religious institute abortion

Unitarian Sexologist’s Abortion-Promoting Institute Shuttered Citing “Devastating Loss”

Jeffrey Walton on October 2, 2020

A once-prominent interfaith organization co-founded by a sexologist and Unitarian Universalist minister advocating for unrestricted abortion as well as gay and transgender causes within churches is closing its doors.

Officials with the Connecticut-based Religious Institute cite several factors in their decision to cease operations.

We came to the painful conclusion after several years of decreasing institutional support for our work,” a letter from the Religious Institute Board of Directors reads, also pointing to difficulties from the global pandemic. “…we will not be able to sustain operations long enough to weather the storm.”

The board includes among its members a Presbyterian seminary professor and Planned Parenthood chaplain who authored the book Erotic Justice as well as a “trans-femme and queer educator” and a rabbi who authored a thesis on “a Jewish feminist theology of abortion.”

The organization has survived difficult circumstances before. In 2012, I reported on the group’s scramble for financial support after a misappropriation scandal wiped out its funds. Foundation donors stepped in to keep the group afloat, but those institutional ties appear to be exhausted.

“At the beginning of the year we were close to securing a more stable financial home for the Religious Institute,” the board letter states. “The coronavirus global pandemic put an indefinite halt on those plans” and “support for us and our sister organizations who do this work has significantly eroded.”

The group’s Twitter account has been silent since April, indicating that the organization has been winding down activity for some time.

Sex and Seminaries

Co-founded in 2001 by The Rev. Debra Haffner, the Religious Institute styles itself an advocate for “sexual health, education and justice.” The institute touted strong ties to homosexual advocacy organizations, as well as liberal religious groups that operate within the Mainline Protestant churches. Organizers sought to implement training requirements for “sexually healthy congregations and religious institutions,” in Haffner’s words.

Haffner and the Religious Institute were critical of denominations that did not embrace them.

Responding to the decision of the United Methodist General Conference not to change language declaring homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” Haffner convened officials from two dozen liberal religious organizations to endorse a statement rebuking the church’s stance.

But the group’s interests were not just inside of church institutions. Notably, it spearheaded a defense of the contraception/abortifacient mandate in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The institute’s efforts nabbed Haffner an invitation to the 2014 Obama White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, where she posed with former National Association of Evangelicals official and “my favorite evangelical” the Rev. Richard Cizik and RCRC President Harry Knox.

“The argument that this [debate] is about religious freedom is a complete smoke screen,” Haffner told United Church of Christ minister Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in a 2012 radio interview that my IRD colleague Kristin Larson covered. “The fact that it’s now about birth control shows that it’s much bigger than a concern about embryos,” and supposedly, “about the Catholic hierarchy.”

According to Haffner, opposition to contraception is not about genuine religious convictions, but “really about women and their sexuality. It’s about sexuality for pleasure, not just for procreation.”


The institute’s historic focus on abortion and LGBTQ causes may have run aground in a season in which racial issues and criminal justice reform have predominated at the forefront of the Religious Left.

“This is a devastating loss for the movement at a time when sexual, gender and reproductive health, rights and justice are under great attack,” the board letter reads. “Our opponents are weaponizing the language of religious liberty as a core tactic to ban abortion, strip LGBTQ people of their rights and humanity, and deny basic sexual and reproductive health services to all people.”

The group claimed to mobilize “thousands of religious leaders” in support of socially liberal causes, of which abortion access was often central. Interim President Carol McDonald served for more than a decade at Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). Haffner, who retired from the Religious Institute in 2016, held positions at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, and she has continued to represent the Religious Institute at protests and other events.

Religious Institute partner groups included PPFA, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), and the Center for Reproductive Rights “to demonstrate religious support for reproductive justice.”

According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think tank, the Religious Institute “has played a critical role in articulating the religious foundations for supporting sexual and reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education.”

As a growing number of Americans, and politically liberal Americans in particular, identify as “unaffiliated” there may have been less interest in engaging with religiously observant Americans, who are more likely to be Evangelical or Roman Catholic than to participate in Mainline Protestant denominations.

“We – as an organization and as individuals – have always been rooted in faith,” the Religious Institute Board of Directors insisted. “Faith in the dignity of every human being as a reflection of the divine image.”

But the unborn didn’t qualify, in the view of Haffner and others at the Religious Institute, which held that abortion is “a moral decision.”

“The health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus,” a 2005 letter organized by the Religious Institute read.

  1. Comment by Tom on October 2, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    “The institute’s historic focus on abortion and LGBTQ causes may have run aground in a season in which racial issues and criminal justice reform have predominated at the forefront of the Religious Left.”

    There is nothing more deadly to a leftist organization than becoming yesterday’s cause.

  2. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on October 5, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Agreed, Tom. That’s a memorable point that I’ll be certain to make.

  3. Comment by Brother Thom on October 2, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    It is beyond troubling that so many self proclaimed religious leaders have become under the absolute control of satan. There is no other explanation for people that advocate the murder of human life. I look at it in the simplest of terms, supporting the murder of human babies while protesting the same end for puppies and kittens is nothing short of full demonic possession. The United Methodist Church’s 2016 Book of Discipline craftily tapdances around its support of abortion. I pray traditionalist will be fully against abortion as a means of birth control, or a selection process for gender or non-life threatening birth defects.

  4. Comment by Lance T on October 2, 2020 at 10:02 pm

    Good riddance!

  5. Comment by Donald on October 3, 2020 at 7:49 am

    Undoing the damage these apostate professors, pastors, “ethicists” and legislators have done to our Republic is going to take 100 years…one institution and law at a time. Realigning the SCOTUS around traditional values, re-energizing Traditionalist congregations to finally reform the Mainline denominations that are now crumbling and ultimately restoring our nation’s birth rate to a healthy metric are parts of this renewal. Don’t lose hope and don’t lose this ultimate focus.

  6. Comment by Joan Sibbald on October 3, 2020 at 12:39 pm

    The Left’s goal is to replace God’s Word with the worship of Self: I! Me! My! Mine!

    2 Cor. 11: 14-15
    “Even Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder his servants can also do it by pretending to be godly ministers. In the end they will get every bit of punishment their wicked deeds deserve. “

  7. Comment by Sue McKeown on October 6, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    It’s one thing to be a realist and acknowledge that free or low-cost contraception can help reduce the demand for abortion, as can things like universal health insurance without resorting to “Medicare for All”, such as the French, German, or Swiss system; paid parental leave; making public higher education state-supported again; and a higher minimum wage based on local economic conditions. It’s quite another to say that abortion on demand is the answer.

  8. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on October 7, 2020 at 10:20 am

    Hello Sue, I think that is because the key difference here is not about what is the best way to decrease abortion. That discussion is occurring elsewhere, but groups like the Religious Institute see abortion itself as an unalloyed social good, a tool for ensuring personal autonomy and liberation.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.