TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was lunch hour at the abortion clinic, so the nurse in the recovery room got her Bible out of her bag in the closet and began to read.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding,” her favorite proverb says, and she returns to it again and again. “He will make your paths straight.”
She believes God led her here, to a job at the West Alabama Women’s Center, tending to patients who’ve just had abortions. “I trust in God,” said Ramona, who asked that her last name not be used because of the volatility America’s abortion debate.
Out in the parking lot, protesters bellowed at patients arriving for appointments, doing battle against what they regard as a grave sin.
The loudest voices in the abortion debate are often characterized along a starkly religious divide, the faithful versus not. But the reality is much more nuanced, both at this abortion clinic and in the nation that surrounds it. The clinic’s staff of 11 – most of them Black, deeply faithful Christian women – have no trouble at all reconciling their work with their religion.
As the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, dismantling the constitutional right to an abortion, they draw on their faith that they will somehow continue.
God will keep this clinic open, they tell each other.
Robin Marty, who moved from Minneapolis to Tuscaloosa to help run this clinic, was surprised to hear nurses pray as the future of abortion grows uncertain.
“That is one of the things that has caused a whiplash for me – I had this stereotype in my head of a Southern religious person,” said Marty. “I just assumed that there was no compatibility between people who are religious and people who support the ability to get an abortion.”
Marty realized she was wrong – most people are.
Black Protestants have some of the most liberal views on access to abortion: Nearly 70% believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. White evangelicals are the other extreme, with only 24% believing abortion should be allowed in most or all cases. Yet theirs are the voices that usually dominate the conversation.
For faithful women of color, there’s often a very different balancing act of values, said Kendra Cotton, a member of the Black Southern Women’s Collective, a network of organizers, many of them from faith-based groups.
“We know that Christianity supports freedom, and inherent in freedom is bodily autonomy. Inherent in Christianity is free will. When people talk about the body being a temple of God, you have purview over your body, there is nothing more sacred,” Cotton said.
The idea of the state restricting what a person can do with their own body is in direct conflict with that, she said, and it is reminiscent of being under someone else’s control — of slavery.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” Cotton said
In Tuscaloosa, the West Alabama Women’s Center sits a half-mile from the University of Alabama campus. Though many of the center’s clientele are college students, others come from all over region. Many of their clients are Black, many already have children and more than 75% survive below the poverty line.
Many of the workers here pray that the Supreme Court won’t overturn Roe, because they know their poorest patients will bear the burden of abortion bans. Wealthy women can travel to states where abortion is legal.
This clinic is going to try to stay open for the people left behind. It is expanding into a full-service gynecological office that people can turn to if they self-administer an abortion and require medical attention, without fear of being reported to police.
Working here, to Ramona, feels like a righteous calling. She believes the Christian way is to love people where they are, and that means walking kindly with them as they make the best decision for themselves.
She’s heard stories of domestic violence. They’ve seen cancer patients who can’t continue their pregnancies while getting chemotherapy, and middle school-aged rape victims. But most talk about fear of having more mouths they can’t afford to feed. She always says “I understand.”
“I mean that, I do understand, I’ve gone through that myself,” she said.
Ramona, 39, is a single mother of four children, and had her first child at 16. She had to drop out of college. There were times, when her children were young, when she couldn’t pay the gas bill, and she boiled water so they could have warm baths.
Her daughter used to say “Mom, I want to be just like you,” and she would stop her. “No ma’am,” she’d say to her. “I want you to be better.” Her daughter is now 22 and studying to be a doctor.
She clawed herself out of poverty and built a life she loves.
For a time, she tried to be friendly with one of the regulars who protested outside. She’d visit on her breaks and they discussed Scripture and forgiveness.
She’d say, “I can see where you’re coming from. Can you see where I’m coming from? I’m not going to love you any less because of what you believe in or what you think.”
Then one day he shouted at her: When you die, you know where you’ll be going, and it isn’t heaven. She doesn’t talk to him anymore.
Because she is at peace with God, she said. Her co-worker at the front desk calls her Miss Wonderful – every day is a great one in God’s light, she said, and she believes this is the life God laid out for her.
“Women go through so much, it’s hard,” she said. “So you should have that choice, whether or not you’re ready to be a mother. No one else should choose for you.”