In my capacity as a member of the clergy, and as a past regional spokesperson for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, I have a twenty-year history of advocating for reproductive freedom – including free access to birth control and the preservation of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. I have written about abortion in several settings, spoken at pro-choice rallies, and served as a clinic escort. Therefore, nothing I have to say here is new.
What is new is the concerted push by religious fundamentalists, misogynists, and other neo-medievalists – empowered by the Trump misadministration – to advance their forced-birth agenda through gerrymandered legislatures. As a consequence, my home state of Georgia is now making the absurd claim that an embryo should have the same legal rights as a human being. Our neighbor Alabama has made similarly fanciful claims with a uniformly male bloc of state senators pushing through some of the most draconian anti-abortion legislation in the United States. Other states like Missouri and Louisiana are also joining the rogues’ gallery of women’s oppression.
Whether this is the last gasp of a dwindling minority of anachronistic hypocrites or the advent of a new medievalism remains to be seen. Either way, it is incumbent on every voice to join in the collective outrage at the cavalier way in which the rights of women are being stripped away by an odd coalition of fundamentalist theocrats and self-serving millionaires.
Make no mistake, I am outraged, and that fury is justified. The mawkish, twee arguments from the forced-birth activists mask the actual consequences of their legislation: punishing women for seeking control of their bodies and their lives. On every front I find their work to be an affront to our secular, American values as a modern, first-world nation, and also to my religious values as a Christian committed to a mature and responsible faith.
Consequently, I am placing all of those objections here, in one place. This is neither a concise nor a pithy response, but rather a thorough accounting of my anger at the misinformation and disingenuous euphemisms that define the forced-birth movement. Some will likely be offended by the underlying fury, and commensurate language I use, but I am tired of clinical, detached treatments of an issue that can destroy so many lives.
The first way in which the forced-birth rhetoric infuriates me is its blatant hypocrisy. At the most basic level, forced birthers claim that they want to prevent abortions. Their real priorities, however, become clear when given the opportunity to support comprehensive sex education and unrestricted access to birth control. Despite the demonstrated success of these approaches in reducing the number of terminated pregnancies, the “party of life” and its fundamentalist taskmasters consistently oppose and undercut these proven strategies, because their real goal is not eliminating abortions or unwanted pregnancies, their real goal is to castigate women for their sexual autonomy.
Forced-birth hypocrisy, however, goes far beyond squeamishness about the possibility of women having sex for pleasure. The deeper hypocrisy is in their claim that forced-birth political priorities are about protecting “life.” Forced birthers, having fully embraced the euphemism “pro-life,” constantly wax poetic about their unwavering commitment to “protecting the innocent and the vulnerable” and cherishing “every life as a sacred gift from God.”
This is obviously bullshit. At every turn, the “party of life” opposes programs that will feed, care for, house, protect, and educate the very children they claim to love so much when they are still embryos in the uteruses of women. Add to this their unwillingness to place children in the homes of same-sex couples eager to love those children, as well as the history of violence by opponents to reproductive freedom, and it is clear that the Republican party has no hesitancy about prioritizing its bigotry over its desire to “protect life.”
As an evangelical colleague points out in a recent New York Times Op-Ed – and as women who advocate for reproductive freedom have been saying for decades – forcing a child to be born into a a social, educational, and economic system that cannot support them is not giving them “life.” In the same vein, denying reproductive healthcare choices does not support the lives of the women who will bear the medical, financial, relationship, and professional risks of the pregnancy. The callous dismissal of those risks, and of the often insurmountable problems faced by actual children born into those circumstances, proves the lie of abortion opponents’ commitment to “life.”
If GOP voters are so committed to “life,” then they had better be willing to show the ways in which they are willing to make sacrifices: of their earnings (through taxes and government programs), of their time (through mentoring and advocating for underprivileged children), of their own prudishness (through promoting comprehensive sex education and access to contraception), and of their workplaces (by creating environments that privilege employee families over employee productivity). Simply telling women they have to carry their pregnancies to term, at no cost to the GOP voters and at tremendous cost to the woman, without taking any tangible steps to actually support those women or provide for the quality of life for their children, does not make the Republican party “pro-life.” At best, it makes them advocates for “forced birth.”
We cannot give these forced-birth activists a pass because some of them are sweet, well-meaning neighbors and friends who honestly think their forced-birth activism protects “babies.” The tree is judged by its fruit, and the party, and policies they advance is actively hostile to the welfare of babies and children. Nothing in their politics affords them the justification for euphemistically terming their work as being “pro-life,” and it is essential that we call them out for it every time.
Likewise, we cannot allow them to hide their reactionary agenda behind theological justifications.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about popular Christian theological discussions is that they are rarely based on actual theological, biblical, or historical scholarship. Most laypeople assume that whatever the general public considers to be a “conservative” social viewpoint at the time is also the traditional, Christian view. This is how we end up with “Christian” conservatives who claim to “literally” believe the Bible while completely ignoring Jesus’ explicit teachings to give everything you have to anyone who begs for it from you.
The theological reality is much more complex. Even those from a “Sola Scriptura” tradition have to face the fact that the biblical writings span the work of multiple eras, writers, and editors. These different voices, combined with the challenges of interpreting ancient texts within their historical and linguistic contexts, mean that there is far more ambiguity – on a range of issues – than fundamentalists want to concede. Likewise, appeals to that “old time religion” must confront the realities of slavery, ethnic oppression, and misogyny that are a shameful part of our legacy as a Church.
In the case of abortion rights, however, we do not have to correct ancient superstitions or perform deep dives into relevant texts. In fact, there is virtually nothing in Scripture or the tradition of the Early Church to make a compelling argument for denying women the bodily autonomy to terminate their pregnancies. What little discussion of the concept there is can be found in a brief reference in the twenty-first chapter of Exodus. In that passage the penalty (a fine) for forcing a woman to miscarry is far below that for murder. Beyond that, it’s difficult to look at the genocidal commands in Deuteronomy or Joshua, or the Psalmist’s cries to dash the heads of infants against rocks in Psalm 137, or the praise of the child-murdering Jephthah, and make the claim that the biblical writers were arguing for a “culture of life” that preserved embryos and fetuses, or even infants and children, at all costs.
Outside of Scripture, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg offers a thoughtful thread on the history of Jewish midrash around abortion and the “personhood” of an embryo or fetus. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice also offers a number of resources from pro-choice clergy and theologians from a variety of traditions.
Obviously, Roman Catholics must face the reality that the modern RCC is staunchly anti-abortion. The hierarchy of that tradition leaves little room for challenging its underlying theological claims, although I think this makes a greater argument against theology created by a celibate, patriarchal, exclusively male hierarchy than for the strength of their theological claims. Nonetheless, even among devout Roman Catholic laypersons, there is dissent on the issue of reproductive freedom.
Simply put, in Christianity as a whole (the professed religion of the majority of forced-birth advocates in the US) there is no theological consensus on abortion. This is important to reiterate, not only on the issue of reproductive freedom, but on other social issues where fundamentalists claim that they are simply acting on their sincerely held religious beliefs. As noted above, somehow that “strict” adherence to a “literal” reading of the Bible rarely translates to giving away all possessions to the poor, or sharing all goods in common like the Early Church in Acts, or even simply advocating for policies that privilege the poor and the orphaned over the wealthy. For fundamentalists, the “literal” interpretation of the Bible only requires of them that they penalize and control those who hold different views, while sacrificing nothing themselves.
Unfortunately, despite their ignorance and superstition, many of these fundamentalists are otherwise well-meaning, kind, friends, family members, and neighbors. They possess neither the historical nor the theological sophistication to understand the consequences of their fundamentalist agenda, and – because of their “good intentions” – it is easy for their neighbors and friends to assume that these forced-birth advocates are just trying to be “good, conservative Christians.”
Just as we cannot allow the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” claim to go unanswered, it is equally important that we completely shut down the disingenuous assertion that forced birth, and other fundamentalist priorities, are about “biblical fidelity.” If your “religious beliefs” are your justification for your ignorance or bigotry, then you’re not “conservative’ or “pious”; you’re just an asshole, and we cannot allow assholes to turn our modern, secular republic into a theocracy like Iran or Gilead.
Political and theological hypocrisy, however, are not the only grounds on which I find the forced-birth agenda offensive. From a general, ethical standpoint, that agenda advances a reductive course that ignores the complexities of the meaning of “life,” as well as the scientific and medical issues around reproductive freedom.
First among these is the breathless, hagiographic assertion that somehow the “life” present in an embryo is a human, due all the rights and protections granted to other humans. The most recent version of that language focuses on the idea of a “fetal heartbeat,” a term that OB/GYNs who support abortion rights are quick to point out is a misnomer. Despite all of the forced-birth rhetoric that embryos and fetuses are “babies” – they simply are not. For this reason, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) – physicians who have dedicated their lives to the care of mothers and babies – has a clear statement in support of access to abortion as healthcare. They also have a more recent statement opposing the current push for anti-abortion legislation.
As those statements note, access to abortion is part of providing adequate healthcare to women. The (overwhelmingly male) legislators pushing these restrictive laws readily admit that they do not understand the medical aspects of pregnancy, yet they are more than willing to ignore the clear expertise of the physicians who do. The subordination of expertise to empty political rhetoric here, at the cost of women’s lives, is staggeringly unacceptable.
Granting human rights to an embryo not only ignores these medical concerns of the physicians who care for the women whose bodies contain those embryos, it also ignores the ethical questions around the bodily autonomy of those women. As many commentators have noted, forced pregnancy bills grant more rights to corpses than women. If the law cannot compel an organ to be removed from a corpse to save a living person’s life, why is it that the “rights” of an embryo are considered superior to that of the living woman in whom it resides? Why isn’t the life of the person in need of an organ worth equal protection?
There are other ethical questions as well. What about the life of the mother – not just her survival, but her long-term emotional and physical wellbeing? What about the ways in which a child, or an additional child, impairs her ability to provide for her present or future family? There are countless reasons that carrying a pregnancy to full term might actually have a significant, negative, life-changing impact on multiple lives. A blanket restriction on access to abortion ignores all of them.
Forced-birth policies also skip over an ethical concern that is not currently central to the discussion of what it means to preserve “life,” but that I think will increasingly be an issue in coming decades. Most people accept, without reflection, that human life deserves absolute primacy over the lives of other animals, and this thinking has been so catastrophic for the biodiversity of the Earth that a recent United Nations report has sounded the alarm that we are on the brink of an unprecedented extinction event. The consequences of an anthropocentric view of life, in terms of environmental devastation, the health of human animals, and the suffering of non-human animals, are already disastrous, and likely getting worse. Future discussions of what it means to be “pro-life” will need to assess the narcissism that allows some among us to think that even a few cells that will someday organize into a human being should be protected, regardless of the cost.
That is not a question widely debated today, nor is it likely to be until the consequences of the “Anthropocene Age” are undeniable. Until that time, even leading aside the ethical concerns of anthropocentrism, the other ethical consequences of forcing a woman to carry her pregnancy to term make it clear that this is not a clear-cut question of protecting “life.” The glib dismissal of the complexity of these issues, by fundamentalist clerics and self-admittedly clueless politicians, ignores this reality in favor of the political expediency of oppressing women.
The Voices of Women
The power of that oppression becomes immediately clear when women are asked to speak specifically about their thoughts on reproductive freedom and abortion access. I am weighing in on this discussion, not because I think my views should have primacy, but because I think men need to speak up in support of women, and insist that those women’s voices be heard. The church hierarchies, state legislatures, and political groups pushing the forced-birth agenda are led by, and filled with, men. While they are quick to showcase the women who support them, those patriarchal institutions are also eager to silence the countless women who do not.
Celebrities like Busy Philipps, Jameela Jamil, Milla Jovovich, and Milana Vayntrub, have all spoken honestly about their abortions in support of the hashtag #YouKnowMe. Their stories are valuable because they bring visibility to the reality of abortion in women’s lives.
Other stories are equally important. Women are talking about their experiences of sexual assault. Women are talking about their abortions in later terms. Women are sharing their stories about having an abortion, without feeling the need to justify why. Women are sharing stories of what happens in countries where right-wing zealots manage to outlaw abortion.
Every single one of their stories matters. Collectively, these testimonies speak to women’s experiences of how pregnancy and parenthood (which is still primarily the domain of women in many subsets of American society) impact their lives. Yet the forced-birth movement ignores the stories that do not fit their narrative, failing to address the realities that would lead a woman to decide to terminate her pregnancy.
There’s a good reason for that. The forced-birth movement, and its anti-abortion legislation, is not about meeting the needs of women – or meeting the needs of parents and children – in ways that reduce unwanted pregnancies and help overcome the hurdles of parenthood. The movement is about controlling women, silencing women, and punishing women for their autonomy and sexual agency.
On every front, the ignorant and superstitious rhetoric of the forced-birth movement is an affront to compassion and good sense. First and foremost, it is profoundly hypocritical, with its advocates constantly proving the lie of their claim to support life. Secondly, forced-birth theological arguments are vacuous and inconsistent, lacking the unambiguous religious authority its adherents claim. Thirdly, forced-birth rhetoric ignores the ethical complexities around human rights, life, and bodily autonomy. Finally, the forced-birth crowd ignores the lived experiences and reality of women’s lives.
Unfortunately, all of this mendacity hides behind sad smiles from sympathetic voices who claim to “just care about ‘babies’.” Religious fundamentalists do not care about “tradition” except when it allows them to oppress women, sexual minorities, artists, or scholars. Likewise, forced-birth advocates – whether or not they are also religious fundamentalists – only care about “babies” when that care costs them nothing, and gains them the chance to control women’s bodies.
That is why this fight isn’t about “life,” or “babies,” or religion, or ethics, or helping women. This fight is about power, and the degree to which a bigoted and superstitious minority can use political power to exert its will on the whole country. This fight is about power, and we must make it clear that the freedom we cherish as Americans will always include the freedom of women to make their own reproductive decisions. This fight is about power, and we must say unequivocally that no one – be they disingenuous billionaires wrapping themselves around flagpoles or sanctimonious mountebanks thumping their Bibles – will be able to advance oppressive laws under the hypocritical camouflage of religious rhetoric.
This fight is about power. The only people who should have power over women’s bodies are the women themselves. We can no longer afford to allow the forced birth advocates to lie to us – or themselves – about their motives, or about the consequences of their actions. We must speak out. We must vote. We have the tools of democracy and truth at hand. If we do not use them now, history will not be kind to us.