This article was first published in the Orlando Sentinel in May 2022.
As a crowd gathered outside City Hall in downtown Orlando to rally a day after a draft of a Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, Rev. Margalie Belizaire (MDiv '20) joined them to demand that the nation’s abortion rights remain intact.
The demonstrators needed to see her there, said Belizaire, minister at First Unitarian Church of Orlando.
“We can’t stay quiet when the reproductive rights of others are being infringed upon,” she said. “If there are marches, then we need to be there with our clergy vestments on. I think we need to show up wherever it is that will allow people to see that we are with you and we are in support of you.”
Belizaire, who also allowed supporters of Planned Parenthood to use her church on East Robinson Street just east of downtown Orlando as a meeting place to make signs to use at rallies, acknowledged that some might be surprised to see a church leader supporting abortion access. After all, the national anti-abortion movement has for decades been led by conservative evangelical Christians who argue that life begins at conception and, therefore, view abortion as akin to murder.
But researchers and local clergy members said views on abortion vary widely among pastors, with some believing few or no abortions are justifiable and others believing that it’s always up to a woman to choose when she is ready to become a mother. Many are somewhere in the middle — unwilling to encourage abortions but supportive of those who choose to end unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. That range of beliefs on reproductive rights is in line both with four local religious leaders who shared their views with the Orlando Sentinel and with a study published in 2020 that interviewed 20 pastors in Georgia about their views on abortion.
“Views are complex. People are complex,” said Jessica Dozier, a doctoral candidate and researcher in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University. “In this study, the religious leaders’ attitudes and beliefs ranged from pro-life to pro-choice with many really falling into neither distinct category.”
As the Georgia pastors formed their thoughts on abortion, few relied solely on the Bible to direct their decisions, Dozier’s study found. Instead, they used scripture as a foundation, then layered their personal experiences on top of that.
That meant the pastors Dozier interviewed emphasized “the sanctity of life” and the belief that all people are created in the image of God, which means every life is precious, but also said if someone in their congregation came to them to discuss an unplanned pregnancy, the need to be loving and supportive no matter what decision was made was equally important.
Locally, Belizaire, Pastor David Swanson of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Pastor Marcus McCoy of Greater Refuge Memorial Church and Rev. Terri Steed Pierce of Joy Metropolitan Community Church all shared varying views on abortion.
Belizaire said her faith demands that she stand up for reproductive rights of women. Swanson said he is against abortion in nearly every instance, including if a pregnancy is the result of rape. McCoy said while he would not encourage abortion, his focus is on sensitivity and understanding. Steed Pierce supported a woman’s right to choose and criticized the pro-life movement, which she said does not do enough to help families flourish after the birth of a child.
Belizaire was raised Jehovah’s Witness and later became a Unitarian Universalist. Unitarian churches can, and often do, use the Bible to form some beliefs but do not have a sacred holy text that all observers rely on. Instead, they study a variety of resources and perspectives to form their opinions.
“I cannot feel in my body that there was a time when I was pro-life,” she said. “But I believe I would have behaved as such, had I remained a Jehovah’s Witness. ... I think there have been many, many instances where the female body is controlled and is told how we ought to behave and I think that, for me, that has never been OK.”
Swanson was raised in an evangelical Christian family and has long held the belief that abortion is wrong, even under horrific circumstances. According to his faith, suffering is “always redemptive” and God takes pain and turns it into blessings. “I think from my perspective and where our denomination would stand is, you wouldn’t want to compound an evil,” he said. “Let’s say a woman is raped, you wouldn’t want to compound that by then adding to it the destruction of another life. And so is that going to be hard for the mother? Yeah. But I believe that in Christian community, we have a responsibility to then care for those mothers ... because by no means are we trying to suggest that as a non-factor or non-event. That would be horrendously difficult. We absolutely affirm that. And yet at the same time, that is a God-created life.”
McCoy said he started considering his own views on abortion when he was a student at Bethune-Cookman University in the early 2000s.
“It was dealing with friends who were close to me,” he said. “They had been taken advantage of and because of that, were impregnated. We all came together as a community and they wrestled with the idea of what needed to be done. By virtue of a lot of prayer and consideration, the idea was to abort.”
That was not an easy decision, he said.
“But it was the best decision for them and that’s when we started to look at it a little differently. It’s not black and white. Situations happen, circumstances happen and I personally don’t feel that people should have to suffer, if there’s an option for a better choice for them,” he said.
Steed Pierce was a child when Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a nationwide right to abortion, was handed down. And in her pastoral career, she has known several women, including fellow church leaders, who have had abortions. She said women must be able to choose for themselves and criticized the shortcomings of the pro-life movement.
“I’ve always been under the understanding that it would be a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “So I’m not sure I ever had to grow to that. I also felt like, for people to be pro-life, so many of the folks that are, are also for the death penalty, and for me, that’s oxymoronic. If there is a sanctity of life, there’s a sanctity to all of life. And that’s my greatest issue with those folks who are now pro-life. People are typically pro-birth, and not then caring about what happens to the kids.”
This range of views from Orlando pastors was also visible in Dozier’s study. “Abortion attitudes are complex,” Dozier said. “We couldn’t dichotomize them into the traditional sociopolitical stances of pro-life or pro-choice. Most people in the study were existing in that gray area.”
Rev. Margalie Belizaire graduated from MLTS in 2020. She serves as Minister at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, FL.