Pro-life movement shedding religious language as pro-choice activists invoke spirituality

In the post-Roe era, anti-abortion groups are moving away from a strictly religious perspective while religious pro-choice activists are taking a more positive and affirming stance towards abortion than previously, according to two reports. In the online magazine, The Conversation (November 7), political scientist Anne Whitesell of Miami University argues that while anti-abortion groups may continue to “reference religion, and specifically Christianity, in their arguments against abortion…these activists also recognize that framing abortion as a human rights issue may appeal to a broader audience.” While a segment of anti-abortion groups have long appealed to natural law and medical evidence in making their case, Whitesell sees even those groups that have cited religious justifications, such as evangelicals, shifting to a more secular approach. Part of the reason for this, she notes, is that the U.S. today is less Christian and even religious than just a decade ago. Whitesell interviewed 45 anti-abortion activists across the country and collected Facebook data from approximately 193 organizations. She reports that these activists acknowledge public perceptions of their movement as anti-woman and driven by conservative Christians, and that they have been trying to articulate more pro-woman messages to counter these views. The majority of the anti-abortion activists she interviewed said that they kept their religious beliefs separate from their activism.

Source: Anna Levinzon| Flickr.

In her analysis of these pro-life groups’ Facebook posts on abortion, Whitesell found that only 11 percent of the posts made explicit religious references, ranging from Bible verses to prayer requests. But there were some sharp differences between groups: while an organization like Texas Right to Life had references to religion in 50 percent of its posts, Ohio Right to Life had them in only 8.7 percent. But even the more religious groups were found to frame abortion as a human rights issue, a strategy seen as more effective as state-based pro-choice laws and activism have been gaining ground. Meanwhile, in the conservative magazine First Things (December), Samira Kawash of Rutgers University looks at the way religious pro-choice activists have shifted from a pragmatic approach to abortion to one that is more spiritual and explicitly religious. Kawash writes that prior to the 2010s, there was a qualified support for abortion among mainline Protestant groups, often expressed in the slogan, “Safe, Legal, and Rare,” which was in line with the public’s moderate views on the issue.

But a new religiously framed advocacy of abortion that may have been less visible (though present) in previous years is now making the rounds, as seen in the activism of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Framing abortion as a positive moral good, these religious pro-choice activists will often cite theological and spiritual reasons and justifications for having an abortion, even seeing terminating a pregnancy as a “sacred right.” They build on the work of the 1960s pastor and activist Howard Moody, who was unusual back then in providing a liberation theology for abortion rights. This has translated to seeing abortion as a holy and moral act based on a divine gift and right, Kawash writes. Books like Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, by Rebecca Todd Peters, and A Complicated Choice, by Katey Zeh, hold up choice as a sacred value that overrides the issue of the unborn’s status or rights. The new religious pro-choice activism is also accompanied by a broader concern for “reproductive justice” that embraces “feminist, anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, and anti-colonial ideologies and activism,” Kawash adds. Theologians like Peters align “the ‘sacred’ and the ‘moral’ with a vision of radical female power and autonomy, which will be realized when the yoke of patriarchal oppression is cast off.”

(The Conversation,; First Things,