Saturday, March 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Planned Parenthood gets full-time chaplain

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Rev. Monica Corsaro doesn't look like a stereotypical minister.

With her choppy blond hair, thick-rimmed hipster glasses and chunky black shoes, the Methodist minister won't even cop to her actual age ("30-something" is all she'll admit) because, she says, she constantly has to fight for respect.

Now this unconventional-looking minister has become a chaplain in what seems, at first blush, to be one of the most unlikeliest of places: Planned Parenthood.

Religious views on family planning

Dan Maguire, professor of moral theological ethics at Marquette University, will discuss the views of major religions on family planning at 7:30 p.m. April 9 at University of Washington's Kane Hall, Room 220. The talk, which is free, is sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, among others. For information: 206-328-7707.
Corsaro was recently appointed Planned Parenthood's chaplain for the state, making her the first full-time, statewide chaplain in the national organization.

As such, she will provide pastoral counseling to patients and staff, act as liaison with the religious community and lobby on issues of reproductive rights. Perhaps more importantly, she will play a pivotal role in the organization's public-relations battle against what its leaders say is a false perception that most religious organizations are opposed to Planned Parenthood.

In fact, despite significant religious opposition by the Catholic Church, for instance, Planned Parenthood has a long history of working with religious organizations, its directors say.

The portrayal of religion's position on women's reproductive health, family planning and the abortion issue has been "distorted because of the heated and very vocal nature of the real extreme anti-choice members of the clergy," said Robert Harkins, executive director of the state organization's network of regional affiliates.

Corsaro's appointment comes at a time when Planned Parenthood leaders say the Bush administration is trying to chip away at women's reproductive rights.

For example, Harkins said, the administration attempted to take away insurance coverage of contraceptives for federal employees, a move blocked by Congress.

The outspoken Corsaro seems suited to such a controversial position. Raised in a liberal Methodist household in Geneseo, Ill., her pivotal moment came while attending Illinois State University. A friend asked her to attend an anti-abortion rally with a conservative Christian group. Meanwhile, other friends were protesting the rally.

Feeling like she didn't fully belong in either group, Corsaro asked herself: "Why can't I be pro-choice and pro-faith?"

"Why am I here with my political friends who can't stand Christianity, and why are my Christian friends on the other side?"

After receiving a master's degree in divinity from the Iliff School of Theology at the University of Denver, she served as associate minister at Audubon Park United Methodist Church in Spokane, where she also chaired the local Planned Parenthood's clergy advisory committee. Most recently, she served as minister of community outreach at University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle's University District.

In January, Methodist Bishop Elias Galvan appointed Corsaro to the Planned Parenthood chaplaincy. The church is generally considered friendly to the pro-choice position.

Corsaro said she was raised with the belief that God believes in each person's ability to make choices — including choices about one's body.

Most women who have a spiritual crisis at Planned Parenthood have "already made the decision to have an abortion but believe God will send them to hell," Corsaro said. "I try to focus on telling them 'God loves you, too.' " In her counseling, she tries to lead the women to make decisions on their own, without badgering them.

But some abortion opponents say there's no way a Planned Parenthood chaplain can be objective.

"This is a minister who, from the get-go, agrees with Planned Parenthood's philosophy," said Genevieve Wood of the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit foundation.

"We would encourage women to seek counsel from their own ministers, not just take Planned Parenthood's word for it."

The Family Research Council also takes issue with Planned Parenthood's characterization of having broad-based religious support.

"The Catholic church, the largest Christian denomination in the country, and the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the country, are against abortion," Wood said.

But while Corsaro's appointment is the first time Planned Parenthood has established a full-time chaplaincy, it stresses longtime support from religious groups for family planning.

In the 1940s, mainline churches and synagogues played a crucial role in popularizing family planning, said the Rev. Tom Davis, chair of the clergy advisory board for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

In the 1960s, before abortion became legal, more than 1,000 ministers and rabbis formed an underground railroad of sorts, helping women find safe abortions.

Today, Planned Parenthood has clergy serving on its boards and clergy advisory boards — both nationally and locally. Most affiliates have clergy members who volunteer as chaplains.

"It's important to have someone (on staff) who can speak as a person of faith, speaking from her faith, for people of faith," Corsaro said. "And it's important to have a religious voice for choice."


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