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 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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Misogyny is exhausting.
Today I have been working on explaining and documenting the history of misogyny and patriarchy in the church as backdrop for understanding the contemporary debate about abortion in the US.
Not only is navigating the history of misogyny exhausting, it’s given me a headache too!
I think it is easy for many Christians to forget how misogynist our tradition has been. Particularly if we worship in communities that accept women pastors and lay leaders.
Misogyny is defined as the “hatred of women.” It’s a pretty bold claim to say that there are elements of our history and our culture that actively express a “hatred” of women. Many people find that language too extreme and would prefer “softer” language – discrimination, prejudice, condescension, disregard, perhaps even objectification (seeing women as sexual objects rather than as fully human equals).
The thing is, throughout history many historians, philosophers, political leaders, and prominent theologians have treated women is demeaning and abusive ways. There is nothing “soft” about the sentiments expressed by many male philosophers and theologians. Nor is there anything “soft” about the social control of women that often accompanies misogynist and patriarchal attitudes.
Here are some of the texts I’ve been working with today:
Tertullian (early 3rd c. CE) – You are the Devil’s gateway. It is you who plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree. You are the first who deserted the divine law. You are the one who persuaded him whom even the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. Because of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die. . .
Augustine (late 4th – early 5th c. CE) – The woman does not possess the image of god in herself, but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God, just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.
Barth (early 20th c. CE) – The covenant creation dictates a certain order, a relation of priority and posteriority, of A and B. Just as God rules over creation in the covenant of creation, so man rules over woman. He must be A; he must be first. She is B; she must be second. He must stay in his place. She must stay in hers. She must accept this order as the right nature of things through which she is saved, even if she is abused and wronged by the man.
I use these quotes when I teach my students about the misogyny that is embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity. These quotes unambiguously establish women as not only inferior to men and removed from God but as the very “Devil’s Gateway.” It seems pretty clear that these men did not think much of women. These statements even seem to be a little “hatey,” don’t you think?
These kinds of ideas – that women are the root of sin and evil, that women must be subservient to their husbands, that women must accept our inferior status in life – all of these ideas are rightly understood as part of a misogynist tradition in Christianity, a tradition that has contributed to larger social attitudes and behaviors in society that collectively express a fairly serious “hatred” of women.
Unfortunately, these misogynist attitudes are not just a part of Christian history, they continue to function in influential ways in contemporary Christianity.
I recently wrote about the offensive ideas about women that some Orthodox Christians hold in the ecumenical movement. But misogynist ideas about women, women’s social roles, and women’s leadership in the church are also alive and well in conservative and some evangelical circles too.
Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll who started the mega church Mars Hill in Seattle said this about women, “Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture.”
And, of course, who can forget the Pat Robertson gem from 1992, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
WOW! He really has no idea what feminism is about does he?
While misogyny is deeply embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity, this does not mean that Christianity is inherently misogynist or patriarchal. It is human beings who shape attitudes and beliefs about human nature, the sacred, and our religions through our teachings and our practices. And it is human beings who have created patriarchal church structures and misogynist theologies. The real danger of these misogynist theologies lies in the way that they shape attitudes about women and the way that women can (and even should) be treated.
Another way in which this hatred of women has manifested in our society is in the double-standard that exists between expectations about men and women’s sexual behavior. While some churches may preach against sex before marriage, it is only women who are truly expected to comply. Women who have sex outside of marriage are labeled in many ways – whore, promiscuous, slut, tramp, harlot, strumpet, bimbo, floozy, hussy, tart, trollop, jezebel, and referred to as “loose” or “fallen.” We do not have parallel words for men.
Because Christianity has played an important role in shaping cultural attitudes about pregnancy, abortion, and the sacredness of life (among other things), it is important to recognize the ways in which the Christian tradition and its theological ideals have been influenced by misogyny and patriarchy so that we can reshape our beliefs and practices to recognize women’s full humanity, women’s moral agency, and the fact that women are equally loved by God.
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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of contraceptive forms of birth control. As a 40-something woman who grew up in the wake of the sexual revolution – it’s hard for me to fathom that birth control was ever illegal.
Access to birth control is something that I have always taken for granted – thanks to Planned Parenthood, free condom programs as part of university health care, and later my health insurance. However, my relative ease of access to birth control is not the norm in this country. Conservative religious groups have rallied their forces to shape public policies that prevent or impede women’s access to birth control in increasingly paternalistic and controlling ways. What is happening today is not unlike what happened in the mid-1800s when abortion and contraception were outlawed.
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.
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!