Politics

The Religious Left Has Found Its Mission

After Dobbs, pro-choice clergy are leading a great awakening of service and activism.

A view from above, a clergy member holds a woman's hand across a table, a packet of pills placed between them, as light through a stained-glass window shines down on them
“The right has been so effective—in seminaries, in congregations, in sort of parachurch ministries […] We need a full cultural immersion to challenge this idea.” Rey Sagcal/Slate

In Ohio, Christian ministers are learning how to safely terminate pregnancies at home. In Texas, pastors are boarding planes with groups of pregnant women and accompanying them to abortion clinics out of state. In Washington, D.C., a century-old Jewish nonprofit is shifting hundreds of thousands of dollars to abortion funds.

Across the U.S., as state legislatures restrict reproductive health care in increasingly draconian ways, progressive faith communities are pushing back.

Some faith leaders have mobilized teams of volunteers to directly assist people seeking abortions. Others are taking steps toward a more vocal, affirming approach to the issue after decades of near-silence—determined to wrest away the hold that the Christian right has had on the dominant narrative of religion and abortion.

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Rev. Charles Owens, a 34-year-old pastor at a United Church of Christ church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, rarely preached about abortion before Roe v. Wade was overturned. But in June, after the Supreme Court decision, he stood in front of a congregation of more than 100 people and asked them to keep the country in their prayers. “There are women right now who are pregnant who—they will die, because pregnancy has endangered their life,” he said. “And they could have received a treatment that saved their life, but not anymore.”

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Jesus never spoke a word on “the unborn,” Owens pointed out in an online essay. Paul the Apostle, a prolific social commentator in the Bible who shared his own views on myriad matters of moral concern—from the permissibility of dancing to the proper length of human hair—had nothing to say on botanical remedies that were used for unwanted pregnancies in his time. “If abortion really is against God’s will and the life of a fetus sacred,” Owens wrote, “why would scripture be silent on such a critical issue?”

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Owens’ church already has a volunteer group that organizes service and social advocacy projects. They’ve protested anti-transgender bills, provided furniture for Ukrainian refugees settling in Sioux Falls, and held an entrepreneurial fair for local immigrants who were victims of human trafficking. Now, Owens wants to extend the group’s services to neighbors who need abortions. “There hasn’t been a lot we’ve done about reproductive justice,” he said. “But we’re recognizing, now, we do need to do more.”

In July, Owens joined representatives from a few dozen United Church of Christ congregations in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota for a virtual training through the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an interfaith nonprofit. For 90 minutes, pastors and lay members discussed what various religious texts actually say—and do not say—about pregnancy and reproductive health care. They also learned about the history of the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. and received suggestions for how their churches might support people seeking abortions in places where such care is, or may soon become, illegal, as it is in South Dakota.

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The group that organized the training has a long history of putting faith leaders to work when abortion is criminalized. It grew out of a prominent network of clergy who helped pregnant women in the U.S. get safe abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade.

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Previously known as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, the network was founded in 1967 by two ministers in Greenwich Village and soon encompassed about 1,400 clergy members and laypeople who connected abortion seekers with vetted providers. In defiance of laws that criminalized the procedure, the organization says it helped around 500,000 patients between 1967 and 1973, the year Roe legalized abortion nationwide.

After Roe, there was less of an obvious need for a tightly organized referral network. The Clergy Consultation Service evolved into the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), switching lanes from abortion referrals to advocacy. “I think there might have been a certain amount of apathy. Like, ‘This thing has been decided now. We’ve won. We’ve gotten Roe. Now abortion is legal everywhere,’ ” said Rev. Katey Zeh, a Baptist minister and RCRC’s CEO, about the years after Roe. Once abortion was legal across the country, pro-choice faith groups were drowned out and financially dwarfed by the booming anti-abortion movement. “As the political right—or white Christian nationalism—really started to gain momentum around abortion and made it so central to their platform, a lot of progressive clergy became very hesitant to talk about it more publicly because it became so divisive and controversial,” Zeh said.

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Still, RCRC continued to offer online courses for pro-choice faith leaders and spiritual resources for abortion patients. But this summer, the organization saw a massive uptick in visits to its website, sign-ups for its mailing lists, and emails from people of faith searching for a way to help in the wake of Dobbs. “People are paying attention in ways that they haven’t in the past because of the moment that we’re in,” Zeh said. “There’s a huge opportunity to be organizing and educating.”

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Zeh pointed out that the newcomers to the movement don’t need to start from scratch. In the decades since Roe, a secular ecosystem of abortion funds (which pay for abortion pills and procedures) and practical support groups (which coordinate and pay for associated travel, lodging, and child care costs) has grown to fill the gap between Roe’s promise and its shortcomings for rural and low-income women, who often live hundreds of miles from a clinic or cannot afford a visit.

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But faith communities can work with existing networks by offering access to their physical spaces, which are often underutilized on weekdays, or to transportation. They can collect donations. They can organize, in-house, to help fill in the gaps. In fact, faith leaders say, houses of worship are almost tailor-made for exactly the kind of crisis the Dobbs decision has produced.

Anyone in a restrictive state who helps a person terminate a pregnancy in 2022 will be doing so under greater scrutiny and legal risk than they would have faced before Roe. Today’s anti-abortion activists and lawmakers are cranking out new, punitive legal experiments—interstate travel prohibitions, bans on sharing information, vigilante incentives—that were not even a twinkle in a legislator’s eye during the Clergy Consultation Service’s heyday.

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But volunteer groups also have a new resource at their disposal that their predecessors could have only dreamed of: abortion medication. The two-drug regimen, which entered the U.S. marketplace in 2000, allows pregnant people to safely end their pregnancies in their own homes, on their own schedules, without having to find a trained practitioner to perform a procedure. Now, the FDA allows the drugs to be prescribed via telemedicine and shipped by mail. Some providers will even prescribe the medications in advance for people who are not yet pregnant but wish to be prepared for emergencies.

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One Tuesday evening in July, a nonprofit called Faith Choice Ohio held a virtual gathering to teach the ins and outs of abortion medication to clergy, students, and at least one university administrator. Rev. Jessie Commeret, a 44-year-old Presbyterian pastor from a rural county in northwestern Ohio, attended the Zoom meeting.

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Earlier in her career, Commeret had counseled a few women who were considering abortion. Sometimes, she said, pregnant people want to speak to a clergy member before having the procedure—even if they don’t practice any specific faith—because they’ve internalized fear and shame about it.

“I’ve also come across women in my congregation who are struggling with these choices, whether it’s genetic abnormalities of fetuses, or just really struggling to understand—What is life, and how does God produce life? What is God’s place in all of that?” Commeret said. Some of the people she’s counseled “grew up really religiously conservative, and are saying, ‘Am I going to go to hell for making this decision? What does the Bible say?’ To be able to offer them a different answer, using my religious authority, is a gift.”

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Commeret did this counseling in the mid-aughts through a Faith Choice Ohio program. Back then, any talk of a self-managed abortion at home was usually couched in language of danger and trauma. But now that abortion medication is more widely available—and new studies have demonstrated its remarkable safety, even without a visit to a doctor—reproductive health advocates are openly talking about how it works.

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The Zoom training’s facilitator, Elaina Ramsey, executive director of Faith Choice Ohio, walked the group through the functions of the two drugs used in a typical medication abortion (one stops the pregnancy from developing, the other causes contractions to empty the uterus); when they can be used (up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, though patients in some countries use them much later); and how safe they are to use on one’s own (more so than Tylenol). After a patient allows the tablets of misoprostol to dissolve in the pocket between the cheek and gum, Ramsey said, if she later sees a doctor for follow-up care, investigators won’t be able to detect the medication in her blood. Someone who visits a hospital after a medication abortion can simply say she is miscarrying, and doctors won’t be able to tell the difference.

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Ramsey also shared a word of warning. “We are not medical or legal professionals,” she told the group. You’re sharing information, “not giving advice. That helps protect you in this current political landscape.” It’s not just potential lawsuits from regretful, dissatisfied, or harmed patients that attendees might have to worry about. Laws that ban “aiding or abetting” abortions, such as S.B. 8 in Texas, could conceivably be used to prosecute a pastor who helps a woman obtain and use abortion medication. (At the time of the Zoom training, a six-week abortion ban was in effect in Ohio; a Democratic judge has blocked that ban, allowing legal abortions through 22 weeks of pregnancy while litigation proceeds.)

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Ramsey with a priest and two other volunteers smiling together in front of their church
Elaina Ramsey (second from left) and the staff of Faith Choice Ohio. Courtesy of Elaina Ramsey
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It is not “aiding and abetting” to simply tell a patient how abortion medication works. For now, at least, it is legal in all 50 states to share information about how much bleeding a hypothetical person would expect after taking the pills, and about getting her IUD removed before ingesting them. But to be on the safe side, Ramsey advised using third-person language. For example: “People often use this website to find abortion pills.” Not: “Here’s where you can order your pills.”

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Ramsey has good reason to urge caution. Republican officials are presently exploring new ways to criminalize not just abortion providers, but anyone who helps a patient find care. In Texas, when a total abortion ban went into effect after the Dobbs decision, local abortion funds ceased operations, fearing criminal charges under newly enforceable statutes that specifically prohibit “furnishing the means to procure an abortion.”

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The conservative Ohio legislature could pass a similar law at any time. But, in June, anticipating the fall of Roe, Faith Choice Ohio launched the Jubilee Fund, which is explicitly designed to circumvent government restrictions on covering abortion-related expenses. Instead of paying clinics or patients directly, the Jubilee Fund gives block grants to participating congregations. Then, when a clinic or another abortion fund alerts Jubilee that a patient has asked for help, the fund connects the patient with a congregation that can provide a car ride to an out-of-state clinic, a child care stipend, a bus ticket, a gas card, or a hotel room for a multiday trip out of town, for instance.

Having two layers of faith-based organizations that handle the Jubilee Fund’s money—the fund and the congregations in its network—is “really important, because religious organizations are exempt from having to report who they serve and how they use their money,” Ramsey said. “The state really can’t monitor that. These safeguards, the firewall that we’re supposed to have in this country between church and state, we’re going to use that for our good, to be able to protect people.” Clergy–penitent privilege also prevents faith leaders from being called to testify in court against those who’ve confided in them.

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In recent months, hundreds of volunteers from Jubilee Fund congregations have been vetted and trained to transport patients to clinics around Ohio and to Michigan and Pennsylvania (where abortion remained legal during Ohio’s six-week ban).

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This investment in direct service was a strategic pivot for Faith Choice Ohio, which once devoted more of its resources to political advocacy. But all the protests and phone calls in the world could not sway the notoriously anti-abortion Ohio legislature. “We were beating our heads against a brick wall,” Ramsey said. “As important as it is to write letters to the editor and testify against bad bills, it’s just not enough when the numbers are against us.” The group has spent the past year restructuring to meet the immediate needs of patients instead.

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The Ohio congregation Commeret leads is ideologically diverse. “We’ve got folks who voted for Trump, and folks who can’t imagine ever knowing someone who voted for Trump,” she said. She knows her church will never take a vocal position in support of reproductive rights, much less buy bus tickets for women traveling to abortion clinics. But she’s identified a dozen or so community members who feel moved to take action. As a small group, Commeret said, they are reading books about the intersection of Christianity and abortion rights “to be able to articulate our message more clearly to others.” They also plan to offer rides and child care to abortion patients and erect pro-choice billboards to counter anti-abortion signage in the area.

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Commeret’s interest in this issue isn’t just political; it’s personal. Years ago, after she was ordained as a pastor, she had an abortion. “A lot of my Christian brothers and sisters say, ‘Well, any woman who terminates a pregnancy feels so much regret.’ And I didn’t feel any of that. I felt liberation,” she said.

As she contemplates her role as a faith leader in a post-Dobbs America, Commeret is finding solace in the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who has written about the capacity of overlapping crises—climate change, a pandemic, the overturning of Roe—to numb and burn out those who are disposed to care. “She wrote about how there are so many fires. The world is on fire right now, and we can’t put out all the fires,” Commeret said. “But we can find one and put out that fire. And so for me, this is my fire.”

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Often, when Ramsey tries to enlist faith communities to help pregnant patients get abortions, “they’re first like, ‘Wait, you want us to do what?’ ” she said. “This is all groundbreaking, cutting-edge to them. And I’m like, ‘It is, and it isn’t.’ ”

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There is extensive historical precedent for this kind of work. Those involved in current efforts to get patients abortions say they’ve taken inspiration from the sanctuary movement, a decades-old tradition of congregations shielding undocumented immigrants from deportation officials, who cannot—or, due to optics, will not—breach church doors to take an immigrant into custody.

“Think of congregations as volunteer organizations that are committed to certain values,” Rev. Daniel Kanter, the senior minister and CEO of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, told me. “We share values around justice-making and service, and we’re also networked and we trust each other.”

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Kanter serves on the steering committee of SACReD, a recently formed coalition for religious groups that want to push their abortion-rights ministries to the next level. (The titular acronym stands for Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity.) He and his colleagues are working to reimagine and reconstitute the Clergy Consultation Service of the 1960s and ’70s to help today’s patients access abortion.

In the weeks after a six-week abortion ban took effect in Texas last year, Kanter initiated a program that transported pregnant patients to an abortion clinic in New Mexico. Every other week, about 20 patients would meet before sunrise at the Dallas church, where volunteers (mostly retired women) would greet them with homemade baked goods. Accompanied by a clergy member and a representative from the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the patients would travel together to the airport, fly to Albuquerque, and take cars to an abortion clinic that had dedicated a scheduled block for the group. By 10 p.m., they’d be back in Dallas and headed home.

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Kanter smiling outside his church
Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter, a Unitarian minister in Dallas, organizes trips that take patients from Texas, where abortion is banned, to New Mexico, where it is legal. Courtesy of Daniel Kanter

Rev. Deneen Robinson—a Unitarian minister who, like Kanter, has counseled patients for years as a chaplain at a Dallas abortion clinic—joined two of these bimonthly trips. When she met the patients at the church on a Saturday in May, she introduced herself and asked each woman what kind of support she needed. “Some were scared, some sad, and some were like, ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’ Some didn’t want to talk at all,” Robinson said. One woman had never flown on a plane before, so Robinson stuck with her through the security checkpoints and boarding line.

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Robinson was alarmed to hear that one patient had arrived at the church with an escape plan, devised at her parents’ urging, in case the supposedly pro-choice church was a front for a sex-trafficking ploy. That’s how unlikely it seemed to them that a religious group would offer pregnant people a free trip across state lines for abortion care. “It’s really a sad commentary for people of faith, especially religious leaders, that we have been successful in creating a narrative that we aren’t willing to offer kindness and grace to people who are in a place of turmoil and struggle in their lives,” Robinson said.

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Over the course of the long day, Robinson watched the women get to know one another. Some of them bonded in small groups, swapping stories about their relationships and sharing photos of their kids. “I’ve talked to every chaplain who’s gone on the trip, and they all concur: The support between the patients is something to behold,” Kanter said. They meet at 5 a.m. as strangers, and “by the end of the day, you would have thought we’d won the volleyball tournament.”

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The circumstances that bring these women together are despicable: Lawmakers are using the state’s power to force them to bear unwanted pregnancies, and without the church’s support, they could not afford to travel out of state for care. An unintended but heartening consequence of the program is that, for some patients, the community the trips fostered alleviated feelings of desperate isolation that abortion bans are designed to instill.

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Those trips ceased after the Dobbs decision, when Texas began enforcing a total abortion ban that includes penalties for people who assist with travel. Like the Texas abortion funds that stopped their operations in the wake of Dobbs, First Unitarian Church of Dallas paused to reconsider the magnitude of its legal risk.

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The group that organized and oversaw the trips—more than a dozen clergy members from various religions and denominations—has since resumed hosting trips of between five and 12 patients each week. Kanter said the program has “changed a lot” to protect participants from legal liability, though he declined to provide details. He now consults with clergy members around the country who want to export the Dallas­–Albuquerque model to their own regions. A possible partnership between congregations in Oklahoma, where abortion is banned, and Colorado, where it is legal, looks particularly promising.

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Two years ago, anticipating the imminent end of Roe, leaders of the National Council of Jewish Women began asking their peers what role the organization should play in the response to the coming crisis. The 215,000-member grassroots network has advocated for reproductive rights for more than a century, and some of its 55 local chapters volunteer with nearby clinics and abortion funds. The organization has also opposed recent abortion restrictions on religious grounds, arguing in lawsuits and amicus briefs that they violate the freedom to practice Judaism. (Jewish texts and teachings explicitly reject the idea that a fetus is a person, placing a greater value on the health and well-being of a pregnant person.)

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But over 150 hours of interviews, “one of the things we heard loud and clear is that people on the ground need access to money more than anything else,” said Sheila Katz, the council’s CEO. Originally, NCJW had set out to create a volunteer force to serve abortion clinics around the country. “But what we heard over and over and over again is: This takes expertise. And the people with that expertise need money.”

A crowd of protestors marching, holding pro-choice banners and signs
Sheila Katz (second from left, holding the banner) marches with Rev. William Barber, Tarana Burke, and other progressive leaders at an abortion-rights event in July. National Council of Jewish Women
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NCJW’s biggest contribution to the immediate response to Dobbs is the newly established Jewish Fund for Abortion Access, which has raised $845,000 for the National Abortion Federation’s relief efforts. According to Katz, the money is going toward NAF’s current emergency needs, including a hotline that assigns case managers to callers who need abortions, funds for patient travel, and clinic fees for abortions.

NCJW set an initial fundraising timeline of six months to encourage donors to give immediately, but the fund may continue beyond that deadline. “It’s not a small thing for a nonprofit organization to be fundraising for another organization,” Katz said. “And it wasn’t one that was taken lightly.” But ultimately, the NCJW board of directors voted unanimously to do just that, rather than embark on a service project that might “make us feel the best.”

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For good reason, abortion-rights advocates have been wary of bringing faith into the discourse of reproduction. (See, for example, the common protest slogan “Keep your religion out of my uterus,” and its catchier counterpart, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.”) To some, the Christian right has so completely monopolized the marketplace of abortion theology that any attempt to bring religious teachings to bear on a medical procedure is suspect.

But pro-choice faith leaders say there is little hope of reversing the punitive wave of abortion bans in the U.S. without addressing the conditions that produced them. Engaging with religious teachings on abortion will be “one of the most important factors” in beating back the prevailing—and false—belief that faithful people oppose abortion rights, said Rev. Rob Keithan, minister of social justice at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. “The religious right has very strategically used and misused religion as a political tool” while a vacuum opened on the left: Secular abortion-rights groups shied away from religion and progressive religious groups shied away from abortion, leaving the right’s self-professed spiritual authority unchallenged.

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Now, Keithan and his peers see their mission as twofold: to make it known that practicing a religion need not mean opposing abortion, and to give people of faith a path to understanding reproductive freedom as a moral good, even a sacred blessing.

“The right has been so effective—in seminaries, in congregations, in sort of parachurch ministries,” said Angela Tyler-Williams, co-director of SACReD, the hub for faith groups that support abortion access. “We need to be in seminaries. We need to be in college groups. We need to be in synagogues. We need to be in Sunday school classes. We need to be in the media.
We need to be in TV. We need a full cultural immersion to challenge this idea, and to recognize what our lanes are.” (One of Tyler-Williams’ lanes is TikTok.)

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Tyler-Williams is sympathetic to the notion that rosaries should keep clear of ovaries, in that the state should not impose a single religious interpretation of pregnancy on everyone, regardless of their individual beliefs. But in the U.S., any political discussion of abortion is already laden with religion, and Tyler-Williams feels called by God to participate.

In her sense of purpose, Tyler-Williams identifies with a tale from the Book of Esther, the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim. Esther, the secretly Jewish wife of a Persian king, is urged by a relative, Mordecai, to help stop a royal plot to massacre Jews.

“And he says, ‘Perhaps you were made for such a time as this.’ That verse keeps coming up for us in our work at SACReD, for me personally and for our whole team,” Tyler-Williams said. “We have been working on this for two years. We had no idea that it would come to this point, and that Roe would be overturned at this very moment. But we’ve just been showing up, day in and day out, to prepare for this moment, and to be ready for the influx of people of faith around this country who are ready to take action.”

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