Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Abortion-Rights Side Invokes God, Too

The New York Times
The Abortion-Rights Side Invokes God, Too

In any given week, if you walked into one of Washington's big corporate hotels early in the morning, you would find a community of the faithful, quite often conservative Christians, rallying the troops, offering solace and denouncing the opposition at a prayer breakfast.

So you might be forgiven for thinking that such a group was in attendance on Friday in a ballroom of the Washington Hilton. People wearing clerical collars and small crucifixes were wedged at tables laden with muffins, bowing their heads in prayer. Seminarians were welcomed. Scripture was cited. But the name of the sponsor cast everything in a new light: the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

To its critics, Planned Parenthood is the godless super-merchant of abortion. To its supporters, it is the dependably secular defender of abortion rights. But at this breakfast, God was everywhere, easily invoked by believers of various stripes.

"We are here this morning because, through our collective efforts, we are agents in bringing our fragile world ever closer to the promise of redemption," Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, told the audience. "As clergy from an array of denominations, we say yes to the call before us. Please join me in prayer: We praise you, God, ruler of time and space, for challenging us to bring healing and comfort to your world."

"Amen," the audience responded.

The Interfaith Prayer Breakfast has been part of Planned Parenthood's annual convention for four years. Most ministers and rabbis at the breakfast have known the group far longer.

Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that became Planned Parenthood, drew clergy members in the early 20th century by relating the suffering of women who endured successive pregnancies that ravaged their health and sought illegal abortions in their desperation, said the Rev. Thomas R. Davis of the United Church of Christ, in his book "Sacred Work, Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances."

In the 1930's, Jewish and mainline Protestant groups began to voice their support for birth control. In 1962, a Maryland clergy coalition successfully pressed the state to permit the disbursal of contraception. In the late 1960's, some 2,000 ministers and rabbis across the country banded together to give women information about abortion providers and to lobby for the repeal of anti-abortion laws.

"The clergy could open that door because the clergy had a certain moral authority," said Mr. Davis, who is chairman of Planned Parenthood's clergy advisory board but whose book is not sponsored by the group. "They balanced the moral authority of the critics."

As the scrape of silverware quieted at the breakfast, the Rev. W. Stewart MacColl told the audience how a Presbyterian church in Houston that he had led and several others had worked with Planned Parenthood to start a family planning center. Protesters visited his church. Yet his 900 parishioners drove through picket lines every week to attend services. One Sunday, he and his wife, Jane, took refreshments to the protesters out of respect for their understanding of faith, he said.

Mr. MacColl said a parishioner called him the next day to comment: "That's all very well for you to say, but you don't drive to church with a 4-year-old in the back seat of your car and have to try to explain to him when a woman holds up a picture of a dead baby and screams through the window, 'Your church believes in killing babies.' "

Mr. MacColl said of the abortion protester: "She would, I suspect, count herself a lover of life, a lover of the unborn, a lover of God. And yet she spoke in harshness, hatred and frightened a little child."

Mr. MacColl quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: " 'Sometimes the worst evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good.' "

The crowd murmured its assent.

Then Mr. MacColl challenged them. "The trouble is, I find myself reflected in that woman," he said. "Because I can get trapped in self-righteousness and paint those who oppose me in dark colors they do not deserve. Is that, at times, true of you, as well?"

This time, people were silent.

It is not lost on Mr. Davis how the passion of the Christian right in its effort to abolish abortion and curtail access to birth control now mirrors the efforts of clergy members 40 years ago to do the opposite.

"They're a religious tradition, too, and they are moved by Scripture," he said, although the Bible says nothing explicit about abortion. "When we understood the suffering in these kinds of situations that women were in, we understood that for reasons of justice, we had to act. We're doing it for theological and Biblical reasons."

A perception may exist that the denominations supporting abortion rights are outnumbered and out-shouted by their more conservative brethren. But that worried Mr. Davis little, he said, for he and other like-minded clergy members were in the minority in the 1960's, too.

Still, some clergy members could barely contain their outrage. "The more we are able to cultivate the capacity in every person — women and men — to make informed ethical judgments both in ourselves and our society, the more we are coming into relationship with the transcendent, with God," said the Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary.

"Human existence as a materialistic quest for power and dominance, a crass manipulation of fear and intolerance for political gain, drives us apart both from one another and from God," she said. "For what does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?"