While some have argued that opposition to a woman’s right to make decisions about her body is a legitimate religious freedom issue, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the religious freedom issue at stake in the abortion debate.
On Saturday, a close friend walked out of her local Catholic church with her family in protest of the priest’s blatantly propagandistic pro-life homily. Apparently, he was praising the story of Abby Johnson’s conversion from Planned Parenthood clinic director to pro-life activist and the new film Unplanned, which tells her story. The film, released by a company that focuses on producing “Christian films,” received a nationwide release, was in fourth place after its first weekend in box offices, and has gone on to gross almost $18 million since opening day.
I had recruited this same feminist friend to go with me to see the film because I wasn’t sure I could make it through on my own. What initially struck me as the two of us sat in the theatre and watched people filter in was the makeup of the audience. While it was a relatively small crowd of about thirty people, everyone but the two of us were white, heterosexual couples in their fifties or older. Some of that may have been due to the fact that it was a Saturday matinee, but as soon as the movie opened, it was clear that these people, nonetheless, were the target demographic.
From the opening scene of Abby Johnson’s breakfast in her perfectly clean, well-tooled kitchen to listening to her voice-over describing her life as the camera pans through her white, upper middle-class town, it is clear that this movie is for people like Abby Johnson, people who live in homes, and neighborhoods, and towns that are white, clean, crime-free, and innocent. There is nothing terribly surprising or shocking in the film; it is full of all the pro-life messages one would expect from a movie in this genre including: Johnson’s mommy guilt for being a working mother; stock, super-supportive husband and parents who hate her job but love her so much it doesn’t matter; an incompetent doctor who perforates a uterus and then refuses to send the patient to a hospital in order to cover up his mistake. All of this is backdrop for the main story – a pro-choice protagonist who has had two abortions, directs an “abortion clinic,” and undergoes a miraculous conversion while assisting with an abortion procedure that opens her eyes to the evil she is perpetuating.
This film is rightly identified as propaganda, not because it is pro-life and seeks to persuade people toward a particular perspective. It is propaganda because it is filled with tired tropes and stereotypes about abortion, physicians, Planned Parenthood, and women who terminate pregnancies. It is propaganda because it willfully misrepresents abortion procedures—repeatedly. It eschews any evidence-based argument. From the opening scene reminiscent of Silent Scream, where a thirteen-week fetus is depicted as struggling and fighting for its life to the bloody and life-threatening perforated uterus scen(sc)ario, this movie could easily be placed in the genre of horror.
But, the most offensive scene depicted Johnson’s second abortion, which was an early medication abortion. Not because this scene portrays the clinic staff as callous and incompetent, or because the gory, tortured images of Johnson’s experience are intended to frighten and shock. What is so objectionable is that the end of the scene pans away from Johnson lying naked in a lump on the floor of her blood-stained bathroom in a way that so clearly mimics the notorious photo of Gerri Santoro that galvanized pro-choice support across the country that it cannot be coincidental. The fact that Santoro died from a self-induced abortion when abortion was illegal while the scene in Unplanned depicts a legal, early, and ultimately safe abortion procedure makes the evocation of Santoro’s experience even more abhorrent.
Just about the only thing that the movie gets right is the fact that abortion is bloody. You know what else is bloody? Menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, polyps, fibroids, hormonal imbalances, menopause, cancer, hysterectomies, ectopic pregnancies, even healthy pregnancies—there are so many things in women’s lives that can cause women to bleed. But this film attempts to use blood, women’s menstrual blood, in a frenzy of gore meant to titillate and terrify. That is also why it is propaganda. Because this film seeks to make people afraid.
So, just remember the facts.
- Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures in the country and it is also far safer than childbirth.
- 25% of women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45.
- 60% of women who have abortions already have at least one child.
- 62% of women having abortions report a religious affiliation.
- Most Christians believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
I still remember the moment in my early twenties when I stopped wearing a cross as jewelry. As a PK (preacher’s kid), an active youth in my church, and then leader of youth groups in college, I had worn variations of cross necklaces or rings much of my life. While a chance encounter with Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Mary–The Feminine Face of the Church had piqued my Protestant interest not only in Mary but in ideas about the divine feminine, it was in reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade that I set aside my cross and became a feminist theologian.
Eisler’s observation that archaeologists who excavated the remnants of our civilization thousands of years hence might likely conclude from the abundance of crosses left behind that Christianity was a death cult astonished me. Of course, this remark largely supported her central claim that cultural assumptions against recognizing the divine as female had contributed to the interpretation of scores of female images and figurines as objects associated with a “fertility cult.” Eisler asserted that these figurines more likely represented the Divine Goddess from a period When God Was a Woman, as Merlin Stone had argued a decade earlier.
My adult life has been marked by my desire to reimagine God as female, beyond gender, beyond human, and, quite frankly, as anything but a divine father. In fact, one of my first published pieces was on “Embracing God as Goddess.” I argued that female sexuality and the fundamental mutability of women’s bodies through menarche, menstruation, gestation, lactation, and menopause offered an important starting point for theological reflection about the nature of God that has been overlooked in two thousand years of male theological discourse creating God in their image.
And yet, as we seek to reimagine God, I am not sure that the corrective to the damage that has been done by the understanding of God as Father is to replace that with an understanding of God as Mother. After all, the religious and cultural expectations that predominate under a patriarchal father God for women to mother are already extreme. Not only are women expected to want and have children, the deeply rooted cultural expectation that women who get pregnant have a moral obligation to continue their pregnancy is deeply rooted in Christian tradition. Expectations that women’s role is to mother can be traced to both Eve’s depiction as the “mother of all living” and to the Christian tradition’s veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the paragon of true womanhood.
Mary has been lifted up and crowned with the ultimate female power of the patriarchy—she is both a virgin and a mother. In this position, Mary garners the benefits of the sacred purity of virginity, thus avoiding any association with the sinful act of sex, while simultaneously fulfilling women’s sacred role as mother. The theological (and social) construction of Mary as both virgin and mother is a remarkable feat. In elevating Mary to this status and labeling her as “theotokos” or “God-bearer,” Christian women are offered an unattainable model of feminine virtue that literally embodies contradictory ontological realities. Practically speaking, women who give birth are not and cannot be virgins.1When measured against Mary as the perfect woman, all of us fall short.2
The last thing we need is an image of a Mother God being used to reinforce established cultural tropes promoting motherhood as women’s true calling and destiny. As we saw during the Victorian era, while the cult of true womanhood was stultifying for white women, urging them to be “delicate, refined, and chaste” and “perfectly suited to the home,” where she served as mother and wife, these same images were used to vilify and demonize black women. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts describes how these attributes were exactly the opposite of those used to characterize black women who were marked as the bearers of “incurable immorality” and considered unfit to be mothers. Whether that “unfitness” is defined as hypersexuality, negligent mothering, dominance and control, or dependency, there is a long history of racist attitudes about black women’s mothering.
Thus, I am wary of how a Mother God might function in a world and a religious tradition that remains patriarchal, misogynist, and racist. If, however, we were to reimagine God and Divine Motherhood in ways that reflect and affirm the experiences and struggles of real women grappling with the responsibilities of motherhood, well then, maybe we could develop a more complicated and approachable God.