Testimony of Reverend Lois M. Powell, United Church of Christ Minister, on Behalf of The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice at a Hearing on H.R. 1755, the Child Custody Protection Act before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution
Ladies and gentlemen of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to speak with you today. My name is The Reverend Lois M. Powell, and I currently serve on the national denominational staff of the United Church of Christ in our Justice and Witness Ministries. I am also the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the 31-year-old coalition of national religious and religiously affiliated organizations from 15 denominations and faith traditions, including the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Reform and Conservative Judaism, and my own denomination. Together, the denominations and traditions in the Coalition have more than 20 million members.
I am here today as a person who has counseled women facing unwanted or unintended pregnancies since 1970, when I started as a peer counselor with a campus chapter of Planned Parenthood at my college. I am here today to represent many people of faith who are disturbed by the possibility that the United States Congress might enact a law that would jeopardize the health and well being of minor young women. Since 1969, the United Church of Christ has supported the right of women to determine their reproductive health. Since 1973, it has consistently opposed efforts to limit or eliminate full access to these legal rights for any woman facing an unintended or unwanted pregnancy regardless of age or income. A majority of persons of faith in the United States-74 %, in fact, according to a national survey conducted in 2000 by Lake Snell Perry and Associates-believe that these very private decisions are best made to the woman in accord with her religious and ethical beliefs, and her God.
When the woman is young, a minor, she, too, must be able to determine what is best for her. Optimally, she would be able to discuss this with her parents or legal guardian and together they would come to agreement about what path to take. Usually young women do involve their parents, even in states without mandatory parental consent or notice laws. Of those young women who did not involve a parent in their decision, over half involved a close relative or other responsible adult. (Stanley K. Henshaw and Kathryn Kost, Parental Involvement in Minors' Abortion Decisions, 24 Family Planning Perspectives 199-200, 207 )
But we do not live in an optimal world. I am here today to bring a human face, a human reality to the potential effects of this Act. In the pre-Roe v. Wade era, when I began counseling women facing unwanted or unintended pregnancies with a campus chapter of Planned Parenthood, those who chose to terminate a pregnancy were referred to a member of the clergy in the Clergy Consultation Services, a network of ministers and rabbis who offered all-options counseling before referring women to places where safe abortions could be obtained. (In 1970, that place was the State of New York, which had made abortion legal that year.) In many cases, they did so in order to save the lives of women who might otherwise take desperate measures to end their pregnancies, attempts that often ended in death or the inability to have children at all.
Someone once said that statistics are human faces without the tears. After I was ordained in 1978, I continued to provide counseling and support to women struggling with whether or not terminate a pregnancy. As a pastor in Tallahassee, Florida, I extended this support to parishioners and to clients at a local women's clinic who struggled particularly with spiritual and religious issues. Currently, I receive an occasional request to counsel women who have contacted the Ohio Affiliate of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice with a desire to talk with a minister.
While in Tallahassee, I counseled a 16-year-old woman at the clinic who had traveled from South Georgia with her 20-year-old sister. These sisters had grown up in a conservative Christian church that had a strong and publicly visible anti-abortion position. The 16-year-old had only her sister to turn to for support when she learned she was pregnant. Both felt they could not talk to their parents about the pregnancy because their parents had made their disapproval of sexual activity abundantly clear. Their church was a very important part of their family and community life, and the sisters were terrified at the prospect of public humiliation and shame that could fall upon the entire family if it became known that a member of the family had an abortion. Their worst fear was that they could be removed from this church and, in effect, abandoned by the faith they had known from childhood. The Child Custody Protection Act would only make this difficult situation worse. It would drive a wedge between the daughters and parents and could cause a lifelong breach in family communication.
Under the Child Custody Protection Act, the 20-year-old sister would be a federal criminal for accompanying her younger sister across state lines for an abortion. I ask you, is this just? Does not this kind of punitive law unduly burden young women and place a formidable obstacle in the way of their securing legal and safe reproductive health care?
I assured this young woman, and her sister, that God had not abandoned them but would remain with them always. I encouraged them to find a way - eventually - to talk with their parents but not without a supportive third person who could mediate on their behalf. I also encouraged them to find a counselor close to where they lived who would be able to offer emotional support in a non-judgmental manner should any issues arise when they returned home. This young woman did decide to have an abortion but many of the same questions and issues would have applied if she had decided to carry the pregnancy to term.
Statistics are human faces without the tears. Not one woman has the same story or set of circumstances as any another woman. Each situation is unique, shaped by the nuances of her religious background, her family setting, her finances, her emotional and psychological maturity, and other factors too complex and diverse to enumerate. Some women under the age of 18 are already mothers, some only want to finish high school. Some choose to terminate their pregnancy, some choose to carry their pregnancy to term. We can never forget that individual women, who themselves have been created in the image of God, struggled in each and every instance.
The Child Custody Protection Act will not protect girl children or make their struggle less difficult. It will make them even more vulnerable during a time of crisis. When only 14% of all counties nationwide have an abortion provider, a majority of women seeking to exercise their legal rights to full reproductive health care will have to travel at least to another county. The closest provider might, in fact, be across a state line. If that woman is a minor, and if she is terrified to tell her parents because of a history of physical violence in the family or for other real concerns, how is she going to get there? Alone? On a bus? What if she had been raped by a father, as was the case with Spring Adams, a sixth-grader in Idaho. Spring was impregnated by her father, and because of the parental consent requirement in her state, she was forced to tell her mother that her father had raped her. He then shot and killed young Spring Adams, her mother and then himself. (Richard North Patterson, in a speech to the National Abortion Federation, April 23, 2001) This is one American family's story.
Parents are supposed to protect their children from harm. But even in the most loving of parent-child relationships, harm can happen. Children who are close to their parents may not know if the knowledge of a pregnancy will turn parents against them, or they do not know if God will punish them, and so they keep silent. In households in which distrust or violence prevail, children are even less likely to trust a parent or legal guardian in a time of crisis. So it is reasonable that they turn to other adults whom they do trust and in whom they can confide. It would be the role of that adult to help the young woman to negotiate the rocky waters of family conflict, to make a decision about what to do, and to assist her in achieving what she determines is best for her. If that assistance included accompanying her across a state line to terminate a pregnancy, that trusted adult would be a federal criminal.
I ask you, is this just? Should minors' access to legal health care services be compromised in this way? Should those who assist them in obtaining legal health care be criminalized? Are these the family values we choose to espouse?
I worry about every teenager who becomes pregnant, and I pray for the day when this is a rare occurrence in our society. I pray for the day when boy children are taught to respect girls, when they know that while the consequences for themselves of impregnating a girl are different than they are for the girl, there are consequences for them. I pray for the day when rape, whether date rape or stranger rape, that results in pregnancy becomes the real issue which we as a society must address, not the resultant pregnancy. I believe we all would affirm this.
Parents need to be involved in their children's lives, and we as a society need to create a culture that encourages good parenting. Yet I know from my years in the ministry that parents are not perfect and that many struggle to understand their own children. I also know parents who never grew up themselves and who impose on their children their own immaturity. The solution to involving parents is not to pass legislation that would mandate family communication on one particular issue-this issue of abortion. In reality, this legislation could end up destroying the family's relationships and endangering the girl's well-being.
Please do not support this Act. It is not about protecting children but about governmental interference in the decisions of conscience that young women sometimes have to make.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify before you today. May you continue to hold the faces, names and hearts of those who would be most impacted by this Act, should it come to pass, before you.