Religious women weigh in on abortion: It’s complicated

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Rev. Patricia Templeton has never shied away from talking about complicated social issues in the pulpit.

As rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, she’s taken on racism, sexual identity, gun reform, immigration and voting rights in her Sunday sermons.

But Templeton had never preached about abortion.

The strong possibility that legal abortion could be banned or severely restricted in Georgia has put new demands on women faith and lay leaders to knit together the political divisions, religious doctrine and real-world dilemmas.

Many of them, be they pastors, rabbis, preacher’s wives or non-ordained leaders in their faith communities, have provided moral leadership – especially to other women in their congregations who seek out a woman’s advice. Many are mothers or grandmothers. They understand the fear and hard decisions that can come with a pregnancy.

The implications of the court’s draft opinion weighed heavily on Templeton.

Just hours after the news broke that most of the justices apparently were in favor of ending the federal constitutional guarantee of abortion rights, she sat down to write a passionate email to her congregation:

“Every pregnancy is not wanted. Every woman is not equipped to care for a child. In some cases, such as incest and rape, forcing a woman (or girl) to give birth is a cruelty,” she wrote. “Abortion is always regrettable. But there are times when a woman or girl facing no good options may reluctantly decide that abortion is the best choice available.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Templeton’s letter illustrates the complexities of how abortion rights play out among religious women in places of worship across metro Atlanta.

“You can be faithful and still decide to have an abortion,” Templeton said.

She and others in positions of spiritual leadership are having to reconcile a universal tenet of their faith traditions — that all life is sacred — with the reality of counseling women and girls whose lives aren’t so black and white.

The women leaders hold opinions on abortion that are as diverse and nuanced as in the wider culture.

Templeton, for instance, is in favor of abortion rights, but doesn’t think abortion should be used as a substitute for birth control. She’s also sat with women who struggled over whether to carry a pregnancy to full-term because of health consequences for themselves or their baby.

“No one I have talked to about this has ever taken it lightly,” she said. “The decision was made after lots of thought and prayers. Would I tell someone they should get an abortion? No. But I would certainly support their choice.”

Liliana Lewis is married to the Rev. Michael Lewis, lead pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta. As the first lady, Lewis wields a lot of influence in the congregation. Before the court’s draft opinion was leaked, she had prayed for an end to abortion and believes life begins at conception.

“I am for mothers and babies,” said Lewis, the mother of three adult children. “It puts us in a very hard position.“

She knows of one instance when a 15-year-old was raped. The girl and her family decided she would carry the pregnancy to term and put the baby up for adoption, making “another family very happy.”

“I have seen a good story come from a lot of pain, and I believe God can heal the hurt of an unwanted pregnancy,” she said.

Most U.S. adults — 61% — say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 8% say abortion should be illegal in every case, no exceptions, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

The survey also found that more than half of U.S. adults, including 60% of women and 51% of men, say that women should have more say than men in determining abortion policy. Just 3% of adults say men should have more influence over abortion policy than women, with the remainder saying women and men should be equal determination over policies.

“I have seen a good story come from a lot of pain, and I believe God can heal the hurt of an unwanted pregnancy."

- Liliana Lewis, wife of the Rev. Michael Lewis, lead pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta

Inside churches, temples and mosques, opinions vary, often within the same congregation.

Should a woman be able to have an abortion during the first trimester, but not later? Should a victim of rape or incest be allowed to have an abortion? Should abortions be banned after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo?

“Women faith leaders are really in a challenging position to really balance their personal views and their religious views and what might be best for any individual woman coming to them seeking advice,” said Natalie Jackson, director of research for PRRI, a Washington D.C.-based, nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts research on the intersection of religion, culture and public policy. “In each individual case where women are considering their options, there are those complexities.”

Keri Ninness, who is Catholic and coordinates the Walking with Moms in Need Ministry at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Marietta, is staunchly anti-abortion, but she hasn’t always been that way.



At one point, she was in favor of abortion rights. She worked in child protective services and saw example after example of children in foster care who were abused. The photos of bruised and beaten children still haunt her.

Her own mother was raised in foster care and had a traumatic time. When Ninness arrived, her mother raised her alone but later married and was able to provide a stable childhood.

“I think people need to stop acting like this is simple and sweet, because this is complex,” said Ninness. “I can’t imagine an issue more complicated.”

She’s had conversations with pregnant women about their options.



The shift in her opinion started after a conversation with her mother, who posed a question. Should she have not been born because of the difficult road ahead, her mother asked, talking about herself? The question rocked her. Ninness loved her mother. If she had not been born, neither would Ninness, her siblings or her five children.

“I’m thankful to God that my mother was born, and I’m glad that she wasn’t spared from that whole life she had,” said Ninness. “I believe that, if the pro-choice camp and the pro-life camp were in the same room together, our hearts would align. We have a lot more in common than we would like to admit.”

Serene Taleb-Agha, a Roswell software engineer and writer, is Muslim. She also runs a local networking organization for Muslim women.

When she was in college she had a friend, also Muslim, who had to make a decision whether or not to have an abortion. She decided to have the procedure.

“I didn’t judge her. I was single at the time and had never been pregnant,” said Taleb-Agha, who now has three children. “From a theoretical perspective, I had hoped she wouldn’t abort. But now that I’m older, I would be more sympathetic. Having a child is a huge responsibility.”

Opinions change over a lifetime.

“The Muslim women that I know personally fall all the way across this spectrum,” said Taleb-Agha. “My personal opinion is that the more liberal Muslim opinion lines up quite nicely with Roe v. Wade, given that Roe v. Wade guarantees the right to abortion unrestricted during the first trimester, allows some regulation during the second trimester, and supports outright bans in the third trimester.”

There’s no gray area, though, for Kelly Stewart, the director of business operations for First Baptist Church Atlanta, a member of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

“The Muslim women that I know personally fall all the way across this spectrum. My personal opinion is that the more liberal Muslim opinion lines up quite nicely with Roe v. Wade."

- Serene Taleb-Agha, who runs a local networking organization for Muslim women

She thanked God when she heard the Supreme Court was poised to eliminate abortion rights.

“My thoughts align with the word of God,” said Stewart, who oversees eight departments at the megachurch. “I know the pro-choice side says ‘It’s my body, my choice,’ but I lean to Scripture as a believer and follower of Christ. ... Every life has a purpose and, when we elevate ourselves to the position of deciding on life, we put ourselves equal to God.”

Beth Schafer has a different opinion. During a recent rally in Midtown, Schafer, who holds the Bunzl Family Cantorial Chair at Temple Sinai, a reform Jewish congregation in Sandy Springs, held a sign reading “Abortion is healthcare and healthcare is a human right.”



“No community is a monolith. What I want for everybody is a choice. If your personal choice is that you do not believe in abortion, I want you to have that choice whether to bring a fetus to term, keep it or put it up for adoption.”

Schafer has two daughters ages 21 and 24. “I want to make sure that they live in a world where they have absolute autonomy over their bodies,” she said.

As one of her daughters was leaving to take a job in another state, Schafer asked her if a potential ban on abortions in Georgia would affect her decision to one day return. Her daughter said she wants “to see how it plays out.“ Schafer worries that more progressive thinkers will leave Georgia or not relocate here if the more restrictive laws are enacted.

“Gosh, I want my kids to come back,” she said.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese, the rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street, said she didn’t believe it was true when she first heard about the Supreme Court leak on Twitter.

In her Sunday sermon, titled “Rise Up,” she called the potential loss of abortion rights “Profoundly evil. Evil to lay out for someone else how they must manage their future because we all know there is nothing simple about pregnancy, parenthood or adoption. The simple things are actually proper prenatal care, and birth control, sex ed and truth-telling and access to medical care.”

Regardless of their views on abortion, many women say the religious community must put its money and effort where its mouth is if Roe v. Wade is struck down.

Ninness has a simple question for everyone who says that a baby should be born: Have you ever provided respite for a family or mother or considered adoption or being a foster parent?

“For years, we’ve only paid lip service,” she said. “We have to be there for 18 years of that child’s life, not 18 minutes of that child’s birth.”