Suzanne G. Roberts, MD, MPH, MDiv
Sermon for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, January 23, 2022
Sabbath for Reproductive Justice
Nehemiah 8:1-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21; Psalm 19
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
Good morning! This weekend marks the 49th anniversary of Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made it legal to undergo an abortion in the United States. In recognition of that historic case, I am going to do something that I have never done before: I am going to preach in favor of reproductive rights, which include the right to a safe and legal termination of pregnancy, and I am going to introduce many of you to the concept of Reproductive Justice. I realize that the topic of abortion has the potential to be controversial and even painful for some people, and I apologize in advance if what I am about to say causes you pain. I also recognize that reproductive rights are important to every woman, indeed to every family, and if we, as a church, do not address these vitally important topics then we have not fully cared for our families. For far too long preachers have been silent on the topic of reproductive rights, including the right to terminate a pregnancy, and our silence has been harmful to the people who bear the burden of bearing our children. For far too long clergy from Christian denominations that support reproductive rights have been silent, which has allowed the voices of people from denominations that oppose abortion to dominate the conversation. This gives the false impression that all people who consider themselves to be Christian are against abortion. In fact, the Episcopal Church has long been in support of a woman’s right to make informed decisions concerning her body. Our General Convention first passed a statement in 1967 which reads in part: the Episcopal Church maintains its “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions about the termination of pregnancy and to act upon them.” We reaffirmed this statement in the General Conventions of 1976, 1982, 1994, and 2018. Our affirmation is not new, but we have been too slow, perhaps out of fear of causing offence or controversy, to talk about this. Our silence has emboldened those who oppose a woman’s right to choose termination and it has wounded some women who have undergone abortions. We clergy need to say out loud and from the pulpit that the decision to terminate a pregnancy can in some instances be a moral and loving decision. People facing an unexpected or complicated pregnancy need to know that their church will respect and honor their decision to exercise their moral freedom to shape life at its beginning, just as we honor their decisions at the end of life. And so today I am saying this to you: “The decision to terminate a pregnancy can be a moral and loving decision for yourself and for your family. You should not be made to feel shame if you have had an abortion.”
The ability to bear children is a gift, an indescribable gift, but it is also a burden and a responsibility. Responsibly managing the burden of fertility, which lasts 35 to 40 years for the average women, can be very difficult. Approximately 45% of pregnancies in the United States are unexpected pregnancies, and one in four women in the United States will undergo an abortion at least once in her life. This means that there are women in this church this morning who have chosen at some point in their past to terminate a pregnancy. I personally spent about 8 or 9 of my “childbearing” years trying, sometimes desperately, to become pregnant; but I also spent about 35 years trying, just as desperately, to avoid pregnancy. In order to manage my fertility I took advantage of resources that were available to me: tools such as contraception, access to healthcare available to me because I had health insurance, access to safe and legal abortion services as part of my healthcare, and the support of my spouse. I was privileged to have those resources; I’ll admit that I have taken them for granted; unfortunately, many women do not have access to them. Some resources, especially the availability of safe and legal abortions, are becoming harder every year for many women to access.
This talk of unequal access to resources leads me to the topic of Reproductive Justice. I knew very little about reproductive justice before I started to prepare for this sermon. It is not a concept that can be easily explained in a single sermon, but in simple terms you can think of it as a combination of reproductive rights and social justice. Like advocates for social justice, people who work for reproductive justice understand that the root of the problem is unequal distribution of power, and that in order to bring about positive change we must fundamentally change our structures of power. Advocates for reproductive justice point out that talk of a woman’s “right to choose” to become or to continue a pregnancy means nothing if that woman has not had access to resources such as contraception, healthcare, and safe and legal abortions. Choosing to describe your stance on abortion rights as “pro-choice” ignores the fact that many women don’t actually have many realistic choices when they find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. Advocates of reproductive justice also recognize that it is unjust to ask or expect a woman to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term when we do not provide help with the resources that she will need to care for that child. These resources might include adequate maternity leave, access to affordable childcare, a job that pays a living wage, and paid sick leave to care for herself and her children. Authentic reproductive choice requires access to resources, and there will never be true and equitable access without justice. For women to truly have a choice all of us need to work together so that every woman lives in a community that strives for reproductive justice.
Most advocates of reproductive justice accept these 4 principles:
I have given you just an introduction to the concept of reproductive justice. I hope that you will spend more time learning about it and thinking about how you might incorporate its ideas into your beliefs about justice and the work that we need to do to promote justice for all families. *
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he visited Nazareth, his hometown, and he spoke in the synagogue where his family worshipped. Using the words of the prophet Isaiah he declared that he had come to bring justice to the poor, the captive, the sick and the oppressed. He knew that the work he was setting out to do was controversial and that it would threaten those people who held power, but he did it anyway. Bringing reproductive justice to the world will be controversial and it will be resisted by powerful people who benefit from the repression of women, but, like Jesus, we should not let fear prevent us from joining into the struggle.
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” AMEN
*For information about reproductive justice, I am indebted to “An Introduction to Reproductive Justice….and Faith”, an excerpt from “What is RJ?” by Rev. Rob Keithan. Found at http://www.sistersong.net