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Abortion was an ideological and spiritual struggle for Baptist minister

Rev. Dwylene Butler sits in a pew at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Rev. Dwylene Butler, the executive minister at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, said she is a sexual assault survivor whose rapist impregnated her during her sophomore year of college. (Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

As Virginians grapple with the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court's repeal of Roe v. Wade, some local faith leaders are asserting their personal stances on abortion, reflecting a diversity of views among religious groups on the issue.

Rev. Dwylene Butler is the executive minister at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a 154-year-old house of faith in Richmond's historic Jackson Ward community. Butler works closely with the church's pastor, Rev. Tyrone Nelson, and other leaders to meet the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of church members and the surrounding community.

A licensed Christian minister since the age of 17, Butler holds master's degrees in theology and divinity, and chairs the Holistic Hurt, Wholistic Healing Conference, which addresses topics traditionally considered "taboo" in many Baptist churches – domestic violence, mental illness and sexuality – and offers resources to community members impacted by the issues. 

Butler said she is also a sexual assault survivor whose rapist impregnated her during her sophomore year of college.

"At the age of 20, it was very difficult for me to reconcile the fact that I was already a licensed minister, who was pregnant as a result of a rape and the decisions that I had to make as a person of faith," said Butler, who terminated the pregnancy through an abortion facilitated at a clinic in her home state, Connecticut. 

The choice to have an abortion presented an ideological and spiritual struggle for Butler, "because I had grown up believing that abortion was sinful. It was something that 'fast' girls needed to do because they had been 'fast.' And [abortion] was a consequence of what had happened to them. And so, I started to question everything about what I had been taught, what I believed and what it meant."

Butler’s experience reflects a diversity of perspectives present in various denominations of Christian churches in America and Virginia. Christians comprise the largest religious group in Virginia; 73 percent of adults in the state self-identify as Christian, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Six percent of Virginians practice non-Christian faiths — Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and other religions — while 20 percent of Virginians are unaffiliated with any religion. Protestants make up the majority of Christians in the state.

Of all faiths, Christians have presented some of the most stringent opposition to abortion in Virginia and across America. While the majority of adults in the U.S. said abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, white evangelical Christians are most opposed to abortion, finds a May 2022 Pew study.

The Southern Baptist Convention — which represents about 50,000 churches and more than 14 million members globally —has advocated a staunch pro-life stance for decades. The organization, of which the Henrico County-based Baptist General Association of Virginia is affiliated, “rejoiced” at Roe v. Wade’s overturning last Friday. Other Christian groups and leaders, including Butler, are troubled by the court’s decision.

“For me, my initial reaction was shock, despair, and a sense of hopelessness, but then crying out to God to say that this, I know this can't be the end,” Butler said. “I … just cried before the Lord and asked God, what does this mean for today, but also in the years to come? What does it mean for [rights] that we thought were settled law, things that we thought were freedoms that we would have? And they're gone. So, what does that mean?”

Historically in Virginia, abortion was viewed as a religious rather than political issue, according to Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia who studies American religion and politics.

Before the 1970s, abortion was “a debate that fell much more heavily along religious lines. And it tended to be a debate between Catholics, who were strongly opposed to abortion. …  And then on the other side were Protestants with varying perspectives, some of whom tended to be moderates,” Williams said.

Even after Roe v. Wade  was decided, a 1973 Richmond Times-Dispatch article declared that “protestants are now divided on the issue, while a majority of Catholics remain opposed.” 

Another RTD article from 1973 stated that 16 Jewish and Christian religious organizations formed the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights “to safeguard the right of women to use individual freedom of conscience in deciding whether to seek an abortion.”

While views on abortion and abortion access vary among faiths and even among denominations, Butler and other religious leaders urge everyone, but especially those in the Christian community, to view the issue through a lens of compassion, concern and love.

“We're not a monolithic people … what we believe as Christians, it should be in Deuteronomy, when God said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and your strength.’ Jesus said, ‘The second commandment is like unto it, love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”

VPM News Reporter Megan Pauly contributed to this report