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.
I believe her
The #MeToo movement marks a distinctive cultural difference between 1991 and 2018. This is obvious in how the public (and the Senate) have responded to Anita Hill vs. Christine Blasey Ford.
I remember the Anita Hill hearings vividly. They were televised live and were on every TV in sight. This was a remarkable feat in 1991 before the era of cable news. Or the phenomenon of “breaking news.”
In an era of blame the victim, Hill’s accusations were definitely breaking news. And, oh boy, was she ever bombarded with victim blaming. Forced to relive some of the most humiliating experiences of her professional life, Anita Hill became a hero. A generation of women were struck by her willingness to call a public figure to account for his abusive behavior.
Women across the country took to wearing pins that said, “I believe Anita Hill” and simply, “I believe her.”
Unfortunately, Hill was treated to shameful and shaming abuse in front of the entire American public and Clarence Thomas was still confirmed. That is the history of justice (or lack of it) for women who are victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence and assault.
Fast forward to 2018 and the newly emerging allegations of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
In the wake of Ford’s accusations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teenager, fewer people are questioning whether she was assaulted. While this is a cultural step forward, his defenders are also not saying, “Let’s find out if these allegations are true because we wouldn’t want an unrepentant sex offender on the nation’s highest court.”
As we have heard in other #MeToo cases, some people are asking if people’s lives should be ruined by actions they took when they were teenagers. Clearly preparing a line of defense for his nomination if the allegations prove to be true. What his defenders are really asking is whether men’s lives should be ruined by the behavior of their younger selves. No one is asking about the lives of the women who were deeply marked by the violence of these boys.
Michelle Goldberg pointed out in a NYTimes column that we are not really asking if boys and men should be accountable for their sexual violence, but rather, which boys and men should be accountable. As she notes, sex offender registries regularly mark men for life for their crimes in an effort to protect vulnerable populations.
But prep school boys and other boys of privilege are rarely held accountable in the same way for their abuse of power and physical strength in perpetrating violent actions against their dates or even just women at parties. And Kavanaugh is on record promoting a storied secrecy of the boys club world.
Sexual violence and restorative justice
The problem with confirming Kavanaugh “even if he did it” on the premise that men shouldn’t have their lives and careers ruined by the actions of their youth is that if he did it – he has clearly shown no remorse, no recognition of the harm that he caused, nor any understanding of the restorative justice that is required before forgiveness is possible.
Restorative justice is the principal that injustices need to be remedied. When people are victims of injustice, their experience can rarely be undone. Such crimes often include violations of a person’s body, mind, and soul. The body’s memory of rape or sexual assault can never be undone. Just as degrading and demeaning verbal abuse cannot be unheard. The fear and terror associated with these crimes or with a mugging or physical attack cannot be erased or forgotten.
Our culture routinely accepts sexual violence against women as normal. Or at the very least, as a woman’s fault for putting herself in a vulnerable situation. In such a culture, it would not be particularly surprising that the boy who grew up to become Judge Kavanaugh didn’t remember the encounter.
Violent, terrifying, and abusive encounters with boys and men mark the histories and psyches of countless women. Across this country and across the world. The normalization of this violence and the refusal to hold boys and men accountable for violent, sexually aggressive behavior is a symptom of a culture that cares more for protecting male privilege than defending women’s human rights.
Compromising the Court’s moral authority
Today, we stand on the precipice of the fall of Roe. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States is threatening for many reasons but I will focus here on his threat to women’s reproductive health. Trump has been clear that one of his primary criteria for Supreme Court nominees is that they would vote to overturnRoe v. Wade. Kavanaugh appeared on lists prepared by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation of judges who meet this criteria.
What will happen if Roe falls?
If Roe falls, regulation of abortion will revert to the states. This means that some women will continue to have access to abortion while many more will not.
Reversing Roe does nothing to address the causes of unintended pregnancies nor many of the other issues that contribute to women seeking to end their pregnancies including partner violence, inadequate housing and food insecurity, the lack of a living wage, and the difficulty many women and families face in caring for their existing children.
Criminalizing abortion seeks to punish women for their sexual activity, it will hinder many women’s chances to pursue or complete their education, and it will throw many more women and children deeper into poverty.
Right now, four states – Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota – have trigger laws in place that will prohibit most abortions if Roe is overturned. Nine more states have pre-Roe laws on the books that ban abortion but it is unclear what their status might be in a post-Roe legal context.
While most of these laws target physicians or others providing abortion services, there is increasing noise in Republican circles that pregnant women who terminate their pregnancies should be punished. In fact, candidate Trump said as much to Chris Matthews in a heated interview exchange during the Presidential campaign, though Trump refused to specify what that punishment might be. More recently, Republican politician Bob Nonini from Idaho said that women who have abortions should face the death penalty.
The reality is that middle-class women will continue to have access to abortion services, even if they have to travel to other states to procure them. What is at stake with the fall of Roeis the health and well-being of the most marginalized women in our society and their families.
Who has abortions in the US?
Women’s reproductive histories in this country demonstrate a pattern of the social control of women’s bodily autonomy and a denial of women’s moral agency and intelligence. In this context, the conversation about abortion has forced women to justify their desire to end a pregnancy and it has narrowed the list of acceptable reasons for abortion to what I call the PRIM reasons – prenatal health, rape, incest, and life of the mother.
Only 26.5% of abortions in this country fall into these PRIM categories. This means that three-quarters of abortions in this country are what legal scholar Kate Watson calls “ordinary abortions.” It is these women who are routinely shamed and caricatured as selfish, irresponsible, immature, or sexually immoral in a context where women are required to justify their abortions.
Reframing the debate
There is a dominant belief that Christianity and Christians are against abortion. In fact, many Christian communities accept abortion in certain circumstances. That abortion is acceptable in some cases means that the real social question is not whether women can have abortions, but which women and for what reasons?
Prenatal health, Rape, Incest, and health of the Mother – PRIM. Evidence indicates widespread consensus and acceptance among many Christian denominations that abortion for PRIM reasons is justifiable.
Of the 11 Christian statements included in a 2013 Pew Research Center study, only Roman Catholics state that they oppose abortion in all circumstances. All the other denominations, even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and the Missouri Synod Lutherans concede that abortion is justifiable when a woman’s life is in danger. The LDS, the NAE, and the Episcopalians also specifically mention that rape and incest are considered justifiable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
Beyond Christian communities, more than three-quarters of the U.S. public have consistently approved of PRIM abortions since 1972, indicating a broad public consensus that abortion is sometimes necessary.
Christian acceptance of PRIM abortions has helped shape the dominant public discourse about abortion into a debate about justification. By requiring women to justify their reasons for ending a pregnancy, this framework divides women who have abortions into two categories – the tragic and the damned.
Women who have PRIM abortions are portrayed as tragic, not only deserving of access to abortion services but also equally deserving of public sympathy. Women who have abortions for other reasons are stigmatized as morally unfit and labeled as selfish, cruel, and irresponsible. In short, they are the damned.
Given that only 27.5 percent of abortions happen from PRIM reasons, that leaves nearly three-quarters of the women who have abortions in the United States damned. These women stand outside acceptability in the justification paradigm that conservative Christian voices have established for our public conversation about abortion.
In a justification framework when women get pregnant, we expect them to have babies.
It is time for Christians to challenge the inadequacy, intolerance and misogyny of this paradigm of pregnancy and abortion. As my deeply Christian mother taught me, “You shouldn’t have a baby because you are pregnant. You should have a baby because you want to be a mother, because you want to have a family.” The moral wisdom of this Christian perspective recognizes that parenting is a profoundly moral act.
To choose to have a child is to make a significant moral commitment to raise the child or to place it for adoption. Since only 1 percent of women place their children for adoption, the overwhelming majority of women who continue unplanned pregnancies are making the choice to mother that child.
Creating healthy families requires more than ensuring that babies are born. Creating healthy families and raising children is a deeply spiritual and moral task requiring commitment, desire, and love on the part of parents.
Limiting our cultural approval of women’s reproductive decisions about the size, shape, and timing of their families to a narrow list of PRIM reasons flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching that he came to bring abundant life. A Christian vision of abundant life requires recognizing and supporting the development of healthy and robust families. It requires respecting women and the moral decisions that they make about their families. A Christian approach to supporting healthy families recognizes that only individual women and their partners are able to determine their ability to parent a child.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
These words from the Declaration of Independence have been echoing through my head in recent weeks. They are particularly present for me today on the 4thof July. The anniversary of the Declaration and the founding of our country.
Particularly as the rights of pregnant women are under imminent threat. And the human rights and well-being of immigrants are presently being violated and abused in this country.
Democracy as revolutionary ideal
In 1776, the idea of democracy was risky. The idea that people could rule themselves was an affront to the traditional monarchic system that had governed Europe for hundreds of years. Tradition and law held that the right to rule was ordained by God and passed down to one’s descendants.
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people was a new political experiment. It was rooted not in the divine right of kings but in a recognition of human dignity and equality.
We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal.
Even so, the founding fathers struggled over what it meant to proclaim that all men are equal before God. Who should actually have access to the rights and privileges of governance? Who would be allowed to vote? Who could serve in elected office? Many of the early patriots were concerned about the consequences for propertied men of allowing all men the right to vote. In considering these questions, James Madison mused in 1787:
Allow the right [to vote] exclusively to property [owners], and the rights of persons may be oppressed… . Extend it equally to all, and the rights of property [owners] …may be overruled by a majority without property….
The founding fathers decided in favor of the privileged. In the first U.S. Presidential election in 1789, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote.
Before we dismiss these actions too quickly as merely a reflection of the cultural attitudes of the time, let us remember the words that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in March of 1776 as she eagerly awaited to hear if independence had yet been declared.
Remember the Ladies
The letter to her husband, John Adams, makes clear that Abigail was no wilting flower. In fact, she was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Like many women throughout history, she had significant responsibilities for the household, she had strong thoughts about society and politics, and she had a healthy relationship with her husband.
In the midst of updating Adams on what was happening in their community and with their own household, she took the opportunity to offer him some political advice as she knew he would play a key role in setting up the new government:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
Abigail’s words make it clear that she and other women in the new republic sought a new world for women just as the male founding fathers sought a new world for themselves. Women were developing new ideas about their lives and this included the size of their families. During the Revolutionary Period, women began to take some measure of control over their fertility. Fertility peaked in 1760 with eight to twelve children not uncommon. But this number dropped to seven by 1800, five by 1850, and three and a half by 1900.
Protecting the Rights of US Women
Just as Abigail called her husband to account on how the new country would address the health and well-being of women, it is time to ensure that all women of this country have access to the same rights that are protected for men.
The Declaration of Independence identifies Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as unalienable Rights. These rights cannot be abridged by the government. This means that these rights cannot be taken away.
Women’s ability to be the architects of their own lives requires ensuring that women have the ability to decide when or if they will have children.
I’ll be honest. Last week was hard. Facebook feeds, emails, and news headlines indicate I’m not the only one who had a hard week. A hard week, at the end of hard month, in the midst of a long, hard year.
From immigration and union busting to crisis pregnancy centers and pharmacists imposing their religious beliefs on pregnant women to protecting the rights of individuals to discriminate and publicly abuse LGBTQ people. Our country is in the midst of a massive backlash against the very real gains that we have made toward gender equality, racial justice, and LGBTQ inclusion over the past forty years.
And then came the announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement.
Abortion and Reproductive Justice
While there has been much hand-wringing about Kennedy’s replacement on the Supreme Court and what it will mean for abortion – we need to think more broadly than access to abortion. Reproductive Justice requires that we recognize that abortion is not the problem in this country. Abortion is a solution to the prior problem of an unplanned or medically fragile pregnancy.
Reproductive Justice (RJ) calls for three things. The right not to have a child, the right to have a child, and the right to raise your children in safe and healthy environments. Clearly abortion access is recognized as a central and fundamental aspect of RJ, but justice requires a much bigger frame than access to abortion.
In addition to abortion – there are serious problems that interfere with women’s ability to raise their children in safe and healthy environments. These problems are not political but any attempts to address them have been so politicized that progress on dealing with them seems increasingly illusive.
Let me outline just a few of the problems that we face that relate to Reproductive Justice:
There have been more than 90 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Forty percent of Americans own a gun or live in a home with a gun. This makes the US the top civilian gun-owning country in the world. In 2016, there were more than 38,000 firearm deaths in the US. Firearms kill more people that car accidents.
According to the official poverty measures, more than 1 in 8 people in U.S. live in poverty. That is roughly 40 million people or 12.7% of the population. Half of those are living in extreme poverty falling below half of the poverty threshold. Eighteen percent of children were living in poverty in 2016. In Mississippi, New Mexico, and Louisiana, the rates go up to 30%.
The US has less than 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the total prison population. This earns us the highest incarceration rate in the world at 716 per 100,000 people. Our rate is six times higher than Canada’s and six to nine times countries in Western Europe. Financing our correctional facilities cost the country an estimated $80 billion annually. Factoring in legal and policing costs, healthcare, construction and other costs associated with incarceration, that number balloons to $182 billion. At the same time, crime rates have been dropping since the early 1990s and are back down to 1960s levels.
Native Americans make up 2% of the US population, the remaining 98% are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. In 2015, one-fifth of the world’s migrants are in the US, numbering about 40 million people. Immigrants make up 13.4% of the U.S. population, the high was 14.8% in 1890. Seventy-six percent of non-citizen immigrants are in the country legally and one-quarter are unauthorized. A 2017 Pew Research study showed that 27% of people fell that immigrants “burden country by taking jobs, housing, healthcare.”
Every year just over 6 million women in the US get pregnant. Almost half of those pregnancies are unplanned. Of these unintended pregnancies, 50-60% of the women were using birth control the month they got pregnant. The average US woman spends 2.7 years pregnant, postpartum or trying to get pregnant and 31 years avoiding pregnancy. Even so, 2.8 million women have unplanned pregnancies every year.
Guns, poverty, mass incarceration, immigration, and unplanned pregnancy. Each of these five “hot-button” issues bear on women’s ability not only to shape their families but to raise their children in safe and healthy environments. Reproductive justice requires that we think about the health and well-being of families in much more comprehensive ways than the nine months of a pregnancy.
We need politicians who are willing to look at the issues that are dividing us as a country and work with experts in the field AND people impacted by these problems to seek to develop meaningful pathways for addressing the root causes of these problems.
We cannot allow narrow ideological commitments rooted in fear, disinformation, and prejudice to shape our laws and public policies.
Progressive Christianity calls us to justice
It’s time to play the long game because we are in this for the long haul as a country and as people of faith. As a progressive Christian, my faith teaches me how to live. I am not beholden to partisan politics but am interested in how elected officials are going to address the deep problems that face us as a country.
My faith teaches me to build community, to care for the down-trodden and to support the weak. My parents and my Sunday school teachers taught me that my task as a Christian is to build the kind of world that Jesus imagined. A world of justice and peace. A world where we care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger. A world where we turn strangers into neighbors through loving them, welcoming them, and working together with them to make this country (and our world) a better place.
This is no utopian imaginary fantasy.
A vision of Reproductive Justice
Reproductive Justice is a vision of justice, kindness, and humility that requires us to reshape our economic policy in ways that allow families to be economically self-sufficient.
Today the organization Republican Majority for Choice closed its doors and turned out the lights. This organization produced and promoted public policies aimed at helping women and families. It was created in a time when many Republicans recognized abortion as a personal decision that shouldn’t involve government interference. A time when many Republicans supported pro-choice positions and candidates.
I have known many pro-choice Republican women over the years. Their argument was deeply rooted in family planning and represented classically Republican arguments.
Fiscal conservatives should embrace family planning because it reduces poverty, increases educational attainment and work force competitiveness, improves health and provides people the opportunity to make educated moral choices.
End of bi-partisan family policies?
The tragedy is this closure may mark the end of viable bi-partisan support for essential public health measures supporting women and families. This is nowhere more evident than in the recent attempts to limit women’s access to contraception.
One of the most important aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was its mandated coverage of contraceptives. With no out-of-pocket costs. The National Women’s Law Center estimated that 62.4 million had coverage of birth control without out-of-pocket expenses. The ACA’s contraceptive mandate has meant that more poor and low-income women not only have access to birth control – but they have access to more effective forms of contraception.
2.8 million US women have unplanned pregnancies every year. 50-60% of those women were using birth control the month they got pregnant. While contraception helps many women avoid pregnancy, many forms have high failure rates.
Only long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) are highly effective at preventing pregnancy. And the ACA’s contraceptive mandate have made LARCs more accessible to poor and low-income women.
Republican Attacks on Contraception
Republican attacks on Planned Parenthood are not limited to objections to abortion. Defunding Planned Parenthood is a direct attack against one of the most important avenues for women’s reproductive healthcare in the country. After all, Planned Parenthood provides contraception to 80% of their patients. 78% of whom have incomes at or below 150% of the poverty level. Poor and low-income women’s access to contraceptive, STD screenings and treatment, cancer screenings and other gynecological services will be severely damaged by eliminating Planned Parenthood.
Similarly, the Trump Administration’s attempts to expand exclusions for contraceptive coverage that would “allow any organization or individual to deny employees and their families contraceptive coverage on the basis of a religious or moral objection” is a clear privileging of the religious beliefs of individuals over the healthcare needs of women and families across the country.
What does this mean?
Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado baker’s decision to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. It was an oddly narrow decision that reaffirmed protections for gay rights while simultaneously allowing the baker to violate them.
The case was argued on two grounds – free speech and free exercise of religion. Regarding free speech, the argument that baking a cake is a speech act did not seem to hold much traction. Neither did the majority opinion hold that a businessperson has a right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
Surprisingly, perhaps, the decision was ultimately decided on very narrow grounds. The majority ruled in favor of the baker based on the judgment that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission demonstrated “hostility” to religion. The Civil Rights Commission had made the original ruling against the baker.
What Justice Kennedy is referring to here are remarks that were made by one member of the Commission who said:
Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.
So far, what this Commissioner said is simply fact. Religion has been used in exactly this way throughout history. Furthermore, religious people continue to claim “freedom of religion” to justify misogyny, violence, homophobia, and other egregious and uncivil behaviors.
Here’s where it gets tricky
However, the Commissioner went on to say:
And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.
This is what really seemed to set Justice Kennedy off. He argued in response:
To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical – something insubstantial and even insincere.
Based on this statement of one Commissioner, Kennedy held that the whole Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to uphold their responsibility of “fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law – a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
The opinion equivocated on a number of points and fairly invited further cases by stating:
The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.
Just what is “undue disrespect”?
It is the phrase “without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs” that gives me pause.
How are we to determine what constitutes “undue disrespect”? Is that another way of saying we need to respect these “sincere religious beliefs”? Who decides what is “undue”?
After all, we live in a country where Christians hold some horribly disrespectful beliefs.
Some of these beliefs are against the law. As in, some Christians sincerely believe that they have the right to beat their wives and some of their wives have been taught to believe they deserve it.
Some of these beliefs are used to harm women. As in, some Christians who sincerely believe that fertilized eggs are human beings are interfering with women’s access to birth control and abortion.
Some of these beliefs are simply morally abhorrent. As in, some Christians sincerely believe that the white race is morally, physically, and intellectually superior to all other races.
Freedom of speech means that we must allow people to express their beliefs, however abhorrent. It doesn’t mean we must respect those beliefs.
The same must be said for freedom of religion. While people have a right to believe whatever they wish, they do not have a right to act on those beliefs when they harm other people.
My faith calls me to challenge hatred