Clergy join lawmakers to protest federal actions on women’s health care

Gazette photo by Daniel Wells
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee talks about the importance of protecting women’s health care at the state level in the wake of recent actions by Congress and the Trump Administration.


Religious leaders representing hundreds of Jewish, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian and Unitarian congregations joined Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee in Albany to show support for women’s health care and reproductive rights.

“As pastors, we believe in New Yorkers’ ability to get the health care that is supported by their religious teachings and personal beliefs,” said Rabbi Dennis Ross, director of the group Concerned Clergy for Choice. “People of all faiths believe in safe and legal abortion, access to contraception and sex education, and we know Planned Parenthood is an essential healthcare provider.”

Concerned Clergy for Choice is an interfaith group with more than 100 members representing all corners of the state. Its members advocate for access to comprehensive reproductive care for women and families as well as medically accurate sex education for teens.

At a meeting with reporters in Albany on May 9, members condemned the recent actions of the federal government to eliminate protections and funding for health care.

On May 4, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal significant portions of the Affordable Care Act, including the expansion of funds for Medicaid, and replace government-subsidized insurance policies with tax credits. The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the bill this summer.

On the same day as the House vote, President Donald Trump issued an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” The order directs the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Labor to consider issuing policies that would allow employers to deny coverage of some women’s health services on the basis of religious or moral objection.

“We cannot go back. We cannot return to the days of the back alleys, days where women were shamed and put through all kinds of risk,” said Assemblywoman Jaffee, who co-sponsors the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act and Sen. Krueger’s Reproductive Health Act.

“This is about justice. Every woman — regardless of their income, their age, their marital status — has the fundamental right to decide when and whether to have a child.”

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and other private employers, granting a religious exception to Obamacare by allowing them to deny coverage for preventive healthcare on the basis of the organization’s own “closely-held” religious beliefs.

While the Catholic Church has long held the position that birth control is immoral, Sara Hutchinson Ratcliff, domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, claims that the majority of Catholics support family planning and reproductive health services.

“Regardless of what the Catholic bishops may tell policymakers, the great majority of the faithful in the Catholic church disagree with our hierarchy about issues of abortion, contraception, and where and how the proper role of religious voices in public policy should be,” said Ratcliff.

The New York State Catholic Conference estimates that New York is home to 7.3 million Catholics.

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, there are 70 million Catholics in the United States. Of these, only 278 are active bishops.

“We are the Church just as much as the bishops are,” said Ratcliff.

According to a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of Catholics say abortion should be legal in most, if not all cases.

In 1970, New York became one of the first states to offer safe and protected abortion services, making the procedure legally available three years before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

“The true fight for the rights of women to make their own decisions with their doctors about reproductive health has been led by clergy in the state for decades,” Krueger said. “Long before we actually passed the law in 1970, it was clergy helping through a then-illegal network to assure that women could find safe kinds of healthcare for themselves.”

Gazette photo by Daniel Wells
Sen. Liz Krueger said clergy have always been on the front lines of providing assistance to women seeking safe abortions in New York state.

At the event, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, honored one of her constituents, the Rev. Tom Davis, for his decades of work on behalf of women. Woerner described Davis as courageous in his efforts to refer women to safe and affordable medical care in the years before such care was available.

Davis began his 30-year tenure as college chaplain and associate professor of religion at Skidmore College in 1966, when the only students were women. He worked on a campaign to allow the distribution of birth control in the college’s infirmary at a time when even Planned Parenthood considered such acts to be the promotion of promiscuity.

In 1967, Davis became one of the first to join the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a league of Protestant and Jewish clergy whose work in counseling women with unwanted pregnancies led to hundreds of thousands of referrals to safe abortion procedures by the time of the Roe v. Wade ruling.

“We are here to make society understand that a lot of religious people feel that this is the right thing to do,” Davis said.

“We cannot be frivolous, parochial or political when women’s lives, health, safety and well being are at stake,” Jaffee said.