Inspired by their minister’s story, activists at a New York church launch an abortion hotline that offers support without judgment.
(© Sandra Dionisi)
The Rev. Kaaren Anderson was scared. It was time to preach, but she felt like throwing up. Early in her sermon, when she asked the congregation a question and got no response, she even got a bit shrill. “You have to be alive with me today in the room, OK?”
Anderson pushes her parishioners at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York—where she is cominister with her husband, the Rev. Scott Tayler—to the edge of discomfort, passionately calling them to action. The congregation, with its long history of social justice activism, loves her for it.
But she was the one feeling discomfort. In fifteen years of parish ministry, she had never preached on her personal experience of abortion, “which is odd, if you know me, because I rarely shut up about much of anything,” she says. She had decided to talk about her abortion as an eighteen-year-old, a secret she had kept for much of her adulthood.
The larger message Anderson was preaching that day in September 2009 was the essence of her own theology, adapted from theologian Frederick Buechner: that we are called to find what breaks our hearts, then find where that heartbreak intersects with the needs of the world, and act on it.
It was time to tell her congregation what most broke her heart. The summer before she started college, Anderson got pregnant, the only time she had “messed up” with birth control, she says. Neither she nor her boyfriend was financially or emotionally ready to have a child. She had an abortion.
It was 1984. In that year alone, two dozen abortion clinics were destroyed by bombs and arson. Anderson’s boyfriend, who later became her first husband, did not want to talk about the abortion, and he did not want her to tell anyone else. Growing up Unitarian Universalist in Madison, Wisconsin, she knew her family and faith tradition would support her right to choose. But she didn’t even tell her parents until after her marriage broke up.
Her reaction to the abortion itself was sheer relief, and she’s never had regrets. But she felt silenced, she says, and realized that she “spent years carrying around shame from that.”
Anderson says, “It breaks my heart that people are suffering because of something that has left them so stigmatized, feeling guilt, shame, and regret, when they could move on.”
Anderson defies ministerial stereotypes, dressing in her own eclectic mix of plaids, ruffles, and boots, changing her hair color and style often, and speaking in conversational bursts of incomplete sentences, colloquialisms like “get this!” and “well, duh,” and even throwing in the occasional four-letter word as she gets worked up. That September 2009 sermon may not have been her most polished, but it was full of raw pain and passion, and it touched hearts. It also helped launch an ambitious social justice program called Connect and Breathe, which parishioners have signed on to in scores—a free talk line for women after abortion, staffed by trained volunteers who will listen, affirm women’s own moral agency, and not judge them.
In the 1980s opponents of legal abortion began promoting “post-abortion stress syndrome,” the idea that women who have abortions will experience depression, anxiety, and suicidal feelings. Numerous studies have refuted the idea: Abortion causes no more negative emotions than childbirth itself, or any of the alternatives to a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy.
In recent years “post-abortion” services to counsel women have proliferated, under the assumption that a woman has committed one of the most heinous sins imaginable: murdering her own child. Treatment often involves intensive counseling and weekend retreats, based in Christian language of repentance and forgiveness, and may require activism against abortion rights as part of the “healing process.”
You don’t have to look hard in Rochester to see this “post-abortion” approach at work. “Don’t kill your baby,” a long-haired woman in a heavy coat calls into a megaphone from the sidewalk outside a medical clinic that performs abortions. Activists from the Focus Pregnancy Help Center, two doors down, gather every afternoon with their signboards for “sidewalk ministry and counseling.”
“You’ll die, too,” the woman yells. “You can’t have a happy life. Don’t be fooled by Rachael Phelps with her cute little curly blond hair. She’s a mass murderer. She hurts women. We pick up the pieces of what Rachael Phelps does.” Dr. Rachael Phelps, one of nine abortion providers in the Rochester area and a member of First Unitarian, walks this gauntlet every day. She says she’s used to it, but it upsets her when they attack her patients, many of whom are coming in for birth control or other services.
“The decision to have an abortion is always emotional,” Phelps says. “Most women do well after, but they do need to talk. Often people in their life would be supportive, but they don’t know, and they don’t want to take the risk.”
Newcomers usually notice the free condoms in all the bathrooms at First Unitarian in Rochester. Of the church’s half dozen social justice initiatives, the Reproductive Rights Task Force (RRTF) is the longest running, dating back to the 1970s. The women who run it call themselves the “condom queens.” The RRTF has organized letter campaigns, lobbied the state legislature, pressed pharmacies to offer the morning-after pill, raised money for a rape crisis center, and funded travel for women who don’t have abortion providers where they live. Two years ago, the task force came across an idea that was much, much bigger than anything it had attempted previously.
RRTF members started hearing about a support line called Exhale, organized by women in San Francisco in 2002 and based on the principle that “clients hold their own answers, and counselors are there to help them find them.” Exhale’s hotline volunteers are trained in empathic listening and can refer women to resources for domestic violence, rape, suicide, or others they may need.
The idea resonated with Anderson immediately. She had recently recruited Dr. Nancy Stanwood, an abortion provider at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who had joined the church in 2005, to chair the RRTF. Like Phelps, Stanwood saw an urgent need for “a forum where women could talk without fear of being judged, not because women are desperate or distraught, not because women go crazy after an abortion, but because our society doesn’t deal with the issue in an open way that allows women to talk about an important event in their lives.”
RRTF members realized they needed their own nonprofit to get a hotline going on their side of the country. Exhale’s evening talk line doesn’t get started until 9 p.m. EST. They wanted to involve other religious leaders and lay people and hoped to eventually serve the entire Eastern time zone, ambitions beyond what the 931-member church could power.
After Anderson’s first sermon on abortion in March 2009—she’s preached three now—100 people mobbed her, signing up to work on Connect and Breathe. Women from ages eighteen to eighty came up and hugged her, she remembers, saying, “I had an abortion. I’ve never told anybody. Thank you for lifting this veil.”
Shortly after, in May 2009, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, was murdered while ushering at his Lutheran church. Stanwood, who followed him on the board of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, remembers, “George always said, ‘Don’t let them shut you up, because then the terrorists win.’ It is domestic terrorism.”
In two days, First Unitarian organized a vigil and redoubled its efforts to get Connect and Breathe started. Tris Downer, who took over the RRTF chair and works part-time as a dental hygienist, says the “sleepy little task force” turned into a second job for her overnight.
The Rev. John McCarthy, who had recently left a business career to become a UU minister, was brought in as volunteer executive director. RRTF member Laura Humphrey persuaded another swim team mom, a lawyer at a prominent firm, to set up incorporation and nonprofit status, pro bono. Planned Parenthood offered space and its telecommunications system. Fundraisers were planned, grants written. Last fall thirty-five volunteers were trained, using a curriculum from Exhale. Through the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the task force lined up Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist clergy to talk to callers who’d like pastoral counseling. They circulated the hotline number online (connectandbreathe.org) and through brochures distributed to abortion providers. In January, the hotline went live on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays.
Opponents of abortion have so dominated the national conversation on this issue that it can be hard to see the landscape of abortion clearly: who gets abortions and why, the numbers of people it touches, how the demonization of abortion hurts people, and why support for women and their rights cannot let up.
Connect and Breathe organizers point to one fact that compels them to work on this particular issue: One in three women have an abortion by age forty-five. They come from all races and religions, from diverse ages, education and income levels, and life situations—single, married, divorced, lesbian.
“When a patient comes in for a pregnancy test, I can flip a coin whether she’s happy or surprised,” Stanwood says. Nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and 40 percent of those end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Most women who get abortions say they used contraception in the previous month, but not always correctly or consistently.
“If we have a whole generation growing up with abstinence-only sex education, we’ve set them up for abortions,” Stanwood says. “You can see ads on television selling breath mints with sex, but you can’t have a condom ad. Insurance pays for Viagra but not the pill. If we want to make abortion less common, we need to teach sex education rather than making sex titillating.”
One of the biggest fallacies about abortion is that women don’t understand what they’re doing or are making a selfish choice, Phelps says. About 61 percent of women who have abortions have one or more children, and three-fourths say they chose abortion because of responsibility to others. Many know they cannot provide a safe or financially stable home for another child.
“This week I saw a woman pregnant from rape, living in a shelter, in a custody battle over her son with a boyfriend who beats her,” Stanwood says. “Of course, she should have a choice to say, ‘I need to go down a different path, and it doesn’t include having a baby with this man.’”
Abortion providers say every week they see patients who identify as pro-life: 13 percent of abortion patients describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and 27 percent say they are Catholic. “It’s easy to have these superficial debates,” Phelps says, “but when you’re a real woman with a very difficult situation in your life, affecting your children, partner, and family, you may make a different choice than you think.”
The women most hurt by the stigma of abortion, Connect and Breathe organizers say, may be those who believe they are murdering a child but feel they have no other option, and often no one to talk to. Wanting to serve women of all beliefs, organizers are navigating a new path through the minefield of language about abortion, where meaning can implode depending on who’s using it: They say “after-abortion,” not “post-abortion”; they prefer “decision,” “alternative,” or “moral agency” to “choice.” They’re finding that younger women are rejecting the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” terms altogether, or may call themselves “pro-life” yet believe abortion should be an individual choice or say they would choose one themselves in certain circumstances.
Most of the mainline Protestant denominations and American Jewish movements officially support a woman’s moral and legal right to make a personal decision regarding abortion. The Unitarian Universalist Association has affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion twelve times since 1963. Religious people who believe in reproductive rights need to reclaim the moral argument, Anderson says. “It matters for communities of faith to say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you if you have an abortion.’ We have values we hold just as strongly as the religious right, and if we talked about it in moral language, we could change the conversation. The moral certainty that individuals have the right of conscience over their own reproductive health—we have been offering that for decades.”
Looking down on all that goes on at First Unitarian is an imposing portrait of Rochester’s most famous citizen: Susan B. Anthony.
Anderson often says, “We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” a long line of social justice leaders in the church for whom women’s and reproductive rights have been a central concern. Giant Number One is Anthony, who attended for forty years and convened a women’s rights convention in the church building twelve days after the Seneca Falls gathering in 1848.
“She was the most determined person who ever existed,” says Colleen Hurst, longtime historian for the church and for the Susan B. Anthony House. In the 1872 election, Anthony and fourteen other women marched down to the polls in Rochester. After what must have been some unbelievably compelling arguing, she persuaded the male poll workers to let her illegally register to vote—which she did a few days later, for Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant. The women were all arrested.
Anthony was ordered not to leave Rochester until the trial, which she defied in order to keep up her busy speaking schedule, while the U.S. marshal watched silently each time she boarded a train. Seven months later in a sham, out-of-town trial, she was fined $100, which she declared she would never pay. What she really wanted was to go to jail so she could test women’s right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the privileges of citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” She never did pay the fine.
Birth control activist Margaret Sanger also made an imprint on the church. In 1932 she spoke at a temple in Rochester, with a policeman at every door and the legality of her words challenged from the floor. Sanger’s disobedience of the Comstock laws that forbade advocating or distributing birth control inspired eight local women, including First Unitarian member Wilma Lord Perkins, to start a clinic. The settlement houses, hospitals, and Community Chest all refused to rent them space or give them support. So they asked the church.
Board members were reluctant to get involved in the red-hot controversy. But the Rev. Dr. David Rhys Williams, who served as minister for thirty years and whose oak desk Anderson uses today, insisted the church had a responsibility to Rochester women. From 1934 to 1937, the Mothers’ Consultation Center, which later became Planned Parenthood of Rochester/Syracuse, operated out of the church. Williams, who preached on “The Spiritual Significance of Voluntary Motherhood,” called this campaign his proudest accomplishment.
The church helped write another chapter of reproductive rights history, during the struggle for legal abortion in the 1960s and 1970s. The Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert, minister for thirty-two years, was active with the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a group of ministers and rabbis who defied the law by quietly helping women find safe abortions.
Connect and Breathe volunteer Patty Hill was one of the service’s beneficiaries. While in college, she asked a UU minister in Syracuse to help her find a safe abortion. The girlfriend who accompanied her had been traumatized by her own illegal abortion and was never able to have children. “It’s so important to make sure we don’t ever have to go through that again,” Hill says.
When Anderson first preached about an after-abortion hotline, Barbara Bissell-Erway was one of the women who rushed forward to volunteer. “Kaaren is a reincarnation of Susan B. Anthony,” she says. “She’s the inspiration, a big spark, a perfect leader. She gets ideas, believes in us, and says, ‘We can do this.’ In generations to come, it’ll be, ‘Oh, there was a stigma about this at one point?’ I believe Rochester can be the catalyst for change again. We’ve done it before, with women’s suffrage and abolition of slavery. We can do it again.”
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The Rev. Scott Tayler and the Rev. Kaaren Anderson. (© Larry Eldridge)
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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