Abortion, Let’s NOT Leave Religion Out of It!

Over and over and over again people tell me to leave religion out of the debate over abortion. “Many Christians believe in the right to abortion, at least in cases of rape or incest,” I am often told, “So, why alienate them by bringing up religion?”

It is true that a huge number of people who identify as Christian also support the right of women to abortion. It is also true that an even greater number of Christians will get an abortion in a desperate situation even if they believe it is “wrong.” However, we do ourselves NO FAVORS by leaving religion out of the debate over abortion.

The reason for this is that the movement in this country to restrict, criminalize, and shame women out of their right to abortion is entirely driven by religion.  The Christian Bible in particular.

Here is how it works: According to the Bible, Eve (woman!) caused the fall of man when she tempted Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, gettiing them kicked out of the “Garden of Eden.” This story is at the core of Christianity; there would be no need for Jesus to allegedly have died on the cross except to make up for this “original sin.” But, that is not all. The human beings who wrote the Bible, their thinking shaped by the patriarchal society they lived in, weren’t content with merely one myth that blamed everything on women.

In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul insists: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

It is this biblical mandate that has animated the anti-abortion movement from its inception and which drives it today. This is why there is not a single anti-abortion organization that is fighting for birth control. Their motivation has NEVER been about “protecting fetal life.” It has always been about insisting that women stay in their place; that wives “submit to their husband as their husband to the lord” (Ephesians 5:22, a commandment Michelle Bachman has upheld publically!) and make babies.

Of course, there are many people who oppose abortion who don’t believe in this scripture. But that doesn’t change the nature of the movement they are supporting or the retrograde, theocratic horror show it is fighting to impose on women. Every day is punctuated with new examples – Rick Santorum’s opposition to abortion even in instances of rape, the arrest of women who have miscarriages, the assassination of the doctors who provide abortions, etc. — demonstrating where the logic of restricting abortion is leading.

Confronting people with the theocratic core of the movement to end abortion is necessary to begin to win people away from the movement they are lending their support to. Either you should uphold that Biblical scripture and the world it would impose, or you should fight against it, including through defending women’s right to abortion.

Aside from openly genocidal rationals (for example, the Nazis criminalized abortions for “Aryan” women), this Biblical mandate (or similar patriarchal mandates of other religions) is the only reason there is to oppose abortion. (Worth noting: there has been significant overlap between the genocidal and religious opposition to abortion, for example the Christian Ku Klux Klan was among the first to march against abortion in this country and there remain many Christian fundamentalists who invoke the spector of “auto-genocide” among white women.)

Once scriptural commandments and genocide are stripped away, there is no reason left to oppose abortion. Scientifically, fetuses are NOT children. Therefore there is absolutely no reason for anyone to have any moral qualm about a woman choosing to terminate a fetus. A fetus is a subordinate part of a woman’s body. It has the potential to become human, but it is doesn’t become a human until it is born and becomes an independent social and biologial being. That is why we mark our time as living human beings from the day of our birth.

Any society that does not wish to enslave women to their biological ability to give birth, that doesn’t want to reduce women to human incubators, needs to uphold and defend and destigmatize women’s right to abortion. If women cannot decide for themselves when and whether to have a child, they cannot be free. If women are not free, then no one is truly free.

Sure, bringing up religion may offend some people who support the right to abortion (or, who at least oppose criminalizing all abortions for all women). But, the truth is there has been a pro-choice majority throughout the whole period where abortion rights have been eroded, doctors have been killed, and women have been shamed. Any attempt to keep religion out of the debate over abortion, in order to hold together an alliance has passively allowed abortion to become increasingly more difficult, dangerous and stigmatized to access over the past two decades, is a losing strategy.

It’s time to set different terms and to fight for a different dynamic.

Christians, like everyone else, need to be confronted with the horror of taking the Bible literally. They should be forced to decide where they stand in relation to this and where it leads, not in relation to some romanticized notions of fetuses as just smaller versions of infants (which is both untrue, and has nothing to do with the true motiviations of the movement against abortion). They should also be confronted with the science of reproduction. They should be challenged – and given the opportunity – to reject this scripture. If they do, whether they choose to continue to believe in Christianity (or another religion) in some non-literal way or whether they forsake religion altogether, they have a responsibility – like all the rest of us – to speak out against the horror of the Bible being enforced on society, including as it pertains to denying women the right to abortion and birth control.

For those Christians who still cling to their literal scripture, even as it is revealed for the Dark Ages nightmare it is, they should have to own up to what they are really promoting. Let’s make them defend 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and all the other crimes mandated by their Bible (stoning non-virgin brides, killing disobedient children, killing homosexuals, blaming people’s “sin” for falling ill, and more!). The more they are forced to own up to what they actually are fighting for, the more clarity others will have about who they want to stand with. Even if it ruffles some feathers at first, wouldn’t this only work to the advantage of those who believe women are full human beings, deserving of the right to decide for themselves when – and whether – they will bring a child into the world?

I write for Revolution Newspaper and sit on the Advisory Board of World Can't Wait

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  • http://feministing.com/members/calliopeia/ Callie

    I actually agree with your article almost completely and think you make a really good argument, but I wanted to point out a minor–if not an error, then at least a moment of ethnocentrism that you might want to edit.

    You say

    A fetus is a subordinate part of a woman’s body. It has the potential to become human, but it is doesn’t become a human until it is born and becomes an independent social and biologial being. That is why we mark our time as living human beings from the day of our birth.

    I just wanted to point out that actually, a lot of east Asian and some other cultures traditionally (and still today) do mark age from the date of conception, rather than the date of birth. I don’t disagree that a fetus is a subordinate part of a woman’s body, but the way we mark age doesn’t really prove that; it’s just a cultural construction that varies from place to place and culture to culture.

    • http://feministing.com/members/sunsaratayloryahoo-com/ Sunsara Taylor

      Callie, I appreciate your point — the cultural tradition of keeping track of our age is not “proof” of when we become independent human beings. This matters because even as the culture shifts to more and more reflect the anti-scientific prejudices of the anti-abortion movement (for instance, referring to fetuses as “unborn babies”), this doesn’t prove them right. That is very important!

      I raise the example of birthdays, however, because this cultural tradition does still reflect some correct assumptions about when we become human that even many anti-abortion people also accept without realizing it. I think it is helpful to point that out — for instance, at the clinics we used to chant to the small children, “A baby is not a baby till it comes out, that’s what birthdays are all about!” Obviously, that is case in cultures like this one — but, as should be clear from my focus on the Christian Bible, that is the culture I am critiquing.

  • davenj

    “Once scriptural commandments and genocide are stripped away, there is no reason left to oppose abortion. Scientifically, fetuses are NOT children. Therefore there is absolutely no reason for anyone to have any moral qualm about a woman choosing to terminate a fetus. A fetus is a subordinate part of a woman’s body. It has the potential to become human, but it is doesn’t become a human until it is born and becomes an independent social and biologial being. That is why we mark our time as living human beings from the day of our birth.”

    This is problematic.

    First, there’s plenty of scripture that can be used to highlight the issue of fetal personhood from a pro-abortion rights perspective, particularly Exodus 22. Stripping away scripture ignores the fact that many anti-abortion advocates don’t take scriptural study particularly seriously. Rather, they came to the conclusion that abortion is wrong, and then, given their religious affiliation, looked for reasons why it was wrong in their religious texts, in spite of conflicting statements in those same texts. Most anti-abortion advocates I’ve met haven’t even read the Bible in its entirety, or at least not carefully. Stripping away scripture would do little for them in that sense.

    Rather, the issue of fetal personhood seems to be the crux of the issue. Many people feel at least some discomfort with an abortion that occurs at seven months, as opposed to one month, and some of that discomfort has to do with fetal viability, and our ongoing understanding of the complex issues of human development in utero. Modern science and technology have given us a much greater understanding of this matter, to the point of being able to see a fetus in many stages of development. As such, varying notions of personhood have arisen.

    Now, it is absolutely valid to say that a fetus is subordinate to a person, and I agree with this, but others do not. Their attachment to fetal viability, depending on the stage of development, can overwhelm this ethical point. The question “what is a person?” is a really complicated one, and, as all people were once subordinate persons, it isn’t all that surprising that some people change the cutoff date for personhood.

    This entire hypothesis tries to reduce a complex bioethics conundrum into a simple matter of scripture. That is not a valid hypothesis, and will do little to help ameliorate the effects of an ongoing cultural battle to define personhood.

    • http://feministing.com/members/sunsaratayloryahoo-com/ Sunsara Taylor


      I disagree on at least two counts.

      First, while it is true people can pick and choose from the Bible to support their pre-formed opinions, if someone actually reads the Bible it is very clear — on almost every single page — that it is a patriarchal document. The Bible actually does blame women for original sin and command us to make babies and obey our husbands as punishment. As I write above, many Christians don’t believe that literally, but then they ought to be part of disowning and condemning this scripture.

      Second, the anti-abortion movement is driven by this scripture. You can site — as I did — the fact that many who oppose abortion don’t uphold this scripture, but that doesn’t change the fact that this scripture is what is at the core of the anti-abortion movement.

      And, you can site the fact that people are debating “personhood” of fetuses from non-religious perspectives — but that also doesn’t change the fact that the movement to end abortion is driven by Christian fascists and that abortion must be available on demand and without apology for women to be free.

      • davenj

        First: there are many, many patriarchal documents in this country. The Constitution is a patriarchal document. How a document is interpreted is far more important from a practical perspective than, in this case, when it was written. For example, many people do not interpret the Bible as ascribing original sin to women. This is an interpretation of Genesis, and one of many. How one chooses to interpret scripture is the issue, and make no mistake, EVERYONE interprets. Asking folks to disown a document that has deep cultural and spiritual meaning is not the answer. Rather, reinterpretation is the issue. Otherwise, how would one explain the millions of Christian feminists driven by their faith?

        Really you’re taking issue with a certain type of literalism, and this literalism is in part an effort to maintain patriarchal norms. It is also, however, a response after the fact to the issue of abortion. Remember, all scriptural citations about abortion are interpretive, because there is no mention of abortion in the Bible. This means that everyone with a biblical defense or support of abortion is working backwards, and has already formed at least a partial opinion on abortion itself before they ever get to the Bible to bolster that opinion.

        Second: the anti-abortion movement CITES scripture, but many in the abortion rights movement do the same. Again, it can’t possibly be the core, because it is an interpretive framework, unlike, say, a religious position on theft, or adultery. That means that these citations are the byproduct of how one looks at the Bible, not a prescription or proscription in any specific section of the Bible.

        I agree that abortion should be available, and without apology, to protect the rights of women. However, that’s ducking my legitimate point about the actual core problem here: when does a fetus become a person? That’s the real issue. That’s the imagery that both sides of the fight try to claim. There is a reason why there are limits on abortion after the point of fetal viability, which suggests that the basis of the argument is on what a fetus is, not what the Bible says about abortion (next to nothing).

        I agree that leaving religion out of this argument is wrong. However, I dispute ascribing strictly religious motives to an action that incorporates other issues of bioethics. That people are inarticulate about their thoughts on these issues is true, and as a result we see people lean on cultural tools, particularly religion, but these are interpretive models to justify a pre-existing moral or ethical reaction to a bioethics dispute. I’ve seen the process in the minds of both religious and irreligious youth, and, regardless, the way they choose to interpret evidence or cultural materials is strongly based on their initial reaction. This means attacking the root problem, a patriarchal culture that treats women as, for a time, baby-incubators, and offers some cultural cache for that action, as this influences initial reactions.