Sermon given November 19, 1999, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Thirty-six years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. One fact about John Kennedy, powerfully important to the American public when he was living, receives much less attention today. The thirty-fifth President of the United States was a faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church. Today, the religious affiliation of a Presidential candidate is essentially a non-issue. 1960, though, was a different time. Many Americans were suspicious about having a Catholic President. They demanded to know whether the Pope, the infallible leader of Kennedy’s faith, would be able to dictate policy to the President of the United States.
These questions kept Kennedy the candidate almost constantly on the defensive. Finally, in an attempt to put the matter to rest, he agreed to go before a panel of Protestant Ministers, who would question him and report their findings. The meeting took place in Houston, and Kennedy carried the day. He proclaimed that his Catholicism was a significant factor in making him who he was. Nevertheless, John Kennedy told those ministers and the nation that, as President, he would not govern according to Church dogma or Papal decree. While his life as a man might be guided by the Catholic Bible, his acts as President would conform only to the Constitution of the United States.
In 1960, those views in support of the separation of Church and State helped John Kennedy to be elected President of this great nation. Today, the strongly held views of a vocal religious minority threaten the democratic character of America.
Last Sunday night, Toni and I faced that threat, together with Rabbi and Lynn Stahl, scores of our fellow congregants and hundreds of other like-minded San Antonians of every religious and ethnic group. As we drove into the San Antonio Country Club, for an event to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Planned Parenthood in our community, we were greeted by a small number of protesters, holding signs labeling us “baby killers.”
We are “baby killers,” because we believe that women and men should carefully plan their child-bearing, with every educational resource available to them, and with easy access to all safe methods of birth control.
We are “baby killers,” because we combat teenage pregnancy, which is a scourge upon America and upon San Antonio, the city with our nation’s highest teen pregnancy rate.
We are “baby killers,” because we fight for the right of each woman to make her own choice, to determine whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, in consultation with her own loved ones, her own clergy and counselors, and with her God, as she sees fit.
We are “baby killers,” then, because we refuse to allow one religious group, even a vocal minority, to impose its beliefs and practices upon everybody in America. We are “baby killers” because we adamantly insist on protecting the separation of Church and State, no matter how urgently our opponents desire to inflict their religious teachings upon the rest of America. We are “baby killers” because we agree with President Kennedy that our nation must be ruled by its Constitution.
Sixty years ago, a group of San Antonio women gathered to establish the Maternal Health Center of San Antonio, which eventually became Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Central Texas. These women hailed from several different churches in our community, including all of the most prominent ones, and members of Temple Beth-El were among them. None of us here were surprised when our revered Helen Jacobson told me that she had attended that founding meeting.
The women who founded Planned Parenthood were not left-leaning radicals, who wished to destroy the American way. They were certainly not “baby killers.” Instead, they were relatively privileged women who were concerned about the well-being of their less fortunate sisters in other sectors of San Antonio. They worried about care for pregnant women and their newborn babies. They wanted to assure that all women could plan their families, decide how many children to have and when to have them. Though the methods of birth control available in 1939 did not match our own, Planned Parenthood’s founders provided education and contraceptive information to all.
The goals of Planned Parenthood remain unchanged to this day. The overwhelming majority of the organization’s budget is spent to operate clinics that provide family planning services to women who otherwise would lack access to birth control. Education also remains a central focus.
Now, though, Planned Parenthood does also advocate for a woman’s right to choose. In addition, two years ago, our local Planned Parenthood began to provide abortion services, because a woman’s right to an abortion was becoming purely theoretical in our city. Almost no physicians offer those services, and the Health Science Center trains no obstetrician-gynecologists to do that procedure.
Times have changed over the last sixty years. Planned Parenthood of San Antonio played a significant role in some of the greatest shifts. For example, our Planned Parenthood conducted clinical trials for the birth control pill, which might well be called history’s single most important scientific advance for women’s equality. In addition, one local Planned Parenthood leader provided much of the financial backing for the legal victory known to us all as Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of privacy for women who decide to terminate a pregnancy in its early stages.
Not all changes have been positive, though. Since 1973, a small group of loud abortion opponents has been successful in making many Americans think of Planned Parenthood as an abortion center, an organization of “baby killers.” Worse, the large majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to choose have become complacent. We assume that people who need abortions can get them. We hear condemnations of poor women who bear multiple children, but we do not agitate for an increase in government funding for birth control. The majority of the large gathering that celebrated Planned Parenthood’s sixtieth birthday last Sunday had already celebrated their own sixtieth birthdays. We applaud the zeal of Planned Parenthood’s founders and leaders over the last sixty years, but we bemoan the fact that their children have not assumed the mantle of leadership for the future.
As we speak, forces in our government seek to cut funds from Title X and Title XX, which help Planned Parenthood and others to provide birth control to poor women. These programs do not support abortion in any way. They are not radical left-wing instruments. These funding sources were first signed into law by President Nixon, and were supported by former President Bush, who was then a member of Congress. And yet, the small, vocal minority that brands us “baby killers” has convinced too many of our nation’s leaders that helping women plan their families will jeopardize a politician’s career.
The foes of Planned Parenthood scream about abortion, because nobody likes abortion. The most adamant supporters of women’s choice believe that abortion is a hateful, but necessary, evil. Nobody, and certainly not Planned Parenthood, teaches that abortion is an appropriate form of birth control. Nobody, and certainly not Planned Parenthood, hopes to increase the numbers of abortions in San Antonio or nationwide. Nobody, and certainly not Planned Parenthood, wants to kill babies, or even to terminate pregnancies.
The truth, though, is that the opponents of Planned Parenthood also oppose birth control, which is embraced and practiced by almost all Americans. Hiding behind their talk of abortion, they have threatened women’s ability to determine their own destiny and that of their families. Are they “pro-life,” when they increase teen pregnancy by limiting access to contraception? Are they “pro-life,” when they multiply unwanted births by restricting education about sexuality in our schools? Are they “pro-life,” when they harass women who go into Planned Parenthood clinics to seek health care? No. Instead of promoting life, they are causing death and contributing to the poor health of women and children who are denied the medical attention they sorely need.
Judaism, my friends, is pro-life. Our tradition teaches us to revere life. Our highest mitzvah, our greatest commandment, is to save another human life. And yet, Judaism has never taught that human life begins at conception. Even the most traditional reading of Jewish law permits some forms of birth control. Though most Jewish authorities would say that abortion is not permitted for a frivolous reason, Jewish law requires abortion if it is needed to save the mother’s life and permits abortion if the pregnancy threatens her health. We do not wish to impose these standards on all our fellow Americans, but we are also not prepared to be subjected to the teachings of any other religion.
Judaism is pro-life, so we support Planned Parenthood’s mission to improve the health of women and their youngest children. Judaism is pro-life, so we applaud Planned Parenthood’s work of providing birth control, which will help women to have healthy children, at the right time in the life of the family. Judaism is pro-life, so we join Planned Parenthood in providing life-saving education about sexuality to children throughout our community. And Jews in America crusade for the separation of Church and State, so we ardently support a woman’s right to choose, each in keeping with her own faith and conscience.
Even as partners with Planned Parenthood, I wonder if the sixtieth anniversary of that organization in San Antonio is truly a cause for celebration. What would be the opinion of the women who founded the Maternal Health Center? Would they not have wished that their work would be complete by now? Did they not dream that, by the dawn of the twenty-first century, teen pregnancy would be forgotten, unplanned pregnancies no more? Would they not have hoped that, with the progress of sixty years, education and information about birth control would become non-controversial? And, if the battles were not won, did they not expect that their children would take up their cause in large and increasing numbers?
Yes, we did celebrate last Sunday night, for Planned Parenthood has provided tremendous service to untold numbers of women over the last six decades. We rejoiced, for Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Central Texas can look forward to a bright future, under its new President and Chief Executive Officer, Jeffrey Hons, who worships with us here tonight. And yet, quietly, I think, all of the celebrants wished we were not there. We were sorry that the goals of the founders had not yet been achieved. We had hoped that today would be a better day.
In Judaism, when a birthday is celebrated, we wish that person good health to the age of 120. My prayer for Planned Parenthood is that it will not need to celebrate a 120th anniversary in San Antonio. May the truly pro-life goals of Planned Parenthood be achieved, speedily and soon, in our own days.