I was born just a few years before the Roe v. Wade decision, so I’m part of a generation that grew up believing that our legal right to an abortion was protected.
Many people my age thought we’d never go back to the pre-Roe days. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was one of them, even though I’ve spent most of my career fighting religious extremists willing to stop at nothing to turn back the clock on women’s reproductive freedom. What’s going on today should be a wake-up call to the entire nation that we cannot take church-state separation for granted.
During my second summer of law school, I landed a legal internship with Planned Parenthood Federation of America. I will never forget the horror of learning one morning about the second murder of an abortion provider in just 17 months. The murderer: Paul Hill, a former minister who had long advocated violence against abortion doctors. I was appalled and a little frightened. But still, religious extremists seemed fringe, and I never believed they would prevail in changing the law.
Early in my career, I served as legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington. The “March for Life,” which takes place every year in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Roe, had decided to target our clinic for a local protest. Determined to protect our patients, I worked with a former law firm colleague to put together a letter to the D.C. police reminding them of their obligation to enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Thankfully, the law was on our side.
At the progressive think tank Third Way, I led a project named “Come Let Us Reason Together.” We joined together white evangelical Christians and progressives to champion a policy agenda to reduce the need for abortion (through comprehensive sex education, access to birth control and more support for pregnant women and new parents) while leaving in place the right to have one. I took solace in the fact that at least some moderate evangelical Christians didn’t want to overturn Roe.
Fast forward to today, and I confess that I’m shocked at how precarious the right to abortion is. Texas has not only enacted an abortion ban rooted in the belief, in Gov. Greg Abbott’s words, that “[O]ur creator endowed us with the right to life,” but the Supreme Court has allowed it to go into effect. And we await the same Court’s decision on the core tenets of Roe in the Mississippi abortion case.
What happened? In retrospect, some of this seems so obvious. As reproductive rights counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, I had witnessed religious extremists shift their strategy from killing doctors and bombing abortion clinics to passing bills like the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act” and “Unborn Victims of Violence Act.” The current state of abortion rights is a predictable outgrowth of that strategic shift combined with the raging Christian nationalism of today.
Americans United has long recognized that most opposition to reproductive freedom is anchored in fundamentalist theology and that people of different belief systems must be allowed to make these decisions for themselves. (In my Jewish faith, for example, many believe that the health and life of the mother must be put ahead of a fetus.)
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, AU fought for birth control access. We opposed laws some religious groups had succeeded at putting into place that gagged doctors from even talking about birth control with married couples. We won those fights. Today we continue to defend access to reproductive health care through policy battles and legal cases, including our still-active case challenging former President Donald Trump’s birth control religious exemption which has not yet been reversed.
AU recently filed a brief in the Mississippi abortion case, arguing that the government should respect religious pluralism and not favor or impose the views of any particular faith. We explain that this not only protects freedom of conscience; it avoids religious division and religiously based strife. We are joined by Jewish, Humanist and interfaith groups.
Let’s not lose hope. People are rising up, and the Biden administration has filed a lawsuit to prevent Texas from enforcing its abortion ban. AU will never stop doing all we can to protect your right to live and believe as you choose. With your incredible support, we are growing stronger every day.
The challenges may be great, but as one of my favorite podcasters, Glennon Doyle, says: “We can do hard things!”
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.