Opinion | Sexuality

Why Are Evangelical Women at Planned Parenthood?

What a recent Marie Claire report gets wrong—and right—about evangelicals and abortion.
Why Are Evangelical Women at Planned Parenthood?
Image: antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

She was a regular churchgoer who had grown up in a Christian family. But when Jackie* became pregnant after a divorce and a season of uncharacteristic promiscuity, she panicked and got an abortion. “I just got into this very devastated, dark place,” she told me. “I can hardly even believe that I ever was that person—scared to death. I grew up in a family [where] nobody had a child out of wedlock. … I just couldn’t imagine telling them about being pregnant.”

Jackie was the first post-abortive woman I ever interviewed who had gotten an abortion after becoming a Christian. What made her story even more troubling was that the person who had driven Jackie to Planned Parenthood was a friend from church. Her friend knew just where to go and what to do because she had gotten an abortion about 10 years prior—when she was a student at an evangelical college.

Since interviewing Jackie, I’ve learned that thousands of professing Christians get abortions every year. This unsettling fact was recently reported all too smugly in the feminist magazine Marie Claire. The article, titled “The Secret Evangelicals at Planned Parenthood,” announced, “They may demonize the health clinic in public, but throngs of young Christian women are patronizing it in private for birth control, preventative care, and yes, even abortions.”

I can’t deny the article’s basic assertion: Evangelicals are using Planned Parenthood. But I strongly deny the article’s conclusion: Evangelicals need Planned Parenthood.

The writer treats abortion as a viable solution, ignoring the fact that it takes an innocent life and saddles women with a lifetime of grief and regret. Sanya Richards-Ross, five-time Olympic gold medalist and an outspoken Christian, recently revealed that she had an abortion just before the 2008 Games. Though the decision enabled her to capture Olympic glory, she called it “a decision that broke me, and one from which I would not immediately heal. Abortion would now forever be a part of my life.”

Richards-Ross’ experience is not isolated. According to the Elliot Institute, post-abortive women are 65 percent more likely to suffer long-term clinical depression. They’re also more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment; suffer from eating disorders, sleep disorders, and generalized anxiety disorders; and abuse alcohol and drugs.

The Marie Claire report merely shows that evangelicals are making tragic decisions, not that they should make those decisions. Even so, it provides one very valuable insight: Many evangelical women don’t trust the church to be a safe place to discuss sexuality. When they face crises, they often turn to groups like Planned Parenthood instead of their Christian community for help.

According to a 2015 LifeWay Research study, only seven percent of churchgoing women who have had abortions have discussed their experiences with anyone at church. Two-thirds of these post-abortive women said church members judge single women who are pregnant, and fewer than half believe churches are prepared to help with decisions about unwanted pregnancies.

Clearly, the church has a major problem. But before addressing it, we need to understand the facts.

What Marie Claire gets wrong

Though it’s true that evangelicals visit Planned Parenthood to get services other than abortion, they can easily get the same government-subsidized services elsewhere. According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, publicly funded health care centers exist in all 50 states and outnumber Planned Parenthood 20 to 1. So arguably the only reason to visit Planned Parenthood—instead of one of these alternatives—is to get an abortion.

The report also gives the impression that evangelicals are having sex and getting abortions in droves. The author cites the statistic that “13 percent of abortions conducted in this country [about 130,000 per year] are for women who identify as evangelical Protestants.” It’s worth noting that the data are provided by the Guttmacher Institute, which was birthed in 1968 as a research arm of Planned Parenthood. Its founder, Alan F. Guttmacher, was a former president of Planned Parenthood and vice president of the American Eugenics Society. So although the data may be accurate, we have to consider that the information is coming from a partisan source. Guttmacher also relied on patients filling out a self-administered survey, so we don’t know whether those classified as “evangelical” are practicing Christians or nominal ones.

In addition, the author claims that 80 percent of unmarried adults who self-identify as evangelical are having sex. The data source is the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, an organization that opposes abstinence-only education and promotes widespread use of contraception as a means of reducing unwanted pregnancies. However, another study paints an entirely different picture. In 2008, Donna Freitas, a college lecturer and author of Sex and the Soul, conducted a national study comparing the sexual habits of students at evangelical, Catholic, private secular, and public colleges. After 2,500 face-to-face, in-depth interviews with students on seven campuses, she found that less than 20 percent of students at public schools considered themselves virgins, but a startling 80 percent of students at evangelical schools considered themselves virgins.

So yes, young evangelicals are having sex and getting abortions, but likely not at the rate reported in the article. Yet what’s the best solution for these sexually active evangelicals? The article suggests that contraception is the way to go. However the inconvenient truth is that providing contraception to unmarried young adults does not sufficiently reduce unwanted pregnancies. A study published last year by two Notre Dame researchers found that school districts that instituted condom distribution programs saw a 10 to 12 percent increase in teen fertility. Sexually transmitted diseases increased, as well.

Providing unmarried people easy access to contraception simply promotes a sexually risky lifestyle by furthering the myth that one can engage in sex without consequence. But sex always has consequences, and one of them is pregnancy. Even Guttmacher once conceded that “more than half of the women obtaining abortions in 2000 (54 percent) had been using a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant.”

What Marie Claire gets right

As much as the world tries to find one, there is no plan B for human sexuality. God designed it to be exclusively expressed within marriage. Yet one of the weaknesses exposed by the Marie Claire report is that the church is doing a miserable job teaching plan A, as well as communicating grace to those who step outside of that plan.

In the article, a girl named Heather* reported that she and her friends were never given access to sex education at their Christian high school or in their Christian homes. “Parents would be outraged if you talked about having sex,” she said. “Girls would be starting their periods and they didn’t know what was happening.” The article also quoted a Christian marriage and family therapist who said she observed that many Christians often teach about sex as “an act that’s equated with lust and sinful desire.”

This approach is tragic and makes healthy discussion and education about sexuality almost impossible. By contrast, Scripture teaches that the one-flesh union of husband and wife is a symbol of Christ’s love relationship with his church (Eph. 5:31–32). Sex is beautiful and glorious. I’m convinced that if more young people understood its deep spiritual meaning, they wouldn’t treat sex as a casual plaything. We need to discuss it with our children in an open and positive way, teaching its proper use as well as the consequences for its misuse.

The church also needs to foster a culture of grace. When faced with her unplanned pregnancy, another evangelical young woman named Megan* said it was the desire to avoid shame that drove her to abortion. “There was just so much shame in being pregnant and unmarried,” she said. “I thought, There is no way I can face my mother and my community back home with this.” This too is tragic. Something is seriously wrong when women expect to face shame in the Christian community, even if they confess their sin and embrace the life within them.

Yet that’s precisely what happened recently to Maddie Runkles, a pregnant high school senior at a small Christian school. Runkles made the courageous decision to keep her baby, but instead of offering support, the school gave her a two-day suspension and barred her from participating in graduation.

After writing a blog post supporting Runkles, I received comments that were gracious and compassionate and others that turned my stomach. “Actions and decisions come with consequences,” one wrote. “Snowflakes can’t be punished because it melts their self-esteem.” Another argued that the school needed to make an example out of Runkles lest pregnancy “become the norm.”

Yes, the school needed to make an example out of Runkles, however, not one of shame and punishment but one of forgiveness and compassion. Christian women need to know that the church is a place where they can admit their failures—including sexual failures.

One of the best ways to do this is to embrace and support unmarried women who are pregnant. We can also invite post-abortive women like Richards-Ross to tell their stories of pain and regret. Similarly, Christian leaders need to admit their past sexual failures and explain how God redeemed them. This doesn’t normalize sin—it normalizes forgiveness and transformation and creates a culture of grace instead of a culture of shame.

So no, evangelicals don’t need Planned Parenthood. They need a more gracious and compassionate church. If we don’t offer them that safe space, more women like Jackie, Megan, and Heather will turn to Planned Parenthood, and the church will become increasingly irrelevant to those who need it most.

Julie Roys is writer, speaker, and host of a national talk show on the Moody Radio Network called Up For Debate. Her first book, Redeeming the Feminine Soul: God's Surprising Vision for Womanhood, releases in September. You can follow her at www.julieroys.com.

*Names have been changed.

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