Since the Supreme Court's historic 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade,
the issue of a woman's right to an abortion has fostered one of the
most contentious moral and political debates in America. Opponents of
abortion rights argue that life begins at conception - making abortion
tantamount to homicide. Abortion rights advocates, in contrast,
maintain that women have a right to decide what happens to their bodies
- sometimes without any restrictions.
To explore the case for abortion rights, the Pew Forum
turns to the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, who for more than a decade has
been president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Based in Washington, D.C., the coalition advocates for reproductive
choice and religious freedom on behalf of about 40 religious groups and
organizations. Prior to joining the coalition, Veazey spent 33 years as
a pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
A counterargument explaining the case against abortion rights is made by the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary.
The Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, President, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer
Can you explain how your Christian faith informs your views in support of abortion rights?
I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a Baptist minister for
many years in Memphis, Tenn. One of the things that he instilled in me
- I used to hear it so much - was free will, free will, free will. It
was ingrained in me that you have the ability to make choices. You have
the ability to decide what you want to do. You are responsible for your
decisions, but God has given you that responsibility, that option to
I had firsthand experience of seeing black women and poor women
being disproportionately impacted by the fact that they had no choices
about an unintended pregnancy, even if it would damage their health or
cause great hardship in their family. And I remember some of them being
maimed in back-alley abortions; some of them died. There was no legal
choice before Roe v. Wade.
But in this day and time, we have a clearer understanding that men
and women are moral agents and equipped to make decisions about even
the most difficult and complex matters. We must ensure a woman can
determine when and whether to have children according to her own
conscience and religious beliefs and without governmental interference
or coercion. We must also ensure that women have the resources to have
a healthy, safe pregnancy, if that is their decision, and that women
and families have the resources to raise a child with security.
The right to choose has changed and expanded over the years since Roe v. Wade.
We now speak of reproductive justice - and that includes comprehensive
sex education, family planning and contraception, adequate medical
care, a safe environment, the ability to continue a pregnancy and the
resources that make that choice possible. That is my moral framework.
You talk about free will, and as a Christian you believe in
free will. But you also said that God gave us free will and gave us the
opportunity to make right and wrong choices. Why do you believe that
abortion can, at least in some instances, be the right choice?
Dan Maguire, a former Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology
and ethics at Marquette University, says that to have a child can be a
sacred choice, but to not have a child can also be a sacred choice.
And these choices revolve around circumstances and issues - like
whether a person is old enough to care for a child or whether a woman
already has more children than she can care for. Also, remember that
medical circumstances are the reason many women have an abortion - for
example, if they are having chemotherapy for cancer or have a
life-threatening chronic illness - and most later-term abortions occur
because of fetal abnormalities that will result in stillbirth or the
death of the child. These are difficult decisions; they're moral
decisions, sometimes requiring a woman to decide if she will risk her
life for a pregnancy.
Abortion is a very serious decision and each decision depends on
circumstances. That's why I tell people: I am not pro-abortion, I am
pro-choice. And that's an important distinction.
You've talked about the right of a woman to make a choice. Does the fetus have any rights?
First, let me say that the religious, pro-choice position is based
on respect for human life, including potential life and existing life.
But I do not believe that life as we know it starts at conception. I
am troubled by the implications of a fetus having legal rights because
that could pit the fetus against the woman carrying the fetus; for
example, if the woman needed a medical procedure, the law could require
the fetus to be considered separately and equally.
From a religious perspective, it's more important to consider the
moral issues involved in making a decision about abortion. Also, it's
important to remember that religious traditions have very different
ideas about the status of the fetus. Roman Catholic doctrine regards a
fertilized egg as a human being. Judaism holds that life begins with
the first breath.
What about at the very end of a woman's pregnancy? Does a
fetus acquire rights after the point of viability, when it can survive
outside the womb? Or let me ask it another way: Assuming a woman is
healthy and her fetus is healthy, should the woman be able to terminate
her pregnancy until the end of her pregnancy?
There's an assumption that a woman would end a viable pregnancy
carelessly or without a reason. The facts don't bear this out. Most
abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Late
abortions are virtually always performed for the most serious medical
and health reasons, including saving the woman's life.
But what if such a case came before you? If you were that woman's pastor, what would you say?
I would talk to her in a helpful, positive, respectful way and help
her discuss what was troubling her. I would suggest alternatives such
Let me shift gears a little bit. Many Americans have said
they favor a compromise, or reaching a middle-ground policy, on
abortion. Do you sympathize with this desire and do you think that both
sides should compromise to end this rancorous debate?
I have been to more middle-ground and common-ground meetings than I
can remember and I've never been to one where we walked out with any
That being said, I think that we all should agree that abortion
should be rare. How do we do that? We do that by providing
comprehensive sex education in schools and in religious congregations
and by ensuring that there is accurate information about contraception
and that contraception is available. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress
has not been willing to pass a bill to fund comprehensive sex
education, but they are willing to put a lot of money into failed and
harmful abstinence-only programs that often rely on scare tactics and
Former Surgeon General David Satcher has shown that abstinence-only
programs do not work and that we should provide young people with the
information to protect themselves. Education that stresses abstinence
and provides accurate information about contraception will reduce the
abortion rate. That is the ground that I stand on. I would say that
here is a way we can work together to reduce the need for abortions.
Abortion has become central to what many people call the
"culture wars." Some consider it to be the most contentious moral issue
in America today. Why do many Catholics, evangelical Christians and
other people of faith disagree with you?
I was raised to respect differing views so the rigid views against
abortion are hard for me to understand. I will often tell someone on
the other side, "I respect you. I may disagree with your theological
perspective, but I respect your views. But I think it's totally
arrogant for you to tell me that I need to believe what you believe."
It's not that I think we should not try to win each other over. But we
have to respect people's different religious beliefs.
But what about people who believe that life begins at
conception and that terminating a pregnancy is murder? For them, it may
not just be about respecting or tolerating each other's viewpoints;
they believe this is an issue of life or death. What do you say to
people who make that kind of argument?
I would say that they have a right to their beliefs, as do I. I
would try to explain that my views are grounded in my religion, as are
theirs. I believe that we must ensure that women are treated with
dignity and respect and that women are able to follow the dictates of
their conscience - and that includes their reproductive decisions.
Ultimately, it is the government's responsibility to ensure that women
have the ability to make decisions of conscience and have access to
reproductive health services.
Some in the anti-abortion camp contend that the existence of
legalized abortion is a sign of the self-centeredness and selfishness
of our age. Is there any validity to this view?
Although abortion is a very difficult decision, it can be the most
responsible decision a person can make when faced with an unintended
pregnancy or a pregnancy that will have serious health consequences.
Depending on the circumstances, it might be selfish to bring a child
into the world. You know, a lot of people say, "You must bring this
child into the world." They are 100 percent supportive while the child
is in the womb. As soon as the child is born, they abort the child in
other ways. They abort a child through lack of health care, lack of
education, lack of housing, and through poverty, which can drive a
child into drugs or the criminal justice system.
So is it selfish to bring children into the world and not care for
them? I think the other side can be very selfish by neglecting the
children we have already. For all practical purposes, children whom we
are neglecting are being aborted.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.