysis that we cannot separate women’s lived experiences we cannot separate issues of race class gender age ability sexual orientation from the other pieces of women’s lives that we have to look at the totality. And so RJ as we affectionately call it rests upon the three pillars one being that every woman has a right to have children and the right to determine the way and method in which she will have children, a right to not have children and a right to access the birth control methods to help her to be able to control her fertility, and the right to raise her children in healthy and safe environments without fear of violence from individuals or from state governmental actors. And so in a sense saying it’s not just about bringing children into the world. They have to do more than survive. They have to thrive and flourish. So that’s RJ in a nutshell.

[LW] that’s very important because women are not one dimensional. So I want to shift a bit to theology. Oftentimes we find that there are conservatives who will raise a few biblical passages primarily from the book of Jeremiah and Joe about reproductive health care and what should be available to women and what should not be available to women. And as we all know Katie and Toni, the Bible has very little to say about abortion. And so I would love it if you Toni first starting would talk a little bit about your theology and what in your faith fuels your work on RJ issues?

[TL] So I started working on RJ issues as a grassroots activist but also as a woman of faith who had a different understanding of what the canonical text said. My understanding actually and now being a trained theoethicist is that the Bible doesn’t say anything about abortion. Doesn’t say anything specific about abortion in fact and the interpretations that we are hearing in the public square by those who are anti-choice and anti-abortion are based upon human interpretation. But when you look at what the canonical texts says in the Christian tradition you have to look at what was the historical perspective. What was happening during the time that the text was written? Who are the people who wrote the text? What was going on in their lives? But the beauty of the text is that the text is a living text. Those of us from the Christian tradition call it a living text. And so it is applicable to everyday lives.

And so as someone who applies a womanist theoethical lens to the text and to my understanding of reproductive justice I understand that the my Christian tradition is grounded in a code of of of love that it is really a religion of Jesus right and that Jesus walked amongst the disinherited. Jesus was poor. Jesus ministered to those who were dispossessed and who had their backs up against the wall and who lacked access to healthcare and so that is how I approach my work as a womanist theoethicist.

In fact I’ve got to consider women’s access to economic resources or lack there. I’ve got to understand that certain populations of women in this country have been dehumanized and their bodies have been policed by the state and continue to be policed by the state and that their fertility has been controlled according to whatever the economic goals have been of this country at any given time.

And so I apply that lens as well as a lens that says all women all human beings have a moral capacity and the moral authority to make decisions about their bodies, their autonomy. And that that has been given to us by the Creator as well as free will to make those decisions. And then at the end of the day we’re all looking for what does the good life look like? What ought we to do? What ought we not to do? And we all have our internal moral codes or value systems and that those should not be legislated.

[LW] So I want to pick up on one of the themes that you talked about which is the idea that there are certain faith voices that are recognized. So in the public discourse particularly around reproductive justice the conservative voices are elevated. I mean I think everyone knows where conservatives land on reproductive justice issues. So Katie I’d like to ask you why do you think more progressive religious voices have not pierced the public discourse on these issues?

 [Katey Zeh KZ] Dr. Parker touched on this already that the opposition that we hear from conservative religious voices has only been around for the last 30 years or so. And so it’s not historic narrative. I wanted to talk specifically about the clergy consultation service of faith leaders across this country who came together in the years before Roe versus Wade when abortion was illegal to help women find safe and legal abortion. And they put their professional lives and physical lives at risk to do so and so I want all of us to understand that there have always been people of faith who have answered the call to take care of women.

I think in particular the the justification that conservative religious leaders use is not biblically sound. It’s very thinly veiled and sometimes not veiled at all justifications for upholding patriarchy and white supremacy. And those two things are intertwined.

When we think about a narrative of women – white women ought to stay home and to raise lots of children. That’s about replenishing a generation of white males who will then come into political power. They weren’t telling women of color “hey you should be having a lot of children.” At the same time that the rise of the religious right was going on we see the war on drugs that targeted people of color.  And women of color in particular who were pregnant would be forced to take drug tests, separated from their children coerced into sterilization or long term contraception which is why the work of Toni and Reproductive Justice advocates is so important because they’re making those connections. Who are we really talking about in terms of who ought to be the ones having children? They weren’t there to protect the rights and well-being of all women.

I think since the since Roe versus Wade and since the clergy consultation service in its form wasn’t really necessary, I think that religious leaders have been reticent to be public about their support for reproductive health and rights even if they’re privately supportive. Because there are costs. There are costs involved with doing that kind of advocacy work that we do as people of faith and claiming it as part of our faith values. There’s incredible backlash. People could lose their jobs. And I think we’ve grown comfortable with an idea that women can get the service if they need it even though we know that that’s not true.

So I talked about the clergy consultation service which then became the Religious Coalition for abortion rights are now the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice of which I’ve been the board chair for the last two years. And I think what we see now among people of faith on this issue and many others is that there is a resurgence of commitment to say I’m not going to stand by the sidelines anymore. Now is the time to take action. And my hope is that we’ll see a swinging back and we will live into that legacy of faith leaders who are putting themselves on the line to make sure women were taken care of, even when even when it might cost them something.

[TL] Thank you for highlighting issues of patriarchy and white supremacy. I would add to that Christian exceptionalism. Because when we talk about religion and faith within the context of reproductive justice oftentimes we’re specifically talking about Christianity and we know that this country is…Christianity… While it may be the dominant tradition in this country we know that in fact we have people who are across traditions. As a matter of fact we have quite a few number of people in this country who practice a form of religious pluralism. And I think we do ourselves a disservice in our movement by not lifting up the fact that we have folks from the Jewish tradition, from the Buddhist and the Hindu tradition, folks from the Muslim tradition, people who practice forms of indigenous spirituality, Shamanism and traditional African religions who do have an understanding, a spiritual and religious understanding, that affirms women being able to live out their full lives. And women having the capacity to make moral decisions and being able to make decisions about their bodies and their reproductive health. And so I just wanted to kind of lift that up because I think that that’s something that the movement needs to do over all: to be more embracing and more encompassing of what it means to be truly interfaith. Because we find our strength in numbers that way.

I think for religious leaders, and I agree, to find your entry point. To perhaps begin to look within your communities and see what are the issues. But I think it’s important from a reproductive justice lens to connect with those folks who’ve been doing the work. There are a ton of grassroots activists in this country and quite a few reproductive justice groups around the country in the south. You’ve got Sister Reach in Tennessee you’ve got Sister Song in Atlanta. You have all of these groups who are doing work directly in the community around reproductive justice and so it is important to connect with those groups and find out what the issues are.

You touched upon infant and maternal mortality and morbidity. And you’re absolutely right. Women of color have some of the highest rates and specifically black women have some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality and morbidity. And so we need to get to the crux of that. We also need to begin to talk about the rates of HIV and all of these health disparities. So I would say connect with your grassroots activists find out who are the folks who are doing the work and educate yourself on on the issues.

 [LW] So one final question before we go to the audience for Q&A.  Could you both talk a bit about the economic security issues surrounding reproductive justice?

[KZ]  I mean I think the ability to create the family of your of your desires requires you to have access to resources to ensure that they’re healthy and thriving. So we can’t separate out economics.

I mean I think we’re the last country in the world not to have a paid family leave policy. I mean what does that mean for for folks who aren’t able to afford to take time off to care for their young children or for their aging parents? So I think we really aren’t living into our pro-family values when we make it so difficult for people who want to create their families to do so if they don’t have economic privilege.

And so I see the issues just inextricably linked with each other. It’s important that we’re advocating for policies that support families at every stage. And I think that begins frankly with a paid family leave policy.

[TL] I think in terms of economic security when you look at it, and again as I’ve said reproductive justice centers the lived experiences of women, and so looking at it through the lens of the women, when you deny a woman access to contraception basically you’re saying you’re putting her at risk for an unplanned unintended pregnancy. And so the way that she’s going to resolve that is either to have a child or not to have a child. And either option presents some economic security issues. If she decides that she needs to get an abortion if she’s working a low minimum wage job that means she doesn’t have the economic resources to obtain a safe abortion. And what that means is that she’s going to have to scrape together those funds to pay three or four or five depending upon how many gestational weeks she is to pay for that procedure. And that takes food off of her table, food out of her children’s mouths if she has other children. It may mean she has to miss time from work. If she decides to carry that child to term that means something else. That means she needs access to pre and post-natal care. And if we’re talking about dismantling the Affordable Care Act in the ways that we have heard we know that that could be questionable right? And so that presents huge economic security issues for a woman in addition to the other issues of safe and affordable housing. The communities that she lives in.

And if we include for instance a Black Lives Matter lens and we look at the violence against black and brown bodies that we’re seeing mothers who have made the decision to have children and they’re seeing their children die before their very eyes owing to violence at the hands of state and governmental actors. So now we’re talking about basically creating graveyards out of the wounds of women who have decided to have children. And so it’s not just huge economic issues but they are connected intricately in this web of intersectional issues of economics and gender and race and class. And so you know I think when we talk about economic security we would be remiss not to include all of these other issues because you really have to look at it through that lens.


 [VT]  A lens that says all human beings have a moral capacity and a moral authority to make decisions about their bodies. A community that is heavenly minded but equipped to do earthly good. Faith leaders who are putting themselves on the line to make sure women are taken care of even when even when it might cost them something.

All of the speakers featured this episode have different relationships to religion and spirituality. But for all of them faith fuels their work for choice, access, and liberation.

That’s it for this edition of Making Contact.

You can learn more about faith and reproductive justice at our website,  You can also check out past shows, subscribe to our weekly podcast, and make a difference by supporting our work.

If today’s show raised questions for you, share the show with a friend.  You can find us on Facebook and Twitter where our handle is Making underscore Contact.

Special thanks to Center for American Progress for allowing us to broadcast excerpts of “At the Intersection of Faith and Reproductive Justice” a panel that took place in Washington DV Jiuly 2017.

The Making Contact Team includes: Lisa Rudman, Marie Choi, RJ Lozada, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, and Sabine Blaizin.

I’m Vera Tykulsker. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!


Author: Radio Project

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