By
Melissa Harris Perry
updated 1/31/2013 3:54:00 PM ET 2013-01-31T20:54:00

A Brooklyn reverend who advocates for reproductive justice writes about the unique and terrifying risks abortion providers face.

As both a person of faith and an advocate for reproductive freedoms, I often find myself talking about the connection between religion, spirituality, and reproductive justice. We talk about religious questions raised by patients and clients, and we talk about how to use religious language in reproductive justice activism.

Yet one group seems to be left almost completely out of these conversations—abortion providers: The doctors, nurses, office managers, custodians, counselors and all the others who keep clinics open in the face of harassment and violence.

Many times in my ministry, a conversation with abortion clinic staffers that began with talking about the spiritual needs of patients ends on a far more personal note. We talk about the spirituality they find in their work, the religious questions they have about abortion and their role in it, or simply their sadness over feeling that their work means they cannot join a faith community if they want to.

One doctor started his career as a minister, and sees his work in the clinic today as a way of serving God’s people, but he rarely talks about it in those terms. A nurse I spoke to says a prayer for her safety and that of her coworkers every day before leaving for work. An office manager told a colleague of mine that she braces herself every time she checks the mail, wondering how many hate letters she’ll come across, and wants a sacred community to turn to for support. One clinic counselor said she misses the rituals and music of her faith community, and often thinks about trying to find a church, but worries about being judged or shunned when small talk leads to questions about where she works.

This is not to say that every clinic worker leads a spiritual life, or craves the acceptance of a synagogue, church, or other faith community, and it is certainly not to say that they should. Just as we can’t let any one story stand in for all of those who seek abortions, nor can any one story encompass the experiences of all clinic staff. We must avoid the pull to create meta-narratives, and clinic workers who have or desire a personal spiritual connection or a faith community are only one segment of that larger population.

But when so often the only image we have of abortion providers is painted by those who seek to demonize them, and to use faith to do so, understanding the role that spirituality and faith play in the lives of some of those who do this work is deeply important. Particularly when so many feel their work means they will not find welcome in the houses of worship.

Given that the domestic terrorists who threaten clinic workers so often coach their actions in the garb of faith, it seems imperative to me that faith communities welcome clinic workers with open arms, and lead the charge in helping to break down the stigma around this needed work.

The simple fact is, that abortion clinic workers are one of the only groups of civilians in our country who face constant possibility of violence or death simply because others disagree with the work that they do. No other work asks those involved to walk by angry protesters who call them murderers or worse as they walk into their offices. No other group of workers so consistently face slashed tires and broken car windows, harassment of children and family members, public shaming and stigma, all under the umbrella of the ever present threat of violence from the numerous assassinations, arsons, and bombings that clinics and clinic workers have endured.

Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the number of doctors who can perform abortions is steadily shrinking, the number of clinics that provided abortion is dwindling, raising even higher the barriers to access?

We are only a few years removed from the cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller. In the days immediately following, we saw vigils and prayers and an outpouring of grief and anger at such a despicable act. For many faith communities, the brutality of that act, and the fact that he was killed in his own church, brought home the need for people of faith to stand solidly in support of clinic workers, and demand an end to such violence. Every year, more communities of faith make public statements of affirmation or join in prayers for clinic affirmation and safety. But it is still not enough, not nearly.

In this current climate of intimidation, harassment and violence, all who work at abortion clinics are heroes, and should be treated as such. We need to confront the stigma and fear of judgment and condemnation that keeps some clinic workers silent about the work they do. More than anything, we need to offer clinic workers, who literally put themselves at risk in order to provide needed health services to others, our support, our respect–and, for those who are so inclined, our prayers.

Rev. Matthew Westfox, a guest on Saturday’s MHP, has served a ministry of reproductive justice for more then six years as a preacher, activist, organizer and pastoral care giver. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and serves as a consultant to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice along with other justice organizations. He also serves Associate Pastor of All Souls Bethlehem Church in Brooklyn, NY.

Video: A religious argument for reproductive rights

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