As a member of the clergy, I’ve heard many sermons on a wide range of social and political topics, from voting and the problems of the prescription drug industry to unemployment to the latest outrageous statement from politicians.
One topic I haven’t heard? Safe and affordable access to contraception and birth control.
It makes perfect sense that Black churches would speak about this specific reproductive issue, because for Black women, reproductive health disparities are stark. Black women are the most likely to deliver children who won’t live to see their first birthday. Black women are also more likely to experience unintended pregnancies than their White counter parts due to poverty. We are also more likely to experience unintended pregnancies, and family planning is a biggest predictor of the health of the mother and the child, and is key in decreasing the high infant mortality rate.
The bottom line? Safe, affordable access to contraceptives and abortion and significantly help a pastor’s community.
Week after week, Black women are sitting in pews personally impacted with reproductive health disparities. Our congregants need our support — the support of trusted clergy members– to speak out and fight for access to contraceptives and safe abortion access.
Black churches have always been the place for people to come talk about issues important to them. In my home state of North Carolina, the Moral Monday Movement strategy meetings are held in the free space of the churches. Pastors recruit members from the pulpit to attend the marches and explain why it’s important that the voting public appeal to the North Carolina General Assembly to reverse legislation that impacts our community. And it worked! Clergy and laity alike have shown up in droves to the Moral Monday protests demanding change from our legislature. Religion has been the central theme of the movement, and congregants are proud of their pastors leading the demonstrations.
One might argue that pastors should not talk about contraceptives and abortion because it would make people uncomfortable, and it would have to force us to talk about sex. But we must not be silent anymore because the numbers are clear: reproductive health disparities affects women in our pews, and attacks on women’s health nationwide will affect health outcomes of women in our congregations.
North Carolinians have experienced several major attacks on women’s health in the last four years alone. In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation forcing women to get an ultrasound when she opts for an abortion. While ultrasounds are often necessary in healthcare, legislating puts politicians between a patient and her provider’s medical opinion. Fortunately, this law was overturned in the courts , but it demonstrates the dangerous lengths that politicians will go to come between a woman and her healthcare – a relationship as sacred as the one between a parishioner and their pastor.
Again, in 2013, the NCGA passed legislation imposing unnecessary and targeted regulations on abortion clinics aimed at shutting them down leaving women without access to safe abortion care. As a leader in the church and a reproductive health activist, I’ve talked to women who needed an abortion and were grateful that health clinics like Planned Parenthood exist in our community.
And just last week, the NCGA introduced a bill that would increase abortion restrictions, including extending the wait period before a woman can obtain an abortion from 24 to 72 hours.
Our congregants need the support of religious leaders to stand by them and speak out for their healthcare access, which includes abortion care.
What would it mean for a woman needing to terminate her pregnancy to hear her pastor say on Sunday morning, “women should have access to all the healthcare they need, including contraceptives and abortion?
Quite often, pastors use anecdotes in their sermons to make their point relatable. I’ve heard my pastor speak in contempt about the unemployment rate and the decision of the North Carolina General Assembly to cut unemployment benefits that help the people sitting in pews. Black unemployment rates are high, and can be a source of shame for heads of household. As a result, attend altar call, a point in the service where people ask for prayer publicly, to pray for help finding a job. People feel shame about being unemployed, but because my pastor brought it up in a sermon, unemployed people were able to speak about their challenges in our community.
The pastor has the opportunity to erase the shame associated with unplanned pregnancies and the uncertainty that a woman is mentally, spiritually and emotionally ready to care for a child. We know that 30% of women have an abortion by the time she turns 45; that means those same women are sitting in our pews week after week. We can no longer alienate women in need of reproductive care just because we are uncomfortable talking about sex.
The data is on our side. Over 80 percent of the Black community believes that abortion should be legal regardless of their personal feelings — this includes 74 percent of Black conservatives and 84 percent of weekly churchgoers. And last week a new poll was released showing that Millennials, including those of us who are religious, support safe access to contraceptive and abortion care.
Women in church regularly pulled me aside and admired the work that I’ve done as a reproductive justice organizer. It’s time that this issues is not whispered to me as I breeze by on the way to worship, but become an integral parts of the worship service. If you are a pastor of a Black church, women are listening in your congregations waiting to hear your support for their reproductive health. The weeks between Easter and Pentecost as we mourn Jesus’ death and remember his lessons of healing the sick and raising healthy communities, this is the perfect time to elevate the reproductive health needs of the women in our community.
Jesus was defined by his healing ministry, and an oft used story is the women with the issue of blood. In the story, the woman forces her way through the crowd because she knows that Jesus can heal her. She is met with barriers because many people surround Jesus so she seeks the minimal amount of care that she could reach, just touching Jesus’ clothes, not asking to interact with Jesus, so she could be free from pain.
Black women can relate: we suffer from reproductive health problems, such as endometriosis that can be alleviated by contraceptives) but many of us do not have the financial, physical and spiritual access to health care. This passage of Scripture is a great way to talk about health issues specific to women. We should be doing all we can to heal Black women in our communities, like the woman with the issue of blood.
This can no longer be an issue of discomfort. If it continues to be, our communities will be in danger.
Emma Akpan is an ordained deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and an organizer with Planned Parenthood.