April 3, 2006
In any given week, if you walked into one of Washington's big corporate
hotels early in the morning, you would find a community of the faithful,
quite often conservative Christians, rallying the troops, offering solace
and denouncing the opposition at a prayer breakfast.
So you might be forgiven for thinking that such a group was in attendance on
Friday in a ballroom of the Washington Hilton. People wearing clerical
collars and small crucifixes were wedged at tables laden with muffins,
bowing their heads in prayer. Seminarians were welcomed. Scripture was
cited. But the name of the sponsor cast everything in a new light: the
Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
To its critics, Planned Parenthood is the godless super-merchant of
abortion. To its supporters, it is the dependably secular defender of
abortion rights. But at this breakfast, God was everywhere, easily invoked
by believers of various stripes.
"We are here this morning because, through our collective efforts, we are
agents in bringing our fragile world ever closer to the promise of
redemption," Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice,
told the audience. "As clergy from an array of denominations, we say yes to
the call before us. Please join me in prayer: We praise you, God, ruler of
time and space, for challenging us to bring healing and comfort to your
"Amen," the audience responded.
The Interfaith Prayer Breakfast has been part of Planned Parenthood's annual
convention for four years. Most ministers and rabbis at the breakfast have
known the group far longer.
Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that became Planned Parenthood,
drew clergy members in the early 20th century by relating the suffering of
women who endured successive pregnancies that ravaged their health and
sought illegal abortions in their desperation, said the Rev. Thomas R. Davis
of the United Church of Christ, in his book "Sacred Work, Planned Parenthood
and Its Clergy Alliances."
In the 1930's, Jewish and mainline Protestant groups began to voice their
support for birth control. In 1962, a Maryland clergy coalition successfully
pressed the state to permit the disbursal of contraception. In the late
1960's, some 2,000 ministers and rabbis across the country banded together
to give women information about abortion providers and to lobby for the
repeal of anti-abortion laws.
"The clergy could open that door because the clergy had a certain moral
authority," said Mr. Davis, who is chairman of Planned Parenthood's clergy
advisory board but whose book is not sponsored by the group. "They balanced
the moral authority of the critics."
As the scrape of silverware quieted at the breakfast, the Rev. W. Stewart
MacColl told the audience how a Presbyterian church in Houston that he had
led and several others had worked with Planned Parenthood to start a family
planning center. Protesters visited his church. Yet his 900 parishioners
drove through picket lines every week to attend services. One Sunday, he and
his wife, Jane, took refreshments to the protesters out of respect for their
understanding of faith, he said.
Mr. MacColl said a parishioner called him the next day to comment: "That's
all very well for you to say, but you don't drive to church with a
4-year-old in the back seat of your car and have to try to explain to him
when a woman holds up a picture of a dead baby and screams through the
window, 'Your church believes in killing babies.' "
Mr. MacColl said of the abortion protester: "She would, I suspect, count
herself a lover of life, a lover of the unborn, a lover of God. And yet she
spoke in harshness, hatred and frightened a little child."
Mr. MacColl quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: " 'Sometimes the worst
evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good.' "
The crowd murmured its assent.
Then Mr. MacColl challenged them. "The trouble is, I find myself reflected
in that woman," he said. "Because I can get trapped in self-righteousness
and paint those who oppose me in dark colors they do not deserve. Is that,
at times, true of you, as well?"
This time, people were silent.
It is not lost on Mr. Davis how the passion of the Christian right in its
effort to abolish abortion and curtail access to birth control now mirrors
the efforts of clergy members 40 years ago to do the opposite.
"They're a religious tradition, too, and they are moved by Scripture," he
said, although the Bible says nothing explicit about abortion. "When we
understood the suffering in these kinds of situations that women were in, we
understood that for reasons of justice, we had to act. We're doing it for
theological and Biblical reasons."
A perception may exist that the denominations supporting abortion rights are
outnumbered and out-shouted by their more conservative brethren. But that
worried Mr. Davis little, he said, for he and other like-minded clergy
members were in the minority in the 1960's, too.
Still, some clergy members could barely contain their outrage. "The more we
are able to cultivate the capacity in every person — women and men — to make
informed ethical judgments both in ourselves and our society, the more we
are coming into relationship with the transcendent, with God," said the Rev.
Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary.
"Human existence as a materialistic quest for power and dominance, a crass
manipulation of fear and intolerance for political gain, drives us apart
both from one another and from God," she said. "For what does it profit you
to gain the whole world and lose your soul?"