How to Talk About Abortion in Church

Post Author: Katey Zeh

In January, New York State enacted the Reproductive Health Act, a law that protects the legality of abortion and a woman’s right to have one. There are lots of emotions surrounding the law and this piece helps us navigate these waters with our congregations.

Woman praying alone in churchAbortion. Does the word stir up emotions? Does it cause you unease, even anger? You’re not alone. Say “abortion” in a public setting, and undoubtedly the reaction will be strong and visceral. Say it in the pulpit? The idea is enough to make even the most prophetic among us quake and quiver.

Our discomfort with discussing abortion, privately or publicly, leads many of us to avoid the topic completely. On the issue of abortion we resort to silence in our sacred spaces. But the truth is abortion is a reality in our congregations. Regardless of our political leanings or personal beliefs, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime. Women of all races, economic backgrounds, political parties, and religious affiliations have abortions. That means there are people in our congregations who have had abortions. There are partners and family members of people who have had abortions. And there are those who will seek abortion care in the future.

Given this reality, what are we to say about abortion? How are we to respond to requests from congregants to “pray for the unborn?” What do we do when our colleagues are spreading misinformation on social media about legislation that regulates abortion? How do we speak with truth and compassion about serious and complex moral issues that are deeply personal, often politicized, and almost always hidden?

Focus on the personal and particular, not on the abstract and universal.

Begin by reflecting on an abortion story you know, whether it’s your own or someone who trusted you with theirs (and with permission to share it). If you don’t have a personal experience with abortion, read the stories of those who have brave enough to share their own publicly. I highly recommend that you read the story of my friend Rev. Susan Chorley who has spoken publicly about being a pastor who has had an abortion. Listen and read with a compassionate spirit and open heart. Acknowledge the emotions within the stories–and the feelings they stir within you.

Honor and name your moral ambivalence honestly and compassionately.

Many Christians I know identify as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Resist the false binary constructed by politically-divisive labels that drives a wedge between valuing life and valuing moral decision-making. Acknowledge the complexities and questions you have. Take ownership of them, and do not impose them on others.

At the same time, avoid language that contributes to stigma surrounding abortion.

Many Christians who support access to abortion will say things like, “Abortion is always a tragedy” or  “I would never have an abortion, but I support women who do.” No matter our intention, language like this does more harm than good. Acknowledge that abortion experiences differ from person to person, and refuse to play into false narratives such as “All women regret their abortions.” Most of them do not.

Reiterate that abortion is one among many reproductive experiences.

Instead of speaking about abortion in isolation, consider framing it within a larger message that is inclusive of the full-range of reproductive decisions and realities, losses and joys that a person may experience: infertility, pregnancy, miscarriage, adoption, decisions to parent or not, etc. Acknowledge that the loss of a pregnancy, no matter the cause, may be a source of grief or relief–or for some, both. Recognize that for some pregnancy, even when desired, can be a lonely and joyless time. Speak to the loneliness that often accompanies these and other reproductive experiences.

Remember the compassionate, love-filled ministry of Jesus.

While we have no stories in the New Testament about abortion, I often think of how Jesus responded when he was challenged on an issue of law. Instead of abstract debates, Jesus focused on the person in front of him in need of healing. When Jesus saw a man with a withered hand, Jesus healed him regardless of the laws of Sabbath. When a hemorrhaging woman touched his garment for healing, Jesus praised her faith regardless of the purity laws and codes she had broken. Jesus centered the one in need.

Rev. Harry Knox, a friend and colleague, would often say, “God loves women who have abortions.” Let’s ensure our churches are places that embody that sacred truth.

The Rev. Katey Zeh is a gender justice advocate and the author of a forthcoming book entitled Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution (FAR Press, May 2019). The Center for American Progress named Katey one of their top justice-seeking faith leaders to watch.

She has written for many outlets including the Huffington Post, Sojourners, and Religion Dispatches, and her advocacy work has been featured in theWashington Post, The Nation, Colorlines, and Feministing. She is also the co-host of the Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters.

Image by: Naassom Azevedo
Used with permission
2 replies
  1. Chris Kondrat says:

    Really well thought article. Full of compassion.As a Catholic I really struggle with this issue.I agree about listening to stories.
    I have always been concerned if abortion would be illegal, there would be many problems for those doing it anyway.
    But I also believe in the sanctity of life and sex within some type of committment willing to accept children if one becomes pregnant.
    Where I struggle is how to vote and what to advocate for. The blatant celebration in New York last week went beyond my comfort zone. I used to say that Although I could never have an abortion, I don’t want it made illegal. But after having a surprise 3rd child, the feelings I went through made me think about it for a short time. And I have a hard time saying it is totally a woman’s choice since a man is always involved.
    So it is very complex but your thoughts on the matter are the best I have ever seen.


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