Neela Banerjee / New York Times
In any given week, if you walked into one of Washington's big corporate hotels early in the morning, you would find a community of the faithful, quite often conservative Christians, rallying the troops, offering solace and decrying the opposition at a prayer breakfast.
So you might be forgiven for thinking that such a group was recently in attendance in a ballroom of the Washington Hilton. People wearing clerical collars and small crucifixes were wedged at tables laden with muffins, bowing their heads in prayer. Seminarians were welcomed. Scripture was cited. But the name of the sponsor cast everything in a new light: the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
To its critics, Planned Parenthood is the godless super-merchant of abortion. To its supporters, it is the dependably secular defender of abortion rights. But at this breakfast, God was everywhere.
"We are here this morning because, through our collective efforts, we are agents in bringing our fragile world ever closer to the promise of redemption," Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, told the audience. "As clergy from an array of denominations, we say, 'Yes' to the call before us."
"Amen," the audience responded.
Moral authority opens doors
The Interfaith Prayer Breakfast has been part of Planned Parenthood's annual convention for four years. Most of the ministers and rabbis there have known the group far longer.
Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood's predecessor, drew clergy in the early 20th century by relating the suffering of women who endured pregnancies that ravaged their health and sought illegal abortions in their desperation, said the Rev. Thomas R. Davis of the United Church of Christ and the author of the book "Sacred Work, Planned Parenthood and its Clergy Alliances."
"The clergy could open that door because the clergy had certain moral authority," said Davis. "They balanced the moral authority of the critics."
Two sides of the same coin
It is not lost on Davis how the passion of the Christian right in its effort to abolish abortion and curtail access to birth control now mirrors the efforts of clergy 40 years ago to do the opposite. "They're a religious tradition, too, and they are moved by Scripture," he said, although the Bible says nothing explicit about abortion. "When we understood the suffering in these kinds of situations that women were in, we understood that for reasons of justice, we had to act. We're doing it for theological and biblical reasons."
A perception may exist that the denominations supporting abortion rights are outnumbered and out-shouted by their more conservative brethren. But that worried Davis little, he said, for he and other like-minded clergy were in the minority in the 1960s, too.