I am a minister and a mother, and I have had an abortion. I was serving in a congregation in New England at the time I realized I was pregnant. I was far away from family and friends. I had always imagined I would have a second child and I knew that it would be a struggle on our family financially as well as add to the stress of our marriage, which was starting to fall apart. I didn’t want to bring a baby into the world that would feel it was a burden—and I prayed to God to help me make the best decision I could in a situation that seemed impossible.
As you are well aware, we don’t generally associate people of faith with abortion, much less a clergy. That has led to my 12 years of silence on this reality. But, in fact, faith doesn’t need to be a dividing line on abortion. Instead, faith can help us open important conversations about the role of abortion in our lives, including the lives of religious women.
The truth is, the majority of women who have abortions are religious.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 17 percent of abortion patients in 2014 identified as mainline Protestant, 13 percent as evangelical Protestant and 24 percent as Catholic. Most are already mothers (59 percent have had a previous birth). Despite how common abortion is in faith communities, many religious women feel like they have to keep their abortion a secret.
Religious women who have abortions get caught in the middle of the political divide. Clergy are not trained to think about abortion as a cause for pastoral care, often leaving people alone with their stories at a time when they need acceptance and compassion. And abortion advocates often resent having to address faith at all, as Katha Pollitt protested in The New York Times: “I wish we didn’t so often discuss abortion rights in the context of religion.”
Instead of serving as a barrier, faith can help lead the way to transformative healing for women, our families, and our nation. Faith is so much more than judging right from wrong. Faith is about how we make meaning in our lives, how we understand our God, and how we live our values. Decisions about whether and when to grow one’s family carry the deepest meaning, and religious women make this decision in conversation with God, just as we do every decision.
Faith is dynamic, and it also changes over time. Both Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine come out of the Catholic tradition—and yet as we saw in the vice-presidential debate, their personal beliefs have evolved, shaped by their life experiences, leading them to different end points (both are personally against abortion rights, but Kaine says he follows the law—and his ticket mate’s policy—in supporting abortion rights). Christian theologies, too, have evolved as new voices, new stories, and new experiences have come to light.
In the 1970s there was a reawakening of theology and its interpretation. Up until that point most theologians were white, owning-class men, and their interpretations were informed by their worldview. Their theology held a perspective that often disregarded women, specifically women’s bodies or women’s ability to make informed and intelligent decisions for ourselves. They also had very little awareness of the reality of oppression as it existed in the current time or putting all stories from the Bible into their correct cultural context. Thanks to theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Katie Geneva Cannon, that all changed. They opened up a new theological approach from the perspective of the oppressed: poor people, women, people of color. These theologians and others advocated for a theology that was based on listening to the real lives and stories of people who had previously been hidden and marginalized. Listening allowed the listener to see the speaker as whole, as God sees her.
Their faith transformed religious movements—and the world.
This theology helped usher in a pope who is deeply connected to the plight of the poor and suffering. It backed men and women who chose to speak out about clergy sex abuse, resulting in new protocols across all communities of faith around safe practices with vulnerable populations. There are more women in leadership roles in the church, many of whom are now leading the largest and most powerful congregations in our country, such as Riverside Church in New York City.
A great example of faith-based listening and storytelling is the movement Sister Simone Campbell started with “Nuns on the Bus.” These nuns “travel the country to listen to the lived experiences of people in their communities and hold elected officials accountable to the promises they have made to legislate for the common good.”
Our country needs this kind of faith desperately. Faith can help us listen to one another, including our own lived experiences with abortion. And empathy can allow us to see one another.
When I had my abortion, I felt the church’s silence and the awkward lack of acknowledgement of the decision I made for myself and my family, as well as my feelings of sadness and loss. I know I’m not alone.
I have started to share my own abortion story from the pulpit in Protestant churches across the country because I want communities of faith to be places that embrace each person’s full humanity. Through this process I have witnessed how sharing our stories is a way into community and belonging. After hearing mine, others share their own hidden stories back with me. And, in that moment—we find one another and we are connected.
Together, we experience what I like to call “God-moments”—the moment when we see the face of God in and through one another. Our politicians and our communities need a way forward into deeper connection across our differences. I believe faith—and empathy—can help us listen to each other and build power rooted in our love and care for each other.
Susan Chorley is an American Baptist minister and lives in Boston, MA. She is on the board of Exhale, a pro-voice organization that uses listening and storytelling to create a more respectful, supportive culture for people who have abortions. She tweets at @RevSusanB.