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 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
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
In many states across the country, annual Democratic Party fundraisers are promoted as Jefferson-Jackson dinners to honor the two men often credited as the founders of the Democratic party. A number of states are beginning to drop the Jefferson- Jackson link in the face of increasing interest in racial and gender inclusion.
In the midst of a country where black lives appear expendable and some white people are unable to recognize that memorializing their ancestors should never be done in ways that celebrate the Confederacy and its’ mission of defending slavery – the question of how we handle our past is a question we have yet to effectively grapple with as a nation.
Jefferson’s revolutionary commitment to democratic equality established the foundation of our country’s independent spirit in the Declaration of Independence, in his words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” His writing was poetic and inspirational and his words have served to motivate and encourage generations of Americans to uphold and fight for the principles of freedom and equality as basic human rights.
The problem is, Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. Not only was their labor and immiseration the foundation for his own tremendous wealth and social position, he carried on a long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. While Hemings left no record of the relationship or her feelings about it, as his property she would have had no choice in the matter.
What do we do with the seemingly contradictory realities that Jefferson was committed to freedom and equality AND that he held slaves?
Of course, it wasn’t just slaves who were excluded from the Revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality. Women were not allowed to own property and were, in fact, treated in many ways as the property of their husbands under coverture laws that cast wives as subservient to their husbands.
And let’s not forget Andrew Jackson who is credited as the first Democratic President and one of the founders of the Democratic party. Not only did he own slaves, he helped usher the Indian Removal Act of 1830 through Congress and oversaw the removal of Native Americans from their lands via the brutal and genocidal Trail of Tears.
Were Jefferson and Jackson heroes or villains? It’s complicated.
History is complicated. Life is complicated.
As a woman, I have to live in a world whose history is overwhelmingly misogynist and patriarchal.
As a Christian woman, I was born into a religious tradition that has sanctified misogyny and institutionalized patriarchy.
As a Christian feminist, I have chosen to stay in my tradition despite this history. After all, given how deeply these problems are embedded in the history of the world, rejecting everything associated with misogyny and patriarchy isn’t really an option.
Christian feminism offers some insight into thinking about various ways to “deal with” oppressive histories.
Let’s start with the Bible.
I love the Bible.
Yes, it is full of violence against women. Yes, most of the female characters are denied voice or their stories are told for them. Yes, there are passages that have been interpreted in ways that have hurt women through the ages. Yes, there are some passages that are simply rude, demeaning to women, and in my estimation, simply wrong (I’m looking at you Paul and pseudo-Pauline writers!).
The Bible is also full of wisdom, and insight, and justice and compassion. It is a text that has shaped history and guided civilizations. It is a text of power and inspiration. I love to study it – on my own, in dialogue with other scholars, and in small groups of people committed to God and justice and to making the world a better place.
Is the Bible oppressive? It’s complicated.
I don’t find the Bible oppressive because I have learned how to study and interpret it in ways that are liberating rather than oppressive. We all interpret scripture. Even Biblical fundamentalists and literalists profess a particular interpretation of scripture, even if they think they don’t. Ignorance or denial of interpretation isn’t evidence of the contrary. Rather, it is evidence of a profound misunderstanding of how text functions, especially sacred texts.
My relationship to Jefferson and Jackson is much like my relationship with the Bible and many of the Church “fathers” who said some pretty horrible things and some pretty inspirational things. I study them in a similar way to how I study the Bible. I search their writings, their actions, and their lives for truths that I find meaningful, inspirational, insightful. I study them for what they might help me discover about justice in our own age. I also study them with my eyes wide open to the injustices that they actively caused and those in which they were complicit.
The problem with setting people up as “heroes” is that people are human and humans are flawed. It probably makes sense for states to rename their annual fund-raising dinners. But it doesn’t make sense to deny or reject Jefferson and Jackson completely. The question that we must continue to grapple with as we seek to shape a more free and equal society is how to live with and learn from our past instead of rejecting, rehabilitating, or glorifying it.
I must admit that I wasn’t particularly surprised by Donald Trump’s comments to Megyn Kelly during and after the Republican Presidential debate last debate. After all, Trump has a reputation for misogyny and for disrespecting women. Ironically, perhaps, his outburst and attack of Kelly exemplify the very political problem that Kelly was attempting to ask Trump to account for as part of his bid for the Presidency.
Interestingly, Trump attempted to deflect attention from his treatment of women by accusing Jeb Bush of having a “problem” with women. This, too, is no particular surprise. Even before Bush’s most recent statement to a Southern Baptist Convention event in Nashville that, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” the group Ultraviolet shared the following five things you should know about Jeb Bush on their facebook page:
Hillary Clinton is rightly shifting the attention from Trump’s misogyny to the larger problems about what the Republican party (and the Republican candidates) have to say about women more broadly.
The comments by Trump and Bush exemplify the Republican party’s “woman problem” which isn’t so much as a woman problem as it is basic misogyny. As I said in a recent post, misogyny is the hatred of women. Something quite evident in the attitudes that attempt to engage in sexual shaming (Bush) and in reducing women to animals and/or their sexuality (Trump).
In an event on Monday, Clinton said, “While what Donald Trump said about Megyn Kelly is outrageous, what the rest of the Republicans are saying about all women is also outrageous.”
Hillary is right. Republican attitudes toward women are not only archaic, they are often offensive, paternalistic, and sometimes veiled in a vaguely Christian religiosity that needs to be challenged and debunked.
Let’s start with the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood in recent weeks, which is not only outrageous, it’s downright misogynist.
Republicans across the board have revived their attack of Planned Parenthood in the wake of a campaign by the anti-abortion group “Center for Medical Progress” which has been releasing secretly taped and heavily edited videos intended to manipulate the public’s emotions rather than talk about women’s health.
So let’s talk about women’s health, specifically, women’s reproductive health.
Let’s start with some facts.
Half of the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.
Half of those unplanned pregnancies are the result of contraceptive failure.
Many of the other half happen to women who can’t afford contraception.
More than 19 million women in the US need publicly supported contraceptive services and 30% or 5.8 million of them are uninsured.
Fewer than 1% of women place their children for adoption. The decision to continue an unplanned pregnancy is a decision to raise a child.
Only women get pregnant. Getting pregnant, having babies, and raising children affect women’s health.
The facts are that Planned Parenthood is a significant provider of affordable women’s health care, particularly for poor women, in this country. 78% of their patients have incomes at or below 150% of the poverty level. One in five women in the country will use Planned Parenthood’s services at some point in her life.
Abortions make up only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services.
One-third of Planned Parenthood’s services consist of providing contraception and they provide contraception to 80% of their patients.
More than a third of their services attend to the testing and treatment of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) which impact women differently from men and can cause sterility and neonatal death if untreated.
The Republican attack on Planned Parenthood is political. It is intended to play to a pro-life constituency and is largely couched as a concern over abortion but Republican dislike of Planned Parenthood goes much deeper than abortion. It’s about the desire to control women’s sexuality and women’s bodies. Single mothers and sexually active teens are topics for shaming and control in too much conservative political rhetoric. The Republican concern over Planned Parenthood is also a concern over providing contraception to women who conservatives, often Christian conservatives, don’t think should be having sex.
The median age that Millenials become sexually active in 17. Planned Parenthood is not causing them to become sexually active, Planned Parenthood is just concerned with making sure they have access to good and accurate sex education and to contraception, including protection from STDs.
These are women’s health issues. Planned Parenthood didn’t invent sex or abortion. But they are responding to the reality of women’s reproductive and sexual health needs better than any other provider in the country. Trying to control women’s sexuality by defunding Planned Parenthood is just one illustration of the problem of misogyny that plagues Republicans.
Anyone who truly wants to reduce the abortion rate in the United States should be rushing to increase the funding of Planned Parenthood so that more women will have access to safe and effective contraception. More money for Planned Parenthood wouldn’t increase the number of abortions in the country, it would decrease the number.
The best avenue for reducing abortions is not bullying women into not having them, it’s helping provide better health care, sex education, and access to contraception so that we reduce the unplanned pregnancy rate.
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This week’s Supreme Court debates about the definition of marriage echo the same debates that have been dominant in communities and states across the country for the past several years. Justice Kennedy, who appears conflicted about where he stands on this issue, expressed his concern about changing a conception of marriage that “has persisted for thousands of years.”
In truth, like most social institutions, the institution of marriage has shifted and changed over the years in ways that have strengthened it and made it both more accessible and more just.
Two hundred years ago we debated whether or not slaves should be allowed to marry. One-hundred and fifty years ago we debated whether married women should remain their husband’s property under the principle of coverture (the principle of two-becoming-one-flesh), or whether women should be regarded as their own persons, with full rights and responsibilities. Forty-seven years ago we debated whether or not interracial marriages should be legal.
In 1967, the Loving v. Virginia ruling eradicated states law prohibiting interracial marriage and thus transformed the institution of marriage yet again, in ways that struck down discriminatory state laws in much the same way that a ruling in the current case might do.
That ruling read, in part, “Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man [sic],” fundamental to our very existence and survival . . .To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes . . . is surely to deprive the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
Even more recently, we have debated no-fault divorce, marital rape laws, and now marriage equality. In each of these cases where we have debated about the nature of the institution of marriage, we have shifted and expanded our understanding in ways that moved us a little closer toward justice in our society.
But, so often in this debate it is Christianity and the Bible that is brought up as the ultimate weapon in defense of a marriage between one man and one woman. The Genesis text that states that man shall leave his parents and join with wife to become one flesh is trotted out as “proof” that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
Unfortunately, these folks must have stopped reading their Bibles at the end of Genesis, chapter two. Even a cursory read of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament demonstrates that marriage was not understood or practiced this way at all.
Marriage in the Bible was much more about property rights, ensuring paternity of offspring, succession, political alliances and tribal stability than it was about companionship, mutual support and affection as we think of marriage today. The patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian tradition often had sex with multiple women, usually, but not always, for the purpose of procreation. Many of the women in the Bible who were slaves, or servants, or handmaids were reportedly “given” by the legal or primary wife to her husband for the purposes of securing children. The notion of consent, particularly for women, in matters of sexual intercourse is not a relevant moral norm in most of scripture.
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There’s no doubt that the topic of abortion is emotionally loaded. Thursday’s (April 23) debate in the NC Senate over House Bill 465 revealed this in spades.
From Rep. Tricia Cotham’s brave disclosure of her own experience of abortion in response to a life-threatening medical complication in her first pregnancy to Rep. Pat McElraft’s story of her nephew and his wife who changed their mind about having an abortion after viewing an ultrasound, emotions were high.
Stories matter. They offer a personal context and a reference point for thinking about the topic of abortion, which is too often discussed in the abstract. However, it does matter how these stories are used in a legislative debate.
It’s springtime in North Carolina. Between the redbuds, dogwoods, azaleas, wisteria, lily of the valley, and the wild violets – my yard is a riot of color. This is the time of year when my girls and I gather wild violets and make violet jelly to enjoy with our tea and scones and when we turn the compost into our raised bed to begin to prepare the soil for our modest annual attempt at tomatoes, basil, and the odd pepper or melon. A robin has built her nest just in view of the kitchen window and last weekend we bought a hand-carved wooden nest box that we hung in hopes that a hummingbird will lay her eggs alongside our robin.
A couple of years ago, when my daughter was in seventh grade, I got a notice from her school that I could go and sit in on her first sex education class. I was surprised at how few parents actually showed up and far more of us were parents of girls than boys.
The film they showed was from the 1980s, complete with ginormous pads that are so outdated to look ridiculous to these kids, not to mention the clothes and the hairstyles. I was a teenager in the 1980s and I couldn’t take the film seriously. Not only that, the genders were separated and the girls watched the “girl” film and the boys watched the “boy” film. I thought to myself – they should be watching each other’s films. They must have at least as many questions about what’s happening to their opposite sex friends’ bodies as they do to their own – maybe even more!