Executive Summary

Renewing the engagement of religious leaders and people of faith is essential to the progress and long-term success of the sexual and reproductive health and justice (SRH and RJ) movement. Although mainline and progressive religious leaders played a central role in helping to legalize and increase access to contraception and then abortion services during most of the twentieth century, today religious leaders on the Right are more visible in public policy debates, and in many states and in Congress they have been increasingly influential in curtailing reproductive rights. The fact that a majority of people in the United States support legal abortion while a majority also believes that abortion is not morally acceptable demonstrates the need to develop a faith-based approach to closing the morality/legality divide and increase support for reproductive health services. It is time for the sexual and reproductive health and justice movement to once again embrace the influence of religion in the United States to further sexual and reproductive justice for all.

Religion in the United States

The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. More than three-quarters of people in the United States identify with a religion,[i] and more than half attend worship at least once a month.[ii] Attacks on reproductive rights have been the most virulent in the South and Midwest, where more people claim religious affiliations.[iii]

Religious practice has a special salience to many African American and Latino populations, who make up an increasing proportion of Protestant and Catholic churches.[iv] Religious affiliation helps shape US perspectives on sexuality, contraception, abortion, and LGBTQ issues. Contrary to popular belief, people across religious traditions in the United States express support for sexual rights, sexuality education,[v] and contraception.[vi] Majorities of all religious groups—with the exception of white evangelical Protestants—believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.[vii]

“We must include faith leaders in an authentic, sustained way. Connecting with people of faith is essential to our goals. We cannot advance sexual health and rights without it.” —Colloquium participant

History of Faith Engagement

Protestant and Jewish clergy were centrally involved in the early days of the birth control movement. In the 1930s, religious denominations passed the first resolutions in support of birth control. In the 1940s, Planned Parenthood formed its first National Clergyman’s Advisory Council. In 1946, more than 3,000 clergy signed a statement against religious opposition to birth control provisions. In the 1950s, clergy successfully protested Roman Catholic hospitals’ decisions to restrict birth control services, and in the 1960s, clergy were a driving force in the movement to secure access to legal abortion.[viii]

Fifty years later, religious voices continue to influence public policy about abortion and contraception, although it is often the religious voices that oppose sexual and reproductive rights that have been the most visible in the media and most influential in policy debates. The 2014 Supreme Court decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. has invigorated new attempts to deny sexual rights and reproductive health care. The aftermath of the Hobby Lobby decision and the proliferation of so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) on the state level demonstrate the need for mainline and progressive religious leaders to claim and define “religious freedom.” When religious arguments are used to deny people rights, religious voices that support justice are an essential part of the response.

Theological Grounding

There are many strong public health arguments for supporting sexual and reproductive health services that are well known to secular sexual and reproductive health and justice organizations. There is also ethical and religious grounding for supporting sexuality education, contraception, and abortion that must be widely disseminated and understood. The values articulated by the reproductive justice movement and an intersectional understanding of economic, social, and sexual and reproductive health issues are crucial to engaging a broader spectrum of faith leaders.

Abortion is morally complex for a majority of people in the United States. Many more people think abortion should be legal than perceive abortion to be morally acceptable.[ix] Although almost seven in ten think abortion should be legal, just under half do not think it is a moral option for themselves or their family.[x] The existence of this “morality/legality divide” requires sexual and reproductive health and justice activists and professionals to articulate their work as a moral movement grounded in the moral agency of women, people of color, and other marginalized communities as well as larger social justice efforts. In particular, there is a need to help the US public and lawmakers understand that deciding to have an abortion is a moral decision, that only the person who is pregnant can decide how to respond to an unwanted pregnancy in each particular circumstance, and that it is unethical and immoral to deny people access to life-saving information, education, or safe and timely health care services.

“People of faith are a resource, not an obstacle, to reproductive health and justice. Ignoring the role of faith has weakened our movement.” —Colloquium participant

The Surveys

The Religious Institute conducted four surveys with a total of forty-five organizations, denominations, and foundations in preparing this white paper. The Religious Institute surveyed the largest and most influential national sexual and reproductive health and justice organizations; denominations and denominational groups that work on reproductive health advocacy; national organizations that focus on the intersection of faith with SRH and RJ; and foundations that provide support for work on sexual and reproductive health, rights, and/or justice.

One hundred percent of foundations and faith-based organizations and 89 percent of secular organizations responding to the survey agreed or strongly agreed that it was important for the sexual and reproductive health and justice movement to do more to engage religious leaders and people of faith. Table 1 provides a snapshot of some of the key questions by sector.

Table 1

Secular Organizations

Leaders from nineteen secular sexual and reproductive health and justice organizations responded to the survey. Although most of these organizations reported that they are interested in engaging faith in their work, very few have dedicated resources to doing so. Overall, they do not have staff working on faith, programs that address faith, strategic plans that address faith, articulated values-based visions for their organizations, or a religious leader on their boards of directors. There has been effective work to combat or contain conservative and Far Right religion’s negative reach into sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice issues, and periodically these secular organizations bring a “faith face” to an advocacy issue through a coalition letter or public rally. But few of the organizations have systematically engaged religious leaders or people of faith in their efforts to achieve sexual and reproductive justice. In order to further engage religious leaders and people of faith, leaders of secular SRH and RJ organizations indicated that their organizations would need funding, materials, and training on how to engage religion in the United States.


There is a long history of religious denominations advocating for reproductive health. Religious leaders have played a significant role in securing access to abortion and contraception in the United States. Many denominations continue to advocate for reproductive health and rights. Out of the nine denominations or denominational groups surveyed, 77 percent reported that they are moderately to very active on sexual and reproductive health and justice issues. Eighty-nine percent include family planning, abortion, and/or reproductive justice in their public policy work. Yet only two denominations have increased their work on these issues in recent years, and many have struggled to maintain their historical commitments to reproductive health. Only the presidents of the most progressive denominations have consistently spoken out for sexual and reproductive health and justice. Denomination survey respondents indicated that they need funding, increased staffing, materials, and training support to do more advocacy work in this area.

Faith-Based SRH and RJ Organizations

The surveyed secular organizations and denominations and their working groups regularly turn to six organizations that work at the intersection of faith with sexual and reproductive health and justice. There are three core organizations—the Religious Institute, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and Catholics for Choice—that work exclusively on these issues. Three much larger national organizations—Americans United for Church and State, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Center for American Progress—have significant programs addressing faith and SRH and RJ issues. These six organizations together have formal networks encompassing more than 15,000 religious leaders from every US state and have worked to articulate moral frameworks, motivate religious leaders and people of faith, create resources, train spokespeople, and present a progressive religious voice on sexual and reproductive justice issues. The three core organizations together only have fourteen staff people working on domestic sexual and reproductive health issues and are under-resourced for their missions. These organizations have the knowledge and ability to motivate a wide range of diverse religious leaders and people of faith to speak out from a moral perspective in national, state, and local controversies about sexual and reproductive justice. They have contributed significantly to the SRH and RJ movement but are under-resourced for the breadth and depth that is needed.


The need for funding for work at the intersection of religion with sexual and reproductive health and justice was a consistent theme in the interviews, surveys, and colloquium discussion. Only half of the foundations that were approached responded to the request to complete surveys about their work in religion (a total of fourteen respondents). Although most had made a few faith-based grants, almost 40 percent had not. Foundation leaders overall were likely to have a negative view about the role of religion in securing sexual and reproductive rights. Yet most said that they were likely to fund a faith-based project in the future, and all agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is important for the sexual and reproductive health and justice field to do more to engage mainstream and progressive people of faith and religious leaders.”

Call to Action

This white paper concludes with a call to action based on the surveys, review of the research, interviews, and deliberations at the Religious Institute’s National Colloquium on Faith and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Justice. The colloquium participants affirmed that the sexual and reproductive health and justice movement must articulate a values-based vision and adopt strategies to more fully engage religious leaders and people of faith. The call to action urges secular and faith organizations to adopt and integrate reproductive justice as central, positioning reproductive health and rights within a larger social movement to empower all people, particularly women of color and low-income women, to have the economic, educational, social, and political power and resources they need to support their decisions about their bodies, sexualities, health, and families.

There is a pressing need to address the morality of sexual and reproductive health decisions; in particular, those committed to sexual and reproductive justice must work to close the morality/legality divide and help the US public and lawmakers understand that abortion is a moral decision. Efforts to destigmatize abortion and change the cultural narrative must involve religious leaders at the outset to fully engage morally complex issues. Together, we must shift the cultural conversation from one of judgment to one of empathy, compassion, and affirmation of people’s moral agency. There need to be many more convening opportunities for secular and faith leaders to create joint strategies at national, regional, state, and local levels and to develop trusting, long-term, and sustained relationships.


[i] “The American Values Atlas: Religious Tradition: National,” Public Religion Research Institute, 2014, http://ava.publicreligion.org/#religious/2014/States/religion/m/national.

[ii] U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008), http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf, 154.

[iii] Ibid., “Appendix 2: Detailed Data Tables,” http://www.pewforum.org/files/2008/06/report2-religious-landscape-appendix.pdf.

[iv] “Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity within Christianity,” Pew Research Center, April 30, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/pf_15-05-05_rls2_diversity640px.

[v] Debra W. Haffner and James Wagoner, “Vast majority of Americans support sexuality education,” SIECUS Report 27, no. 6 (1999): 22–23.

[vi] Robert P. Jones, et al., The 2012 American Values Survey: How Catholics and the Religiously Unaffiliated Will Shape the 2012 Election and Beyond (Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute, October 2013), http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/AVS-2012-Pre-election-Report-for-Web.pdf, 53.

[vii] “The American Values Atlas: Legality of Abortion: National,” Public Religion Research Institute, 2014, http://ava.publicreligion.org/#abortion/2014/States/abortion_legality/m/national.

[viii] See Tom Davis, Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

[ix] Robert P. Jones, et al. A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues (Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute, February 2014), http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2014.LGBT_REPORT.pdf.

[x] “Politico on New Poll By NARAL Pro-Choice America Showing 7 in 10 Americans Support Legal Abortion,” NARAL Pro-Choice America, August 18, 2014, http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/elections/elections-press-releases/2014/20140818_politico_7in10_poll.html. On the question of morality, see “Abortion Viewed in Moral Terms: Fewer See Stem Cell Research and IVF as Moral Issues,” Pew Research Center, August 15, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/08/15/abortion-viewed-in-moral-terms. See also Jones et al., The 2012 American Values Survey, 50; and Jones et al., A Shifting Landscape, 42.