Sunday, January 11, 2015

Faith in Action by Jen Raffensperger

When I was a young girl, maybe seven or eight, my mother took me to the Right to Life march a couple of times. This annual demonstration is held by self-proclaimed pro-life activists on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, January 22. It is a huge march that fills up much of the National Mall.

Reflecting back now, it doesn’t seem much like her style, but I believe that my Mother was attending this event with one of the women’s groups at our Catholic church. I also believe she made the decision to bring me along, more as an educational outing than anything directly political. My parents were never very politically active, and I of course was far too young to have any real grasp of the political or personal issues involved.

It was definitely a good educational experience. Growing up in the DC area affords a unique opportunity to see many parts of the democratic process in action, and large (mostly) peaceable assembly is decidedly an important part of our American heritage. We only went a few times, as it frustrated my Mother to see the news coverage only giving time to the “lunatic fringe” as she and my father called them. Still, it made a definite impression on me. So many people! It was usually very cold, and we would carry a Thermos of cocoa, and some sandwiches and granola bars. I learned that I hated Porta-Johns and that my fingers got very cold carrying around signs. I much preferred to hold a cup of warm cocoa. I liked stickers and pins and the marches afforded ample opportunity to pick up plenty of both.

My understanding of what we were doing, of what the issues were, was simplistic and shaky at best. I saw all the big pictures of dead babies and thought, “Well of course THAT’S no good!” My best understanding of “pro-choice” was probably “a choice between piles of dead babies or NO piles of dead babies,” which was to my 8-year-old self something of a no-brainer. I was solidly on the side of no piles of dead babies. Just like every time I went to the National Zoo, I would go look at the playful seals, and then I would look at the disturbing pictures of dead seals with their stomachs cut open to show the coins inside. The pictures were there as a visceral – and, one supposes, effective – reminder not to throw coins into the seal habitat. To me, at age eight, being against piles of dead babies was exactly the same as being against cut up dead seals with coins in their stomachs.

Eventually, I grew up. I learned about the issues involved in the Roe v. Wade case. I learned there was a lot more going on than could actually be assessed in the oversimplified sign-carrying and shouting that was happening on both sides of the Right to Life march. And in time I became pro-choice. I learned about how my body worked as a growing woman, and what being pregnant meant, and could mean, and how it could impact the rest of my life.

Still, I did not (and do not) resent my mother for taking me to those marches. It was educational and interesting. It was important to her as a woman of faith. It was easy to see, both as a girl and as a growing woman, how faith came in on the Right-to-Life-marchers’ side.

Learning how faith came to bear on the other side took much more time and questioning on my part. As many young Catholics do, I spotted something that bothered me. Specifically, the church’s restrictions on birth control made very little sense to me. If abortion is a bad thing, I thought, shouldn’t we do everything we can to avoid needing to have them? It was quite simple as a preadolescent to say, haughtily, “Well just don’t have so much sex!” (I will hasten to add that for most of my preadolescence I barely understood what that even meant.) It was even relatively simple to utter that same haughty statement as an overly-hormonal adolescent who was so hamstrung by the idea of talking to a boy she had a crush on that she never expected sex to be a thing she, personally, would have to deal with.

Many other questions and struggles compounded, I continued to grow, and eventually, I left the Catholic faith. I spent time with no sense of faith at all, a time I ultimately came to see as damaging.

When I joined the Unitarian Universalist church, my sense of faith and my relationship with God had changed a great deal since the days when I’d gone to those marches. I had been pro-choice for a long time. And I still had never thought of that particular political leaning from a faithful perspective. My sense of the idea of “liberal religion” was very new.

In the fall of 2013, my congregation had a service on Reproductive Justice. It was my first real exposure to that term, which arose out of a conscientious movement put forth by women of color, to raise awareness of the way inequalities regarding reproductive health and choice have deep and broad effects on many aspects of life. The best short definition I have heard for Reproductive Justice is “The right to have the number of children that you want when you want, the right not to have children if you so choose, and the right to raise your children in a healthy, safe environment.” I wrote a blog post on reproductive privilege as my eyes were opened to that concept in a powerful, personal way. I learned that the Unitarian Universalist Association has a strong moral position on the importance of reproductive justice for the health and well-being of all women and men. Reproductive justice aligns strongly with Unitarian Universalism’s first, second, and sixth guiding principles. The First Principle respects and holds sacred “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The Second Principle respects and holds sacred “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” And the Sixth Principle respects and holds sacred “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” It is as right and sacred, I realized, to respect the lives of those faced with pregnancy, and how their lives will be forever altered by that state no matter what their decision.

I was humbled, and shocked, to realize how long I had been pro-choice without necessarily thinking of it as a right and moral choice. How long I had left that part out, because of the way my ideas were still colored by experiences from my youth. To realize I could stand up, raise my own voice as a woman of faith on the side of conscientious family planning and reproductive health for all.

From the perspective of recognizing my own privilege it was not much of a leap to arrive at a sense of my own responsibility. That is why in late March of 2014, I took a day off work and went into DC accompanied by several amazing women from my church to exercise our own right to peaceably assemble. We attended a faith rally at a Lutheran church and a demonstration at the steps of the Supreme Court to take a stand on the side of a full range of coverage for safe, legal contraception.

I had a number of conversations that day with people on both sides of the issue. All were civil, and all were thoughtful. I do not mean to impugn the faith of others and especially not their right to take peaceful action as their conscience dictates. I was pleased to be afforded the same respect interpersonally. But most important of all I was blessed (and, yes, privileged!) to be able to stand up as a woman of faith and be counted.

By Jen Raffensperger, a selection from the upcoming Girl God Anthology,
Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak.

Celeste Gurevich, Whatever Works Contributor

 Whatever Works is a unique collection of writing by feminists of diverse faiths from around the world. This anthology combines personal essays, poems and academic musings with the goal of sparking conversations among women of all faith backgrounds. Religion plays a key role in defining and maintaining value systems, and yet it is often disregarded within feminism itself. This book shares the stories of highly diverse women with the hope that we can find collective solutions to the global problems that plague women and girls living under patriarchy.
Available late March - pre-order here.

Jen Raffensperger has been writing since she could, talking since she could, and seeking since she was old enough to ask questions. She is actively engaged in her Unitarian Universalist congregation, still writing, still talking, still seeking. Her writing can be found at her blog,

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