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CFFC in the News - 2004

chicago tribune

For Some Clergy, Legal Abortion is a Basic Right

Gail Schmoller Philbin

21 April 2004

Sister Donna Quinn, a Palos Hills resident, attended the last two and is flying to this one with four other nuns. Rev. Nan Conser, a retired United Church of Christ minister in Golf, never went before but is going with a group of 10 clergy and lay people. Rev. Larry Greenfield, an American Baptist minister who leads Hyde Park Union Church, couldn't make it last time, but said he wouldn't miss this one for anything.

What this trio of Chicago-area clergy is doing this weekend might surprise anyone who has followed the national abortion debate in the mainstream media, which has amply covered the anti-abortion views of conservative Christians in recent years.

Quinn, Conser and Greenfield will join what is expected to be hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., Sunday to demonstrate their support for women's reproductive freedom in the March for Women's Lives.

"I'm going because I literally think we're marching for our lives," Quinn said. "We need to be there to march with the women in this country. This one issue for women that is so basic. We have to be in control of our mind, spirit and body."

However, not all clergy will be there to support reproductive rights. The National Organization of Episcopalians for Life (NOEL) and Priests for Life, two members of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, will hold a counterdemonstration as part of their "Silent No More Awareness" campaign, according to Rev. Kirk van der Swaagh, council vice president.

"People will be there as a silent witness holding signs that say `I regret my abortion' and `I regret my lost fatherhood' as a way of giving voice to those who had an abortion, to share their great distress and pain," van der Swaagh said.

The daylong March for Women's Lives, which includes appearances by Julianne Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Franken and other high-profile supporters, is organized by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Feminist Majority, National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America, American Civil Liberties Union, Black Women's Health Imperative and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

The last March for Women's Lives took place in April 1992 as that year's presidential election campaign heated up. It attracted about 750,000 abortion rights supporters, according to Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal.

Campaign may spur attendance

This year, with another presidential election campaign unfolding and some seeing mounting threats to legalized abortion as a result of the recently passed Partial Birth Abortion Ban and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, organizers expect as many or more people to show up Sunday.

"The situation is worse now than it was 12 years ago," said Rev. Ignacio Castuera, a United Methodist Church minister in the Watts section of Los Angeles who is Planned Parenthood's first-ever chaplain. "Women's right to information and education and a wide range of sexual and reproductive health-care choices are being eroded."

"There are a number of clergy who recognize how important it is that we're there. This isn't just for lay folks. Something is at stake for clergy--their role as leaders, as representatives of our various traditions," said Greenfield, theologian-in-residence for Protestants for the Common Good, a group that relates faith to issues of social justice.

Catholics for a Free Choice, a lay organization formed in 1973, expects 200 of its members to participate in the March for Women's Lives, and the event has the support of many religious organizations, according to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an alliance of groups from major faiths that will hold a premarch worship service. They include the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, General Synod of the United Church of Christ, General Board of Church and Society of the UMC, Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of the UMC, Unitarian Universalist Association and official bodies of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism.

"The majority of religious people in the United States are in favor of women's choice, but you don't hear about it because of a successful campaign on the part of certain groups to make the American people believe that religious people wouldn't support the right to choose. In fact, the opposite is true," said Castuera, noting that an "underground railroad" of clergy helped women get abortions before the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade made them legal.

Despite Castuera's participation and that of two groups within the United Methodist Church, Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth, a UMC minister based in Morehead City, N.C., won't be attending with them. As president of Lifewatch, Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, he will observe it for his group's newsletter to offer an alternative to "sanitized" media accounts that overlook the "radical element that is seeing abortion as a good."

He could be talking about Daniel Maguire, an ex-Catholic priest and author of the 2001 "Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions" who hopes to attend the march. Maguire has said that abortion for the right reasons is "a holy choice, a sacred choice" because it lifts the oppression of people by restoring their right to choose.

Scholar sees misinformation

Maguire is on a three-year leave of absence from teaching ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee to combat what he sees as misinformation about how world religions view abortion and contraception. Through the Sacred Choices Initiative, a campaign of a group of international scholars called the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, he hopes to spread the word that all major religions have elements that have supported a woman's right to choose.

"There's a big lie out there--that religions are all anti-choice," Maguire said.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, cited media coverage focusing on "the opposition of the bishops to reproductive health measures" as part of the problem.

"We're dealing with the stereotype of Catholics as anti-choice and rigid on sexual and women's issues. The reality is so far away from that," she said.

Mary-Louise Kurey, Respect Life director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, begged to differ.

"They say they're representing all women, but the fact is, polls show that most women in the U.S. are pro-life," Kurey said. "From a traditional perspective, the church's position on the life issue is often misunderstood. It's truly one of compassion and love to say every human life is precious. The core of social justice work that the church does is believing in the dignity of the human person, being pro-life."

Kissling, who will be at the march, has a different take.

"Look at the situation of women's lives in the world," she said. "Seventy thousand women die in illegal abortions and countless are made infertile. Our commitment to health and poor women means we have to stand four-square for women to have access to safe, legal abortions from which they will not die or lose their health."

March and related events

Many groups have events planned for Saturday and Sunday in Washington D.C. A few are listed below. For more details, go to www.marchforwomen.org or www.rcrc.org.

SATURDAY

- Vatican Embassy Protest, 10 a.m.-noon.

Catholics for a Free Choice will hold a march to the Vatican Embassy, 3339 Massachussetts Ave. NW, in protest of the Roman Catholic Church's policies on women's reproductive rights. For more information, visit www.cath4choice.org.

- 24-Hour Prayer Vigil, 10 a.m., Capitol

Reflecting Pool area (between Pennsylvania and Maryland Avenues NW and First and Third Streets NW). Clergy and lay leaders will pray for the safety of health-care providers and travelers to the march and for elected officials to have wisdom and compassion for women.

This article originally appeared in the 21 April 2004 edition of the Chicago Tribune.