A complicated conversation about abortion and religion

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The most productive way to discuss abortion and faith is to engage, panelists at a Rochester Beacon online discussion say. The issue is complex and nuanced, and requires listening.

“When we say, ‘It’s complicated,’ so often, that phrase is used to end a conversation. ‘It’s complicated, so we’re done.’ No, well, that’s just the beginning; ‘It’s complicated,’” said Rev. Shari Halliday-Quan, lead minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester.

“Abortion and Faith: Can We Find Common Ground?”–a one-hour online event on Jan. 19–was aimed at examining what lies beneath the talking points of the abortion issue within and between religions, and included both faith leaders and those involved with congregants. It was a followup to a video and listening session on abortion as part of a partnership of the Beacon and Good Conflict.

The discussion took place four days before Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22, 1973, which legalized abortion nationwide. Last June, the court’s 5-4 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe and returned abortion law to the states.

Halliday-Quan was joined by Tabassam Javed, former president of the Islamic Center of Rochester; Christine Wagner, a Sister of St. Joseph and founding executive director of St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center; and Pastor Melvin Cross Jr., senior pastor at Glory House International, who was delayed but joined the conversation at the very end. (The Beacon also invited Jewish faith leaders, but the event didn’t align with their schedules.)

In general, panelists agreed that the topic of abortion in the context of religion has a tendency to be flattened by outside observers, that passion can make people blind to empathy, and that the most productive way to engage in conversations is through relationships and on an individual level.

A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that Jews tend to have the greatest support for legal abortions, followed by several non-Western faith traditions and those that do not  identify with a religion. Mainline Protestants and Muslims were more split on the topic of legal abortions while a majority of Catholics and evangelical Protestants believed abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. (In a 2022 Pew survey, 56 percent of U.S. Catholics said they supported abortion in all or most cases, but that figure dropped to 30 percent among those who attend Mass regularly.)

However, surveys simplify a complex issue and also tend to cause mainstream opinion to put worshipers into a box, panelists said. The idea of monolithic opinion within a religion is an illusion, appearing on both ends of the spectrum.

For example, people in the Catholic faith consider both “the joy and continuum of life” as a way of preserving life in all cases, but also “the primacy of conscience,” the concept of a personal conscience. However, not many people know both sides of the deliberations, Wagner said.

“I would say there is not a good understanding. I can’t say the last time I’ve heard someone write or speak about the primacy of conscience. There has been a lot of deliberation about the consistent ethic of life,” she said. “The primacy of conscience is primary in the church and that is not a black-and-white or easy decision around the termination of a pregnancy or the death penalty.”

“When wrestling with an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy, there are Universalist Unitarians and people I work with … (who) find themselves more conflicted than they thought they’d be,” said Halliday-Quan. “They might understand what their political commitments are, they might understand what their commitments are as a person of (Universalist Unitarian) faith who wants to ensure safe abortion is available, but it may or may not be the right decision for them personally.”

It is not uncommon for Cross to have such conversations with his congregation.

“There are specific demographics who encounter this opportunity to have to make this decision more than others. Pastoring in an urban context with a lot of millennials and younger people who are trying to figure out life, we have these conversations often,” Cross said. “Personally, we have our moral standard, our ethical standard, but at the same time we have to realize that it’s our responsibility to hear their experience.”

Nationally, Black women have been experiencing induced abortions at a rate nearly four times higher than white women. Similarly, abortion is increasingly concentrated among impoverished women. Seventy-five percent of all abortion patients lived below the poverty level in 2014 compared with 56 percent in 1987.

“Purely from the Quran perspective, the bottom line is that there are clearly words saying: ‘If you have saved one life, you have saved all of humanity’; that would be the exact translation from Arabic,” Javed said. 

At the same time, he said, while many Islamic people would fall within a “pro-life” camp, there is a wide range of opinions at the Islamic Center and in the more broadly defined Islamic world. That was something Javed, as a former president of the center who speaks for his congregation, felt obligated to represent.

When a pro-life organization came seeking his support in protesting a clinic that would administer abortions near the center on Westfall Road, Javed declined to sign their petition. He felt it did not accurately represent the entirety of his community.

“Their approach was very aggressive, to the point that one of the people in the group basically said to me that I would be sanctioning death of the would-be child if I do not sign the petition,” Javed recalled. “So, that is another part of this debate which should be noted. People who come with such strong views and who, all of sudden, demonize those who are not of their views do not help the debate and do not help their cause.”

Wagner has seen a similar demonization of women for considering a pregnancy termination. Years ago, she participated in pro-life rallies, but after working in the health care field and listening to the stories of women, she became more empathetic toward their dilemmas.

“There is not anyone I can ever imagine who realizes they are pregnant and says, ‘I hate this fetus.’ That’s not where people go when having to make a life-and-death decision. It’s more a loving decision. ‘How can both of us be healthy?’ ‘How can this child be raised?’” Wagner said. 

Although New York has traditionally been a strong defender of abortion access, the repeal of Roe v. Wade last year has caused the issue to be at the front of many congregants’ minds.

“Fifty years ago you had the Southern Baptists saying that access to abortion should be expanded. That’s not the case anymore,” said Halliday-Quan. “American political battles have effectively turned abortion into this incredibly divisive wedge and it, quite frankly, has nothing to do with religion except now you have a bunch of people who believe that this is the only thing their religion is about.” 

Regardless of their own positions, the panelists agreed that trying to have these types of conversations in large swaths of people is difficult. Understanding others has to be built on an individual or, at most, a small-group level.

“I think it is the personal relationship that is always the catalyst in terms of making people understand the position which is contrary to their own position. So I would continue to work individually with people,” Javed said.

Halliday-Quan said practiced and collective investment in conversation rather than alignment with the clearest political message is essential. Sharing personal stories of abortion is a way to create understanding–most people know someone who was affected by this issue.

“We’re all in the people business, humanity needs to be served, we are all servants of humanity. We are walking them along that journey of connectivity,” said Cross. “I learn to respect and honor people for who they are, where they are, and realizing the beautiful thing about God is he gave us all free will.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “A complicated conversation about abortion and religion

  1. We tuned into the online panelists discussion and listened to their views on Abortion. The word ‘complicated’ came up as one of the thoughts. Personally I, we, don’t believe that it is complicated. There are always the extremes. Those who will utilize the abortion option as just one more method in their bag of birth control options. One finds out, oops….. I’m pregnant. Then the response is, oh well….. time to make an appointment. The other extreme is that abortion is simply not an option under any condition. Today to many of us tend to drift one way or the other (the black or white generation). There is a gray area, the area of taking things under consideration, looking at the options, taking precaution when the moment strikes, you know…..not just doing things right, but doing the right thing. But that doesn’t appear to be in the thought process these days. First of all it takes two. Second, a bit of consideration by both parties might be a responsible option. In case of rape or a woman’s health or the if the tests conclude that there is a serious problem, abortion should certainly be an option. In the end, it’s the woman who should be in charge of her own body. The other party member (the man) could also be respectful and responsible. Unfortunately today the extremes have the loudest voice and they will…..come hell or high water, have their way. And the media is more than happy to fan the flames. That’s what pays the bills.

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