‘I had to stand up and say no’: Pro-choice Christians battle Texas law

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Julianna Massa, a staff member with the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, fills out care bags on Oct. 4, 2021, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The bags contain food, toiletries, prayers, and information for women traveling from out of town to explore abortion options.

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The Rev. Gayle Evers grew up in a “super conservative” family. The co-pastor of Journey Imperfect Faith Community in Austin says she has wrestled with reproductive rights for a long time.

That is, until September, when Texas implemented the strictest abortion law the country has seen since Roe v. Wade established abortion as a constitutional right almost 50 years ago.

Why We Wrote This

Abortion is a complicated issue in many faith communities. One effect of Texas’ strict new abortion law, SB8, has been to spur people to wrestle more deeply with the topic – and to clarify their feelings around it.

“With SB8 I had to stand up and say no,” says Ms. Evers. “It absolutely shreds the fabric of trust in our society.” And “it not only judges delicate, complicated situations with an iron fist; it prejudges them.”

Faith featured prominently as state lawmakers advanced the law. “Our creator endowed us with the right to life,” said Republican Gov. Greg Abbott when he signed the law. But for some people of faith, it has inspired a newfound interest in, and activism around, reproductive rights – both in Texas and beyond.

“Faith is about how we love each other and help each other,” says Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, who has been helping Texas women obtain legal abortions in her state. “A law that turns family members against family members, or neighbors against neighbors ... that’s not faith.”

Growing up in a “super conservative” family in Tennessee didn’t lead the Rev. Gayle Evers to become a conservative pastor.

Now based in Austin, Texas, she is co-pastor of Journey Imperfect Faith Community, and a chaplain for a group that ministers to LGBTQ people of faith and their families. She has been active for LGBTQ rights for several years. Reproductive rights, however, are something she has wrestled with for a long time.

That is, until September, when Texas implemented the strictest abortion law the country has seen since Roe v. Wade established abortion as a constitutional right almost 50 years ago.

Why We Wrote This

Abortion is a complicated issue in many faith communities. One effect of Texas’ strict new abortion law, SB8, has been to spur people to wrestle more deeply with the topic – and to clarify their feelings around it.

“With SB8 I had to stand up and say no,” says Ms. Evers.

“It absolutely shreds the fabric of trust in our society,” she adds. And “it not only judges delicate, complicated situations with an iron fist; it prejudges them.”

The specifics of the law are well documented. SB8 bans any abortion after six weeks, before women often know they’re pregnant, but state officials are also banned from enforcing the law. Instead, private citizens, anywhere in the United States, have been deputized to bring suits against anyone, anywhere in the state, who “aids or abets” someone in getting an abortion. The law includes no exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

Faith featured prominently as state lawmakers advanced the law this spring. “Our creator endowed us with the right to life,” said Republican Gov. Greg Abbott when he signed the law in May. But for some people of faith, it has inspired a newfound interest in, and activism around, reproductive rights – both in Texas and beyond.

“Faith is about how we love each other and help each other,” says Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (NMRCRC). “A law that turns family members against family members, or neighbors against neighbors ... that’s not faith.”

“To us that’s the most egregious part of this, is that it uses faith as a way to harm and discriminate – which unfortunately is not new, but, you know, we don’t need to keep doing that,” she adds.

The effects of SB8

Amid a bevy of court challenges, SB8 has largely remained in effect since Sept. 1. A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared open to letting abortion providers challenge the law last week, when they heard a fast-tracked appeal. The high court could still overturn the constitutional right to abortion nationwide in a separate case it will hear next month. For now SB8 has had telling effects in Texas.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Planned Parenthood administration building, shown on Oct. 4, 2021, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Planned Parenthood clinics in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico saw a 132% increase in patients from Texas after SB8 took effect in September, compared with the month before.

The number of abortions in the state in September dropped by about 50% compared with September 2020, according to the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a group of university-based researchers. The average drive to an abortion clinic has increased from 17 miles to 247 miles, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates for reproductive rights.

At least 300 Texans traveled to Oklahoma in September seeking an abortion, “PBS NewsHour” reported. That same month, Planned Parenthood clinics in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico saw a 132% increase in patients from Texas compared with the month before, according to Planned Parenthood of the Rockies.

Texans as a whole are divided on the restriction itself. Forty-seven percent of Texas voters oppose banning abortions as early as six weeks, and 45% approve, according to a University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll. But 57% of voters oppose the law’s “bounty” provision, including 35% of Republicans.

In Albuquerque, the controversy has driven some people to get more involved with NMRCRC.

“I was kind of helping from afar,” says one volunteer who, for privacy reasons, asked to only be identified as Crystal.

She had been donating, and attending the occasional rally in Santa Fe, the state capital. “After the Texas law, I kind of figured volume would pick up and they’d need more people,” adds Crystal. “It’s kind of what brought me back.” 

Part of NMRCRC’s work includes logistical support for people traveling to Albuquerque from out of state to get an abortion. Crystal’s role is to be the driver. She takes people to and from the airport, to and from the clinic, and to and from where they’re staying. When they talk, she tries not to dig too much. But one passenger last month has stuck with her.

“All she wanted to do was get back home to her family,” says Crystal. The woman, from the Houston area, “was worried about somebody finding out,” Crystal adds. But “she just wanted to go home and get back to her life.”

With grown children herself, she found the story “heartbreaking.”

“I don’t know that I would be able to handle it that well,” says Crystal. “I think it would’ve been much harder for me.”

A complicated past and an uncertain future

The right to abortion faces an uncertain future around the country. Twelve states have passed “trigger” laws that would automatically ban abortion in the state if the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, which could be an outcome in the case it’s hearing next month, Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women Health.

Over the decades, Christianity – in particular white evangelical Christianity – has come to be viewed as synonymous with the anti-abortion movement. 

“Scripture tells us to rescue those who are being taken away to death,” said William Ascol at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, when introducing a resolution calling for the abolition of abortion.

But the reality, and the history, are more complicated. 

Abortion was legal under common law in the U.S. from the country’s founding until 1880, when the first restrictions were passed at the behest, not of the church, but of the medical establishment. For the first 100 years or so, women had until “quickening” – roughly 15 weeks, when they could feel a fetus moving – to decide whether to continue a pregnancy. Some legal scholars argue that originalists on the Supreme Court should take this history into account when deciding Dobbs later this year.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director at the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, at its office on Oct. 4, 2021, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The early abortion-rights movement favored moral and religious arguments more than its opponents. Indeed, in the 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions affirming that women should have access to abortion. Today, polling shows that a majority of most religious traditions in the country believe abortion should be illegal.

The Rev. Angela Williams, an ordained pastor and an outreach coordinator with the progressive Texas Freedom Network, has been working for five years with congregations to pierce “a conspiracy of silence around reproductive health issues,” as its website describes it. The work has been difficult. 

“Individuals may be ready to say, ‘I care about this [issue],’” she says. But it can be tough “as people work through the implications in [their] congregation.”

“It doesn’t feel as urgent until something like SB8 happens,” she adds. But now, congregations “are coming to us saying, ‘What can we do? How can we change this?’”

Abortion has long been a complicated issue in many faith communities. In some ways, another effect of SB8 has been to clarify feelings around what has long been an uncomfortable topic.

But seeking more clarity doesn’t mean disregarding how complicated the issue of abortion is for people of faith, says the Rev. Daniel Kanter, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas.

“To just ideologically say ‘abortion should be outlawed’ is to miss the complexity,” he says.

Mr. Kanter’s views on the issue are well known. He is one of the plaintiffs who sued in August to stop SB8 from going into effect, and part of his work involves counseling women who are considering getting an abortion.

“I would say you can’t be pro-life and go past the life you see in front of you: the woman,” he says.

But now, with SB8’s “bounty” system in effect, he isn’t sure he can even help them navigate that complexity, lest he also be sued.

“I haven’t been in a situation in which I’ve had to censor what I am able to talk about with a member of my congregation. But this is [now] the consideration,” he says.

For Ms. Evers in Austin, she believes she is on a similar journey as the one she made on LGBTQ rights, which she used to think were sinful. Then, in her 20s, she became friends with a colleague who was gay and who died after being diagnosed with AIDS.

For 30 years, she wrestled with the tension between what she knew to be true – “that these are good people” – and how it could be reconciled with what the Bible had taught her.

“I believed that being gay was not a sin; it was normal,” she adds. But “I needed to let my heart catch up with my mind.”

On abortion, she’s “still in that liminal space,” she continues. She plans to continue pondering it, and she plans to ponder it with members of the Journey Imperfect Faith Community in the coming months.

“My heart is behind my mind,” she says. “But I expect my heart will catch up.”

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