After an abortion law took effect in Texas last fall that allows private citizens to sue someone who performs an abortion or helps someone obtain one after six weeks of pregnancy, Rabbi Mara Nathan, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, knew she wanted to address it in a sermon.
“It definitely felt like a risky sermon to give,” she said, “but I felt like I really didn’t have a choice.”
In the sermon, which she titled “The Right to Choose is a Jewish Value,” Nathan took aim at the law, known as S.B. 8, and outlined how, as she put it, “Judaism has always been pro-choice.”
Various streams of Judaism interpret Jewish law differently. Reform Judaism, of which Nathan is an adherent, supports abortion rights.
In response to her sermon, Nathan received a standing ovation, she said, along with angry reactions from “a few people who were upset” that she addressed abortion access from the pulpit. But Nathan saw speaking up as part of her rabbinical responsibility, she said.
“I do think that religious leaders have a unique role to play in getting the word out,” she said, “and for getting people to understand that not all religious leaders are against a [person’s] right to choose.”
Now, in the wake of the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion that threatens to roll back constitutional protection of the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade, Nathan is one of many faith leaders across the country gearing up to speak out about abortion rights.
More than a half-dozen major religions and denominations support abortion rights with few or some limits — Conservative and Reform Judaism, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Church and the United Church of Christ, among others — but many leaders of those faiths and religion experts say their positions are often not well-known.
Some faith leaders who support abortion rights said that compels them to disrupt the notion that abortion is inherently antithetical to religious values.
“‘Faith’ just sort of gets conflated when we’re really talking about [the positions of] white conservative evangelicals and Catholics,” said the Rev. Katey Zeh, the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national interfaith organization.
“There’s theological diversity within and among faith traditions — there is no singular point of view” on abortion, she added.
Concept of reproductive justice
Some faiths have openly supported abortion access for decades and grounded their positions in the reproductive justice framework developed by a group of Black feminists in 1994, defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
Unitarian Universalists have the highest level of support for abortion rights among denominations, with 90 percent saying abortion should be legal, according to Pew Research. The Unitarian Universalist Association, its central organization, passed a resolution in 1987 affirming “the right to choose contraception and abortion as a legitimate expression of our constitutional rights.” In 2015, it issued a “Statement of Conscience,” outlining its support for the reproductive justice framework.
The United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, has released statements and passed resolutions supporting abortion rights since the 1970s. It “has supported reproductive justice issues since the 1960s,” according to its website, when some of its clergy members joined rabbis, Protestant ministers and dissident Catholic nuns and priests to form the Clergy Consultation Service.
The network of over 2,000 faith leaders helped more than 250,000 women obtain abortions from 1967 to 1973, according to Gillian Frank, a historian of gender and sexuality who is writing a book about the Clergy Consultation Service. According to Pew, 72 percent of adults in the United Church of Christ believe abortion should be legal.
By introducing the concept of reproductive justice, Black feminists “reframed [abortion] within the broader context of a whole lot of moral issues related to reproduction and women’s bodies and sexuality,” including raising children and dealing with domestic violence, according to the Rev. Rebecca Todd Peters, a professor of religious studies at Elon University in North Carolina and the author of “Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice.”
Nathan said support for abortion is found in Jewish holy texts, and in her sermon last fall, she quoted a passage from the Talmud, the main source of Jewish law and theology, that she said establishes the right to terminate a pregnancy if it is endangering a pregnant person’s life. She mentioned how the Torah, the Mishnah and other rabbinic texts “consider the woman’s physical and emotional health before that of the fetus,” she said in the sermon.
Those choices were intentional, Nathan said: “For me, if I’m going to speak about this, it needs to be grounded in Jewish tradition. … I need to say, ‘You need to look at these ancient Jewish texts and understand that our tradition says this, and then I want to connect it to our own lives.’”
Other faith leaders have similarly sought to demonstrate how their religious values undergird their support for abortion rights.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, helped create Rabbis for Repro, an initiative that launched in 2020 and has led more than 1,600 rabbis, including Nathan, to pledge to use their roles to “speak about reproductive rights.” Born out of what Ruttenberg calls a “Jewish education gap” on the topic, the group also provides resources to help rabbis talk about abortion access through a Jewish lens.
Ruttenberg said that framing is crucial to helping Jewish people understand that “we support abortion justice not despite our religious values but because of them.”
The Rev. Angela Williams, a pastor ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has supported abortion rights since 1970, is the lead organizer of the Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity, or SACReD, an initiative that trains interfaith leaders in how to support reproductive justice through their congregations.
She said members have a responsibility to “walk with folks throughout all of their reproductive decisions, so we can see times where it’s an easy decision, and someone says, ‘I’m not going to be pregnant right now,’ … and walk with folks who struggle with infertility and miscarriages and deal with the grief of that.”
Zeh, of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said she feels compelled to provide “space for people to talk about their experiences” with reproductive decisions and to offer spiritual guidance on the issue, particularly in the weeks and months to come.
“When I think about my role as a leader in this moment, it’s really about continuing to center the people most impacted,” she said.
‘I’m an ally, I’m a safe space’
While some faith leaders say the principles of their faiths support abortion rights, anti-abortion rights activists argue that their religious values uphold their position.
According to Frank, the historian, that tradition can be traced to the Comstock Laws, the first of which passed in 1873 and made it illegal to distribute information about birth control and abortion. The laws, propagated by Anthony Comstock, who served was the U.S. postal inspector and secretary of the New York Society for Suppression of Vice, originated out of “aggressive Protestantism,” said Frank, who co-hosts the “Sexing History” podcast about the history of sexuality and its relevance to contemporary life.
Nathan said she plans to write about the threat to Roe v. Wade in her temple’s email newsletter this week. But she is also planning for what may be ahead.
“My guess is this is going to happen, and I’ll give another sermon about it,” she said. “What’s important to me is people know I’m an ally, I’m a safe space, and I’m going to do whatever I can to help people.”