Among God’s faithful, a unified and triumphant cry rises up from the land. As the godly take their place in the pews, Bibles in hand, hearts in throats, there is bountiful rejoicing. Roe is defeated. Goodness has prevailed. The people of God have won for Him a great victory.
That narrative largely aligns with what Americans have been led to believe. It also happens to be false, the product of an effort by conservative white evangelicals to convince us all that an anti-abortion stance is synonymous with godliness, that Christians are united in their opposition to this sinful scourge on the nation.
The reality is that for as long as it has been a wedge issue in America, there has been a compelling Christian argument for abortion care, and Christian leaders who have worked to both advocate for it and help secure it for women inside and outside the flock. In 1967, more than five years before Roe, a group of pastors founded the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of Christian-faith leaders committed to helping women get both legal and illegal abortions from licensed professionals. By the time Roe passed, as many as half a million women had obtained a safe abortion thanks to the CCS, whose members claimed to be compelled by “higher laws and moral obligations transcending legal codes.” They used the Bible’s authority to argue for abortion care as not just a basic human right but a moral Christian imperative.
Then, of course, Roe was decided, eventually galvanizing an anti-abortion minority that had been building its own grassroots coalition for the past few decades and that could be drawn into the GOP on this issue alone. With the law on their side — and their hackles raised by the unsavory and baldly political tactics of their more conservative brethren — many pro-abortion-rights Protestants retreated. “As I was coming along in ministry they taught me not to be explicitly ‘Christian’ when I spoke out in the public square, because they didn’t want to, quote, ‘be like the Christian Right,’” says the Rev. Jennifer Butler, founder of Faith in Public Life. “They were embarrassed the Christian Right used their voice in the way that it did.”
What resulted was that more mainline Protestantism seemed to recuse itself from the abortion conversation, ceding the appearance of moral authority to the conservative minority. Yet according to a Pew survey published this past May, a majority of not just religious people but of Christians, specifically, support a woman’s right to abortion care in some, if not all, cases. Twenty percent of Black Protestants say abortion should be legal without exception; a full 77 percent of white evangelicals think it should be legal at least sometimes. Fifty-nine percent of Christians in the United States did not want Roe overturned. And as evidence for the notion that some people who malign the abortions of others may be far more lenient when facing the prospect of their own unwanted pregnancy, a 2014 Relationships in America survey found that while conservative women were much more likely to oppose abortion, they were only slightly less likely to have had one.
In fact, for many Christians, and especially in the lead-up to Friday’s landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, speaking up in support of abortion access has become increasingly important — not in spite of their faith, but because of it. “It’s not just that many Christians aren’t out celebrating today; it’s that many Christians across the country are out protesting,” says Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, author of Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity, who spoke to me on Friday after returning from a protest in front of the Supreme Court, where he’d been joined by other faith leaders. “There’s a consistent outrage from Christians about the decision, in addition to the much more widely-known and talked about praise for the decision. People have fought for reproductive justice because of their Christian faith throughout history, and that will continue now.”
And it will continue because for many Christians, fighting for bodily autonomy is actually biblical, an extension of the belief that we are made in the image of God, that our bodies are holy, and that the government should not intervene in that holiness. It’s biblical because it grants people the free will that God has endowed them with, because it supports the sanctity and dignity of life across the spectrum and the call to live life abundantly. And, crucially, it’s biblical because reproductive justice aligns with the teachings of Jesus. “I see Jesus as one who continually meets folks who are at the margins of society and listens to them and amplifies their voices and welcomes them where they have not received welcome in a really long time, if ever,” says the Rev. Lauren Jones Mayfield, the chairperson of Planned Parenthood’s national Clergy Advocacy Board. “When we are on the side of the marginalized, I think that we are with the patients who are walking into the health centers rather than protesting on the sidewalks outside of them.”
What’s more, abortion access is biblical because it’s actually in the bible. While Jesus never mentions abortion or opines on when life begins, other parts of the bible do, equating life with breath and even offering instructions on how to perform the procedure. For those who would use other verses — and there are always other verses — to equate abortion with murder or argue that bodily autonomy also pertains to an embryo or fetus, pro-abortion Christians counsel against the far right’s certitude of its own righteousness in this matter. The frequent conservative rejoinder “thou shalt not kill” is improperly applied here, says the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, a senior minister at Collegiate Church, the oldest continuous Protestant church in America. As she points out, the Old Testament, which includes that commandment, also includes plenty of other laws that baldly conflict with it and that have been the subject of earnest Jewish debate throughout the centuries. “‘If the far-right Christian-ish people want to debate ‘thou shalt not kill,’ get a rabbi, not your far-right pastor, but a rabbi to come talk to your church and speak about what those texts mean and what Jewish people think about abortions,” she says. “That same Jewish code, those same Jewish laws, also had provisions for when you must have an abortion.”
Which is why, for many pro-abortion Christians, access to abortion care is actually a matter of — wait for it — religious liberty. It’s about allowing not only for the religious difference of people of other faiths or no faith at all, but also allowing for other interpretations of Christianity. “Really, they’re trampling on my religious liberty when they enforce their way of looking at things on me legislatively,” says Butler. “That’s not the purpose of religious liberty. It’s to grant people the freedom to make moral decisions,” even — or perhaps especially — if those decisions arrive at different outcomes. For Butler and others, allowing a religious minority to dictate public policy leads to exactly the sort of coercion and force the founders were attempting to escape and that Jesus frequently denounced. Making way for other interpretations should be a foundational principle not just of democracy but also of faith — otherwise, it isn’t faith at all; it’s just stale indoctrination.
People of color have been fighting that stale indoctrination for years, fortifying a faith that respects women’s bodily autonomy. “There are communities and churches of color that have been connected to this work from the beginning,” says Mayfield, whose home state of Kentucky was one of three that had a trigger law in effect banning abortion immediately the moment Roe was overturned. “The white, progressive church is coming to this conversation a little bit late, but at least we’re here for the conversation now, and we do well to follow the movement of people of color and pastors of color who have been trying to galvanize on the issue of abortion since the religious right started to take over.”
For many pro-abortion Christians, the issue boils down to an authentic pursuit of the life of Christ, one that they see as meeting people where they are and trusting them to make decisions faithfully. “I think Jesus would be like, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing in my name? Why are you oppressing the women in my name?’” says Lewis. “Listen to the guy who was an outsider, who was a homeless person, who was a refugee, who was poor, who God chose — let’s just be honest — to come in that marginal place to heal the world.” She pauses, letting that thought resonate. “What would Jesus do? What would he do, really?”