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The Impending Frightening “Right to Choose” Debate

January 6th, 2017

Richard Marker

Caveat Reader: This is another in a series of posts speaking to current political issues of import to funders. It is being published on the day after Congress has threatened to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.

My very first position after earning my first graduate degree was a part time chaplaincy role at Rutgers University. The year was 1968-69 – a year when political activism and cultural change converged and transformed much of the Western world. I was hardly exempt but nothing had prepared me for one incident that had a very real impact on my understanding of how public policy, private choice, and religious freedom are so intertwined. Years of advocacy for women’s reproductive rights followed.

Three undergraduate women whom I hadn’t met before came to see me. They were distraught because an acquaintance of theirs had died in a back-alley abortion. They came to me because I was a young new-style campus religious leader – I had and openly expressed political views, I spent most of my time in student gathering places and not in an office, and was developing an early [but curable] case of guru-itis. Yet other than being empathetic, I was ill equipped to know what to say, or even to have a well-articulated sense of the politics or of the relevant religious literature.

I was a quick study, and soon learned that the pressing issue for most women who found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, and who did not want to keep it to term, was where to terminate the pregnancy safely and confidentially. None of them were interested in theological niceties.

Remember that this was before Roe v Wade, and even before states such as New York had passed liberalized laws. I learned that there was a Clergy Consultation Service and I became trained by them to provide authentic and reliable information on choices, including for safe terminations for those who made that choice.

I also learned that early termination of pregnancies was not an issue that emerged because someone invented birth control in the sexual revolution of the 60’s. Religious responsa had been dealing with this question for centuries and that literature was far from uniform in how religious authorities responded. What was clear, though, for Judaism and Christianity these were always considered to be private decisions weighing at least two competing unwanted outcomes. Pastoral Theology in the Roman Catholic tradition would often allow that which doctrine wouldn’t, and Practical “halachah” in the Jewish Tradition tried to balance the recognition that a fetus matters even if the definition of full human life begins only at birth. The rich literature goes back over 2000 years and provides ample support for a variety of legal positions, including the right to choose. [I am happy to engage in further discussion about the religious traditions, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.]

What was clear was that American law, as it then stood, blocked the exercise of those religiously defined choices. These were supposed to be private situational choices, not public policies, and until the law allowed for them, full exercise of those choices was needlessly restricted. So, the basis for religious advocacy for changing the law was not because of a wanton leftist disregard of long religious tradition but an endorsement of it. [I hope that those who are so bent on reestablishing restrictions on reproductive rights in 2017 remember that fact.]

Eventually, the law did change – women had the rights to choose and have access to safe and relatively affordable full medical access. Much to the surprise of many, but less so for those of us who had been doing this counseling, as good contraceptive information became accessible and terminations safer, the numbers actually began to drop. More to the point, conversations switched from panicked “how do I do this and come out alive?” to “I really need some help knowing what is right for me.”

All of that, though, is getting to be a long time ago – in fact, 2 full generations ago for today’s teens and young adults. They don’t know the fear of not having safe choices. They don’t know contemporaries who have put their lives at risk when the choice to terminate is the only one a woman may elect. They do know, I hope, that there is always a lot of bluster from men who seem to think that they should be the ones to regulate personal behavior and restrict reproductive rights for women – even for contraception! I hope that they know that there are those working for a new Supreme Court that will find a basis for overturning Roe v Wade. And they must see that we are about to have national leadership who have advocated the most punitive and extreme anti-choice positions one can imagine.

Some of us remember an earlier era that saw real suffering and pain and loss. It would be unconscionable, immoral, and anti-religious freedom to go backwards.

There are many challenges facing us in the philanthropy world as we look at the new political leadership in the USA. We certainly don’t have unanimity about how to respond to those challenges. But I would hope that, no matter what your political leanings, you accept that the implications of withholding reproductive rights is in fact putting the lives of our daughters and granddaughters and sisters and spouses at risk. And don’t be naïve: it will impact every social group no matter the race, religion, national origin, economic status, and gender. And we in the philanthropy world would be naïve to ignore that much of the resulting societal burden will land directly in our laps.

Everyone should feel free to prefer that those dear to us make choices consistent with our own values. But safe, accessible, and affordable choices should remain legal for all. I am old enough to have seen the deadly results when those choices didn’t exist. Let us all hope that none of us ever see those days again.

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