Quakers Must Take a Position on Abortion

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra

Lady Bracknell: I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing. —The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)

As Friends, we make decisions by consensus. At best, seeking consensus is a spiritual practice. But all too often, we settle for merely avoiding conflict, and that can lead us into trouble.

One effect of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade was to elevate the matter of abortion from the underworld to the more polite worlds of court and church where proponents and opponents debated constitutional rights and theology. Quakers stood aside from those debates.

Shortly after the court issued its decision this past June in Dobbs v. Jackson, which vacated the constitutional right to abortion, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) published a statement that looked back on the conflict among Friends and described the contending factions as follows:

Some Friends are strong advocates for abortion rights, recognizing that a woman’s choice is a matter of individual conscience to be taken in relationship with her God as she weighs the multiple impacts of pregnancy. Other Friends feel their commitment to nonviolence and honoring the Light of God in all human beings requires them to limit abortion options or oppose it outright.

FCNL’s Policy Statement identifies abortion as a “challenge issue,” where our governing body is not in unity on a position. Therefore, FCNL does not take a position on abortion.

Although FCNL is only one of many Quaker institutions, in some circles it is considered the political face of Quakerism. In political matters, Quakers often take their lead from FCNL. Having done so, Friends are sometimes heard to say that the Religious Society of Friends as a whole takes no position on abortion.

It’s anyone’s guess how long the “Dobbs era” will last. But one thing is clear: However long it lasts, conversations in the abortion space will not be polite. Indeed the conversation is already down-and-dirty. Friends’ “no position position” has become increasingly untenable in a country where the political culture is so thoroughly polarized that it is hard to find a conscious adult who has “no position” on abortion.

As the anti-abortion forces approached fulfillment of their efforts, the veneer of elevated discussion fell away. A description of anti-abortion Friends as marked by a “commitment to nonviolence and honoring the Light of God in all human beings” is anachronistic. It hardly captures the Machiavellian tactics that anti-abortion forces have used to build the anti-Roe majority on the Supreme Court.

As Planned Parenthood, frontline provider of abortion services, laments:

Anti-abortion activists have harassed, intimidated, and bullied patients for simply seeking abortion and other essential sexual and reproductive health care with little or no accountability for decades. Abortion providers and reproductive freedom advocates have been threatened, stalked, and even murdered for doing their jobs. Health centers have been regularly vandalized and targeted by arsonists, including a Knoxville health center that was burned to the ground less than six months ago.

Now that the Supreme Court has vacated the right to abortion and turned the matter back to the states (or perhaps more precisely, to the streets), conversations in the abortion space will migrate from the distant realms of theology and constitutional rights to the realms of daily life: bedrooms, bathrooms, emergency rooms, police departments, criminal courts, jails, and prisons.

The new landscape will in some ways resemble the United States before 1973. Many of us have forgotten, or never known, the landscape before Roe. A January New York Times editorial by Ilana Panich-Linsman and Lauren Kelley gathered a series of stories of women, now elderly, who had abortions in the pre-Roe era:

[W]e will need to draw from their experiences in fighting back. Yes, a fight will be needed to regain access to abortion for millions once Roe is gone. And these women have waged that fight. They have waged it with their bodies. And they have the scars to prove it.

But the abortion fight is not merely a struggle of individuals against a bureaucratic state. Michelle Goodwin’s June New York Times essay, written shortly after the court overruled Roe, reminds us that the law on abortion prior to 1973 was part of a larger, more sinister, system that is lately trying to reassert itself:

Black women’s sexual subordination and forced pregnancies were foundational to slavery. . . .

The horrors inflicted on Black women during slavery, especially sexual violations and forced pregnancies, have been all but wiped from cultural and legal memory. . . .

State-mandated pregnancy will exacerbate what are already alarming health and dignity harms, especially in states with horrific records of maternal mortality and morbidity. . . .

Disproportionately, those who will suffer most are poor women, especially Black and brown women. Black women are over three times as likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term as white women. . . .

The court’s central role—and sadly its complicity—in the harms that predictably will result from this decision cannot be overlooked. The court will be giving its imprimatur to states set to “trigger” laws that will criminally and civilly punish girls and women who want and need to end pregnancies, including victims of rape and incest, while ignoring the deadly traps in which most of those states have historically placed Black women.

Friends’ posture of silence in the matter of abortion must change. FCNL’s statement on abortion pleads “disunity” as the reason for taking no position. But we should not allow the mindful practice of seeking consensus deteriorate into the mindless habit of avoiding conflict. Disunity does not mark the end of conversation. Disunity can be overcome.

There are plenty of avenues for unity between Friends who, on the one hand, “recognize that a woman’s choice is a matter of individual conscience to be taken in relationship with her God as she weighs the multiple impacts of pregnancy” and Friends who, on the other hand, feel a “commitment to nonviolence and honoring the Light of God in all human beings.” The post-Dobbs environment demands that contending groups of Friends find common ground. Failure to take a position in the new environment will be like failing to take a position on feudalism.

Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Mich., has found a way forward in “Advice on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, Including Abortion,” minuted in April:

Quakers have maintained a policy of silence on the abortion issue while Roe v. Wade has been the law. Some Quakers have stood against abortion on religious grounds; we could not reach consensus on the theology of abortion, and we chose a policy of silence. It was a convenient policy. While Roe v. Wade was the law, we could afford to stand by silently while the U.S. Supreme Court provided the protection and took the heat.

But when the court abandons its opinion in Roe v. Wade, the landscape will change. The theological question will be less relevant. The new question will be: Why punish those who seek or provide abortion services? Silence is hardly a complete response to that question. . . . 

Wrestling with that question must begin at the level of conscience; move through monthly meetings; and ultimately inform larger Quaker institutions, like FCNL. Our meeting is participating in that discernment, and we trust that other Friends are doing the same.

The advice from Red Cedar Friends gives us a path through disunity to reproductive justice. It is a path we must follow if we are to become relevant in a post-Dobbs world.

Erick Williams

Erick Williams is a member of the Peace and Social Justice Committee of Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Mich. He is also a member of Friends Committee on National Legislation’s advocacy team for the Lansing area.

21 thoughts on “Quakers Must Take a Position on Abortion

    1. Dear Michael,

      I hear you. And agree you have a valid position.

      However, it is not a position that speaks to my condition.

      I am a firm believer that the soul does not enter the fetus until it takes its first breath.
      https://www.currentargus.com/story/life/faith/2019/07/06/breathe-god-breathes-life-into-humanity/1660340001/

      Ergo, an abortion may shed blood, but IMHO it is not the blood of an innocent.

      In friendship,
      David Tehr
      Western Australia

    2. Dear Michael, a very useful and practical effort on the part of men to protect women from needed abortion is to use birth control. Men can use condoms in sexual intercourse, as well as abstaining from sexual intercourse when birth control is not available and hence, less women would get pregnant and need abortions. Somehow this part of the equation seems to get lost in the argument.

  1. The author writes, “A description of anti-abortion Friends as marked by a “commitment to nonviolence and honoring the Light of God in all human beings” is anachronistic. It hardly captures the Machiavellian tactics that anti-abortion forces have used to build the anti-Roe majority on the Supreme Court.”

    This is not a valid argument. Every movement has people in it who do things we can all acknowledge as bad. There are pro-choice terrorists who have attacked dozens of centers which provide a variety of practical means to help pregnant women, new mothers, babies, and others. Should that be used to dismiss out-of-hand the arguments of pro-choice Quakers? You would probably legitimately reject that idea. That some people who agree with you on an issue practice harmful tactics has nothing whatsoever to do with the merit of the issue itself.

    You are right that we should seek common ground, and I think the environment is better for that than it has been in years. It is both pro-choice and pro-life to make sure pregnant women who want to give birth are provided the social supports which make this feasible and don’t require a lot of suffering on the part of the woman. The kind of supports available to women and families in virtually all of Western Europe should be made available here. These include generous amounts of paid family leave, financial and/or practical support to families with new babies, etc. Some prominent pro-lifers have made statements in recent months that ideological opposition to government-provide social supports must be re-examined if we are to be really pro-life. These include the President of the March for Life, the largest pro-life witness event in the USA, and the Founder of 40 Days for Life, the largest pro-life grassroots witness group. A few pro-life Members of Congress are offering some legislation along these lines, more limited than we need but a step forward.

  2. No position is a position. I am not fully comfortable with abortion myself, but we as Quakers fundamentally believe in all human’s personhood and rights. If the government says that I cannot control my own body fully, am I and those like me being valued and seen as of the Light? No, obviously not.

    To me the right path is to uphold the rights of women/AFABs while reducing the need for abortion through contraceptive access, fair and neutral sex education, reducing intersecting issues such as poverty and domestic violence, etc. There will always be people who cannot carry a child and live, or where the child will not be viable at birth, or…I could go on, but the point is abortion is sometimes necessary and to say it isn’t is to deny people the right to their life. It’s far more nuanced than a lot of commentators would like people to think and somehow far more simple. It is our spiritual ‘job’ to honor all humans and reduce harm and violence, and the above is the only way. If you don’t think that, I recommend looking at pre Roe news.

  3. It is true that, without a sense of unity on abortion, FCNL does not currently lobby on it. Other Friends do.

    It is not true that we cannot labor over the issue. Friend Erick writes, “. . . one thing is clear: However long it lasts, conversations in the abortion space will not be polite. Indeed the conversation is already down-and-dirty.” That’s terrible. Friends, especially including FCNL, espouse diplomacy over war. We seek to bridge seemingly unbridgeable divides. It doesn’t work to preach diplomacy to others in their passionate disagreements while giving up to “down-and-dirty” fighting in our own society.

    Conflict can be good and clarifying, leading to deeper understanding of ourselves and our society. This is a teachable moment.

  4. Death and violence are not necessarily interchangeable. Quaker opposition to torture and to unnecessarily prolonged death or suffering is inherent to our theology. However, clean end-of-life care includes right to a peaceful, quick death with access to best medications and technologies available when this becomes necessary. Our non-violence position is not a call to immortality: death is a natural, God-given process. Almost all mammals in Wild are known to use miscarriage as a natural response to environmental or health changes that would impair raising of young. In Wild, this results in spontaneous miscarriages related to changes in temperature, food/resource availability, and illness or injury of mother. Since some primates practice infanticide when dominant male leadership changes, some other primate species have been found to spontaneously miscarry early pregnancies in response to loss/change of mate (presumably by pheromone trigger?). Given this, our Quaker opposition to violence could be used to oppose killing fetuses OR to oppose forcing prolonged suffering or death by preventing a mother from choosing a relatively clean, fast death. The argument hinges not on whether we oppose all death but on who we think has the right to judge the path of less suffering in the case of unwanted (and sometimes ultimately unviable) pregnancies. Is fetal deformation a universal indicator that quick termination is a mercy? What about maternal health? What about mental illness or inability to provide for young? What about unresolved addiction or attachment to an abusive partner? Do we believe their IS a universally correct position for all pregnancies, or does it depend on circumstance? And if circumstance, who is in best position to determine risks in childrearing environment – the mother, the family, or the state? This is why the abortion debate requires individual not universal consideration.

  5. From my perspective, the “pro choice” movement has long undermined its credibility by refusing to acknowledge explicitly that abortion ends a human life, and by bending over backwards to deny that this is so. It’s this fact — in conjunction with the equally true fact that a woman is a human being with a right to make decisions about her own body — that makes abortion a difficult moral question. We have to acknowledge that both are true.

    It seems to me that abortion can be thought of like self-defense: I’m not aware that Quakers have ever decried injuring or killing another in self-defense as wicked, but have advocated self-sacrifice and forbearance as a “more excellent way” of responding to threats of violence. Why can’t we accept that abortion is often the least bad of the available alternatives, while at the same time acknowledging that the loss of a fetal life is real and can be mourned without condemnation or judgment on those who choose that alternative.

    To be clear: the law should provide maximum protection to the autonomy of the pregnant person with regulation only when there is a compelling state interest in the regulation (which was the standard under Roe), just as the law (rightly) protects the right of a person to use force to protect him- or herself from death or serious bodily injury. But this shouldn’t preclude Friends from make the moral argument that legal life matters, too, and should be taken into consideration (even if the ultimate decision is that of the pregnant person).

  6. I found the article to be hopeful that Friends might become more of a voice for the social aspects of society. I see confusion in the concept of the fetus. The fetus is a chemical/biological life. The soul, which is the essential topic in this debate is eternal. There is no agreement about when the soul enters the body and probably does so at different intervals in the progression so defining a time (six weeks, three months) is somewhat irrelevant. Those times are arbitrary according to whether fingers and toes are present or a heart beat. The soul is never mentioned in this argument which makes me think the argument is mostly about the physical aspects of the body. When the soul is the item of concern it has infinite opportunities to engage in a physical form in an infinite universe. No soul is ever lost.

    John Hamer, MFM

    1. Dear John Hamer,

      As a Psychology undergraduate in 1987, our Lab constructed a questionnaire that was supposed to indicate where each of the 30 students stood on the question of abortion. It was 40 questions, with the classic “mark 1 if strongly disagree … mark 5 is strongly agree” format. A score under 100 was meant to inform that the participant was more “pro-life” and a score above 100 that the participant was more “pro-choice” (note the language as no-one is really “pro-abortion”)

      Most of the class fell between 95 and 110. One student scored 115, so they were a standard deviation from the mean.

      I scored 164.

      The only reason I did not score higher was because 18 of the 40 questions were, IMHO, damnably poorly constructed. So I marked them with a neutral “3”.

      Two weeks later, I was at a dinner party and the topic of conversation was a 13yo girl in Ireland who had been raped, fallen pregnant, and was subsequently banned from visiting the UK for an abortion….. Everyone at the dinner party was indignant and were saying how “wrong” or “immoral” it was, or that “the Irish government can’t do that!”

      I was the only one at the table who was able to say
      1. the government CAN do that (Political Science was my eventual Major)
      2. the Irish government SHOULD do it (to do otherwise would be hypocritical as for them abortion was murder!)

      Since that time, I am wont to say
      If we are to live in “The Age of Reason” ipso facto we must live in “The Age of Contention”, for reason alone can give us valid and yet opposing answers.

      …. which is another reason why I love modern representative democracy!

      In friendship,
      David Tehr
      Western Australia

  7. Great article! Let’s hope the silence is broken, just as it was in the 1980s with the gay/lesbian issue when Quakers were divided. Regarding abortion we need to listen to both sides as there are sincerely caring people who are pro-life as well as pro-choice. They will be against the death penalty and non-punitive in their approach. Speaking of punitive, Quakers would do well to focus on how pregnancy is being criminalized, and how women who self-induce abortions or who lose the fetus or damage a child through unhealthy practices are being prosecuted, as they were even before Roe v. Wade was overturned. I published articles in the Washington Post and the Louisville Courier Journal on a very sad case of a young woman who after her boyfriend refused to marry her and she was turned down for an abortion that her boyfriend insisted on, plunged a knitting needle into herself. This was in 1978 in Bowling Green, KY. My sister was her defense attorney and won the case by pleading her client not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. I was present at the trial and helped with jury selection. This was the first such case in history, but now especially poor and minority women are being prosecuted and imprisoned for crimes involving endangering the fetus. Most, but not all, involve drug use. Quakers have a long history of prison reform and advocacy for women’s rights. Each meeting should take a stand on this issue as was done years ago on gay/lesbian rights. Even if consensus cannot be reached, this will give us all a chance to practice our listening skills and be heard. Here’s a link to one of the articles:https://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/2022/06/24/what-kentuckys-1978-criminal-abortion-trial-means-after-roe-wade/7634612001/

  8. I am a retired OB-GYN and performed abortions for 43 years–40 years in practice (mainly at the local Planned Parenthood clinic) and 3 years in training. My license to practice medicine is still current, and since I live in one of the states (Colorado) that has pledged to keep abortion legal, I may go back to being an abortion provider again.
    I first became concerned about human overpopulation in 1960, when I was a senior student at a Quaker school, because I wanted to work for peace and read that overpopulation would increase the risk of war. Until about 1980 we were still living sustainably, but since then our global population has almost doubled–and we are using up our planet’s resources much more quickly than they can be regenerated. We are overpopulated!
    The United Nations Population Fund’s report this year is on unintended pregnancy. Almost half of pregnancies conceived in the USA are unintended; globally, the percentage is about 40%.
    There is strong evidence that children who are born from unintended pregnancies don’t thrive as well as those who were intended. These children are more likely to have run-ins with the law as they get older. Some think that the decrease in crime in the 1990s was due to the legalization of abortion by Roe v. Wade. Thus, the recent Supreme Court’s overthrow of that legalization may have terrible effects on society.
    Global population grows at about 80 million per year–and that is also close to the annual number of unintended pregnancies. How much better the world would be if all people had access to effective contraception! Unfortunately, rape, incest and other human failures happen, so access to safe and legal abortion services is essential, not only for individuals, but also for society.
    I suggest the Quaker Earthcare Witness pamphlet Friends Seeking Clearness on Abortion. If you are interested in learning about the QEW Population Working Group, please contact me: Richard Grossman richard@population-matters.org

  9. It appreciated hearing the FCNL reasoning on this. Thank you. I am, however, confused by the references to *consensus,* where a group adopts a position that is the *least unacceptable* to all involved. It is my understanding that there is great Quaker clarity on the difference between consensus and unity, where all are convinced that they are led by God to endorse and faithfully support a position. That Friends seek unity and not consensus has been one of our earliest principles. Have I been misled for the past 70 years?

    1. To The Editor:
      Friends Journal

      Erick Williams’ recent article “Quakers Must Take a Position on Abortion” betrays the myriad flaws of its premise and rationale in the very first sentence. He begins with, “As Friends, we make decisions by consensus.” When we who claim to be Quakers have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the Spiritual foundation of our religion, we are indeed in trouble, and it is little wonder that we have faded to obscurity.
      No Friends, we do not make decisions by consensus and, when we do, we have departed from the Living Root that gives us Life. In Truth, we are called to discern the Sense of the Meeting under the cover of the Divine Light and there to achieve Spiritual Unity in that Light. That is neither consensus nor unanimity.
      Those Friends who would have us become a political force or “Quaker” voice for worldly causes have appropriated the Religious Society of Friends as a political platform and are causing harm even as they misrepresent or completely ignore the Divine Spirit that Guides us. Sadly, and not surprising, there is not a single word of the living Spiritual Root of our Faith in the entire article.
      I recommend Barry Morley’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet, “Beyond Consensus, Salvaging the Sense of The Meeting.

      Don Badgley, Poughkeepsie Friends Meeting

  10. I aagree with Rachel Kopel. As long as people think in terms of consensus and come with minds made up, there will never be unity. Only when we come with open minds that we can be led by the Spirit to a new understanding of unity will it be possible Are we losing a fundamental faith in Quakerism.?

  11. Thank you so much, Friend Erick, for speaking our minds and hearts. Many of us at Friends Meeting of Washington (DC) are deeply troubled by the Dobbs decision, and continue to be horrified as the consequences of this decision unfold.
    It is now clear who feels the brunt of these decisions—the very young, the economically deprived, People of Color, Transgender people, and other vulnerable people. As a religious organization that adheres to the testimony of equality, we understand the limitations of focusing on rights without ensuring equitable access to care. An equitable society cares for, educates, and provides for the futures of all children.
    When the Dobbs decision came out, our Marriage & Family Relations Committee held a series of meetings, at first mostly giving our people a place to our fear, grief and rage. Out of these meetings came a leading to write a minute—a statement of our faith and values on which we could stand. Here is our minute:
    Friends believe that there is that of God in every person, and that the spiritual journey is one of continual seeking and revelation. Often life brings us to difficult, meaningful moments of decision making. We are taught to hold these decisions in the Light, seeking guidance by Spirit. Often, we turn to our community for help in gaining clarity. We know and respect the individuality of each person’s spiritual journey, knowing that decisions can lead to both endings and beginnings, often in unexpected ways.

    The decision to have, or not have, children and the decision of who to marry, or not marry, are examples of deeply personal, individual decisions to be made by the person or people involved, in the presence of Spirit. Friends believe that all families have privacy rights and people of all genders have rights to reproductive health care, including pregnancy termination.

    Because we have this minute, we have been able to take action on this issue. We are asking that all monthly meetings prayerfully consider the repercussions of the Dobbs decision on individuals and families, and come to whatever unity you can achieve around reproductive justice and the right to privacy.
    Debby Churchman & Martha Solt, Friends Meeting of Washington

  12. Erick Williams correctly states that FCNL does not take a position regarding abortion (“Quakers Must Take a Position on Abortion,” FJ, Aug.). This policy was born out of the discernment of more than 100 Quaker churches and meetings over many years.

    The impact of Dobbs vs. Jackson is indeed very infuriating for some Quakers and welcomed by others. There may also be both unity and lack of unity among Friends about narrow interpretations now being legislated in some states.

    The Supreme Court’s decision also raises serious concerns for other fundamental positions FCNL does take on, such as civil rights, racial and economic justice, and healthcare.

    We welcome Erick’s call for deeper discernment. FCNL’s Policy Committee is engaged in further discernment on the matter and welcomes input from Friends. Quaker churches, meetings, and concerned Fiends have communicated with us on this issue, even before the Supreme Court decision, and continue to do so.

    We remain open to Spirit’s continuing revelation and welcome your prayers—and your engagement—as we discern the way forward.

    Bridget Moix
    General Secretary, Friends Committee on National Legislation

  13. I am glad that this conversation is beginning as is it is an important one but disappointed that this is the starting point. As a Friend who holds complex and sometimes competing views of abortion, I don’t easily fall into any of the “camps” that are so viciously tearing at each other. This letter, while calling for discernment and unity, seems to be calling us to particular position- criticizing the pro-life position and using buzz words like “reproductive justice”. If we are to discern together what way God is leading us and what a faithful response to this challenge looks like, we are going to have to be more careful to create a space in which we can listen. This may mean that we each need to hold our convictions more loosely knowing that the Spirit may move us to a different place than we were before as a part of the process. This is not decision making by consensus but rather a sense of the meeting, an articulation of where we believe that God is moving us instead of the lowest common denominator.

  14. In 1993 I had the privilege of shepherding a Common Ground listening experiment among Pro Choice and Pro Life proponents precisely BECAUSE Friends had not taken a position on the issue. With the support of my Friends Meeting and the local ecumenical social action coalition I was led to invite the sides to engage in finding common ground AROUND the issue of abortion. Both sides had followed what was happening in the Common Ground movement elsewhere and assured me they would participate, but they were sure the other side wouldn’t. However, the other side DID and after ascertaining that neither I nor my Meeting had taken a position on the abortion issue, they agreed I could be trusted to shepherd the process. We met for a year and a half and concluded with a press release about where our process had taken us – from each perceiving the other side as the inhuman/inhumane enemy to recognizing we were ALL concerned about issues around sexuality and how to make abortion RARE. This included agreement that we as a society need to support mothers and children so that expecting moms can welcome and care for their children well and some of them even went on to advocating together for such action from our cities and the state legislature. Note: if Friends, my Meeting or I had already taken a public position on the issue of abortion, this fruitful process would not have taken place. This does not preclude Friends, as individuals, from becoming activists on one side or the other. But let’s be careful about positions we take organizationally, lest we no longer be considered “honest brokers” for such roles as the one to which I was led – which helped defuse what could otherwise have become an explosive situation in the city where I lived then.

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