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UM Supported Coalition Urges Religion Must Be Used To Promote Abortion

Legal abortion advocates meet to uphold message

STEVE CARNEY Religion News Service

Religious and secular groups attend conference that supports reproductive choice

WASHINGTON -- Reacting to a political climate they see as increasingly hostile to abortion rights, religious progressives and supporters of legal abortion met at a landmark conference this week. Their goal: to assert the morality of the right to choose and wrest the theological high ground from religious conservatives.

"We've been negligent in promoting our message that there's more than one religious viewpoint on this issue," said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the 28-year-old interfaith organization hosting the two-day conference that began Wednesday.

The coalition includes groups from the Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Methodist churches, the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, and both Reform and Conservative Jewish groups, among others. Founded in 1973, the year the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized most abortions, the group has as its motto "Pro- Faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice."

"The right has been successful in promoting their message that abortion is not only wrong, it's murder. They won by default," Veazey said. "I'm trying to do what the right is doing. Even though I disagree vehemently with their message, they are very insightful to connect the religious with the political."

The conference began with a forum on faith and reproductive choice, with about 100 leaders from religious groups nationwide listening to the views of panelists ranging from Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Los Angeles, a civil rights and social justice advocate.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a leader in the women's equality movement for more than 30 years, said religious groups and feminists have often been "on a collision course," but they need to work together for reproductive choice.

"I feel we're missing the boat in not taking back the moral high ground on this issue," Smeal said, citing President Bush's recent order to withhold U.S. foreign aid money from family planning agencies that perform abortions. "In Africa, Mexico, South America, Central America, girls have no choice.

"We, the richest, strongest country in the world, are cutting off access to both birth control and abortion. We say we can't go back to the days of back-alley abortions and women dying -- it's a wrong statement. Women are dying now because of our policies."

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said it's important to make sure people understand "the moral underpinnings of the right to choose."

"The freedom to choose the course of our life is a fundamental American value. Who gets to decide when one becomes a parent -- is that the state or the individual?" she said. "To bring a child into the world you can't care for is so immoral.

"The mainstream religious community has to come out more strongly. They've got to stop shying away from taking it on as a morally right issue," said Michelman, who added that the 1973 Supreme Court decision was as momentous a step in the path for women's equality as Brown vs. the Board of Education was for civil rights for African- Americans.

The conference also included a session on organizing religious and secular abortion rights supporters at college campuses nationwide. On Thursday conferees descended on Congress, to make unfamiliar legislators aware of the group's existence and to let those who already know about the coalition know they can rely on its support if they take an abortion rights stand.

Veazey stressed that the coalition members "are pro-choice, we are not pro-abortion." Forum panelist Frances Kissling, president of the independent Catholics for a Free Choice, said she describes herself as "a pro-lifer for choice."

"We recognize a large number of the American people are ambivalent about abortion," Kissling said. "Women should be seen as competent, capable, moral adults who can be trusted by the whole of society to make good decisions about when to have children."

In a survey the coalition sponsored last year, 74 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Abortion is a complex issue that is better left in the hands of a woman, her doctor, her family and her God."

In the poll of 900 registered voters, with equal numbers identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of legal abortion, 78 percent said they believe a person can be religious and support legal abortion, while just 34 percent said abortion should be legal only in extreme cases such as rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

"Many pro-choice groups ought to tap into the religious base of their organizations," Veazey said. "Many of our constituents are their constituents. All of us have basically the same message, but we come at it from different ways."

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