A majority of Americans who follow a religious tradition support abortion being legal. Rev. Katy Zeh shares her faith journey from an evangelical upbringing to CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
[Editor’s Note: This story is from our sister publication in North Carolina, the Cardinal and Pine.]
A narrative exists in the United States that most people of faith oppose abortion. While it’s true that members of the Christian right have been vocal, aggressive supporters of measures that restrict access and have spent 40 years waging war on abortion rights, polling has repeatedly found that a majority of Americans who follow a religious tradition—including Catholics, Protestants, and non-evangelicals—support abortion being legal.
A 2022 Pew survey found that 66% of Black Protestants, 60% of White non-evangelical Protestants, and 56% of Catholics support abortion being legal. Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey—a study which polled more than 35,000 Americans from more than two dozen different religious traditions—also found that 57% of them believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Despite what mainstream media narratives may suggest, religious people’s views on abortion are much more nuanced—and much more pro-choice—than many realize.
Rev. Katey Zeh is a pro-choice pastor who lives in North Carolina, and fights for abortion rights. She is the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), a national organization of faith leaders that advocates for reproductive freedom and dignity, including abortion rights, and provides direct care to people seeking abortions, including spiritual care and accompaniment.
We spoke to Zeh to learn how she came to her pro-choice views, why fighting for abortion rights is central to her faith, and what it’s like to be a pro-choice pastor. We also sought to demystify the intersection of faith and abortion and better understand why so many people wrongly believe that to be religious or follow a faith means you’re anti-abortion.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you talk about your faith journey and how you came to be a religious leader?
I went to seminary after college. I got my first taste of theological education when I was a college student. I had come out of a very conservative, white, evangelical, Southern upbringing in southeast Georgia, and so I came in with a lot of ideas about religion and quickly found out that there was a lot that I didn’t know. I had a wonderful theological education at Davidson College, here in North Carolina, and I wasn’t exactly sure why I wanted to go to seminary, but I knew that I wanted to continue studying because I was so intrigued by what I’d been exposed to.
While I was there, RCRC, my organization now, was on campus providing some pastoral care trainings in how to accompany someone making a reproductive decision about a pregnancy, or who is experiencing a loss. I was so taken by that, because it was so practical and I knew it was going to help so many people.
I also realized that for me to do that, I actually needed to see what is it that people actually go through when they are experiencing abortion, and so I contacted the health center that provided abortion care down the street [and asked to do a tour].
When I arrived at the clinic, I was assumed to be a patient there to have an abortion, which was a very impactful experience for me because I felt what it felt like to have Christian people like me yelling at me, telling me not to go inside. It was very unsettling for me, not only to be on the receiving end of their harassment, but also because I didn’t want to appear to be someone there to have an abortion. I had to wrestle with my own feelings about that.
I realized I had my own internalized abortion stigma that I needed to work through. Then when I went into the clinic, I had the most sacred experience of watching the nurses and the doctors and the staff care for patients. It was really a beautiful experience for me to see how the process went and as a result of that tour, I decided I wanted to volunteer there weekly. I actually ended up in the procedure room, holding the hands of patients through their procedures, which was a sacred experience that really transformed me.
Here I am, a seminary student and the Christian people I see … are outside yelling at the patients and the beautiful holy work is happening within the walls of this abortion clinic. I felt like ‘I have to find a way to bridge these two worlds,’ because there’s a narrative out there about what it means to be a person of faith and to have opinions about abortion and it didn’t reflect my own.
What about abortion rights is so important to you in relation to your faith?
I think it’s tied to my own deconstruction journey of having been raised in an environment where gender roles were very specific and also there was a very strict sexual ethics.
There’s this idea that having a body is wrong, in and of itself—especially to have a female identified body—and I think for me, as I was wrestling with that, I never really felt like it was completely true. It felt like abortion specifically brought in a whole lot of things together for me that made a lot of sense. It’s about sexuality, it’s about gender, it’s about religion, it’s about the mysteries of life and when life begins and ends—these big questions that philosophers have been asking for thousands of years. For me, it just felt like all of that came together in this particular reproductive experience that one in four women or people who can get pregnant have [abortions] and I really do feel like it was a calling.
It is a calling from the divine because honestly, this is really hard work and I don’t know that I would have specifically chosen it had I known how difficult it was going to be. But it was just so sacred to accompany people through this very vulnerable moment—which for me, as someone who follows the model of Jesus, that is what I see him doing. He was someone who showed up for people during their most difficult moments, offered them care and compassion and love, and spoke up against unjust laws. So for me, it’s just a natural fit to do this work. I know some people won’t understand, but for me it makes complete sense.
The picture painted of people of faith or religious leaders is most often that they’re predominantly anti-choice. But based on all available evidence, that’s not true. Why do you think that assumption tends to carry the day?
This is a piece of history that I have learned from historians about, because as someone born in the 1980s, I really didn’t know about the rise of white, Christian nationalism in this country. But having studied with people and talked with historians about this, there is this political backlash to the 1960s and the expansion of civil rights for so many groups, not just women.What political operatives found is that abortion was an issue that brought Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals together to vote as a bloc, even though those groups typically do not agree on much of anything.
That kind of became one of the pieces of their central platform of their white Christian nationalist agenda to get conservative politicians elected, and it’s been incredibly successful.
In reality, if you look at the sacred texts, there’s actually very little speaking to this issue of abortion. If anything, there are pro-abortion texts in the Hebrew bible specifically, and really nothing in the Christian texts. But because it’s been weaponized and intertwined with this really well-orchestrated political machine around this white Christian nationalist agenda, they’ve done such a good job of amplifying what is really a fringe belief and making it seem like that is the only belief that’s out there. In reality, there is no one understanding of, ‘Is abortion right or wrong?’
There’s a lot of theological diversity on this, especially among different religious traditions, but the narrative has gone unchecked for so long that you can almost say it without having to qualify it.
A lot of the most vocal anti-abortion opponents are people of faith, particularly, evangelical Christians. In your opinion, what are they misinformed about?
I think one of the biggest pieces that I see … is this [mis]understanding that abortion is something that happens out there and not within their own community or within their own family or circle. In reality, it’s one in four people who can get pregnant who’ve experienced an abortion in their lifetime.
People of every race, class, religious background—everyone accesses abortion at pretty much the same rates, and so that’s a big myth.
I think another one is this idea that some people would say, ‘Well I would never get an abortion myself, but I would never tell somebody else what to do.’ The reality is we don’t know what decision we would make about anything until we’re in the situation.
I think another one, honestly, is not understanding that the majority of people accessing abortion care are already parents. Most of the people accessing abortion care already have children that they’re caring for and for them, it is a parenting decision that they’re making to end this pregnancy so that they can care for the children they have.
Have you received any negative criticism over the years for your views?
My daily reality is hearing from critics who believe that I’m not really a pastor, that I’m not really a Christian even for holding these beliefs that definitely threaten the systems and structures that uphold this narrative that abortion is wrong and all the things that are connected to it.
I think many people are really uncomfortable with the fact that one, I’m a woman and ordained a Baptist minister, and two, I’m someone who works primarily in advocating for reproductive freedom and dignity because of my faith and not in spite of it. It’s something that I have learned to live with.
What would you say to people who say being pro-choice and a faith leader are incompatible?
I understand for some people that it’s maybe an idea they’ve never been introduced to before. For them, it’s brand-new, and I understand—especially having come out of a faith tradition where there was right and wrong, that was very clear—I understand that you might not be able to see how these things are connected.
What I would invite them into is really listening to the stories of people who have experienced abortion for whom it was a life-saving part of their lives, even a blessing. Be open-hearted to experiences that you might not have considered before.
As people of faith, we are asked to keep open hearts and to love and to suspend our judgments and to be compassionate, so asking them just to read a story or talk to someone who’s had an abortion experience and see if that maybe opens their minds a little bit.
The Supreme Court appears poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. What are your thoughts on that?
This has always been the goal of the anti-abortion movement. Every legislative attempt to limit abortion access, to make it more difficult for providers, stacking the courts at every level—this has been the goal from the very beginning.
Those of us who work in this space have been preparing for this moment for a long time and I think what’s most important is that people will need care, and as people of faith, we’re called to make sure our communities are cared for. That’s really going to be a major focus: that people who need care can get access to it.
But [another thing is] asking what is the kind of world that we want to create. To me, the ability to make decisions about your body, or your family, or your future is really a sacred right that we’re all born with. It’s something that courts cannot take away, and so thinking about as we move forward, not just what we’re opposed to, but what is it that we really want to see? How do we create the conditions for everyone to truly be able to make reproductive decisions, including raising children in safe and healthy environments, as reproductive justice advocates have been talking about for a long time.
What would you say to someone who might have grown up religious and conservative like you did, hearing about how abortion is wrong, but now might be pregnant and considering an abortion, but is struggling with reconciling those two different thoughts? What would you say to someone who might be in that situation?
First of all, I want them to know that they’re not alone and that it’s okay to have complicated feelings about what to do about a pregnancy. That’s part of almost every major human experience we have—there’s a certain amount of mixtures of feelings.
Regardless of what you’ve heard from faith leaders, from the media about this, I believe that every person really does know deep down what it is they need.
I also want them to know that there are people like me—many, many people like me—who are ready to walk alongside you … as you go through that experience; before, during, and after. I want them to know that they’re not alone. God is with us in all things, even the most difficult things. In fact, oftentimes, that’s when we experience the divine in the most profound ways. You’re not alone. You know what you need and there are people here to support you through it.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice can visit their website, which includes their Religion & Repro Learning Center, a virtual resource for people to learn about the intersection of faith and reproductive health rights and justice. The group also helped launch Abortions Welcome, which aims to help people seeking abortion find spiritual care or accompaniment.
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