On the Dais

January 26, 2003
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

It's good to see so many of you here in church this morning, as I recognize that today is a semi-religious holiday for many Americans: Super Bowl Sunday. If you're football fans, I hope you have fun today. And I hope your team wins.

As some of you are aware, we had a service in this sanctuary on Tuesday night to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in this country. We hosted that service in partnership with the MA affiliate of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and it was one of four services happening in various locations around the state that night: congregations in Jamaica Plain, Worcester and Springfield hosted the other ones.

After so many years of speaking to the issue of reproductive choice, I find that I have said and published most of what I have to say, and that the only thing that doesn't get stale over the years is my passion for this issue and my anger that we have made so little progress in this nation dealing with it on a moral level. Another thing I never tire of is hearing women's stories: their stories of grief and violation and loss and degradation suffered again and again, and made worse by the religious or civil laws against contraception and abortion, or by cultural conditioning to obedience and self-abnegation. In every single story there is also triumph, strength, humor, love, desire, and the expression of indomitable life force. If you do nothing else after today, ask the women in your life to tell you their stories. Ask a woman whose whole life you thought you already knew.

In 2000, I was asked to join the Clergy Advisory Committee of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights – not because I had risen through the ranks at the state or local level, but because I lived near Washington DC and someone knew me and recommended me to the clergy organizer, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis. I had never heard of the RCRC, and I found it an immense relief to know that there was a national organization of religious people and groups who were advocating for choice in America. For such a long time the religious right had co-opted the conversation, making it seem to the average American as though any faithful person would necessarily be vociferously anti-choice. I had not considered that is was not only possible, but urgent, to connect my commitment to choice with my religious faith. Part of my ministry to pro-choice Americans is to encourage them to do the same. I attended a protest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Baltimore one summer day, and an Episcopal priest remarked, "God bless the UUs. They always show up, even though they never seem to be able to explain why." He meant it affectionately, but I haven't forgotten his gentle criticism.

In a recent article, I wrote that "the religious right has laid out the terms of the discussion about reproductive rights: they insist that every pregnancy is a gift from God and should be welcomed and nurtured to term by the pregnant woman. In this scenario, there is no choice, only destiny. Motherhood is seen as a call that every sexually active heterosexual woman had better be prepared to answer. The conservative religious lobby has made it impossible for concerned citizens – religious or not – to discuss choice issues within any other framework" (Weinstein, RCRC newsletter, 2002).

We know why we show up. We show up because we respect each individual's right to privacy in the making of important life decisions. We show up because we believe that women are capable of moral discernment. I am proud to tell you that the UU General Assembly has made a collective statement to this effect as early as 1963. They did it again in 1968, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1987. Our delegates did not do this for fun. We, as a movement, have unconditionally reaffirmed a woman's right to reproductive freedoms so many times through the years because those rights are constantly threatened.

Of course we can see why reasonable people might prefer not to touch the choice issue with the proverbial ten-foot pole, and certainly not in the church or synagogue. It is uncomfortable, and even taboo in some places, to speak about messy physical realities. Words like sex, pregnancy, abortion – these are not easy to say in the house of worship. The human body, and particularly the female body, has been associated in so much of traditional religion with shame and sin. There is still a very tense silence around much of reproductive life, except for sanitized Victorian or Rennaisance images of madonna and child, cleaned up and made pretty for prime time.

So there is the long and unfortunate western practice of regarding churches as places where we speak only of spirit and soul, as if the body is not a spiritual, ensouled entity. There is the additional problem of somehow thinking that spirituality and religion shouldn't concern themselves with political struggles. Beyond those challenges, how do you address the subject of choice religiously when there are dangerous fanatics about, shooting and killing doctors and clinic workers, threatening to send anthrax-laced letters to Planned Parenthood? When President Bush made a commitment to fight terrorism in September of 2001, some Americans had reason to laugh bitterly. As of October 19, 2001 there have been forty-one bombings of family planning clinics, 165 acts of arson, seven murders of doctors or clinic workers, seventeen attempted murders, 948 acts of vandalism, 122 assaults, 343 death threats, three kidnappings, and 557 anthrax threats. (National Abortion Federation, Incidents of Violence and Disruption Against Abortion Providers in the US and Canada).

On a less violent front, hospital mergers have also eroded choice. Catholic hospitals form the nation's largest not-for-profit health care provider, with about 600 hospitals nationwide providing about 15% of the care. Catholic hospitals are forbidden to provide contraception of all kinds – even emergency contraception in the case of rape. Also forbidden: fertility treatments, voluntary sterilization, and AIDS prevention information. Referrals to facilities that do provide these services are often denied. (RCRC: "Hospital Mergers: The Hidden Crisis).

So if you are a woman living in a fairly rural area and the only hospital anywhere around you is a hypothetical St. Agnes's or Sacred Heart Hospital, not only are you not able to terminate even a life-threatening pregnancy, you might have to travel many miles to get reliable contraception. What if you can't take a day off from work to do so? What if you don't have day care for your kids? What if your husband refuses to use condoms, which isn't at all uncommon? What if you don't have a husband – what if you're 18 years old and living at home?

What if, what if? Women's lives cannot hinge on what ifs, and women's destinies cannot be decided by those who care nothing about them personally but who regard them in one homogeneous lump, as so many self-righteous policy-makers tend to do. It is a religious task to fight back when the dignity and moral freedoms of any are curtailed, when coercion and fear are considered acceptable policies towards women.

(As I said on Tuesday night, you can imagine the mass anarchy if the government informed all American men that if they were responsible for a pregnancy, they were legally bound to father that child and to provide for it emotionally and financially until it was old enough to support itself. It never surprised me to learn that many of the extreme anti-choice fanatics like Randall Terry of Operation Rescue owe thousands and thousands of dollars in child support for their own children. Where would these men be if no choice meant no choice also for men?)

I think of Shannon O'Brien's infamously botched moment at the gubernatorial debates when asked about a hypothetical pregnant 16-year old. When I testified to the Maryland legislature recently against a parental notification bill, it wasn't because I don't think that a pregnant minor shouldn't inform her parents if she plans to seek an abortion. I most absolutely do think so. In every instance where I have been asked for support by a young woman facing an unintended pregnancy, I have urged her to tell her parents, and have offered to be with her when she does.
It is a very different thing, however, when someone who knows and cares about a young woman encourages her to tell her parents she's pregnant, and when the government warns her that "she'd better, or else." The" or else" means a trip to a judge to obtain a judicial bypass, and for the young woman who is already upset, confused, very likely frightened, and possibly in harm's way if she tells her parents she's pregnant, a law making requiring her to go to a judge isn't likely to have good results. And so we're back to the knitting needle and the coat hanger, or well-meaning peers advising other ingenious ways to terminate a pregnancy. Then infection, possible sterilization, even death. It still happens.

When I spoke to the legislature I was wearing my clerical collar and I was angry. They spoke from the comfort of their big executive-looking chairs, some tipped back as they talked about "pregnant girls." The first thing out of my mouth was a correction. "If they're pregnant, they're not girls. They're women. They may be pregnant young women, but they're women." Suddenly no one's chair was tipped back anymore. I then spoke rather heatedly about how insulting it was, as a person who was in a caring relationship to many families, including teens, to be told by a bunch of lawmakers how to advise a young woman they would never personally know about, or care about. My point was that of course any caring and responsible adult would immediately recommend that a young woman go to her parents. Of course we would, unless to do so would somehow endanger her. And if she harmed herself rather than risk going to a judge to obtain a judicial bypass, I would hold each one of them personally responsible. "I know where you live!"

There are so many grey areas in advocating for choice that I get severely depressed about doing this work at least once a year. This is not something I can afford to say in a place more public than this, because those of us who work to keep abortion safe and legal aren't allowed to acknowledge any of our concerns. If we do, our very understandable struggles are exploited by the anti-choice contingent. There is so much shameful exploitation of the complexity of the issues by all sides. I have grossly oversimplified moral issues many times myself, knowing that I only have ten seconds or less to make my point to the television camera or into the reporter's tape recorder. That's so often how it goes in this work.

I would far rather be spending my time doing something constructive on behalf of comprehensive sexuality education and helping transform attitudes about sex and sexuality in this country so that unwanted pregnancies are an extreme rarity, and that rape is unheard of, and homophobia a distant bad memory. I would so much rather be advocating for better access to effective contraception than reminding politicians that unless they plan to provide emotional, financial and political support to mothers and children in this country, and unless they plan to put children ahead of corporations in their hierarchy of loyalties, we have every right to call them fascist hypocrites for interfering with women's private lives. I really would. I hope I live to see the day when less than fifty percent of all pregnancies are unplanned (right now the number is something like 54%. Unplanned, of course, doesn't always mean unwanted).

In 2001 I was invited, along with some other activists, state representatives and the governor, to speak on the anniversary of Roe V Wade at a rally in front of the statehouse in Maryland. That afternoon I sat down to prepare some encouraging, positive remarks. What I wound up bringing to the rally was a far more strident and aggressive statement than anything I would have chosen to say myself. If you believe in channeling, I swear this speech was channeled! I referred to President Bush as our "semi-elected" president. I called some people fetus-worshipers. I shouted into the night and a sizeable crowd of protesters roared with me. Just that day, Pres. Bush had re-imposed the gag rule on international family planning clinics that his father had mandated during his presidency.* We were all enraged. It occurred to me that night that I was alone on that make-shift dais, that I would make a very easy target. The governor and the lieutenant governor had gone inside already, their security men following them.
My friends and family always say to me before such occasions, "Be careful." I know what they mean, but I simply cannot be careful in that way.
I am full of care when it comes to this issue; in fact, I am care-worn. Each of us should know, if we haven't already considered it, what we would be willing to die for. If some idiot thinks that a gunshot will silence my message, I can only pity that person. I believe in the law of ten: for every one of us you kill, at least ten will rise to take our place. If I let fear silence me, the cost is too high. I want to be able to say I did everything I could.
Last year I was invited to speak again on January 22 in front of the State House. This time it was just me, Governor Parris Glenndenning and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend. It was cold and there were TV cameras.
I was a little less enraged this time, a little more appropriately wise and calm. There weren't that many people there, maybe 150, hardly any of them young women or men. There's so much else going on in the world, choice isn't really a fashionable cause any more. Pro-choice folks are pretty complacent, thinking things will never get so bad that we'll return to the days of back alley abortions. They couldn't be more wrong. My rhetoric may have gotten calmer, but the voice of the protesters has not, nor has their violence. The harassment, attacks and threats continue. Perhaps even more dangerous, their political clout is increasing all the time.

I got a piece of hate e-mail last year. A woman wrote to me that I was just a hateful lesbian who wanted to kill babies because I can't have any children of my own. What leaps of logic! Thanks for sharing. I did return her e-mail. I'm actually not hateful, I told her. And I'm not a lesbian, as if that makes any difference. And as far as I know, lesbians can have babies all they want (this is where that comprehensive sex ed stuff comes in so handy). I told her I had never tried to get pregnant, so I didn't know whether or not that I could or couldn't have children. And finally, I didn't want to kill babies at all. I wanted, in fact, for every baby to have a chance at a decent life. I thanked her for her letter and said that I was certain that she would never, ever have an abortion, and that was the most important thing she could possibly do as someone who was so strongly against it.

Why did I even bother responding to this misguided woman? Because my experience informs me that these are sometimes the women who later make an appointment for counseling because… they're pregnant and although they never, ever thought they would even consider it… for one reason or another, they are considering terminating the pregnancy. Would I have met with her if she had needed religious support in making her decision? Of course.

There is so much more to say, but that will have to do for now. I am more grateful than I can say for your support, as Unitarian Universalists and as a congregation, and for your willingness to care about this with me. We are all pro-life. Amen, choice on earth.

(* = in the heat of the moment on Sunday morning of January 26, I slipped and referred to George Bush's "pregnancy" rather than his "presidency." The choir was, as always, the first to catch the slip, and the uproarious laughter was wonderful.)