Rev. Jane, one of “The pastors at Planned Parenthood”
from the Yakima Herald-Republic, Friday, January 18, 2008:The pastors at Planned ParenthoodYAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICWhile some Yakima religious leaders are preparing for this Saturday’s anti-abortion march downtown, others are working quietly to support women’s right to choose abortion.
About a dozen local pastors serve on the clergy committee of Planned Parenthood of Central Washington in Yakima. They meet monthly to talk about issues concerning the reproductive rights organization, which offers birth control, abortion, HIV/AIDS testing and other medical services to women throughout the area.The pastors, who belong to traditional mainline and progressive Christian churches, offer their support to Planned Parenthood staffers. They sometimes are asked to provide pastoral guidance to women considering terminating a pregnancy. They tell women that it’s morally permissible in religious terms to choose to have an abortion.Clergy have been involved with Planned Parenthood since its start more than 90 years ago, so these local pastors are carrying on a long tradition.”Many Planned Parenthood (chapters) started in church basements,” said Anna Franks, president of Planned Parenthood of Central Washington. “Clergy were right there at the beginning of the movement. They had couples coming to them seeking support.”The local pastors’ work is not easy or comfortable, particularly in a community with a heavy representation of Christian conservatives who deplore abortion. The Rev. David Helseth, senior pastor at Yakima’s Englewood Christian Church, acknowledged that not all members of his own congregation approve of his involvement with Planned Parenthood.But “it primarily comes down to supporting women’s rights to make choices,” said Helseth, who was a founding board member of the local Planned Parenthood chapter and its chairman from 1998 to 2000.The existence of the Planned Parenthood clergy committee shows that while conservative Christian and Catholic leaders have taken the lead in denouncing abortion, their view is not shared by all clergy.”Anti-abortion isn’t an accurate representation of how all religious people feel,” said the Rev. Jane Newall, founder and senior pastor of Yakima’s Rainbow Cathedral Metropolitan Community Church, which welcomes people of all sexual orientations. “I think our voices are sometimes overshouted by anti-abortion groups who choose to use religion as one of their whipping posts.”Newall is a member of Planned Parenthood’s national clergy advisory board and a member of the local organization’s board.A local evangelical Christian minister castigates the pastors for their association with Planned Parenthood and their support for abortion rights.”Abortion is a curse on the land; our nation is suffering because of it. Four thousand babies a day are murdered in the womb, and we will have to pay a great price for that,” said the Rev. Ron Thomasson, pastor at Gateway Fellowship in Yakima. “I think (the Planned Parenthood pastors) are deceived. They have a liberal mind-set.”Thomasson believes Helseth and Newall are “in a very small minority” among Christian ministers on the east side of the Cascades. He will be out Saturday participating in the anti-abortion walk, which commemorates the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade that barred states from outlawing abortion.Pastoral guidance on abortionThe local Planned Parenthood clergy committee is part of a small but growing nationwide trend that started in the mid-1990s. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America formed its national Clergy Advisory Board in 1994.Since then, clergy committees have formed at about 15 percent of the 110 Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country, including three of the five in Washington, according to the Rev. Vincent Lachina, a Southern Baptist minister and the state chaplain for the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Washington.”It’s only since 1994, when the religious right became so powerful, the progressive clergy tried to find a voice and speak out,” said Lachina, who attends most meetings of clergy committees in the state. But “we’re just now finding our voice. It’s very important for us to meet with our peers and talk about these issues and know there are others who are part of the progressive movement.”The Yakima clergy committee has been meeting “quietly and consistently” for about 12 years, Helseth said.”We’ve had (Planned Parenthood) staff members talk about what they do. We’ve talked about homosexuality, HIV and AIDS, the role of clergy, sex education. We don’t necessarily get theological.”But some of the clergy committee members do get political. They participate in legislative lobbying in Olympia on behalf of Planned Parenthood, and write letters to legislators. A major issue for Planned Parenthood in this year’s legislative session is whether local school districts should be required to seek federal funding for sex education. Such funding would require them to teach abstinence only, instead of a more comprehensive approach that includes lessons such as condom use.Clergy committee members also receive referrals from Planned Parenthood staff of patients who are struggling with difficult decisions. In addition, the clergy group has drafted a “Pastoral Letter About Your Abortion Decision” to guide patients.The letter states that “we believe that God loves you, and that you can find strength, understanding and comfort in that love on days when you are in doubt or distress. We support your right and your ability to choose what is best for you. If you have thought about this decision, then you should allow yourself to be at peace and to be confident in your decision.”But Thomasson, at Gateway Fellowship, said he strongly disagrees that it’s religiously permissible to have an abortion.”We believe according to the Bible that God is originator of life, he decides when it begins, and he ends it at his determination,” Thomasson said. “We don’t want to meddle with what God is doing.”Helseth takes a different view.”When women are given power over their own bodies, and especially reproductivity, they will make good decisions that are best for them and their children and family,” he said. “This strengthens families and strengthens communities.”Planned Parenthood’s Franks encouraged pastors to join the clergy committee.”The clergy that have come forward are willing to respect women’s decisions and offer spiritual guidance regardless of their decisions,” she said. “We would love more clergy to join.”* Herald-Republic City Editor Harris Meyer contributed to this report.