Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Faith matters: communicating sexual and reproductive health values

Here's the Reverend's article (background here) [references omitted]:

As a minister and as a sexologist, I applaud the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals new Values Project. For too long, those of us in the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) field have articulated our vision only in terms of research and statistics, and have not emphasized a shared moral vision. Our shared moral vision includes tikkum olam, a term translated from Hebrew to mean "heal the world". As a field, we want to end the suffering around unintended pregnancies, coerced and exploitive sexual experiences, attacks on bodily integrity, denial of one's sexual or gender identity, violence against women and sexual minorities and children who are not loved or wanted.

Many SRH professionals have been personally turned off by religion due to their own negative experiences in faith communities. The SRH and rights field as a whole suffers from a term I have coined religiophobia, or an irrational fear of religion. Many people in our field have been alienated from faith communities because they view them as erotophobic, and because some religious groups deny sexual and reproductive rights.

But religion plays a very important role in America and indeed the world, and the SRH field has ignored its influence to our detriment both in people's lives and in policy debates. Religions help people construct their moral frameworks, including their values and decisions about sexuality. Religious leaders play a central role in many public policy discussions, including measures that affect the nation's sexual and reproductive health. Religious communities are affected by many of the issues addressed by SRH programs, such as teenage pregnancy, STDs, HIV, sexual abuse and domestic violence.

The majority of the women that seek reproductive health services come from a faith background. Nearly 90% of Americans indicate that they have a religion or belong to a faith community. Although the influence of religious communities has decreased slightly in the past 30 years, there is no other institution in America that touches as many people throughout the life span. Four in 10 Americans attend a worship service regularly Two thirds of Americans are members of a faith community. In 2003, more than half of the adults in the United States said that religion is very important in their lives.

Religious institutions also reach a majority of youth in the United States. After schools, religious institutions serve more teens than any other community agency, and they are the only ones that are specifically empowered to do so from a moral perspective. More than 60% of American youth spend at least 1 h/week in activities in a church or synagogues. Involvement in a faith community may decrease the likelihood that a young person will engage in risk-taking behaviors, including premature involvement in sexual intercourse. Teenagers who say that religion and prayer are important to them are more likely to delay sexual intercourse and less likely to use alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

Although the public debate about sexuality and reproductive health has been dominated by religious conservative voices, there is a strong progressive and mainline religious voice that affirms that sexuality is a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. Two thirds of clergy and adult leaders agree that faith-based institutions should teach comprehensive sexuality education, including abstinence, and that they could be doing more than they are currently in the area of sexuality education. I lead a network of more than 2600 religious leaders from more than 40 denominations who have endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. The Religious Declaration calls for a new paradigm for sexual morality that is not based on specific sexual acts, but on personal relationships. The Religious Declaration says it is relationships, not specific acts, that are important. It calls for relationships that are loving, just, mutual, committed, honest and pleasurable. It calls for a sexual ethic that accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation. The Declaration calls for a "faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment."

Many denominations in the United States have passed policies in support of sexual and reproductive rights. For example, at least 14 denominations have official policies supporting sexuality education in their congregations and/or sexuality education in public schools. At least 10 religious denominations have endorsed their clergy performing commitment, marriages or union ceremonies for same-sex couples. Several denominations have endorsed the rights of same-sex couples to legally marry and/or oppose federal and state efforts to deny marriage equality. At least 11 religious denominations have passed policies in support of legalized abortion.

As a field, we have too often ceded moral language to those who would deny sexual and reproductive rights rather than challenge their moral values. We can ask, "Is it moral to coerce women into carrying a pregnancy to term?" "Is it moral to deny young people life-saving information?" "Is it moral for the government to tell committed loving couples that they can't marry?" "Is it moral to privilege one religious point of view over another?"

We can articulate our moral values in a common-sense, common-wisdom manner. We can say that sexuality education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear and shame. Programs that only teach young people about abstinence and withhold life-saving information about pregnancy prevention and STD prevention are immoral. Scriptural and religious commitment to truth telling calls us to provide all young people with full and honest information. America understands when we say that the goal of sexuality education is to develop healthy sexual adults, who appreciate their own body and interact with both genders in respectful ways. We need to emphasize community responsibility for all of our children. We need to tell parents that we want to help them give their sexual values to their children, not our values. We need to say that our goal is to help people make sexual decisions in ways that are congruent with their values: that we must all learn to discriminate between sexual behaviors that are life enhancing and those that are harmful to others.

We need to shift the dialog about abortion to one that is committed to reducing unintended pregnancies and to assuring all children are planned and wanted. We need to say that it is a moral disgrace that more than a million women in the United States alone each year have an unintended pregnancy, a pregnancy that could have been avoided if there had been adequate sex information and easy-to-use, safe, affordable contraception including emergency contraception. We need to say that it is immoral that more than half a million women around the world die each year from pregnancy-related causes. We can articulate that abortion should be safe, legal and rare, but we must also stand for a moral imperative to access to high-quality prenatal care and abortion services; that too many women because of poverty, sexism and racism do not have the ability to make informed decisions when faced with an unintended pregnancy. We can affirm that it is precisely because life is sacred that it should never be created carelessly. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term and that every pregnant woman should have access to high-quality prenatal care, maternity care, newborn and pediatric care, education and employment opportunities.

We need to engage mainstream and progressive faith leaders to be our partners in promoting SRH and justice. The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing has a new publication, "Reaching Out to Faith Communities: A Guide for Sexual and Reproductive Health Communities," that provides concrete suggestions on how to do so.

I believe we must also seek common ground with those we think of as our religious opposition. We must remember that they too love their children, that they too believe that they are working from a faith perspective, and we must seek to find ways to dialog with them. We must learn to listen, not just react, to opponents. We can look for opportunities where there might be opportunities for collaboration, such as prenatal care, adoption, parenting and marriage support. If we can approach people of faith who oppose us from a place of listening and love, we may get farther than thinking about them as "the opposition."

The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals can become one of the leading organizations articulating the values and ethics of the SRH and rights community. Readers can reach out to local clergy and theologians for help in articulating a moral vision for the work. We can reclaim the moral high ground from those who seek to deny women, men and families needed services.



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