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The Reverend Betsy Ott

Shares Her Vision of the Link between the Biblical Concept of Stewardship and Reproductive Justice



The Link between the Biblical Concept of Stewardship and Reproductive Justice

The Reverend Betsy Ott presently serves as the Superintendent of the New York/Connecticut District of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She chaired the Religious Leaders Task Force of Planned Parenthood of New York City while serving as Senior Pastor of the Park Avenue United Methodist Church in New York City. These remarks were made at a gathering of interfaith clergy on October 27, 2010.

Stepping Up I am honored to be the new Chair of the Religious Leaders Task Force of Planned Parenthood of New York City. I am assuming this leadership role because of my personal history and my belief that the Biblical concept of stewardship can help us make wise decisions about the conduct of our reproductive lives.

What I Witnessed I am the daughter and granddaughter of Methodist clergy, and in mid-life I, too, became a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. My son is also Methodist clergy. Together, we have a collective memory of ministering to congregants, neighbors, and friends that goes back more than a century. Like so many of my fellow clergy, I can bear witness to the horrific consequences for married couples and young people who did not have access to affordable and effective birth control. For some, this meant confronting the choice between an unwanted pregnancy and an unsafe, illegal abortion. I know of a farm couple who had four children in the first six years of their marriage. With the children to care for and the physical demands of working a small farm, life was a daily struggle. And then there was a fifth pregnancy. I don’t know for sure how the woman felt when she discovered that she was pregnant again. I only know the tragic result. Exhausted and unable to face yet another pregnancy and delivery, she went alone to a nearby town. It was what we called then a “back-street� abortion where a woman would put her health on the line and, too often, her life. After the unsafe abortion, this woman, sick and afraid, returned home and died a short time later. Her family was devastated. She never told her husband about the pregnancy or the abortion. I am saddened to think that her silence, which might well have stemmed from fear that her husband, 1

family, and friends would never understand, deprived her of the comfort and help they might have provided. This happened in the 1940’s. It could have happened anywhere, and the sad truth is that it did. The lack of access to safe and effective birth control wreaked havoc in other ways. When I was in high school, I remember young couples coming to speak with my father—their pastor—about getting married. On many of these visits, the bride was in tears and the groom looked grim. Looking back, I realize that these very young people were trying to adjust and to take on responsibility for the life they had created. Too young and inexperienced to grasp that their lives would be forever changed, almost all of them married. Many of their marriages survived; some did not. Young and able students left college early. It was usually the woman who gave up her hopes of an education, and with it, the dreams she had. Many of these mothers-to-be were really girls themselves, not women. A few tried to continue going to school, but it was never the same after the baby was born. Their youth was gone, their childhood over. This was the late 1960’s and that’s the way it was then. The campaign to legalize birth control began in the 1930’s with, I am happy to add, the help of Protestant and Jewish clergy. Finally in 1965, the Supreme Court sanctioned that effort, at least for married women. Single women would have to wait until a 1972 Supreme Court decision. Legalized birth control gave people a choice, a real choice. For the first time, they could decide not just whether to become parents but also when and how many times. In 1973, another Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, made abortion legal and therefore safe, at least for those who could afford it.

…stewardship requires us to care 2

What I Believe My second reason for supporting Planned Parenthood is based on my views of the Biblical concept of stewardship as a theology of life. Stewardship, from a scriptural perspective, requires us to accept responsibility for keeping Creation safe. This concept flows from acknowledging God as the Creator and God’s ground rules for how we are to live in the created world as God’s people and good neighbors. In essence, stewardship requires us to care for ourselves, each other, and all of life. Embedded in this concept is the fundamental principle that we do not oppress or dishonor God or others. We do not fail to show love and devotion for God in all ways. Knowing ourselves to be created by God, of value to God, and worthy of dignity because of God’s care for us, we value others in the same way.  Respecting that we are all created by God is a way of honoring God. As God’s caregivers—empowered by God to do God’s work—we are charged to watch over the resources of the earth—sustainable and renewable, limited and finite. We are charged with the responsibility to use the resources granted us with thought for the future and care for the present. It is an offense to the role we’ve been given when we write off a river as too polluted to use, or level a mountain, or exhaust the last of a limited resource. In the same way, it is an offense when we do not provide needed information and services wherever there is an unmet desire for family planning. This gap means that women and men cannot control their fertility in the face of limited resources and the result can be hunger, disease, and death, especially infant death. We cannot be good stewards of our world if we allow such suffering when we have the knowledge and the means to prevent it.

for ourselves, each other, and all of life. 3

Good stewardship of the wider world and those who live in it is inextricably linked to stewardship by each of us for God’s great gift of our bodies and our human sexuality. That connection lies at the heart of my support for Planned Parenthood. Access to birth control and sex education equips us to fulfill the obligation that God has placed upon us to be good stewards of our bodies, the lives entrusted to our care, and the resources that support them. But human beings are imperfect. Birth control can fail or it can fail to be used, either out of carelessness or coercion. In my view, when all other options fail, abortion must be legal so that it will always be safe, and it must be confidential to protect a woman’s right to privacy. I view the right to choose when and whether to have a child as a matter of stewardship. To be a good steward requires the ability to make informed and thoughtful and, yes, faith-based, decisions about one’s own life. What I saw growing up as the child of a pastor showed me how unjust laws, ignorance, and poverty deprive men, but more especially women, of the resources necessary to be good stewards of their own lives. What I see at Planned Parenthood is how access for all to safe and reliable birth control allows us to plan and carefully consider the most important decision a human being can make—to bring a new life into the world. What I see at Planned Parenthood is age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education that also teaches about safe and healthy relationships so that our young people can be good stewards of their own bodies—so that they do not

I view the right to choose when and whether to have a child as a matter of stewardship. 4

have children before they are ready to be parents and so that they do not contract or pass on sexually transmitted infections. What I see at Planned Parenthood is compassion for a woman who is faced with an unplanned pregnancy she does not wish to carry to term or a pregnancy that would pose a risk to her life or health, counseling about all the alternatives she has, and respect for whatever decision she makes. However, since the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, discussions about birth control and legal abortion have devolved into polemics, and the debate has been polarized. I believe that faith communities, my own included, have failed to teach people of all faiths about God’s plan for stewardship and, particularly, how stewardship entails a way to conduct our lives that requires choice that is informed so that it can be responsible. The ongoing debate over health care reform has demonstrated how contentious the issues of birth control and abortion remain. As moderate, mainline clergy, we bear some of the responsibility for this state of affairs. We have failed to lead effective dialogue on these matters in our congregations, let alone in the public arena. Too often, we have allowed other voices and not always the voices of reason to dominate the debate. We have not clearly expressed the theological foundation for our faith-based positions on family planning, birth control, and abortion (like those of the United Methodist Church, listed in the appendix) to those in our faith communities. As a result, thoughtful and concerned persons of faith are often unprepared to respond effectively to those who vocally promote different positions. The concept of stewardship as applied to personal choice and care of self is hardly known and is not appreciated in our present cultural climate. Our failure is especially regrettable since it comes at a time when peer pressure and newfound freedoms in our country pose challenges to this concept of stewardship of self that can seem overwhelming. Popular culture that 5

glorifies sexual excess compounds the problem; it teaches our children that there is nothing special or sacred about sexual intimacy and thereby exposes them to the potentially adverse consequences of casual sexual contact, including emotional stress, infection, and unintended pregnancy. As clergy, we can—indeed we are obligated—to counter this cultural climate by reminding our congregants and the wider community we serve that our bodies and our beings are gifts of God. Fortified with this knowledge we can appreciate, on the deepest level, our own self-worth and the value of others. Fortified with this knowledge, we can be better stewards of our bodies and the great gift of our sexuality by waiting for the right person and the appropriate time to experience the true joy of sexual selfexpression that is grounded in mutual respect and care. What I witnessed in my family home, what I have learned from my theological training, and what I see in our culture all compelled me to become Chair of the Religious Leaders Task Force of Planned Parenthood of New

I seek to nurture a forum where religious leaders of diverse faiths can speak out and work together to promote the concept of stewardship that supports the dignity of all. 6

York City. I believe that the task force can educate the public and our elected leaders about the connection between stewardship of our bodies and access for all to reproductive health care and sex education—a critical task at a time when the rights and liberties won through years of struggle continue to be under attack. I seek to nurture a forum where religious leaders of diverse faiths can speak out and work together to promote the concept of stewardship that supports the dignity of all. I can think of no better way to bring hope to our discussion of this important concern.


APPENDIX b The United Methodist Church Addresses Sexual and Reproductive Health The United Methodist Church (UMC) has a long history of supporting the rights of women and men to the services and information necessary for them to make informed decisions about the care of their bodies and their reproductive lives— to be good stewards of these great gifts. The denomination’s stands on these matters have been refined over the years and are delineated in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (2008): Page 103, Section II “The Nurturing Community,” Paragraph 161, F Human Sexuality: We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Page 105, Section II “The Nurturing Community,” Paragraph 161, J Abortion: The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures…. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. Page 118, Section III “The Social Community,” Paragraph 162, V Right to Health Care: We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. 8

b Religious Pro-Choice Americans Speak Out Like the United Methodist Church, other denominations and believers in a variety of faiths have articulated positions supporting access to information and health care services that permit people to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives. These positions are compiled below. Believe It! Religious Americans Are Pro-Choice (This summary statement is reprinted with permission from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) For years, opponents of access to legal abortion have claimed that all religions and people of faith oppose abortion. They’ve said it so often that many people assume it to be true. In fact, this assertion is false. Religious Americans actively support a woman’s right to choose abortion. They trust women and their families to decide whether and when to have children. They recognize that in a pluralistic society such as ours, the decision regarding abortion must remain with the individual, to be made on the basis of conscience and religious principles. They do not want government to impose laws about childbearing based on any one belief about when life begins. Protestants Have Longstanding Pro-Choice Positions Most Protestant denominations in the United States have longstanding prochoice positions. The United Church of Christ has maintained a consistently strong pro-choice stance since 1970. In 1994, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted a resolution expressing “unequivocal opposition to any [legislation] that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.” In 1992, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) reaffirmed support for a woman’s right to choose; in 1993, the General Assembly voted to affirm the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. At the 1992 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the principles of Roe v. Wade were reaffirmed by an 84 percent majority vote.


Jewish Tradition Upholds Reproductive Choice Jewish tradition has long affirmed and protected the life, well-being, and health of pregnant women and has upheld the basic right to abortion. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing Conservative congregations, in 1993 reaffirmed its resolution opposing any legislative attempts to weaken Roe v. Wade through constitutional amendments. Recent resolutions of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing Reform congregations, uphold an “unwavering commitment to the protection and preservation of the reproductive rights of women” and urge constituents to work toward securing or retaining these rights. Most Roman Catholics Are Pro-Choice On family planning and abortion, the attitudes and behavior of Roman Catholic laity often clash with Roman Catholic Church teaching. According to Catholics for Choice, the overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics support access to legal abortion, contraception, and comprehensive sexuality education. The 2008 General Social Survey of the University of Chicago found that 86 percent of Catholics approve of abortion when a woman’s health is seriously endangered. Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as women in the population as a whole. The 2008 federal government’s National Survey of Family Growth reported that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women older than 18 are as likely (98 percent) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican as women in the general population (99 percent). Unitarian Universalists Support Abortion Rights The Unitarian Universalist Association affirmed a woman’s right to choose in 1963 and has consistently reaffirmed this right at all General Assemblies since then. In 1993, Unitarian Universalists overwhelmingly adopted a resolution urging members to support federal legislation that would guarantee the basic right to abortion, provide federal funds for abortion to low-income women and military personnel, and protect doctors and clinics providing abortion services from acts of violence and harassment.


Clergy Believe in Women’s Right to Choose Clergy had an important role in abolishing anti-abortion laws that hurt women. Today, many religious leaders believe abortion must remain a private, moral decision and trust women and their families to make their own decisions in the light of their faith traditions and moral values. A 1998 national survey of Protestant and Jewish clergy showed widespread support for reproductive choice, including abortion. Ninety-two percent of respondents said that every woman should be able to decide when to have children according to her own conscience and religious beliefs. Eighty percent supported a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. A Personal, Moral, Medical Decision Those who seek to impose their religious views on others threaten not just women’s reproductive freedom but also the religious freedom that is one of America’s fundamental values. Most religious Americans believe that the decision to have or not have an abortion should be a personal, moral, and medical decision, not a political one. Most religious Americans are prayerfully, faithfully pro-choice. Resources: We Affirm, published by Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; clergy survey conducted by Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Catholics for Choice

b The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, founded in 1973, is the national organization of pro-choice people of faith. The Religious Coalition— comprising Protestant, Jewish, and other denominations and faith groups, the Clergy for Choice Network, and state affiliates throughout the country—works to ensure reproductive choice through the moral power of religious communities. All programs seek to give clear voice to the reproductive health issues of people of color, those living in poverty, and other underserved populations. Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice 1413 K Street, NW, 14th Floor, Washington, DC 20005 Phone: 202-628-7700


Planned Parenthood of New York City established its Religious Leaders Task Force in 2003. The task force is comprised of clergy representing diverse religious traditions who support and advocate for reproductive justice in the pulpit and in the public square. For more information about the task force and its activities, please send an email to Stephanie Demmons, Manager of Community Organizing, at Stephanie.

Planned Parenthood of New York City Since 1916, Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) has been an advocate for and provider of reproductive health services and education for New Yorkers. Through a threefold mission of clinical services, education, and advocacy, PPNYC brings better health and more fulfilling lives to each new generation of New Yorkers. We offer services to women, men, and teens throughout New York City, regardless of age, income, or immigration status. As a voice for reproductive freedom and justice, PPNYC supports policies to ensure that all New Yorkers—and, in fact, people around the world—will have access to the full range of reproductive health care services and information. To learn more, visit or call 800-230-PLAN.

Rev. Betsy Ott Shares Her Vision of Stewardship and Reproductive Justice  

The Reverend Betsy Ott explains why she supports Planned Parenthood of New York City and its Religious Leaders Task Force.