Members of the Jewish community have spoken out against abortion bans in Ohio, saying it infringes on their religious freedom. Photo by Morgan Trau, WEWS.
Religious variations abound in the state of Ohio, and some members of different churches are taking what they’ve learned in their lives and through decades of experience into the ballot box as they vote on Issue 1, the reproductive rights constitutional amendment.
For Catholics like Alexandra Belcher and Jennifer Perry, Issue 1 is a choice between the opinions of their religious leaders and their experiences with bodily autonomy.
For Perry, a physician assistant from Tiffin, growing up Catholic meant she believed in pro-life messages up until she voted in her first election.
“I voted Republican because that’s what the religious leaders said supported pro-life values,” Perry said.
Now that she works in medicine and has gone through multiple complicated pregnancies, Perry developed a perspective built on her experiences and not the values of far-away leaders.
“My view of what defines pro-life and what defines pro-choice has become just so much broader, and it’s not a black and white issue at all,” Perry told the OCJ.
With the “narrow” view that life begins at conception, Perry said she felt her belief system did “a disservice” to her in preparing for the future.
“We weren’t given both sides of the coin,” she said. “We weren’t given both perspectives.”
Struggling with infertility, and losing a “desperately wanted” child in a second-trimester miscarriage brought her new light on the struggles even individuals who want to become parents must go through.
“I desperately wanted that child, my husband desperately wanted that child, and I had to go through labor and delivery knowing that child wasn’t going to be ours,” Perry said. “To think that a mother … would have to go through that out-of-state, not with her family and friends or her chosen doctor, that’s just excruciating to me.”
Perry is still a practicing Catholic, and feels strongly that she and those like her should stay in the church and help bring those perspectives to fellow parishioners, in hopes of bringing change to the opinions of the religion.
The Catholic Conference of Ohio, which calls itself “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Ohio on matters of public policy,” has taken a strong opposing stance on Issue 1. The conference produced a letter signed by nine leaders in Ohio dioceses including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Steubenville, Columbus, Youngstown, Canton and Parma.
“The Church must not be silent and cannot remain on the sidelines when confronted with such a clear threat to human life,” the letter from Feb. 28 stated.
For Cleveland-area pharmacist Alexandra Belcher, she has no problem ignoring the opinions the church has on abortion, but remains open to talking with her friends and fellow parishioners about the nuances of reproductive health.
“The more I grew up, the more I realized this can not be up to somebody else,” Belcher told the OCJ.
Belcher went to Catholic school for 12 years, and is still a practicing Catholic, but nothing could have prepared her for her ectopic pregnancy, an unviable pregnancy that can be life-threatening for the pregnant person.
“In my medical chart, the resolution is coded as an abortion,” she said.
But that resolution involved medication that was administered in a hospital, so Belcher could be monitored by a doctor.
“The awful thing about those drugs is that they take you into labor and delivery,” she said. “So all you can hear is crying babies, the song they play (when a baby is born), and I sat there for hours while they made sure everything was going well with my medication.”
Even after leaving the hospital, Belcher suffered “excruciating” pain, so much so that when she went into labor in her next pregnancy, she was surprised to find how much less severe the pain of childbirth was for her.
“Nobody is going into a decision to have an abortion joyfully, whatever has happened to get them to the point of an abortion,” Belcher said. “It’s still not a joyful decision.”
Members of other religions, including faith leaders, are thinking about Issue 1 with a focus on the freedom to decide rather than the wrath of a higher power.
Rev. Timothy Ahrens showed his support for Issue 1 in an ad by Ohioans United For Reproductive Rights.
“As a pastor I’ve counseled families on the most important personal decisions, even abortion,” he said in the 30-second ad. “Abortion is a private family decision. Government needs to stay out of family decision making.”
Ahrens is the senior minister of the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ in downtown Columbus, a role he has served in since 2000. He has been a pastor for nearly 40 years.
The United Church of Christ supports reproductive issues and a woman’s right to have an abortion, according to the denomination’s general synod and statements regarding freedom of choice.
“The laws of Ohio right now hurt my mother, my sister, my sister-in-law, my wife, my daughters, my daughter-in-laws and my granddaughters,” Ahrens said. “I feel very strongly that the government needs to get out of trying to manage people’s lives in relation to reproductive freedom.”
Ahrens acknowledged that other Christians denominations disagree with his stance on abortion.
“Those who stand against abortion do so based on biblical, foundational thoughts,” Ahrens. “I don’t look at what they’re saying as groundless.”
He mentioned Psalm 139 as a passage that mentions God “knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
“It never says I knew you at the moment of conception,” Ahrens said. “This has a range of perspectives, if we really sat down and boiled it down to the moment of conception.”
While it’s clear what most religious denominations think abortion, it’s ultimately up to the individual members of a congregation to cast their ballot on Issue 1.
“It comes down to how closely people who are part of religious congregations are listening to the cues that they are being given,” said Kim Conger, University of Cincinnati’s director of the masters of public administration, who studies how religious advocacy groups impact politics.
“There seems to be more variation across different parishes about how strongly a priest is pushing on the idea of not just that abortion is a sin, but voting for issue 1 would be a sin,” Conger said.
The idea of one religion stepping up to tell individuals what they should believe about reproductive health doesn’t sit well with Belcher or Perry, and as medical professionals, they don’t agree with the state getting involved either.
“The reasoning is not because it’s in the best interest, or because there is evidence-based medicine, the reasoning is this magical belief that this group of cells is a person who has rights,” Belcher said.
For Perry, the reproductive debate comes down to American roots in religious freedom and the necessity for separation of church and state.
“Because we allow for so many different expressions of religion, or at least we’re supposed to, if that starts to crumble, I feel like the fabric or the foundation of what America was build on starts to crumble,” Perry said.
Watching battles with insurance companies and socio-economic issues for patients having necessary medical treatment, Perry also sees much bigger issues the state could be addressing instead.
“It’s very hard to be in health care right now, and this is another huge burden you’re placing on these providers,” she said.
Having faced these moral and professional questions, Perry and Belcher both hope for a future for their children where medical decisions are made between a patient and a medical provider, without the intervention of either the government or their chosen religion.
“I think that when it comes down to it, if I’m ever faced with the pearly gates, the God that I believe in will understand,” Belcher said.
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