RH Reality Check, October 14, 2008
Nancy Northup, President, Center for Reproductive RightsI was born in the heartland – Kokomo, Indiana – and my family’s eight moves took me to places as different as Temple, Texas, New York City, and a small town in the Sacramento Valley. I sold Girl Scout cookies and earned merit badges. I marched down Main Street playing the flute in my green band uniform. I was co-captain of my cheerleading squad, pledged allegiance to the Flag, sang “God Bless America,” and went to church on Sunday. I still go to church on Sunday. My religious faith informs everything that I do in my life, including my chosen work as an advocate for reproductive rights as a basic human right. I became a lawyer in large part because my faith called me to fight for social justice and the equality and dignity of all people. Some people may be surprised that this bio belongs to such a visible and vocal voice for reproductive health. We’re used to hearing such biographical attributes for those on the other side of the debate, but my Unitarian Universalist faith has long affirmed that laws that proscribe abortion are an affront to human life and dignity. We are not alone, major religious denominations representing millions of Americans (including the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church and Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism) support the legal right to abortion. The attempt to legislate one set of religious beliefs about women’s ability to control their reproductive lives is an offense to a bedrock commitment of America’s constitutional democracy: freedom of religion and separation of church and state.
Yet growing fundamentalist influence over U.S. domestic and foreign policy is making the nation forget its commitment to religious freedom. This fundamentalist belief–that everyone must follow one set of religious truths–battles against a more open view that respects differences of religious beliefs and ethical positions. It’s human nature to want everyone to agree with one’s religion or personal moral code. I understand that well. I taught Sunday school each week out of the desire to pass along my religious faith and traditions to the next generation. But I also accept that there will always be vast differences among religious and secular perspectives on life. And I understand, and firmly believe, that government should not help me or anyone else spread our religious beliefs. The government is not a Sunday school. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court grounded the right to privacy in the protection of personal liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and it recognized a notion of liberty that includes a woman’s right to make fundamental decisions affecting her destiny, such as whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Since then, the Court has recognized again and again that religion stands staunchly on both sides of the abortion issue, and that women and men of good conscience disagree about its moral implications. As the Supreme Court wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “reasonable people will have differences of opinion about these matters.” Given the different opinions that clearly exist on both sides, what I find most disturbing about the public debate on reproductive health, especially in an election year, is that the moral case for reproductive decision-making isn’t injected into the argument by those who support a women’s right to choose. While I’ve heard many politicians say that they are pro-choice despite their religious beliefs, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that he or she supports reproductive health because of his or her faith. Perhaps it’s because they feel those who oppose reproductive health have already claimed the moral stronghold, and that the public can’t accept that there could be religious grounding on both sides of the debate. As Americans we’ll never agree on the validity of religious texts, but most of us agree that the Constitution is sacrosanct. Religious liberty is tied inextricably to Constitutional values. While the Constitution dictates that religion should not be legislated or imposed by government, it also allows that we should have the right of conscience in making personal decisions about when and whether to have a child. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is precisely why more of us should be talking about why our faith leads us to protect the health and lives of women and their families. We can’t protect rights that we don’t talk about.