Episcopalians show support for reproductive freedom at march

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April 27, 2004

Episcopalians joined more than one million people, representing 100 religious and religiously-affiliated organizations and congregations, to march on Washington, D.C., April 25 in support of women’s reproductive rights at home and abroad. The march recorded the largest ever crowd count for women's rights in the nation's capital.

The "March for Women's Lives" was co-sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), an alliance of national organizations from major faith groups, local affiliates, the national Clergy for Choice Network, Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, and the Black Church Initiative. According to its mission statement, RCRC supports the constitutional right to abortion and solutions to problems such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, inadequate health care and health insurance, and the "severe reduction" in reproductive health care services. The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Women's Caucus are both members of RCRC.

The Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, a member of RCRC's Council of Governors, welcomed the gathering with assurances that the religious community is behind them. "You can't sustain a movement on outrage," she said. "We are here to support the providers, politicians, women and activists, and let them know that we respect them for their work and their commitment." Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest, added that a punk rock concert was held in Washington April 24 to enlist young people in the movement.

Also marching behind the Episcopal Church banner were the Rev. Margaret Rose, director of the Episcopal Church Office of Women’s Ministries; Executive Council members Louie Crew and John Vanderstar; long-time women's rights activist and General Convention deputy Marge Christie; and Maureen Shea, director of the Government Relations Office.

Before the march, the RCRC also held a "Prayerfully Pro-Choice Interfaith Worship Service."

Call for justice

In 1994, the 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church reaffirmed that all human life is sacred from its inception until death and that all abortion is regarded as having a tragic dimension. "While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion," the resolution stated, "as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience."

“General Convention resolutions have expressed unequivocal opposition to any legislation abridging a woman’s right to make an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy, as well as the pain and possible support that may be needed for those making difficult life decisions,” Rose said, adding that participating in the march shows that supporting women's rights is “essential to our call for justice.”

“By publicizing this march and other events through our network, we are able to enlist and inform Episcopalians about important events,” explained Mary Getz, director of the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN). “This is one of the ways we are continuing to build our grassroots advocacy network.”

The march came in for criticism from the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which issued a press release calling it a “scandal” and suggesting that “a majority of church members...would be disgusted if they knew that their denominations have joined…in backing this kind of cause.” IRD president Diane Knippers, an Episcopalian, said that “the church’s proper role in this issue is to offer godly counsel and ministry to persons involved in crisis pregnancies. But in this case some...are adopting the strident arguments of the secular culture.”

Other Episcopalians participating in the march included delegations of women and men from California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Virginia and Wyoming.