(Mark Wilson/Getty)

On most days, when she arrives at the Planned Parenthood clinic she directs in Washington, D.C., Dr. Laura Meyers passes through a wall of Operation Rescue protesters. Because the District has no “access zone” protections in place, anti-abortion protesters on Washington’s 16th Street—sometimes as many as 60 people—can and do follow Dr. Meyers along the sidewalk and all the way to the clinic’s front door. Yet in the nine years that she has worked for Planned Parenthood, Meyers has come to understand this daily dose of the American abortion debate playing out at the clinic’s entrance as part of a healthy democracy. “As an American, I support their right to free speech,” she explains.

On religious grounds, however, Meyers has less patience for Operation Rescue’s activities. “As a Christian, it’s frustrating,” she tells me over the phone. Coming of age in a “very devout” Roman Catholic family amidst the Vatican II shifts of the late 1960s, she was deeply informed by the church’s social justice tradition and her “responsibility to live out Jesus’ mandate to care for others.” Yet she says she left the Catholic tradition as “divisive issues such as contraception and abortion and gay relationships took the front burner, rather than caring for others.” As an adult, she became involved in the United Methodist Church, teaching Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, singing in the choir, and serving as president of her church’s United Methodist Women chapter. Her focus, she says, has always been on social justice—looked at from a very broad lens.

To Meyers, the protesters’ Christian tirades against abortion aren’t very Christian at all. “Jesus never talked about abortion,” she says. “But he talked a lot about love. When I look outside my window and see people screaming at women, the lack of compassion is stunning … Sometimes I want to say to them: ‘Go work in a soup kitchen and do something actually useful!’”

On the other hand, Meyers does see the work of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) as very much in line with Jesus’ admonition for compassion, especially for poor children and poor families. “PPFA is 90 percent preventative and education,” she says. “If you care about families and children, your commitment has to be making sure that the men and women who are having children are ready to take on that role, so that every child can be properly nurtured.”

For some, hearing a religiously informed critique of the anti-abortion movement from a director of a Planned Parenthood clinic might come as quite a shock. In recent years, the organization’s public profile has been thoroughly framed by conservative Christian voices, which depict Planned Parenthood as an affront to Christian values, or worse. As an organization, PPFA has stayed out of the religious debates about abortion and women’s healthcare. “Planned Parenthood is a health care provider … we have no religious affiliation,” reads a statement that I received from PPFA’s public affairs office, after I inquired about the role of religion in the organization’s work. (Meyers agreed to talk to me on the condition that her comments were understood to reflect her own views, and do not represent the views of PPFA).

Yet not everyone agrees that Planned Parenthood’s practice of staying out of the religious and moral debates around women’s health care—even abortion—is the right one. Indeed the Clergy Advisory Board (CAB) of the PPFA was established to fill that middle space. Yet besides a brief period in the mid-2000s, this advocacy group has received scant attention from PPFA supporters, its opponents, or PPFA itself. Today the CAB is practically defunct; it hasn’t issued a press-release since 2010. The Rev. Tom Davis, a United Church of Christ minister who once chaired the CAB, is frustrated that the organization has chosen to follow a policy of religious “neutrality.” “Opponents of Planned Parenthood … marshal the most powerful sacred symbols—scriptures, the cross, God—to attack the work of Planned Parenthood,” Davis says. By skirting religion, he thinks Planned Parenthood has left a vacuum in the theological debate about abortion that its opponents have been only too happy to fill.

The religious actors that publicly align themselves with Planned Parenthood vary.  Some affirm the organization’s public health work of caring for “the least of these” in American society. Many Jewish and mainline Christian groups are proponents of women’s privacy from government intervention around reproductive choices. Yet some prominent Catholic intellectuals, among them Frances Kissling, Christine Gudorf, and Daniel C. Maguire, are forthright in appealing to Christian theology, ethics, and history to authorize explicitly abortion rights positions. In its “Perspectives” forum, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), an advocacy group that mobilizes religious leaders to make reproductive health care and rights accessible to all, lays out robust abortion rights arguments from a variety of religious traditions.

But can PPFA itself really hope to better engage in religious debates about the organization’s place in America? Yes, say a growing number of PPFA supporters, scholars, and employees. They argue that PPFA can preserve its organizational commitment to religious neutrality while allowing the organization to more effectively communicate its key values in moral, and in some instances explicitly religious, terms.

FEW WOULD DISAGREE THAT Planned Parenthood has proven ineffective at responding to attacks from the Religious Right. Since the 1970s, the return of conservative Christianity to public life has drowned out Planned Parenthood’s appeals to the Constitutional rights to privacy and free exercise, rights codified in Roe v. Wade. Coalitions of conservative Catholics and evangelicals have successfully lobbied state and federal legislators to regulate behavior around sex and reproduction.

Yet the movement for access to contraception and reproductive health services has only recently become estranged from American religion. Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League (ABCL), had been profoundly influenced by the suffering of her Irish Catholic mother during 18 pregnancies. In her public speeches, including “The Morality of Birth Control (1921),” Sanger exploited anti-Catholic sentiments prevalent among American Protestants. They shared Sanger’s suspicion that the Catholic Church controlled women’s sexuality “by keeping them in fear and in ignorance” about their reproductive choices. “A woman’s body belongs to herself alone,” she once said. “Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty.”

Though Sanger was an atheist and suspicious of religious institutions, her suspicion of organized religion did not stop her from recruiting religious elites into her coalition. Informed by the Social Gospel movement, many Protestant ministers, as well as Jewish leaders, joined Sanger in the belief that access to contraception could alleviate the suffering of America’s poor. A report issued by the Federal Council of Churches in 1931 (Reinhold Niebuhr was a committee member) endorsed the use of birth control on the grounds that it promoted marital flourishing and stability. Fifteen years later, more than 3,000 Jewish and Protestant clergy declared their support for the work of Planned Parenthood, founded in 1942 as a direct offshoot of Sanger’s ABCL.

In the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, prominent religious leaders also worked to de-stigmatize abortion. In 1966, the PPFA gave Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the Margaret Sanger Award for his support of “family planning.” “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts,” King declared in his acceptance speech. Sanger “launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions.” In 1967, Reform Jewish clergy allied with mainline Protestants in New York to establish the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a referral network for women seeking safe abortions. By 1970, this service had affiliates in 26 states.

After Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops announced its intent to work to overturn the ruling. Even so, many lay Catholics joined mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders in establishing what would become the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which sought “to encourage and coordinate support for safeguarding the legal option of abortion.” Evangelicals, too, initially supported the Roe ruling. W.A. Criswell, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.”

In the 1980s, as conservative evangelicals marshaled their energies to fight legalized abortion, progressive clergy defended PPFA. This support has continued and become especially visible following the shooting deaths of abortion providers. In 2009, after Dr. George Tiller was gunned down while attending service at his Lutheran church, Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, stated that Dr. Tiller’s “murder—his assassination—is intended to terrorize not only all involved with providing abortions but anyone even remotely associated with abortion rights.”

MANY RELIGIOUS AMERICANS HAVE SUPPORTED PPFA, not only because it provides essential contraceptive and abortion services, but also because they consider it an essential part of the American healthcare system. Today PPFA is a collection of nearly 800 health centers, governed by 74 affiliates throughout the United States. Annually at these clinics, more than ten million visits consist of preventative treatment, including contraception education, prenatal testing and care, and even cancer screening and treatment. PPFA-affiliated clinics do perform approximately 27 percent of the abortions in the United States (especially since most other providers have closed in the face of escalating restrictions at the state level), but these procedures account for a small part of PPFA’s patient services, comprising just 3 percent of patient encounters.

Despite the fact that it is often the first and last health care option for millions of Americans, especially America’s poorest women, PPFA is primarily identified by anti-abortion groups as the leading organization in the “abortion industry.” Though Planned Parenthood receives significant federal funding through Title X, the 1976 Hyde Amendment banned federal tax dollars from directly paying for pregnancy terminations. Since then, abortion services have been funded through direct client payment, or with aid from private donations.

Just last week, an abortion rights president was elected to a second term. And two Republican senate candidates, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, were roundly defeated, due in large measure to their statements on rape and abortion. Yet in recent years these victories for supporters of women’s reproductive rights have been the exception, not the rule. In order to secure the votes of anti-abortion Democrats for his Affordable Care Act in 2010, President Obama signed an executive order reinforcing the Hyde Amendment. In 2011, passage of the federal budget was nearly derailed over attempts to defund PPFA. While Congressman Paul Ryan won’t be America’s next vice president, he will carry his call for a ban on abortion back to Congress, and most likely into the negotiations over the looming fiscal cliff, and ongoing debates about the federal and state governments’ debts.

Most Republicans—including Ryan—shunned Akin and Mourdock. But their positions—no exceptions for abortion, even in the case of rape and incest—are the official position of the GOP, and represent widely held political and theological views on the Christian Right. Many influential anti-abortion Christian evangelicals and Catholics consider Planned Parenthood a fundamentally immoral institution. Lila Rose, founder of Live Action, has called Planned Parenthood “a lie of Satan himself.” In the “message and the function of Planned Parenthood,” says Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, “You see wickedness; you see evil.”

PLANNED PARENTHOOD HAS DECIDED not to engage its religious critics on religious grounds. The decline of religious language invoked to support PPFA’s work can be partially explained by the ascent of political and social liberalism in the 1960s and 70s, most notably in the Supreme Court. Just as Roe v. Wade made the decision to have an abortion a private matter, other Supreme Court cases of that era moved issues of contraception from the public to the private sphere. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) found that while religious institutions could issue norms within their communities, the state itself could not infringe on private family planning decisions. Planned Parenthood followed suit, reframing access to contraception and abortion as a private matter of choice instead of a public, moral good. Part of this change was the logical consequence of legalized abortion. Following Roe v. Wade, maternal deaths from legal abortion declined fivefold.

Today, when countering efforts to withdraw public funds for Planned Parenthood, the PPFA invokes American rights to privacy rather than religious teachings and ethical injunctions to reduce social suffering. However, an increasing number of PPFA supporters argue that the organization is hurting itself, and thus its clients, by abandoning the ground of moral and religious values to its conservative attackers. In an article last year for the New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore calls the discourse that Planned Parenthood uses to defend its very existence “entirely insufficient.” She writes, “Much of the left, reduced to a state of timidity in the terrible, violent wake of Roe, has stopped talking about rights, poverty, decency, equality, sex, and even history, thereby ceding talk of those things to the right.”

Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, also faults Planned Parenthood for failing to engage with its religious critics. Those who seek to limit access to abortion have succeeded in restructuring the conversation toward the rights of the unborn, Kissling argues. Meanwhile, she says, “Those of us in the abortion-rights movement have barely changed our approach. We cling to the arguments that led to victory in Roe v. Wade. Abortion is a private decision, we say, and the state has no power over a woman’s body. Those arguments may have worked in the 1970s, but today, they are failing us, and focusing on them only risks all the gains we’ve made.”

Some who work for or on behalf of PPFA have begun, however tentatively, to use religious discourse to describe the organization’s work and approach. A handful of Planned Parenthood’s leaders and backers have taken to describing the organization’s work as “sacred,” and the affiliated clinics as “sacred spaces.” In 2007, at a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Rev. Larry Phillips, pastor of Schenectady’s Emmanuel-Friedens Church, blessed the city’s PPFA affiliated clinic and declared the site “sacred and holy.” In March of 2012, when she became the president and CEO of the Houston-based Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, Melaney Linton said she was “honored and humbled to be entrusted with such a sacred duty.” She said, “I pledge to do everything in my power to fight back against the ideological attacks on Planned Parenthood and women, so that no teen will ever say she didn’t know how she got pregnant, no one will ever be denied basic reproductive health care, and no woman will ever be forced to bear children she cannot adequately support.”

OF COURSE, THIS RHETORIC of the “sacred” presents its own theological dangers. Used loosely, it runs the risk of sounding as though Planned Parenthood providers and supporters hope to sacralize the act of abortion itself, or to deem pregnancy termination a sacred duty. This would elide the deep pain and loss that many, if not most, women experience when terminating a pregnancy. Accordingly, employing the language of the “sacred” provides rhetorical fuel to those seeking to discredit abortion providers, and it can alienate those with deep ambivalence about abortion.

Despite these risks, Planned Parenthood leaders like Meyers find that the language of “sacred work” and “sacred space” can effectively describe what goes on inside PPFA-affiliated clinics, where women can realize their family planning decisions in compassionate company, but on their own terms. In this sense, for Meyers, the sacred aspect of Planned Parenthood’s work is—perhaps ironically—inextricably tied to the organization’s commitment to religious neutrality. Speaking from her Christian commitments, she proposes that by respecting individual moral conscience, counseling done well can realize the religious virtues of compassion, care for the most vulnerable, and spiritual healing. In a world of competing agendas, PPFA-affiliated clinics provide one place where a woman can engage in moral and religious discernment without pressure. “For us at Planned Parenthood,” Meyers says, “we approach pregnancy counseling from a standpoint of having no standpoint. Here there is no agenda. It’s for every woman: ‘What’s your agenda?’”

Still, Meyers contends, “we don’t shy away from [the clients’ religion] being part of this decision making process … We are trying to help people, women in particular, when it comes abortion, make decisions based on their own faith.” And, as the Guttmacher Institute reports, 73 percent of women who have had an abortion reported a religious affiliation. One in five abortion patients identified as born-again, evangelical, charismatic, or fundamentalist. Catholic women had abortions at the same rate as that of all women. Meyers recognizes that when clients decide that pregnancy termination is the right path, they are making a circumstantial decision, often overriding formal religious prohibitions against abortion. In these insistences, the “sacred space” of Planned Parenthood counseling rooms becomes a place not only of neutrality, but also for adjudicating conflicts among competing moral claims.

If Planned Parenthood staff and supporters were better able to describe in public what goes on inside PPFA clinics as “sacred work”—carried out with respect for women’s moral decision making, and care for their bodies, hearts, and minds—perhaps they could change the conversation around abortion. By adding compelling pro-choice and pro-faith voices, they could begin to fill that vacuum created by Planned Parenthood’s current public silence on religion, which the Religious Right currently fills. 

Mara Willard is a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School in Religion, Ethics, and Politics.