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Faith and Abortion

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Kathleen Wilson (L) of Fredericksburg and Shira Zemel (R) of Arlington share their deeply held beliefs about abortion.

The debate over abortion could play a pivotal role in Virginia’s 2023 elections. We introduce you to two women, both deeply devoted to their faith, about their thoughts on abortion and how their religious beliefs led them to different sides of the debate. 

Virginia’s 2023 election could have an impact on laws related to abortion in the state. It’s an issue that pits a person’s belief in their right to reproductive medical care against the belief that abortion is morally wrong. We speak with two women, both guided by their faith, who are on different sides of the argument.


ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Kathleen Wilson has made it her mission to care for women in need. It all began after an exchange with a pregnant woman outside a DC abortion clinic. Wilson says it changed her life.

KATHLEEN WILSON: I really was hesitant, but I walked over, and as soon as I did, she rolled down her window and I said, 'Is there something that I can help you with?' And she said, "What can you help me with?"

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: After that experience 18 years ago, Wilson and a few friends opened Mary's Shelter in Fredericksburg.

KATHLEEN WILSON: The women that call us, the pregnancy isn't generally the crisis, it's all the other stuff going on in their life.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Wilson helps women escaping abusive relationships and managing tremendous financial strains. Mary's Shelter, which operates purely on donations, provides more than 30 bedrooms for women and their children. Wilson says her upbringing and faith guide her work.

KATHLEEN WILSON: I come from a big Irish Catholic family. And my dad was a police officer, so there wasn't, you know, a ton of money. But there was never a time, ever a time, where somebody in need didn't come to my mother and she wasn't able to stay with us, or he wasn't able to stay with us, or my mom didn't feed them. She had a quote, she'd always say. "I can always add another potato to the pot."

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: She also sees every child as a gift from God.

KATHLEEN WILSON: I wish there weren't abortions, you know, I really do. I mean, I wish women didn't feel that need. I do believe that, you know, it's the taking of a life and that's a very hard thing. That's a very horrible decision for any woman to have to make.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Wilson considers the care offered at Mary's Shelter as an alternative to abortion.

KATHLEEN WILSON: I don't want to take away people's rights, but I want to take away abortion. I want to get to a point where nobody feels like they have to have an abortion. Like, we serve these women in other ways. If it's housing they need, if it's mental health care, if it's assistance with the child, like, I want to fund those things.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: She disagrees with the argument that reproductive care should be kept between a woman and their doctor.

KATHLEEN WILSON: I just don't think that the decision is really there anymore. There's been a created human.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Shira Zemel also grew up in a deeply religious home. Her father was a rabbi and her grandfather was an OB/GYN in Pennsylvania.

SHIRA ZEMEL: He was an abortion care provider before and after Roe versus Wade. I have so many memories going to Harrisburg and going around with my grandparents. And we couldn't go anywhere without people coming up to us and telling me as a young person, "Oh, your grandfather delivered me," or "delivered my children." I think a lot about maybe the former patients of his who would see us and maybe not come up and tell us that my grandfather helped them when they needed help.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Zemel heads the abortion access campaign for the country's oldest Jewish feminist organization. She says Judaism clearly prioritizes the life of a mother over the unborn.

SHIRA ZEMEL: There's no Jewish idea of fetal personhood. The life of the pregnant person takes precedent. And Jewish tradition, over centuries in rabbinic literature, continues to reaffirm this, that the life of a pregnant person is our priority.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Zemel argues the First Amendment and freedom of religion should protect the right to an abortion.

SHIRA ZEMEL: The same way that it's the anti-abortion protestors' right to be up on the street bringing their deeply-held beliefs about abortion into the public square, that same First Amendment that protects them is the same First Amendment that should protect us to practice our religion, or if we don't have religion, as we see fit. And for no one's religion to interfere with the laws of our country.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: The Supreme Court's 2022 decision in Dobbs gave individual state legislatures the power to legislate abortion access. In Virginia, the law currently allows abortion through the second trimester, with some exceptions later in pregnancy. University of Richmond Law Professor Meredith Harbach says this could change depending on who's in office.

MEREDITH HARBACH: One of the consequences of this no longer being a right protected at the federal level, so it is both returned to the states and returned to the legislative branches. Meaning they can change their minds.


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