With abortion in North Carolina under imminent threat, Rev. Katey Zeh is encouraging Christians to speak up about their pro-choice beliefs and reminding patients that having an abortion isn’t the sin an extreme minority says it is.
Zeh is an ordained Baptist minister in Apex and serves as the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). She published her second book in February, A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement.
INDY: How did you become a minister?
Rev. Katey Zeh: I grew up a very conservative evangelical in a small town in southeast Georgia … [and] my faith was very important to me. Then I went to Davidson College and I started to study theology for the first time. I realized there was a lot about my faith tradition I didn’t know much about. It was a humbling experience, having come from a tradition where there’s a lot of black and white. I was examining my faith and making some different decisions about how to live into [it]. I got to the end of college and I was hungry to do more, so I went to seminary [school].
How did your attitude toward your faith change as you studied theology?
There was an expansiveness to it. Having all of the answers was really important to the faith community I was raised in. Knowing “This is the truth, this isn’t. These are people who are Christian, these are not people who are Christian.” [It was] a lot of division.
Then all of a sudden it was like, “No, this is a lot bigger.” It allowed me to fully embrace my authentic self, because I had never really felt comfortable within the confines of what I had been taught it meant to be a faithful white woman. I thought that those parts of me that didn’t fit were wrong, something I needed to repent from and become something different. I lost community in that search, and it was lonely in that way … but to find myself was priceless.
How did you get involved in abortion rights?
While I was a student, I did pastoral care training with RCRC about how to accompany someone making a decision about a pregnancy or experiencing a loss. I was really taken by that … so I contacted the abortion clinic across the street from the campus and asked if I could come in and tour. The day I arrived at the clinic, I had to drive through the line of protesters, and they assumed I was a patient there to have an abortion. To be on the receiving end of the harassment was very emotionally impactful.
It felt like a moment of call. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, the people who are ‘like me,’ we share a faith tradition, are outside harassing patients … yelling, trying to keep them from their appointments. That is how they are living into their faith in this moment.” It wasn’t right, the narrative that inside the abortion clinic is a godless place. I just felt, “There’s so much here that I can do.”
There’s so many parts of it that pull at my heart … I think especially because of the ways that white Christian nationalists have made this the center of their political agenda and have weaponized Christianity against people seeking abortion care.
What kind of work did you do at the abortion clinic?
Being inside the clinic and getting to witness … how much care and compassion there was, was really beautiful to me, so I decided to volunteer weekly. One day they needed someone to actually come into the procedure room. I think they were down a staff person and simply needed someone to hold the hands of the patients. I had this really sacred, beautiful experience of being able to accompany people through a very vulnerable moment. It wasn’t that I had any specific skills or beautiful words, it was more just my presence helped break what can be a very isolating moment.
Why is it important to make space for a conversation about faith with abortion patients?
With the decision to have an abortion, some people have a mix of feelings, because it is a big decision. And sometimes when we have those uncomfortable feelings, people start wondering, “Am I feeling this way because I did something wrong?” Even if they know they made the right decision and feel relieved about it, there might be a part that’s asking, “Was it wrong?”
A lot of times it’s external messaging that told them what they were doing is wrong. Maybe they were never part of a faith community that told them that, they just absorbed it from the culture, or heard it from the protesters as they were walking in, or they’ve got a relative or a friend who’s anti-abortion.
Creating a space for people to feel like it’s safe to bring up those concerns and questions [is important]. And rather than giving them a black-and-white answer, I ask them to sit with their feelings, and explain, “Just because you have a feeling that’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. It means you did something really human.” It’s so important to give people the space to ask questions; then I try to turn them back to what is true within them. We all know within ourselves what we need.
How has the faith community changed over the years in its attitude toward abortion?
We see an overrepresentation of a very fringe belief. The white Christian nationalist platform around [abortion] is the thing we hear about the most, and it’s not representative of most people. Until recently, I think people have been very quiet about their support for abortion access. In particular, there’s a lot of internalized abortion stigma we all have that functions to keep us quiet. Many religious leaders, many faith communities, even a lot of faith-based organizations that do justice work … have been really reticent to pick up and to talk about [this issue].
Now that we’re in this moment and we’ve been seeing the things like [the anti-abortion law] in Texas, people no longer feel like they can be quiet about their support. I see a huge uptick in the number of people reaching out to my organization who want to be involved in this work, who recognize this is a matter of faith to make sure that people get the care they need. The work of reproductive justice advocates and the extreme legislation we’re seeing has been a wake-up call for a lot of people of faith to say, “Wait a second, this is not OK.”
The U.S. Supreme Court just overturned Roe v. Wade. In light of that decision, what pro-choice work are you doing now and what are you planning for the future?
We’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time. Those of us who have been in this space have seen this coming, so it’s not a surprise for us in that way. There is an immediate need to figure out how to make sure people get care. A lot of folks are going to have to travel a lot farther, it’s going to be much more difficult. Lots of folks have not been able to access abortion care easily for a long time, so that’s not new. It’s just the magnitude and the numbers.
I’ve [also] been doing a lot of speaking with churches, in particular, on how we got here and how can we move forward. I really emphasize the importance of addressing the internalized abortion stigma. People support legal abortion as a majority, but a lot of people think abortion is morally wrong, and so there’s this gap in what people think the law should be and their feelings about abortion.
Internalized abortion stigma is very similar to how internalized racism and sexism functions, and it’s our responsibility to identify it and start to challenge it so we can actually show up and help the people who are most impacted. It’s really important to show up for people in a compassionate way and not from a place of judgment, and that requires a lot of internal work.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice also offers online resources, including:
— The Religion & Repro Learning Center, a website to help equip activists, scholars, religious leaders, and others in support of reproductive freedom. It includes webinars, online classes, and discussion groups. The website helps “unpack the narrative around faith and abortion,” Zeh says.
— Pastoral care training, virtual and in person, to help people learn how to accompany and provide spiritual support to someone having an abortion.
— A pro-choice website with spiritual resources, like meditations and journal prompts, as well as accurate medical and legal information about abortions.
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