Katey Zeh is the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She’s an ordained Baptist minister and the author of A Complicated Choice, Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-choice Movement.
“I used to serve as an untrained abortion doula, as someone who would accompany people through their abortion experiences without having the training to do that. But it really was so important for me to understand why I do the work that I do now. When I start to lose sight of that on days that are really hard, I think back to that time in the clinic and the patients I saw and the people I continue to talk to.
When I was a seminary student at Yale Divinity School—I think it was maybe my first or second year—the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) came to campus and offered some pastoral care trainings.
I was really interested in doing more practical hands on training at seminary because there was a lot in the classroom that felt very intellectual—which I enjoyed—but I wanted to have more practical experience. So I enrolled in these trainings that they were offering on reproductive decision making and loss, how to show up for someone in those experiences. And I was really moved by that. I stayed in the organization as a participant for a long time and then joined their board of directors in my twenties and then became the CEO just a few years ago. It’s really provided the place for me to explore and live into my call in the world.
In the years before Roe versus Wade, there were clergy who formed networks in 38 states across the country to make sure that people who needed access to abortion care could get it safely. And that was the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. They helped about half a million people get access to care. Between the years of 1967 and 1973, mostly Jewish and Protestant clergy, but also lay people, helped people get access to care.
And so I think it’s really important, especially now, to talk about that history, that there have always been people…I mean, back to ancient times, faithful people who have made sure that people who needed reproductive healthcare have been there to make sure that that happens and that’s the legacy of our organization. We try to our best to honor that legacy in the work that we do. We do a lot of spiritual accompaniment work for abortion seekers, abortion providers, and activists, and also education at that intersection of religion and reproductive health rights and justice, because there’s a lot there to unpack and helping people understand how we got to the moment that we’re in now with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe versus Wade this summer.
I should say that for those of us who have been doing this work for a long time, this is not a surprise that we’re here. This has been a moment that the anti-abortion movement has been working towards since Roe versus Wade. So it’s not surprising that we’re here, but we are here and the implications are huge. The right to abortion has been a constitutional right. And when that’s no longer the case, it then becomes a state by state decision around access. And what we know is more than half of the states in the United States have what we call trigger laws. So as soon as Roe is overturned, either immediately or soon thereafter, in a majority of states in the U.S. abortion will be illegal and it will impact predominantly people living in the Midwest and people living in the deep south.
I live in North Carolina. We don’t have a trigger law. We do have a 20 week ban. And at any point, the state legislature could change and could make abortion illegal in North Carolina as well. So what we’re talking about are people having to leave their entire geographic regions to get to an abortion provider. And we know that that’s going to disproportionately impact black folks, indigenous folks, people of color, young people, immigrant people, people living in rural areas. People who don’t have the economic means to travel long distances,
The same was true before Roe as well, but I think we’re in a different position in a lot of ways. There’s different technology now. Medication abortion is very safe. That was not available before 1973, but we’ve also got laws that feel very punitive that are focused on criminalization, not just of people seeking abortions, but abortion providers and even those who would help them get access.
So a lot of surveillance, very punitive in nature, what we’re facing. We’ve already seen how these laws impact people. In Texas, there was a woman who went to the hospital and said that she had miscarried and had sought abortion care. And she was turned in and was charged with murder. Those charges were then dropped, but she was arrested and charged with murder. So we already can see what the impact is gonna be.
There’s going to be a huge need to help people get care that they need. And that is going to require resources and people power in ways that we haven’t seen on this scale before, at least during my lifetime.
I think it’s important though, to note that Roe has never been sufficient for making sure that people who need access to abortion care could get it, because there have been so many laws passed and policies passed that have kept people from getting the care that they need. As soon as Roe was the law of the land, there was the amendment that no government funded healthcare plan could cover abortion care. So that’s going to disproportionately impact poor people. Lots of states only have one provider, or there are mandatory waiting periods for people. So if you have to travel hundreds of miles or travel out of state to get care, people are already suffering from these kinds of restrictions and bans. It’s just, the scale is going to be so much bigger. And so, what we’re talking about with our partners, is how can faith communities and faith leaders be part of the network. That’s going to be necessary to get people where they need to go to get care and get it safely.
I was not raised in the church, but I was exposed to the church when I was a young person, probably eight years old. My grandmother who was terminally ill at the time, wanted to go back to church and I wanted to spend time with her. And so that was my introduction to church, as an eight year old. And I was honestly fascinated with it. I think maybe because it wasn’t something that I was expected to do. It was something I got to explore on my own. I was really fascinated with the story of Jesus and who he was and his healing and all of that and was very taken by him. Then after my grandmother died, when I was nine, church became a place to stay connected to her, but also to explore my own faith.
As I got a little bit older, really the only kind of Christianity available to me in a small Southern town was a conservative, evangelical faith community. And so that was what I chose. I wanted to be part of it and I wanted to belong and it wasn’t until I got to college and I started to study theology and the history of the church more academically, where I understood that I had only been exposed to a certain kind of Christianity, that there were lots of different ways to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be a faithful person. And that helped me be a lot more expansive in my faith, letting go of some of the certainty that I had in that evangelical tradition and just accept the mystery of faith. So after college, I decided to go to seminary, not knowing exactly why I was going, but knowing that I wanted to study more.
And while I was there, I participated in these pastoral care trainings with RCRC and wanting to use the skills that I had, I asked the local abortion clinic if I could come and do a tour because I wanted to at least see for myself what that experience was like for people, because I had never been into one myself. And this was a really profound experience that I talk about in my book, because it really was the turning point for me in terms of my call.
I arrived at the clinic, I’m driving into the driveway and I am confronted by the protestors who are outside, who are trying to get me to stop. They’re trying to give me literature. When I got out of my car, [they] were yelling at me and there were visibly Christian people outside. And that was really unsettling for me to be on the receiving end of that.
And also I had to realize that part of my discomfort was that I was being perceived as a person there to have an abortion. And there was part of me that wanted to clarify that I was not there to have an abortion myself. And I realized later that that discomfort had a lot to do with my own judgments about people who have abortions and that I had my own stigma about it that I needed to work through.
And then I walked inside and I was so amazed at the compassion and the care of the staff there. You know, everybody from the front desk manager to the doctors, to the nurses, they were providing such compassionate care to the patients who were there, some of whom were nervous or scared.
It was really beautiful to see how much love and compassion there was. And wow, what a contrast to what I had experienced at the hands of Christians outside. And I was so taken with it that I decided I wanted to volunteer there every week. I started out in the recovery room as people would come out of their procedures, just helping the nurses, handing out ginger ale and those kinds of things. And one day they were down a staff person and they needed an extra set of hands in the procedure room to help. People accompany them into the procedure room, get them on the table, hold their hands through the procedure and then help them out. And they asked if I would do it. And I just said, yes. I’m a people pleaser. It was kind of one of those, “if not me, then who?” moments and I was nervous about it.
I’d only been in the procedure room once at that point, but it was really beautiful that these strangers allowed me in. Let me hold their hand. Just let me keep presence with them because I didn’t have anything profound to say. I was kind of awkward to be honest. But that was enough in that moment.
I was there for them. I was there holding their hand, giving them someone to have eye contact with, reassuring them. And I thought, wow, this is really holy. This is very divine. I can’t describe it other than just really feeling the presence of God in that room, which is, I know kind of a profound thing to say because so often abortion clinics are talked about as these godless places. But I really experienced the divine in that room in those moments.
And so I thought, “okay, this is it.” This is the call, figuring out a way to bridge these two things because outside the Christian people—people I’m in community with as a fellow Christian—are being so horrible to the patients coming in. And here’s the ministry happening within these walls. I have to figure out a way to bridge these two things. So for me, when people ask my faith in this, they’re so intertwined, I can’t even separate them out.
On my best days, I have a lot of compassion for people who have that certainty, that abortion is wrong, because that was my approach to faith for so long. When I look at my own upbringing, having been in an evangelical environment, I really thought that I knew what the truth, capital T truth was. And I thought I knew what was right and what was wrong and who God was and who God wasn’t. And what I was supposed to do and what I wasn’t supposed to do. I had very clear sense of those rules. So I identify with it.
And I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to learn something different, to be exposed to different things, to have had an open heart, to realize maybe I don’t know everything. Maybe I’m not quite right about this and to evolve and all the patient people in my life who have had those conversations with me, have challenged me, have exposed me to different ideas. I’m grateful for the journey that I’ve been on. And I try on my best days, to remember that we are all on a journey and it’s not really mine to tell someone else what their journey should be.
They definitely make my work more difficult. More necessary. And also it helps me in my own resolve, because coming up against opposition, it does clarify for me, why do I do this? This is so hard. Why do I do this? And then I remember the people I met and when people ask me, “What’s your biblical basis for this? What do you do with these texts in Jeremiah?” And all of these things in Psalms. I just remember who Jesus was, and he accompanied people through their most difficult moments. And I think pregnant people are so marginalized in this culture. People who need abortion care are so marginalized. When I think about where Jesus would be in an abortion clinic, he would not be outside yelling at the patients coming in. No, he would be helping them get inside. He would be in the recovery room. That’s who I think Jesus would be in that place.
I am someone who has been pregnant. I have a daughter who’s seven, and I think that that experience helps me understand that parenting—the decision to become a parent or to parent—is very sacred. And I think it’s important for folks to know that the majority of people who are ending pregnancies are already parents, and that for them having an abortion is about parenting and about parenting the children that they do have. So I think having had that reproductive experience as someone who has a lot of privilege and education and also just experiencing how difficult it is, even with all of the resources available in this society to be a parent…I mean, I think the pandemic really demonstrated that to me, when all of a sudden my husband and I didn’t have any childcare and now had to figure out how we were going to do our jobs, which thankfully we could do from home and also care for our child full time. All of those things are reminders of just how much is lacking in terms of structural support for families in general. And so I think having become a parent myself and having a daughter, it’s made me more pro-choice in that the decision to become a parent is so sacred and should be done intentionally and with a lot of care.
One of the most helpful things for me to learn and incorporate into my work has been the reproductive justice framework and reproductive justice is a term that gets thrown around sometimes, but it’s not always done well. And so I would love to share with folks what that is. The reproductive justice framework was developed by black women in the 1990s, in response, honestly, to the mainstream pro-choice movement, which was predominantly led by white women.
They were saying, “this doesn’t address all of the concerns that we have as, as black women.” And the kinds of situations and struggles that they have. And so they created a human rights framework. It’s the right not to have children. It’s the right to have children. And it’s the right to raise your children in safe and healthy environments altogether. If you look at that, really every justice issue impacts that. And so that’s really helped me—especially as a white woman in this work—understand that for me, because of the experiences that I’ve had in an abortion clinic, that this is such a central issue for me, but it’s not the only issue. And it needs to be seen within the full spectrum of what is required for human beings to flourish and for their families to flourish, too.
It was such an honor to have people share their stories with me. That in itself is a huge responsibility. And I think now when a storyteller reads their chapter and tells me you got it right, I just read the sigh of relief. Because them feeling honored and seen and heard is the most important thing that I did. I think what I learned in talking to people was a reminder of why I do the work that I do. It brought me back to that time when I was volunteering in the abortion clinic. I’m a CEO now. The work is a little bit more managerial and less with folks being impacted on a day to day basis. So it reminded me of the why, but also it reminded me of how abortion can be such a positive experience for people.
Not that it isn’t complicated or difficult, but that there’s something transformative about it for a lot of people. I talked to people who said my abortion saved my life. My abortion was my moment of rethinking. What is it that I want to do with my life and choosing a different path. It was the way that they could sever relationships that were toxic or abusive. Someone said, “My abortion was a blessing.” Just realizing that abortion can be such a beautiful experience for people doesn’t mean it’s that for everybody. But I think to really talk about abortion as a moral good, something that can bring so much goodness into someone’s life, that was not something that I talked about as much. And now talk about a lot more boldly. That abortion is a blessing.
And also I just learned about all of the different circumstances that people find themselves in and the complicated nature of just being a human being. There were conditions I hadn’t heard of. People talking about the mental health implications of being pregnant that were really severe. It just reminded me that we can’t ever know someone’s story. Everyone’s story is unique. And I’m just amazed at how resilient human beings can be. It’s really beautiful.
You know, it’s funny because I really don’t do this work much anymore, where I engage in debate or make the case in an argument kind of way. Because I’ve just decided that that isn’t my work anymore.
When I look at the ways in which women, people who can get pregnant have been oppressed throughout history, around their reproduction in particular, the kind of coercion that’s happened… Even if you look at the sacred text, there’s a lot of reproductive coercion that’s going on and oppression that’s going on, where the person who’s pregnant doesn’t really have any agency over if when or how they create their families. I think it’s so important for people to have the ability to discern for themselves what they need in any given moment around their reproductive lives.
I talk about this in the book too. For me the central story—when I point to one—is the gospel story of the hemorrhaging woman. She has done everything that society has told her is possible for her to get healing from this bleeding, which we know is some kind of gynecological issue.
We don’t really know what. Could have been from an abortion. We don’t know. And everything that she’s tried has made her worse. And so she has to think, “If I’m going to get healing, I’ve gotta go beyond the bounds of what is allowed.”
And when she knows Jesus is coming through, she knows if I just touch him or his garment, I’m going to be made well. And so she does that. She reaches out for her healing. She’s the catalyst for her healing. And I don’t think we talk enough about how Jesus is unaware of this going on. “Who touched me?” She impacts him. He is moved to stop and to ask what just happened. He wants to know. And I think that that’s really beautiful too, that in some ways she’s helping Jesus expand his own understanding of who he is and of his healing abilities, which I think is so powerful.
So there’s that aspect of it, of her being the catalyst for her own healing, but also her decision to tell Jesus her whole truth. And she didn’t have to, she could have left. She had the physical healing that she needed. Even though she’s afraid, she decides to risk that and to tell him and not just tell him, but to tell the people who are in the crowd.
And that was a part of the story that I hadn’t really thought about until I started this work, that her truth telling is about her claiming her own truth, but also the people around her who would’ve heard it in addition to Jesus. And I think about who could have been in the crowd, other people with a similar condition, maybe some of the doctors who had not healed her, maybe some of the people who had marginalized her for what she had been going through.
I think there’s this collective healing that happens in her telling of her truth. It’s her own healing, but it’s also the healing of the community. And I think that what happens when we are brave enough to tell, to speak our truth is that other people feel like they can claim theirs too. And Jesus affirms her for all of this. And so when I think about the moral case, what I take from that story is that regardless of what we’re told, we know within ourselves what we need. Society might tell us one thing, that we’re supposed to do this, we’re supposed to do that. But I really do believe in having talked to so many people who’ve made this decision, that we know what we need within ourselves.
And I see Jesus affirming that because this woman did something that was beyond the bounds of what was allowed, and Jesus affirms her for it. And that’s really all I need to know. I think it’s pointing people back to the truth that’s within themselves. And when people come to me, to ask about, “what do I do?” It’s not about telling them what to do. It’s really about pointing them back to their own intuition, their inner voice, that voice of God within them and saying, “What is it that you need?” I think so often we’re taught not to trust our bodies or to trust our inner knowing. And that’s really all I need to know about this.
When I used to debate this with people on the internet or in person, it’s so abstract, it’s a lot about hypotheticals. I feel like people are often trying to get me to say, “when during a pregnancy is abortion not allowed.” And trying to get me to delineate a time. And something that I’ve been thinking about a lot is just the mysteries around life and death. Because when I think about people at the end of their life, oftentimes it’s almost like their soul is in and out. When you think about people in hospice care, they’re not always there. There’s this soul leaving and coming back in and out. And I feel like something like that has to be true at the beginning. Like during a pregnancy, I think about the soul maybe doing its own discernment.
There’s a story in the book about someone talking about that, like the soul decided this is not the time. And I think that that really turns the whole argument on its head because there’s this idea that the soul has agency too, not just the person with a womb. And I think there’s something really beautiful about that. It’s something I want to study more, but that’s not really a debate kind of question. That’s a philosophical, pondering that people have been thinking about for thousands of years. And I don’t think we’ll ever get a good definitive answer, just pointing back to the mystery. I do think that there is something very mysterious about that process.
And so what I do know is that I’m called to care for that person who is in front of me making a reproductive decision. And that’s how I choose to focus my time and energy. I feel like that’s what I’m called to do. And I will let other people who like to debate and have bioethics conversations do their work. And I’m grateful for them too, but that’s not the work that I’m called to do.
Let me speak to people who are listening, who have experienced abortion or have had abortions because I think that’s important. I know this time can be pretty triggering, if you’re someone who’s experienced this before, because you can’t escape it and it might be bringing up feelings for you. So I just want you to know that you are loved and that I think God journeys with us through everything, especially our most difficult moments. And so just know that you’re not alone, that you’re loved. And there are a lot of people like me in the world who support you.
So I just want to say, I think for other people who haven’t experienced this, just to know that in your life, whether you know it or not, there are people you love who have had abortions. It’s one in four people who can get pregnant throughout their lifetime. So even if you don’t know the story, this impacts all of us and the need for people to provide care of all kinds, there’s going to be a big need for it, not just in the days and weeks and months, but the years and decades to come.
And so I think now is a really important time to do some of that internal work around, what about abortion makes you uncomfortable? What are the messages that you’ve gotten about it or those values that you want to keep, or are you open to changing them so that you can center the person who’s being impacted by these abortion bans or lack of access to abortion care? So I hope that you’ll do some of that work.
I liken internalized abortion stigma to internalized racism and internalized sexism and all of those things. It’s a product of living in this culture. It’s not any of our fault that we have it, but it is our responsibility to identify it and to name it. And it really does get in the way of our ability to care for people. As people who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, it’s really important for us to do that work in an ongoing way. And as someone who’s been doing this work for a long time, it’s work that I continue to do too.
If you are new to this issue or not, and want to learn more about how we got to the moment that we’re in, when Roe is being overturned and how you can help, I would love for you to connect with RCRC. We have lots of resources on our website. We also have a beautiful Religion and Repro Learning Center that has webinars and self-paced courses and a resource library to help you understand more about the moment that we’re in and how we’re going to move forward.
And if you are an abortion seeker, we also have a site called Abortions Welcome. That is a spiritual companion site that we built with our Mississippi partners, Faith and Women. And it provides spiritual care before, during and after abortion. So if you’re looking for something like that for your own growth and healing, we’d love for you to check that out and would love for you to follow us on all the socials and just join our community. We would love to have you as part of our network.
A colleague of mine taught me to do [this mantra] with the inhale, the exhale, and when I’m feeling overwhelmed, it’s one I return to. On the inhale, it’s “I am enough.” And on the exhale it’s, “I am not all things.” That reminds me of who I am and that I’m not alone, that I’m in community. And all I need to do is my part. And that’s more than enough.”
-Where were you when the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade was delivered? What was your reaction?
-Do you know someone who has had an abortion?
-Were you aware of the history of faith communities helping people get access to abortions?
-Katey shared of quote of someone who described their abortion as a “blessing.” What was your reaction to that statement? Is there a way that it helps you understand the complexity of the person’s situation?
-Have you been to an abortion clinic?
-Have you ever been misunderstood?
-Katey talks about the harassment she received from protesters as she was entering a clinic to offer ministry to the people inside, when the protesters thought she was going inside to get an abortion herself. Have you ever been misunderstood?
-What are some of the stigmas you hold against abortion? About the people who get abortions?
-Katey talks about the fact that she is done debating the morality of abortion. She is focused on doing the work of caring for people in need. Your thoughts?