Unitarian Universalists have a strong tradition of social justice activism. But even so, the story of the abortion hotline established by the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, is inspiring. The minister – Rev. Kaaren Anderson – along with the “condom queens” who comprise the church’s Reproductive Rights Task Force, church members who are medical doctors and provide abortions, and dozens of other church members have begun an abortion hotline called Connect and Breathe that offers support without judgment. RCRC is honored to have had a part in this ambitious project – so needed in Rochester, where anti-choice sentiment is heated and can be vicious and hurtful.
Writer Kimberly French tells the fascinating story in the Spring 2011 issue of UUWorld at http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/175352.shtml). The whole article is well worth reading; here are some excerpts to give you a flavor (italicized text is from French’s article).
The church has a long history of support for reproductive rights, but this specific project began with a sermon by Rev. Anderson.
In fifteen years of parish ministry, she had never preached on her personal experience of abortion, “which is odd, if you know me, because I rarely shut up about much of anything,” she says. She had decided to talk about her abortion as an eighteen-year-old, a secret she had kept for much of her adulthood.
The larger message Anderson was preaching that day in September 2009 was the essence of her own theology, adapted from theologian Frederick Buechner: that we are called to find what breaks our hearts, then find where that heartbreak intersects with the needs of the world, and act on it.
It was time to tell her congregation what most broke her heart.
In 1984 – the summer before starting college – she became pregnant and, as neither she nor her boyfriend was financially or emotionally ready to have a child, she had an abortion. She was relieved to have the abortion and has never had regrets.
But she felt silenced, she says, and realized that she “spent years carrying around shame from that.”
“It breaks my heart that people are suffering because of something that has left them so stigmatized, feeling guilt, shame, and regret, when they could move on.”
Rev. Anderson’s September 2009 sermon helped launch Connect and Breathe, a free talk line for women after abortion, staffed by trained volunteers who will listen, affirm women’s own moral agency, and not judge them. This service is needed in Rochester:
You don’t have to look hard in Rochester to see this “post-abortion” approach at work. “Don’t kill your baby,” a long-haired woman in a heavy coat calls into a megaphone from the sidewalk outside a medical clinic that performs abortions. Activists from the Focus Pregnancy Help Center, two doors down, gather every afternoon with their signboards for “sidewalk ministry and counseling.
“You’ll die, too,” the woman yells. “You can’t have a happy life. Don’t be fooled by Rachael Phelps with her cute little curly blond hair. She’s a mass murderer. She hurts women. We pick up the pieces of what Rachael Phelps does.” Dr. Rachael Phelps, one of nine abortion providers in the Rochester area and a member of First Unitarian, walks this gauntlet every day. She says she’s used to it, but it upsets her when they attack her patients, many of whom are coming in for birth control or other services.
“The decision to have an abortion is always emotional,” Phelps says. “Most women do well after, but they do need to talk. Often people in their life would be supportive, but they don’t know, and they don’t want to take the risk.”
The church received a lot of help from friends. There is a volunteer executive director. Planned Parenthood offered space and its telecommunications system. Fundraisers were planned, grants written. Last fall 35 volunteers were trained, using a curriculum from Exhale. Through RCRC, the task force lined up Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist clergy to talk to callers who would like pastoral counseling. The hotline number was circulated online and through brochures distributed to abortion providers. In January, the hotline went live on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays.
The women most hurt by the stigma of abortion, Connect and Breathe organizers say, may be those who believe they are murdering a child but feel they have no other option, and often no one to talk to. Wanting to serve women of all beliefs, organizers are navigating a new path through the minefield of language about abortion, where meaning can implode depending on who’s using it: They say “after-abortion,” not “post-abortion”; they prefer “decision,” “alternative,” or “moral agency” to “choice.” They’re finding that younger women are rejecting the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” terms altogether, or may call themselves “pro-life” yet believe abortion should be an individual choice or say they would choose one themselves in certain circumstances.
Religious people who believe in reproductive rights need to reclaim the moral argument, Anderson says. “It matters for communities of faith to say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you if you have an abortion.’ We have values we hold just as strongly as the religious right, and if we talked about it in moral language, we could change the conversation. The moral certainty that individuals have the right of conscience over their own reproductive health—we have been offering that for decades.”
If you’re interested in liberal Christian perspectives on abortion, you may also want to read: Defending abortion from a liberal Christian perspective. Scotty McLennan (Winter 2009)