Rarely A Simple Choice and A Divine Imperative
Two Interviews with Rev. Dr. Alethea Smith-Withers, the New Chair of the Board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice - By Wayne Rhodes, Editor, Faith in Action, an online publication of The General Board of Church and Society, The United Methodist Church. Reprinted with permission
Rarely A Simple Choice
The Rev. Dr. Alethea Smith-Withers is well aware of the challenges facing her as she takes over as chair of the board of directors of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The very name of the organization stirs controversy on many levels, not the least of which is the furor raised by those who contend that “reproductive choice” is synonymous with “abortion.”
Reproductive health care is rarely, if at all, a matter of simple choice.
Smith-Withers, an African-American/Caribbean woman, is a wife, a mother and a Baptist clergywoman. She says her gender, culture, motherhood and faith are the most compelling features that bring her to RCRC and the reproductive-justice movement.
“Reproductive health care is rarely, if at all, a matter of simple choice,” Smith-Withers stresses. “For women reproductive health care is a matter of justice: reproductive justice.”
Every person of faith who supports the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is, on some level, responding to a sense of call that is meaningfully framed by the context of their lives, according to Smith-Withers. Her own life confirms that.
Smith-Withers had four miscarriages as a young woman and then developed rubella during her fifth pregnancy. Near the end of the first trimester of that pregnancy, her physician advised her to abort the pregnancy because of the probable detrimental impact of rubella on the fetus.
“For reasons that I can’t explain, I chose to move forward with the pregnancy,” Smith-Withers recalls. “It was a difficult decision and one that I probably would not have made had I not had four miscarriages.”
Smith-Withers remembers the weight of that decision. “I was deeply torn,” she says. “My husband, family, clergyman and physician supported me. No one pressured me. I thanked God then and I thank God now that I had the option to have a safe, legal abortion. Indeed, I was blessed to have emotional support and the dignity of choice.”
I had the dignity of choice: a right that is not afforded to all women.
Miraculously, Smith-Withers delivered a healthy baby, but she says that experience profoundly changed her. “As I looked at my healthy baby, I realized that a great deal of my joy was tied to the fact that I was not coerced to move forward with my pregnancy,” she says. “I had the dignity of choice: a right that is not afforded to all women.”
All too often, women do not experience the dignity they deserve, and are not aware of or provided with healthful and affordable options for reproductive health care or abortion, according to Smith-Withers. “This type of injustice is even more prevalent among women who are marginalized by virtue of race, ethnicity, economics, limited education or other socio-economic factors,” she emphasizes.
The 3rd miscarriage
Smith-Withers says she can never forget the circumstances surrounding her third miscarriage. She was near the end of the first trimester and was rushed to the emergency room because of complications. The physician talked to her about options and then asked if she could afford to have a child.
“In pain and frightened, I made every effort to listen to him,” says Smith-Withers, “but why was he asking me if I could afford to have a baby? We wondered how his question was germane to any decisions I had to make regarding my health care.”
I gradually realized that I was just another poor black woman in his eyes.
The doctor told Smith-Withers that if she couldn’t afford to have a child, she shouldn’t attempt to prevent the miscarriage. “I gradually realized that I was just another poor black woman in his eyes,” she says.
Reproductive choices and personal dignity are difficult for every woman to identify, claim and maintain, according to Smith-Withers. “Choice is frequently taken from us unawares and we suffer consequences untold,” she says. “In that moment in the emergency room, I summoned the courage to walk out and go to another hospital. I also made a promise to stand with women in their choices, whatever they may be, and to honor women as moral agents.”
Imperceptible, unobtainable life choices
Smith-Withers says so many circumstances occur in women’s lives that render them vulnerable and, at times, their life choices become imperceptible and unobtainable. She says women need justice to protect their rights to:
· adequate and unbiased information about health care;
· access to affordable birth control;
· the ability to receive and maintain affordable health care and reproductive health care;
· affordable prenatal care; and
· access to a legal and safe abortion.
Smith-Withers says her challenging experiences with pregnancies heightened her sensitivity to the rights that many Americans and people of faith take for granted, and options that others are deprived of as matter of course.
A call to ministry
A few years after her child’s birth, Smith-Withers accepted a call to ministry. As a seminarian in 1993, she met Mary Jane Patterson, an African-American Presbyterian woman. Patterson, a woman of profound faith, was one of the founding members of RCRC.
Patterson focused a great deal of her work on providing information and securing reproductive health care and access to safe, legal abortions for underserved and marginalized communities, Smith-Withers recalls. To that end, Patterson and other women organized the Women of Color Partnership within RCRC to help broaden the coalition’s mission and goals.
Smith-Withers became active with the Women of Color Partnership. She eventually was elected to RCRC’s Board of Directors, representing the Women of Color Partnership. Since then, she has served RCRC in many ways as she and the coalition have worked for reproductive justice.
“As an African-American/Caribbean clergywoman who has faith in God in and through Jesus Christ,” Smith-Withers declares, “I love the Church and particularly value its ability to work for justice. Throughout history we have witnessed religious and faith communities joining hands to work for justice for different righteous and just causes.”
Smith-Withers stresses that in all the ways that matter to the movement for reproductive justice, RCRC is an extension of religious and faith communities: churches, synagogues, temples. “I accepted the invitation to be chair of RCRC’s Board of Directors in March because I believe in RCRC and its mission to work for reproductive justice,” she explains. “I know the need and I have seen the disparity that exists for all women with respect to health care and reproductive health care.”
Given the political climate within the United States today, Smith-Withers considers it imperative that people of faith not relinquish their call to speak out against injustice on behalf of women and men who are not able to speak for themselves.
“More importantly, the challenge we have is to advance the cause of freedom of religion and strive to safeguard the right to practice faith as we believe,” Smith-Withers asserts. “As the chair of RCRC’s Board of Directors, the cause that looms larger every day is that of actively being our sister and brother’s keeper vis-à-vis reproductive justice and reproductive health care.”
A Divine imperative
Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles focused on the Rev. Dr. Alethea Smith-Withers of Washington, D.C., who was elected this spring to chair the Board of Directors of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The national coalition consists of religious and religiously affiliated organizations from 15 faith traditions with official positions in support of women’s reproductive rights.
RCRC was founded in 1973 to safeguard the newly won constitutional right to privacy in decisions about abortion. The United Methodist Women (UMW) and General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) are founding members of RCRC.
A petition to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-setting body, called for GBCS and UMW to withdraw from RCRC. While the petition passed a Church & Society legislative committee, 42-32, it failed to be considered by the full body of the conference, which adjourned before doing so despite an effort to bring it to the floor in closing minutes.
Smith-Withers is a long-time advocate for reproductive justice. “I am reminded that Bishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,’” she states. “Ignorance, convention, bias, fear and silence are the oppressors of reproductive justice.”
Reproductive choice has tremendous theological importance, according to Smith-Withers, a Baptist clergywoman. “Choice and free will are central to my understanding of Christianity,” she says, “and to the faith understanding of the majority of Americans.”
Smith-Withers emphasizes that in no way is “choice” being placed aside or taken off RCRC’s agenda. “That said, we all need to reckon with the compelling call of justice,” she declares. “For many Americans and people of faith, this call for justice is the undeniable and righteous reason to commit to cause of reproductive justice.”
The reproductive justice framework does more than change the mission of RCRC, according to Smith-Withers. She says the framework clarifies it.
“The reproductive justice framework enables us to understand that reproductive choice is inextricably tied to the work of justice and cannot be obtained without the power and promise of justice,” Smith-Withers says. “With the reproductive justice framework, RCRC is broadening its invitation and strengthening its message.”
A ‘Divine imperative’
Smith-Withers calls justice a “Divine imperative” for action and for acknowledging the voices of the voiceless and the faces of the invisible. “The call for reproductive justice enables us to fight against the forces that would deny reproductive health care, choices, rights and dignity to any person,” she says. “When we unapologetically lift the mantle for reproductive justice, we challenge the immoral socio-economic and political barriers that exist for millions of Americans. Moreover, we reaffirm religious freedom in America.”
Smith-Withers says RCRC can more easily communicate its mission and anchor its work in the shared faith and religious traditions of its members. “As a Baptist clergywoman, I count it a privilege to work with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and other people of faith at such a time as this,” she said.
Smith-Withers cites Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” She says this imagery is a reminder of the energy and determination the coalition brings to the work of the reproductive justice movement.
“Choice, albeit critical to the journey, ambles along,” Smith-Withers says. “Justice rolls with power and direction and, I believe, Divine purpose.”
In April, RCRC also elected a new President/CEO, the Rev. Harry Knox, founding director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion & Faith Program. He supervised creation of a national speakers’ bureau that reached more than 10 million Americans monthly and was instrumental in creating a national network of 22 progressive state clergy coalitions.
In 2009, President Obama appointed Knox to his Council on Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships. Since 2011, Knox had been Interim Executive Director of Integrity USA, the voice of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Episcopalians and their allies.
“From where I sit, the Rev. Knox is a coalition-builder and a can-do visionary with a heart of gold,” Smith-Withers assesses. “He cares deeply about reproductive justice and the injustices that plague the lives of women.”
As a seasoned national leader in the progressive faith community, Smith-Withers says Knox understands justice movements and comes to RCRC with skills and insights that will enable living out its new strategic plan. The Board of Directors trusts that Knox is the person who will inspire grassroots workers, people in the pews, and women and men throughout our country.
“We are confident that he will speak and act with conviction and the decisiveness and grace that will enable RCRC to make monumental strides in the arenas of reproductive health and reproductive justice,” Smith-Withers says.
21st century indicators
As she looks at indicators of the 21st century, Smith-Withers says she believes justice is calling everyone in the United States. “We elected the first African-American president. We are coming to terms with gay marriage as an issue of justice, and RCRC is embracing and calling for reproductive justice,” she emphasizes.
Smith-Withers acknowledges that change, even for the good, is difficult and unsettling for many. “The work of justice has never been quiet or gentle or comfortable,” she says. “Above all, as a Christian, I know justice-work is the work that God has assigned to our hands. “Like the disciples of Jesus, we often miss the point, forget or fearfully lock ourselves behind closed doors — even if only behind metaphorical doors. Nevertheless, I am always encouraged when I think of how Jesus fought for righteousness and justice and how he remained assured of the victory.”
Editor's note: The Rev. Alethea Smith-Withers is founder and pastor of The Pavilion of God — a Baptist Community, a multicultural church in the U.S. capital. The Pavilion of God has roots in the historic 19th Street Baptist Church where she was its first woman Associate Pastor.
As an active member of the RCRC Woman of Color Partnership, Smith-Withers was among the first RCRC Black Church Initiative Fellows and participated in the National Black Religious Summits on Sexuality sponsored by RCRC.
Smith-Withers has earned the Masters of Divinity and the Doctor of Ministry degrees from Howard University School of Divinity. She is an ordained minister, preacher and Christian educator. She was awarded a Pew Foundation Fellowship in Urban Ministry.