Emergency Contraception: A Victory for Women and Religious Freedom

We don’t typically share press releases on the RCRC blog, but we’re making an exception because we’re so excited about today’s ruling by a Federal Court which requires that emergency contraception be made available over the counter.

The case, which has been going on for many years, was brought by our friends at the Center for Reproductive Rights. The ruling requires that emergency contraception be made available over the counter within 30 days. Reproductive justice calls us work to create an environment where all people have access to everything they need to make decisions about their reproductive and sexual lives according to their own conscience and faith. This ruling is a huge step forward in recognizing the moral agency of women and couples to decide whether and/or when to have children.

It’s about time.


April 4, 2013 — The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) applauds today’s Federal Court decision to increase access to emergency contraception. The ruling gives every woman and couple easier access to one more safe and effective birth control option. It also represents a clear—albeit long-delayed—triumph of science and public health over politics and moral policing.    

“This ruling is both a victory for women and a victory for religious freedom,” said RCRC Director of Public Policy Rev. Rob Keithan.  “The government’s role in reproductive healthcare should be to respect religious differences and protect access to options, not to impose one particular religious viewpoint and limit opportunities because of it. Every person should be able to make healthcare decisions according to their own beliefs and values.”

The ruling, from a case brought against the federal government by the Center for Reproductive Rights, improves access to safe, reliable contraception, which is an essential part of basic reproductive healthcare for women.

“Our commitment to reproductive justice calls us to ensure that a woman has access to  all the resources she needs to take care of herself and her family, including emergency contraception. RCRC views access to emergency contraception—and to contraception generally—as a moral imperative that benefits women, families, and society overall.” said Keithan.


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Ain’t I Woman? Yes, I Am.

Imageby Angela Ferrell-Zabala
Director of Field Operations, RCRC

It was a picture of Shirley Chisholm that started my obsession with old pictures of women of color. She doesn’t have the cheekbones of Lena Horne, but to me she is the absolute picture of beauty. Perhaps not by society’s typical standards, but she was unyielding courage and intelligence personified. Mostly she was life personified… LIFE! And for me, she was everything.

Like many women of color, who I am can be defined in many ways. There’s a little bit of Irish and Cherokee on my family tree several generations back, but for many years I presented solely to the world as a young black woman, a black face flattened by outside cultural norms and identities. My identity, however, is much richer than the simple fact of my skin color. Marriage has grafted Ukrainian, Puerto Rican and Japanese branches onto my family tree and my childhood blossomed with borsht, salsa music and sushi. It wasn’t until middle school that I started to address this cognitive dissonance and ask myself who I am as a woman – and a black woman – in this family made up of many cultures.

Kids will look for anything to tease you about. For me, it was the music I listened to and the way I spoke that offered me up for derision as not being black enough. So I questioned my blackness, something I would do for many years until I started to see the truer picture of who I am as a woman, and as a black woman.

It was those pictures of black women – strong, talented, beautiful, complicated women – that gave me a road map to owning my own history, and a shared history.

Joining Shirley are Eartha, Ella, Billie, Dinah, and dozens of starlets who didn’t make the big time. And there’s Angela Davis (to whom I owe my name), and Sojourner Truth, and Maya Angelou. There’s Cathay Williams, who was the first black woman to enlist in the U.S. Army; she served as a Buffalo soldier after the Civil War under the pseudonym William Cathay, presenting as a man in order to serve our country. There’s Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights activist, lawyer, judge and state senator who wrote the original complaint for the Brown v. Board of Education, and was the first black woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. And there’s Mary Church Terrell, who was one of the first black women to attain a college degree, and who worked on civil rights issues alongside Frederick Douglas, who was a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association, and a founder of the NAACP.

There are my aunts, grandmothers stretching back generations (including my maternal grandmother who raised eight boys and two girls on her own) and my mother – my beautiful, strong mother – all smiling back at me in pictures. All these women, from world famous to famous just to me, have taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: there is nothing about being a woman of color that makes me ‘less than.’ Nothing. Where I get my strength and my identity is not from a narrow definition of what others think, but from the strong women I come from.

In fact, all those influences – culinary and musical, literary and cultural, familial and spiritual – are good, rich, glittering gifts that only add to me. They shine on me, and through me. There is not one thing about those influences, coupled with my own unique experiences, that does anything but add to me. It’s a history that lays about my shoulders and enfolds me. The voices of those women – sometimes just one, often in concert – are in my head when I’m phone banking in Florida, or organizing in Mississippi, or on a conference call with activists in Ohio and Wisconsin. Those voices whisper wisdom to me as I parent my 11 y.o. twins with my wife, and as I continue to grow myself.

As we begin Black History Month, I have the words of Rumi in my head, “Maybe you are searching among branches for what only appears in the roots.”

I am grateful for the roots – the grounding – of all those women in my life… because they make the tree that I am.

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Choose Life

by Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton
RCRC Board Member

Choose life.

That’s a religious mandate for many people of many different expressions of faith.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of being clobbered by scripture.  I am sick unto death of having this particular piece of scripture used – by some folks – as a guilt trip when I explain to some that I work for reproductive justice.

“But, what about what scripture says?” they ask. You know, ‘Choose LIFE’?”

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to take back scripture from the misuse and abuse of people who choose to use it for their own purposes. So, what I’m about to offer are a few of my thoughts about “Choose Life” as I reflect on the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Choose life.  Choose what is good. Choose what is right. For you. For your life.

In a very short, two-words sentence, we are asked to cherish the two great gifts of the human enterprise: free will and the goodness of our creation.

“Choose life.” Not, “Let someone else make the choice for you.” Not, “This is what life is and when it begins and how I define it for you.”

No, the directive is simply, “Choose life.” We are invited to discover the wonder and mystery and complexity of that simple sentence the rest of our whole lives.

Choose what gives you life. What enhances your life. What contributes to your life. For, in so doing, we contribute to the well being of the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, the ability for an individual – especially women – to define and decide what is good for their life is being limited by the definitions and decisions of others.

We have been in this place before.  

In June of 1969, a 21-year-old Texas woman named Norma McCorvey found herself pregnant for the third time. She had left home at the age of 14 and had lost custody of her first child to her mother and had placed her second child for adoption. She was living in Louisiana with her father and working several low-paying jobs.

She grew despondent and depressed and desperate as she began to understand that she would be unemployable as a young mother with a child and no support. Moving back to Texas seemed the only option left open to her. At least there she could claim she had been raped and be allowed to have an abortion. At least, that’s what her friends told her.

Due to lack of documentation and evidence of rape, her scheme did not work. She tried to obtain an illegal abortion at several clinics she and her friends knew, but found that the police had closed them down. The only other option was to seek out non-medical, non-professional “back alley” abortion – a procedure performed by persons either lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal medical standards or both.

It is important to know that, according to a 2002 study by Planned Parenthood, estimates of the annual number of illegal abortions in the United states during the 1950s and 1960s range from 200,00 to 1.2 million. During that same period of time, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions.

Indeed, Leslie Reagan chronicles many of these stories in her book, “When Abortion Was A Crime.” Women often tried to induce abortion or cause a miscarriage by throwing themselves down stairs or inflicting violence on themselves. They ingested, douched with or inserted into themselves a chilling variety of chemicals and toxins – from bleach to potassium permanganate to turpentine to gunpowder and whiskey. Knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors and coat hangers were all tools used by women who had not choice but to resort to these means.

As Frederica Matthews-Green is quoted as saying, “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Every young woman, no matter her age, knew a story about a woman – a friend or a friend of the cousin of a distant relative – who had had an abortion. Rarely was the outcome good – which included either the death of the woman or her inability to conceive. Seeking to choose life for herself and her family, McCorvey did seek out legal assistance, turning to attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington. Ultimately, she gave birth to the child three years before the U.S. Supreme Court finally heard the case.

On January 22, 1973, Roe (AKA Norma McCorvey) v. Wade (AKA Henry Wade, Dallas County DA) became an historical, landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on the issue of abortion.  The Court ruled 7-2 that a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, but that right must be balanced against the state’s two legitimate interests in regulating abortions: protecting prenatal life and protecting women’s health.

In the midst of the tension of these two concerns, the country was plunged into the midst of a passionate national debate which has hardly abated over the last 40 years.

Meanwhile, Norma McCorvey went on with her life, choosing to live quietly and privately with her long-time life partner, Connie Gonzales. In 1995, she was befriended by evangelical minister Flip Benham and was baptized by him in August of that year. She also publicly announced her remorse for her involvement in Roe v. Wade and became an advocate of Operation Rescue’s campaign to make abortion illegal.

She changed her mind. She made another choice. I still shake my head whenever I hear people who are opposed to abortion defend the change of her choice, claim that it is “a woman’s prerogative” to change her mind. They say this without any evidence of an awareness of the irony of that statement.

Twenty-two years after Roe v. Wade, Norma McCorvey made a different choice about the life-altering choice of abortion.  She was able to make that choice because she was free – she had the civil and spiritual right – to make another choice. How ironic that her choice includes restricting the rights of others to Choose Life for themselves.

I confess that the logic of that position completely escapes me. When former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin discovered that the child she was carrying had Trisomy-21 – a condition formerly known as Down’s Syndrome – she reports that she briefly considered abortion, but then proudly states that she “chose life.”

Yes, she chose the life that was best for her, which included the choice to continue with her pregnancy. However, she and others like her seem not to understand that their choices do not include limiting the choices of other women to choose life for themselves in the way that is best defined for them.

Choose life. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do this work. We choose to do this work because we want to guarantee that a woman has a choice about what happens to her body. We choose to do this work because we want to guarantee that a woman has a choice about what happens to her family. We choose to do this work because we want to insure that a woman has a choice about her own future. We choose to do this work because we know that what we do is life-giving to millions of women in this country and around the world. Can somebody here give me an “amen?”

According to the World Health Organization, in countries where abortion remains unsafe it is the leading cause of maternal mortality, accounting for 78,000 of the 600,000 annual pregnancy-related deaths worldwide.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Instituted, approximately 219 women die worldwide each day from an unsafe abortion.  219. Women. Worldwide. Every. Day.

Six months after abortion was legalized in Guyana in 1995, admissions for septic and incomplete abortion dropped by 41%. One year after Romania legalized abortion in 1990, its abortion-related mortality fell from 142 to 47 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely abortions, thereby reducing the risk of complications. In 1970, one in four abortions in the United States took place after 13 weeks gestation. Today, according to the Guttmacher Institute, approximately 88-92% of all abortions in the US take place before the end of the first trimester.

To keep abortion safe and legal for women is to choose life. It is choosing life for women whose life choices are already limited by poverty, unemployment, substandard housing or homelessness, limited access to quality education and few quality health care options.

For those who would choose to reduce or limit the number of abortions, I ask that you consider this choice: Put down your placards and posters that carry grotesque images and dire scriptural judgments and warnings. Seek not to pass laws to make abortion illegal.

Choose instead to change the reasons women have abortions. Work to end poverty. Work to improve education. Work to create jobs. Work to improve health care. Make these choices and you will improve the choices women have and reduce the need for abortion.

Work to repeal the Hyde Amendment which prevents the very women who need it most – women who live in desperate poverty like Norma McCorvey once did and have no support much less resources for themselves and their families – from attaining reproductive justice.

Work to make real the acceptance of contraception as a normal part of a woman’s preventative health care. Can somebody PLEASE tell me why we are still having this conversation in the year 2013?

Work to dismantle the underlying oppressive, interlocking systems of racism and sexism and heterosexisms, so that – to paraphrase the great words of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose spirit continues to guide us and lead us in all matters of justice – a woman’s life may be judged, not by the color of her skin or the contents of her uterus, but on the content of her character.

Choose to understand that, long before a collection of cells grows into and is born and takes that first breath of life and becomes a person, the pregnant woman in whose body those cells gathered and grew was and is a living person whose dignity and free will and civil rights must be respected.

Her life, her intelligence, her integrity, her ability to make choices for herself and her family, her status as a citizen of these United States must be respected, and her freedoms must not be denied.

The choice is really simple: Choose life.

We choose life when we choose to walk together in Love – respecting the dignity of every human being.

We choose life when we choose to walk together in justice – insuring that the civil and spiritual and religious right of free will is protected and guaranteed for all.   

We choose life when we choose to walk together in action – moving ourselves out of our complacency and past our illusions of security.

Choose life, my sisters and brothers, that we may walk together as children of God.

And let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

(This post was originally delivered as a sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton as part of “Walking Together: Love, Justice, Action,” an interfaith service to welcome, thank and bless RCRC’s friends in Congress, the returning administration, and their staffs on January 20, 2013. It was previously posted on Rev. Kaeton’s own blog at http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/2013/01/choose-life.html.) 

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We Remember Roe by Taking Action

Tuesday, January 22, is the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case which established a legal right to abortion under certain conditions. While Roe has helped many individuals and couples make their own decisions about parenting, its limited scope means that far too many women—often, but not always, for economic reasons—still lack meaningful access to the full range of reproductive healthcare options.

One obstacle to care for women is the Hyde Amendment, which blocks any Federal funding for abortions. For many women, government-funded programs are the only access they have to health care in general, and reproductive care specifically. It’s time our government started to trust women again.

President Obama will soon send his yearly federal budget to Congress and he has a decision to make: he can withhold abortion coverage from women who get their insurance or health care through the Federal government, or he can lift the restrictions on coverage of abortion care. Here at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, we are commemorating Roe by joining other organizations in taking action as part of Trust Women Week.

Please act now! Ask President Obama to send a budget to Congress that ends the unnecessary and unfair restrictions on coverage of abortion care.

At the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, we believe that it is utterly unacceptable—and in fact immoral—for our national policies to single out a group of women for the sole purpose of denying access to reproductive healthcare. Instead, we believe that our lawmakers should be working to ensure that all people can make healthcare and other personal decisions according to their own conscience and values. It should not be the role of government to limit options, but to provide resources—especially for low-income women and other groups with limited options.

This is about compassion. This is about conscience. This is about justice.

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How Many More Like Savita?



by Rev. Harry Knox
President & CEO
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

Last week, millions of families around the world celebrated Diwali, the Festival of Lights, with firecrackers and the lighting of ceremonial lamps in the home. Like so many other holidays, it’s a time to spend with ones you love.

The family of Ireland’s Savita Halappanavar will be mourning her tragic death instead.

Late last month, Savita started to experience terrible pain and cramping in her 17th week of pregnancy. Although doctors determined immediately that she was miscarrying, they refused the abortion requested by her and her husband due to Irish law that forbids all abortions, even in cases where the life of the mother is at risk. After three days of unimaginable suffering, the doctors removed the then-dead fetus, but it was too late for Savita, who quickly died of severe blood poisoning.

Crystalizing her grief and the issue, her mother said,

“In an attempt to save a four-month-old foetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter. How is that fair you tell me?” Mrs. A. Mahadevi, Mrs. Halappanavar’s mother, told Indian TV…

“How many more cases will there be? The rules should be changed as per the requirement of Hindus. We are Hindus, not Christians,” she said. (Irish Examiner, November 15, 2012)”

Hindus generally don’t have a strong stance one way or another on a prohibition of abortion, instead saying that the decision should be made by the woman, with the best interests of the parties involved taken into account. While the Irish high court ruled that abortions in extreme cases are permissible, the nation’s constitution has a strict prohibition in all cases.

Heading into one of the loveliest holidays of the Hindu year, Savita’s family began by mourning the loss of a baby, and quickly moved to mourning the loss of their beautiful daughter, wife and sister.

Here at home, Roe v. Wade offers a legal guarantee that a woman can make the kind of decision that Savita and her husband had to make, but thanks to religious extremists, far too many women lack actual access to the care they need. Despite the powerful message sent to the far-right candidates who lost their races on Election Day, just this week anti-abortion zealots in the Michigan and Ohio state legislatures were advancing terrible bills designed to limit a woman’s healthcare options.

We’ve been having a lot of conversations in the office about the unique place that RCRC occupies in the reproductive justice movement – a place where we are able to spiritually contextualize and articulate the often complex decisions that a woman and her family face when an unexpected, unintended, or unwanted pregnancy occurs. We are able to offer appropriate guidance to clergy, laity and women searching for care that is grounded in deep spirituality and the belief in the moral agency of the woman making the decision. We offer comfort after decisions are made, confident that God – however the divine is manifested for her – still loves her.

Unfortunately, we sometimes have to offer solace to a mother who has to suffer needlessly the loss of the precious, beautiful light of her daughter.

While it breaks my heart, I’m grateful that we can be there in a situation like that. I have no doubt at all that it is God’s work we are doing.

I pray that someday very soon, we won’t have to lose another precious woman like Savita.

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Listening to Reproductive Justice

Imageby Rev. Harry Knox
President & CEO
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

Faith leaders who have responsibility for journeying with and counseling others will tell you that the yoke of leadership is not light. Listening to President Obama give his victory speech this past week, my pastor’s heart was called into service. I don’t always agree with the President, but I believe he is a man who understands like few people in the world the awesome responsibility of leadership – I see it in his eyes, and hear it in his voice. This is a man who “gets it;” who deeply, intimately understands the burden.

I was reminded of the President’s words during the campaign when he said of reproductive health, “This is not just a – a health issue, it’s an economic issue for women. It makes a difference.” President Obama understands that it’s impossible for most women to separate their health from their personal economics. I believe he knows that a woman’s access to an abortion – in short, her reproductive destiny – should not be contingent upon her economic status.

But while women were a huge voting bloc in an election where women’s health and abortion care were front and center – indeed, where those issues determined the outcome of several races – President Obama faces an uphill battle with a Congress that remains recalcitrant around reproductive justice. And that doesn’t take into account those in state legislatures around the country who are no doubt chomping at the bit to inundate us with measures that further restrict access to abortion care, contraception, and culturally competent and age-appropriate sex education.

In continuing rough economic waters, women across the country are counting on their new state health insurance exchanges or Medicaid insurance to help them with health care costs. Coverage for abortion care is no exception. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice will be working to ensure that all women have access to the health care they need, regardless of whether their insurance is public or private. Every woman—regardless of her economic status—should be able to make decisions according to her own conscience and religious beliefs. We will continue to call for more access, more education, and more resources for those in need, in keeping with the prophetic demand of our faith traditions to offer compassion and seek justice.  

In a pastoral role, we should listen more than we talk, and open a path for people to arrive at the decisions that are true for them. In essence, our role is to create an environment where individuals’ moral agency is bolstered and lifted up, not questioned and manipulated.

Pastoral care is not the job of the person in the Oval Office, nor that of any Member of Congress (as we are often painfully aware), but it’s also not their jobs to make it more difficult for women to make decisions about their own bodies, their health care, and the economic future of themselves and their families. It is their job to listen – especially now to an electorate that sent a clear message that reproductive health is an important decision point when voting.

Women spoke loudly with their votes in this election, and men who care about reproductive justice joined them. It’s time that Congress and the White House sit down and really listen.

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Open Letter from Florida Religious Leaders Against Amendment 6

The letter below, signed by over 100 clergy from across the state of Florida, makes a strong religious case for voting against Amendment 6, a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution that would restrict a woman’s access to healthcare. It was released publicly on Thursday, October 25. See the list of signatories at http://bit.ly/OpenLetter6Final. For more resources from Faith Voices Against Amendment 6, a collaboration of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Catholics for Choice, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Vote No on 6 Campaign, see http://votenoon6.com/faith

An Open Letter from Florida Religious Leaders to Florida Voters

Every Woman Deserves Compassion, Support, and Respect: 
Vote NO on Amendment 6

Dear Voters,

We, the undersigned religious leaders from all across the state of Florida, urge you to vote NO on Amendment 6 this coming Election Day.  Amendment 6 is an unnecessary and dangerous proposal that interferes with a woman’s ability to make important decisions about her own health.   We believe that the decision to end a pregnancy is best left to a woman in consultation with her doctor, her family, and through discernment of her own faith tradition and practices.

Sadly, sometimes a pregnancy can go tragically wrong. Some pregnancies result in serious fetal abnormalities, while others may place a woman’s health or future fertility in danger. When this happens, a woman and her family deserve all the medically available options.  Our religious values call us to offer compassion, support, and respect to a woman and her family in these trying times.

In the circumstances when a woman and her doctor make the decision to end a pregnancy, it is critically important that she have access to care that is safe and legal. Much to the contrary, Amendment 6 does not even include an exception to protect a woman’s health, which means that even a woman with cancer could be prevented from getting the healthcare she needs! By limiting or eliminating options, Amendment 6 represents a dangerous intrusion into the lives of women and families in Florida.

As religious leaders from diverse traditions across the state, we urge you to oppose this unnecessary and demeaning proposal. Our wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and friends deserve our compassion, support, and respect—not judgment and political interference.

Please vote NO on Amendment 6.

See the list of signatories at http://bit.ly/OpenLetter6Final.

For more resources from Faith Voices Against Amendment 6, a collaboration of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Catholics for Choice, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Vote No on 6 Campaign, see http://votenoon6.com/faith

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