For many Unitarian Universalists, the November 27 shooting deaths of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are a horrifying example of the escalating war against women’s reproductive rights that demands a loud and clear response from the liberal religious community.
“It’s so, so important to have a faith voice to say that there are people of faith who support a woman’s right to choose and who feel this is a religious freedom issue,” said the Rev. Jann Halloran, minister at the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Parker, Colorado, near Denver, and a longtime member of the Colorado chapter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). “UUs believe that women have ethical agency and the capacity to make these decisions for themselves consistent with their own beliefs.”
The Rev. Darcy Roake, who serves on Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board both nationally and in New Orleans, where anti-abortion protesters last year interrupted a worship service at First UU Church of New Orleans, agrees.
“If you’re going to talk about pro-life, we [UUs] are incredibly pro-life because we are affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings throughout their lifetimes and women’s choices about their own bodies,” said Roake, who lives in New Orleans and helped organize a workshop this year for UU ministers on supporting reproductive justice. She also appeared in her ministerial collar in a series of public service announcements where she praised Planned Parenthood for promoting “family values throughout Louisiana, which has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.”
Roake said she received a huge positive response, especially from people who were unaware that there was any pro-choice voice in the faith community. “So many people bought into the idea that religion is conservative, so it was important for them to see UUs put themselves out there and say there isn’t just one side to this,” she said.
The debate over a woman’s right to choose, always particularly controversial, has become increasingly polarized in recent months. In a shooting rampage with an assault-style rifle on November 27, Robert Lewis Dear, 57, killed a police officer and two civilians and wounded nine others at the Colorado Springs clinic. Dear voiced anti-abortion views and spoke of “no more baby parts” when he was arrested, according to the New York Times. Although the case and Dear’s motivations are still under investigation, his words were an apparent reference to a controversy that erupted this summer, when anti-abortion activists released secretly recorded videos in which Planned Parenthood officials discussed the use of tissue and organs from aborted fetuses.
Planned Parenthood said the tapes were heavily edited and misleading, and a congressional committee found no wrongdoing by the organization. But Planned Parenthood has been under renewed attack ever since, with Republicans in Congress making strong efforts to defund it.
“Planned Parenthood serves all women but certainly poor women and younger women who don’t always have health care,” said Halloran, who works with a coalition of interfaith clergy in the Denver area to support reproductive justice, including, through RCRC, counseling women and families who are trying to decide what to do about an unplanned pregnancy. Planned Parenthood “serves an important clientele who have no other place for these services. That’s why there is no doubt that religious people should support Planned Parenthood and the people they try to serve.”
As soon as she learned of the shootings, the Rev. Dr. Nori Rost, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado Springs, organized a vigil and worship service to take place the next morning to honor the victims and support Planned Parenthood. “The two are linked, for me,” said Rost. “I felt there needed to be a place for the community to come together to grieve the losses and to stand for Planned Parenthood.”
Before 200 mourners—and a huge contingent of international media—Rost opened the service by calling the shooter a “domestic terrorist.” She said the community had gathered to honor the lives of those killed, the “amazing response of the Colorado Springs police and other responders,” and “the work of Planned Parenthood, and stand with them in solidarity.” In addition to Rost, four other faith leaders spoke, as did four secular speakers, including two from Planned Parenthood.
After one of the Planned Parenthood speakers addressed the crowd, a woman stood up and complained that the service was political. When the woman walked out, Rost said she told those gathered, “If we don’t recognize everyday people put themselves in harm’s way by working at Planned Parenthood or being a client there, we are dishonoring them.” She went on to say, she recalled, that “we cannot grieve without taking action. If we are honoring the lives of those killed and do nothing about gun violence we are falling short of honoring them.”
When Rost’s comments were reported in the Washington Post and many other media, she received backlash on Facebook, Twitter, and via phone, especially for calling the shooter a “domestic terrorist,” she said. She stands by her words and has received a lot of support from UUs and others. A few days after the attack she appeared on PRI’s “The Takeaway” program, where she described pro-choice opponents as “anti-woman because that’s what they are,” she told UU World, “If they cared about life they’d support assistance for poor families” by promoting the values of reproductive justice.
First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas, has a long and storied history with regard to reproductive justice, including the key role of the congregation’s Women’s Alliance in supporting the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973. Its senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter, serves on the Planned Parenthood’s national Clergy Advocacy Board and also on the local affiliate board, and he is working to organize as many interfaith clergy and religious leaders as possible to continue to dialogue about the issue of reproductive rights.
While decrying the violence at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Kanter cautioned against further division or demonization of anti-choice protesters who march outside Planned Parenthood clinics. “We would do well to hold them accountable but also to respect their dignity,” he said. “We can’t be ‘Standing on the Side of Polarization,’” he said. “We can’t repeat the hostility of the religious right with regard to things like this shooting. We have to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves in our approach,” and “a lot of grieving has to happen.”