Jo Ann Dale of KRCRC Talks Faith and a Pro-Choice Attitude

Feminist Conversations is a regular series here at Feminists For Choice. Today we are talking to Jo Ann Dale, board member of the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (KRCRC) about the organization, faith, and a pro-choice attitude.

Tell our readers a little bit about Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (KRCRC).

KRCRC, in existence for three decades, is an affiliate of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The backbone of RCRC was a network of religious leaders who had been quietly helping women locate abortion services in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They formed RCRC following decriminalization (Roe v. Wade) because they believed it would take several years for the right to become firmly established. As time went on, RCRC broadened from a specific focus on the legal right to abortion to address larger matters of reproductive justice, including contraception and structural impediments to women’s access to reproductive rights.

KRCRC carries on this work in Kentucky. Our primary focus is on abortion, contraception, and sexuality education. We maintain contacts with faith leaders from many traditions, and we provide speakers and materials for community and congregational programs. We attempt to reassure and educate those women who have been confused by the misleading or outright inaccurate statements of so-called “crisis pregnancy clinics,” whose goals are actually to eliminate abortion from the options facing a pregnant woman. We provide spiritual and emotional support for escorts and abortion provider staff, who are faced with scorn and ridicule from the protestors who gather at the clinic. We partner with other groups, such as Planned Parenthood of Kentucky and the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, to further shared goals. We maintain a list of pastoral counselors who can provide true “all options” counseling to the woman who is confused or conflicted about an unwelcome pregnancy or about perinatal loss. We monitor activity in the state legislature, and we talk with legislators to make it clear that the religious voice does not speak only from the far right, but from the middle and the left as well.

What are the biggest challenges that the organization faces?

Our biggest challenge is to avoid becoming discouraged as we see attacks nationwide on women’s meaningful access to reproductive health services, and as we hear loud voices declare that the stance of religion on reproductive matters is monolithic and clear. We struggle to remind each other of our successes, such as the growth in the number of people who support us and contribute to our work, and the increasing willingness of religious people, including clergy, to declare themselves “pro-faith, pro-family and pro-choice.” We certainly do not have the financial resources available to those who are stridently and vocally opposed to contraception and abortion, but we continue to be extremely grateful to the many people who support our work and respond to our requests for action.

On your website it says, “We believe that a woman’s right to make reproductive choices is sacred and fundamental to religious freedom.” Can you explain this to our readers?

Both major and less well-known religious traditions rather consistently teach the centrality of choice in ethical matters. We are asked to choose that which is good and to turn away from that which is morally wrong. It is most certainly appropriate for clergy and other religious leaders to point to the particular tradition’s principles (and revered writings if those are part of the tradition) when discussing possible choices, and for participants in the religious tradition to rely on those principles and scriptures to inform their choices. The choices a person makes may earn the label “sinner” or “saint” in some traditions, but, regardless, the focus remains on the individual making the choices, the moral agent. The intention and reasoning of the moral agent, as well as the context in which the choice is made, are ordinarily the critical elements in a religious context. Stated another way, the very notion of choice by the moral agent is sacred.

Spirituality, at its most basic level, is about questions of “meaning.” Among the matters most significant to the meaning of life are forming intimate relationships and making decisions regarding reproduction. Consequently, one might expect that reverence for the sacredness of those choices would be even greater than for the sacredness of other choices. Strangely, however, we have seen some groups (claiming a religious basis) turn away from focus on the moral agent – that is, the woman who is or who could become pregnant. Instead, these loud voices ask that we focus solely on the moral status of the fetus (or, in the case of contraception, the *potential* fetus). In contrast to the widespread agreement among religious traditions regarding the importance of the moral agent (the one who chooses), religious views regarding the moral status of the fetus vary widely. The notion that a fetus has moral status equivalent to a human being is in the extreme minority of religious views, and attempting to impose that view on all not only denies the sacredness of the act of choosing, but also infringes on religious liberty and sincerely held religious views.

We like to remind those extremist Christians who deny the importance of a woman’s ability to consider the context and make the decision that the angel who appeared to Mary did not inform her that she *would be* the Mother of God; rather, the angel asked her if she was willing to be the Mother of God. She had a choice.

Women who choose abortion are often seen as doing so casually and without thought. What do you think of statements such as this one?

Frankly, I have to believe that someone who can say such a thing has not spent much time walking with women faced with the decision. For some, the decision is agonizing and reached only with difficulty. Some women make up their minds, undergo the abortion procedure, and never look back.  Some women may be angry that they were placed in the position of needing to make the choice, or sad about what might have been, or relieved that their life circumstances are such that abortion was a meaningful option. And indeed, some few may avail themselves of abortion “casually,” and without deep thought. There are almost as many reasons why a woman chooses abortion as there are women who seek abortions. For some, the reasons are such that the choice is reached without difficulty. For others, the decision is very difficult. In every case, however, the best person to consider the circumstances and weigh the options is the woman herself.

In regards to reproductive rights, what would you like to see for the organization in the future?

Roe v. Wade is important, but it is by no means the measure of reproductive justice. I would like to see us embrace even more fully the concept of reproductive justice rather than allowing ourselves to be limited by the idea of “legal right.” I say this for several reasons.  First, laser focus on whether abortion is criminal or not detracts attention from important issues of access (i.e., even if they are “legal,” are abortion and contraception within the financial and geographical reach of women so that they have meaningful choice?), from issues of sexuality education, and from issues of contraception and alternative conception; only if all of these are fully addressed can the religious considerations attendant to reproductive choice be fully explored. Second, buying into the notion of a sharp line between those who are “pro-choice” and those who are “pro-life” not only legitimizes those rather odd terms, but closes off our ability to listen and prevents dialogue regarding matters of common ground. Most importantly, exclusive focus on legal rights tends to create class and racial divides that impede progress; shifting attention to “reproductive justice” not only allows us to explore the intersections of reproductive concerns with other justice issues (e.g., racism, poverty, immigration, etc.), but it allows us to consider a whole range of matters that infringe on the ability of a woman to have or not to have children, and to raise them as she thinks best. Just as an example, consider the woman who needs welfare assistance to care for her family; in many circumstances, she is not permitted to make the decision to give birth to a child, because her assistance will terminate if she does. In some states, she is forced to undergo “temporary” sterilization (Norplant) as a condition of assistance. This raises reproductive justice concerns just as surely as maintaining a societal structure that makes abortion and contraception effectively unavailable, regardless of “legal right.” If we can broaden the conversation, we can bring more women into the conversation, and we can find ways to make meaningful progress for all.

KRCRC logo used with permission.

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