In our line of work, there are three words that I hear more and more often: choice, faith, and hope.
Choice and faith, in the context of the religious movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice, are relatively straightforward. For many of us, the personal — rather than the political — framework of choice is how we came to understand the necessity of this work, and I’m no exception.
My brother was just sixteen when his girlfriend became pregnant with the baby who is now my beloved niece. Our parents, lifetime Unitarian Universalists, were very clear that the choice to continue the pregnancy belonged only to my niece’s mother and that our responsibility as a family and brother’s responsibility as a father was to support her in her choice.
I also saw firsthand the role that faith played in how she made that choice. And it clarified something crucial for me. I had grown up understanding that women are moral agents in and of themselves. It was a matter of injustice for us to respond to the needs of women as though they were inferior, subordinate, or incapable of making decisions for themselves. But for so many faith leaders — so many loud, dominant voices in the faith movement — that was not the case. They did wish to perpetuate that injustice.
For me, that was unacceptable. From that moment, I knew in my mind and heart that I wanted to use my voice as a person of faith (and later, as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist church) to support women like my niece’s mother. That was my entry into the relationship between religion and reproductive freedom — and I’ve been involved ever since.
My understanding of the absolute urgency of this work only deepened during my time as an emergency medical technician during college and seminary, when I cared for many women and girls experiencing complications of pregnancy and pregnancy loss.
Later, in my first ministry in Marietta, Ohio, I worked closely with domestic violence organizations, making sure women had safe places to go. This also involved an understanding of the realities of pregnancy — nearly 20% of women experience domestic violence during pregnancy, and there is a critical need for the community to provide safety.
The question that guided my work, then and now, was a simple one: Do women feel safe to carry out the decisions they’ve made for themselves, and how can the community support them?
In my time with RCRC and the Compassionate Care program, I’ve witnessed the evolution of the role of faith leadership in the reproductive freedom movement, from direct care and counseling to advocacy and the creation of ongoing resources for faith leaders and care providers alike. I’ve seen the power of a faith-forward voice reminding people seeking counsel that they are a child of God. That regardless of the messages they were receiving from others, they were endowed with the human right to make the choice that was right for them. That it was not a matter of being alienated from God but the process of drawing on the strength of that relationship in order to make the decision that was right for them. I’ve seen the difficult process of the evolution of the movement for reproductive freedom, leadership changes, and paradigm shifts. I was proud to witness RCRC’s decision to represent the spectrum of health, rights, and justice — understanding, that in order to be an organization that echoed the necessity of reproductive justice, we needed to recognize that that this justice framework came from Black women and other women of color and not wanting to usurp the generative power of that specific experience and language.
Yet there is still so much to do. And that brings me to hope.
Since the Dobbs decision last summer, I’m sometimes asked if I’m hopeful about the future of reproductive health, rights, and justice. To that, I respond: Are you asking if I am hopeful, or optimistic?
This is an important distinction — and for my part, I am guided by the scholarship of Cornel West and Václav Havel. Optimism is the belief that things will get better — and I truly don’t know if I feel optimistic. But hope — hope is the ability to discover that there is something important to do, or some important stance, or some important way of being, regardless of the outcome, because in the absence of that doing, being, or saying, we are less than what we could be. The art of holding hope is the art of reminding people that they are worthy of declaring their truth in the midst of whatever they’re holding, and there’s power in that — and that power is necessary for change to occur, whether or not change does occur.
Hope is not about the ends. It’s about the work — toward a world we have an obligation to create.
The work continues. And so we continue to do the work.
Reverend Aaron Payson, Minister
Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester
Former member, RCRC Board of Directors