Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale is the president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), the professional association for abortion providers in North America.
Also an Episcopal priest, Ragsdale has served in parish ministry and as the dean and president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
With hundreds of members of Congress calling on the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a woman’s right to choose, Ragsdale and the NAF are in the middle of a crucial phase in the fight for choice.
Ragsdale spoke with Roberta Staley about reproductive justice, religion and the toll of her lifelong advocacy work.
Roberta Staley: In your 30 years of activism, what shifts have you noticed?
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale: A thing that’s really changed is that what used to be marginalized, far-right rhetoric spoken from the fringe is now being heard in the halls of Congress, in the White House and in state legislatures. They’re spewing lies with demonizing, dehumanizing and untrue rhetoric. Implying that doctors and pregnant women are murdering people through abortion, for example. And that’s bleeding over into news and social media. We’ve watched our violence and disruptions statistics skyrocket.
Abortion has become a political tool enabling some politicians to build a radical, reactive base and get themselves elected — even when a majority of their constituents support the right to abortion. It’s been horrifying to watch women’s lives be used as pawns in others’ political agendas.
RS: How does religion play into this dynamic?
KHR: The religious right got captured by the political right. And let’s bear in mind that most mainline denominations and faith groups remain pro-choice, like the Episcopal Church has been since the 1960s.
RS: How can more progressive religious communities contribute to the broader pro-choice movement?
KHR: The radical-fringe right has been so successful at stigmatizing and demonizing women. Our hotline gets calls from women saying, “I know I’m going to go to hell for this, but I don’t have a choice. I have to have an abortion.”
People who claim to be religious have created that climate. So the religious community has a key role to play in eliminating the stigma and changing the climate to one of respect and honour for abortion providers and for women who make choices about their lives, which is exactly what human beings, as moral agents, are called to do.
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RS: Did you have a religious upbringing?
KHR: I was born in Virginia, and my family went to church because, back then, one did. My family wasn’t very religious, but I was brought up to care about justice and fairness and treating people with dignity and respect. I think my parents were shocked when I decided to go into the church.
RS: How did you make that decision?
KHR: In 1976, I went to college and got active in the Episcopal student group. I learned what a priest did, and I realized I wanted to be one. Some of my early role models were the Philadelphia 11 and the Washington Four, groups of women who were ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in the mid-1970s before the denomination’s General Convention explicitly authorized ordaining women in 1976.
My first year in seminary, my bishop died and my new bishop informed me that he would ordain women but not lesbians. It was then that I first figured out that I actually was a lesbian.
RS: You married Rev. Mally Lloyd nine years ago. How does being a lesbian inform your fight for reproductive justice?
KHR: As a lesbian, an unplanned pregnancy was not something on my radar. I hadn’t thought about abortion prior to landing on the board of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, now called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
I realized that controlling women’s reproductive freedom suggests that women are only good for two things: sex and childbearing. And that has implications for how you are seen and treated in the world: women’s lives don’t matter except as props in men’s lives.
And that’s why a lesbian cares about abortion rights. Because when you reduce women to being mere props in society, that affects all women.
RS: Can you tell me more about your time on the board of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights? What did you achieve in those 17 years?
KHR: If you want an organization that cares for those who are not privileged and especially women of colour, then you have to fight for more than the right to abortion. And that means paying attention to education and daycare and living wages and health care and other kinds of things that people need in order to be able to choose to have children as well as not to.
Real choice means not only the ability to choose an abortion, but also the ability to choose to bear and raise a child. The reality is that poor women have far fewer choices, and sometimes the only choice available to them is an abortion because they don’t have the resources to care for a child. And in this country, sadly, poor women are disproportionately women of colour.
RS: Are Canadian NAF members better off than their counterparts in the United States?
KHR: Yes. You’ve got government funding for health care. I know that there are some anti-abortion protests from time to time in Canada, and those can be very uncomfortable, but that constant, very threatening stuff that the U.S. providers put up with is, thank God, foreign to Canada.
RS: But it’s not perfect here. What kind of changes would you like to see in Canada?
KHR: If you live in smaller, rural or remote communities in Canada, you probably have to travel for an abortion. So what we really want to see is more focus on the availability of medication abortion. We’re working hard to train doctors, especially in more rural settings, in medical abortion — a combination of oral mifepristone and oral misoprostol — so that they feel they’re prepared.
We’re also trying to do some political work. There are a lot of patients in New Brunswick who have to pay for this out of pocket, as the procedure is only covered when it’s provided in hospitals. In Ontario, only some of the community-based clinics receive operational funding from the province.
RS: Critics have called you the “high priestess of abortion.” How does being regularly denigrated and attacked make you feel?
KHR: That is one of the least offensive things they’ve called me. When I became the president of the Episcopal Divinity School, one headline said “Baby Killing Witch Elected to Head EDS.” Another called me a “Fat Angry Dyke.”
It doesn’t upset me enough to lose sleep. It worries me occasionally about what it means for the safety of people I love who didn’t sign up for this.
RS: What is the effect on you — this constant battle?
KHR: It’s the unrelenting work; it’s the emotional toll, the fury and the despair on behalf of so many women who are in such dire straits. Instead of getting compassion, support and health care, they are having their lives compromised and often endangered for someone else’s political agenda. It’s among the reasons that my new favourite hobby is kick-boxing — just a way to work out some of that fury and thwarted passion.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s October 2020 issue with the title “Fight of her life.”
Roberta Staley is a journalist and author based in Vancouver.
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