The Female Texas Faith Leaders Fighting Abortion Bans

·7 min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The new S.B. 8 law in Texas bans abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy, a time when many women still don’t know they’re pregnant. However, the bill goes one step further by awarding private individuals $10,000 (or more) for successfully suing anyone who performs the abortion or “aids and abets” it. That includes doctors, counselors, and rideshare drivers who take patients to clinics. Religious leaders offering reproductive care counseling or spiritual guidance are also potential defendants. On Monday, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to block enforcement of the law. In the meantime, activists, doctors, and clergy across Texas continue to condemn the ban, using the hashtag #SueMe on social media.

Below, ELLE.com spoke with a Presbyterian pastor, a Catholic activist, an interfaith minister, and a Rabbi all advocating for abortion access—no matter the consequences.

Rev. Angela Williams, Outreach and Faith Strategist for Texas Freedom Network

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

At Texas Freedom Network, Rev. Angela Williams, a queer Presbyterian pastor, helps Texans share their abortion stories with the goal of changing the culture around faith and reproductive freedom. Before the state passed S.B. 8, Rev. Angela was instrumental in the introduction of the Reproductive Freedom Congregation Designation, a group of more than two dozen Texas congregations that publicly pledged all congregants will be “free from stigma, shame, or judgment for their reproductive decisions, including abortion.”

“Reproductive freedom is a taboo topic that people in congregations don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole. It’s seen as defensive, like there’s no way to win. So people just don’t talk about it, whether they agree with it politically or not, whether they agree with it morally or not. Now is the time to speak up, and say, ‘These laws absolutely violate my body. They violate my politics, space, and values.’ S.B. 8 is based in fear. It’s based in shame. It’s trying to scare people into silence. It might be successful in that regard, but we’re not going to go down quietly. It is important to stand up and say, ‘No.’ We’ve been quiet and silent, and let things happen for fear of disturbing the waters and disturbing relationships—and we have seen the devastating consequences of that. This has to come from a faith voice. As clergy, our calling comes from a higher power. We’ve taken sacred vows to accompany people, to love them, and to follow God’s call on our lives; to follow God as we move and breathe and exist in this world. If there are consequences for doing that, so be it.”

Dr. Lizbette Ocasio-Russe, Catholics for Choice Activist

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

When Texas-based professor and Catholics for Choice activist Dr. Lizbette Ocasio-Russe first read about S.B. 8, she was shocked by what she calls a “clear bias” in the legislation. She also found herself among the few Catholics in Texas speaking out against the abortion ban.

“As a Catholic, I believe in free will, social justice, and equality. The fact is that the people most affected by abortion bans are the economically and socially disadvantaged. Affluent individuals or those with sufficient resources have the luxury of condemning abortions, because if they or their children end up in a situation where they need one, they have the resources to do so quietly and discreetly, avoiding any penalization or judgment. That is not to say that they would, only that they have the option. Conversely, underprivileged women who may need an abortion for whatever reason, be it health-related or not, have no choice. How is that fair? There is clear bias in how this type of legislature is written.

I have always believed that it is not right to tell another human being what to do with their body. God created free will and preached helping those most in need, and S.B. 8 is a clear violation of that. Personally, I think it is a violation of human rights and free will to control women’s bodies, forcing them to follow legislature that was not created with their well-being in mind. I was raised Catholic, and thus have always been Catholic. I’ve performed all the Catholic rites save for marriage. The only support I have found from fellow Catholics comes from Catholics for Choice. My family, which is vehemently Catholic, is opposed to my stance on abortion. Luckily, I have found a lot of support from other non-Catholic individuals in Texas.”

Rev. Erika Forbes, Outreach & Faith Manager for Texas Freedom Network

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Rev. Erika Forbes had two abortions as a teenager, one at 14 and the second at 18. "People from the pro-life movement did everything from call me names to spit on me," she says of her experience walking into the abortion clinic, "but that just deepened my resolve." Since then, Rev. Erika has dedicated her life, both professionally and as a volunteer, to providing religious guidance and spiritual support for women considering abortion. She is listed among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging S.B. 8 arguing that religious leaders risk “costly and burdensome civil lawsuits for providing spiritual and emotional counseling to patients and parishioners, as they are called by their own religious beliefs to provide.”

“I haven’t been sued yet, but I’m under no illusion that it won’t happen. As a licensed interfaith minister, I work with clients who are either trying to come to a decision, particularly around abortion, or who have already made the choice and are working through the emotions and feelings that come as a result of it. S.B. 8 is a direct attack on my ability to do that. Just by offering basic care and comfort, just by offering a listening ear as a woman processes her decision or the impact of her decision, I can be sued by anyone.

As someone who has had two abortions, I understand that I have an obligation and responsibility to provide the kind of care and support that I desperately needed during both of my own abortions. I understand that I benefited from the women and the people who have done the work so that I could get the abortions that I needed to have the life that I wanted to have. Now it’s my duty and responsibility to do whatever it takes, sacrifice whatever I must sacrifice, so that others can have the same opportunities that I had. It’s critical that I, as one of the few Black female clergy in the state, speak about abortion and my own abortions, especially because this issue impacts women of color disproportionately. It doesn’t matter whether I’m sued, or whether my life is threatened, or any of that, because at the end of the day, if something were to happen to me as a result of this, I can’t think of a better reason to sacrifice myself. I believe that God supports a woman’s right to choose. I’m going to continue to fight this law with every breath that I have.”

Rabbi Nancy Kasten, Chief Relationship Officer for Faith Commons

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

For years, Rabbi Nancy of Faith Commons has led faith-based initiatives to help protect women’s rights. At a Just Texas faith leader press conference this summer, a few months before S.B. 8 passed, she called on state lawmakers to defeat “bills which threaten lives rather than protect them, and to turn their attention to passing the many pro-lives bills languishing in committees right now.” Pro-lives, she clarified in the speech, should mean “protecting the ability of physicians to provide comprehensive reproductive care to their patients instead of criminalizing live-saving medical procedures,” “expanding access to medical care,” and “radically expanding access to tools that help women avoid unintended pregnancy.”

“The way S.B. 8 criminalizes people who help other people attain an abortion is more devious and wrong than anything else. I’ve opposed every restriction on abortion, because it’s a discriminatory attempt to take away necessary medical care from women. It’s biased on so many levels. It’s not about the intent of the law, it’s about the impact of the law and how it disproportionately harms women, especially minority women, women of color, and poor women. This is not about protecting lives. If the advocates were concerned about protecting life, there would be a lot of other issues that they could be advocating for—issues that they, in fact, take an opposite stance on. The lack of any kind of control over assault weapons and firearms is a perfect example. What if we brought cases against gun sales people who sold guns that were used for killing somebody else? You can think of a lot of ways to implement this strategy. It wouldn’t create a great society that functioned cooperatively, but it could be a really effective tactic. Just yesterday we had a school shooting close to our neighborhood in Dallas. These things are happening all the time and to cast this as a right to life movement is so misleading.

Jewish law actually requires an abortion in certain circumstances. For example, if the life of the mother is in danger. That can be interpreted as emotional well being and physical well being. I had an abortion myself when I was younger. It wasn’t because I had disregard for life. I’ve gone on to have three beautiful healthy children and a wonderful family that I wanted to have. I wasn’t ready to be a parent at the time. This is an issue of power and control and misogyny. This isn’t a religious issue. There are definitely faith-based arguments to be made for why we need to oppose laws like S.B. 8, just like there are faith-based reasons why we should be advocating for safe gun laws.”

These interviews have been condensed for clarity.

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