With the ascension of two new conservative justices to the Supreme Court, anti-abortion activists have been busy ramping up an array of anti-abortion bills in Republican controlled states, with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v Wade.
In the course of 40 years of destructive political warfare over abortion, public sentiment has remained surprisingly unchanged. Fewer than 20% of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, while less than 1/3rd think Roe v Wade should be overturned. These percentages have remained constant within a narrow band since 1975.
Anti-abortion extremists, frustrated by their inability to move public sentiment, have resorted to increasingly dishonest and anti-democratic efforts in an attempt to force their agenda on the nation.
The spate of radical anti-abortion bills sweeping the country have focused on the rights of the unborn, by espousing the made-up principle of fetal personhood. This notion defines a fetus as an unborn child, a person, whose right to life must be protected by the state.
It follows, however, that if the fetus has an inalienable right to full development and birth into the world, enforced by the state, then the woman is not really a citizen at all. Her status is that of a vessel serving the citizen growing within her. It seems that the real issue is: Are women full citizens or not?
The Supreme Court of Kansas, recently addressed this issue in an important 6-1 ruling, holding that “The recognition of inalienable natural rights in Section 1 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights is intended for all Kansans, including pregnant women.”
The Court wrote that “Section 1 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights affords protection of the right of personal autonomy, which includes the ability to control one’s body, to assert bodily integrity, and to exercise self-determination. This right allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation, and family life – decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy.”
Given the persistence of the “pro-life” faction, and their rejection of the fundamental rights of women illuminated and upheld in this ruling, it seems worthwhile to investigate the origins and motivations of the anti-abortion movement, and also to consider the direct consequences and implications if their efforts to ban abortion are successful.
Origins and Motivations
The most strident anti-abortionists are the evangelicals – Southern Baptists and other Christian fundamentalists. But this was not always the case. Prior to 1979, opposition to abortion was generally considered a Catholic thing.
American Catholics are not monolithic on this issue, but the Catholic Church has always held the position that a woman’s role in society is subordinate – to the Church, to the men in the Church, to their husbands, and to the new bodies growing within them.
In the past, Christian evangelicals disagreed with the Catholic Church on the matter of abortion. Randall Ballmer, in a 2014 Politico article entitled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” documents the evangelical transition from pro to anti-abortion.
In 1968, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, cited “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy.
When Roe v Wade was decided, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century, had the following to say: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
This stance was not surprising coming from a fundamentalist preacher, given that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter of abortion as far as we know, and the Bible itself has only one passage that directly addresses the beginning of human life – Genesis 2.7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
This passage brings up the curious absence of the issue of the soul in the abortion debate. Most, if not all, Christians would embrace the concept of the soul; that which makes us human beings, which separates us from the animals, which survives the body and ascends to heaven or descends to hell when the physical body is finished.
When does the soul occupy the body? A strict biblical interpretation, which is what fundamentalism is all about, would argue for with the breath.
Given the history and the evidence, one would expect evangelicals to be at least neutral on a woman’s right to choose the outcome of her pregnancy, as they were before 1979. Which raises the question: what happened in 1979 that changed their position?
Ballmer makes a convincing argument that the pro-life position adopted in 1979 was a cover issue promoted by key evangelicals to help defeat Jimmy Carter and safeguard school segregation in the South. The success of that effort changed everything. Once evangelicals had a taste of political power, the kingdom of heaven was relegated to the back seat, and the rest is history. Had Jimmy Carter been re-elected, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion.
One thing is abundantly clear. The true motivation of the pro-life faction is not the sacred life of the unborn. If the pro-lifers were as concerned with the welfare of the unborn as they claim, they would be just as concerned, if not more so, for the already born, which demonstrably they are not.
It’s no mistake that states passing draconian abortion laws are also the worst in per capita infant mortality, child poverty, hunger, and quality of education. And wherever these forces are in control, education and women’s healthcare are under assault. Once the children are born, they and their mothers are on their own. The hypocrisy of insisting that every fetus come to term, and then turning a blind eye to the needs of every born child and their mothers for nourishment and support cannot be overstated.
Barney Frank summed up the “pro-life” position: “The Moral Majority supports legislators who oppose abortions but also oppose child nutrition and day care. From their perspective, life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
Certainly, there are many good Christians who sense that something is wrong, who are uncomfortable with the dishonest and increasingly violent messaging, and the hypocrisy inherent in embracing the values, the actions and the persons who are the antithesis of the life and teachings of Jesus in their efforts to impose their political agenda. This is especially true in the ardent support for Donald Trump, who, by virtue of evangelical support, makes a mockery of any pretense to moral authority inherent in Christianity.
True believers who sense that something is amiss are kept in line by tribal reinforcement, led by bad faith preachers who have weaponized the existential fear of eternal damnation, while ignoring the teachings of the master.
The day that these preachers meet up with Jesus is going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, really bad day for them.
A thorough discussion of the cultural and theological issues involved is beyond the scope of this article. But Molly Worthen’s excellent piece, “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society” captures the essence of the matter.
Direct consequences and implications
The alleged debate around the issue of abortion has long since devolved into an intransigent and mindless recitation of pro-life and pro-choice, accompanied by increasingly hysterical and dishonest messaging by the “pro-life” faction.
There is little discussion of the consequences for women or for our society if abortion is made illegal and the notion of fetal personhood becomes the law of the land. Those who insist on the rights of the “unborn” children don’t seem to have much interest in the abrogated rights of women.
The bottom line is – you can’t have it both ways. If the fetus is given agency, the woman loses it. Full stop. This is a binary choice. Either women are full citizens and autonomous persons, or they’re not.
If the notion of fetal personhood becomes the law of the land, women will not have the rights of true citizens until menopause.
Once women are under the supervision and bodily control of the state, they can, and will, be inspected and violated as the zealots impose their will on women under their purview. Even now, some states require any woman pursuing an abortion to undergo an invasive procedure that meets the legal description of rape.
If it becomes the law of the land that abortion is murder, the authorities will be obligated to investigate any report that someone has had an abortion (a murder has been committed). How can it be otherwise? This will be an invitation to the culture war version of swatting.
If the reader thinks any of this is hyperbole, check out this article, and this, and this. Women in America are already being arrested and charged with manslaughter or murder for not behaving properly while pregnant, based on the principles of fetal personhood and the rights of the unborn. Some even want to impose the death penalty for women who have an abortion.
Furthermore, if the state presumes and assumes the right to govern women, control their bodies, trample their autonomy, and force them to carry pregnancies to term, it follows that the state must shoulder the responsibility of taking care of these women, and their offspring. Are taxpayers willing to assume that burden?
Not so long ago, women were wards of their husbands, property in fact. Women have fought long and hard to gain independence from second class status. If the “pro-life” position wins the day and the principle of fetal personhood become the law of the land, women’s rights will be set back at least 150 years.
Maybe it’s time to try something different.
Public sentiment on the issue of abortion has remained remarkably stable for the past 40 years. There is no public mandate in the U.S. to make abortion illegal. Even nearly half of those who identify as pro-lifers do not want Roe v Wade to be overturned. There is widespread recognition that abortion is a complicated and intensely intimate personal matter.
Furthermore, many of the loudest and most strident voices from the “pro-life” faction are men. But this is not the business of men to decide; nor their right. It’s not possible for any man to know the true nature of pregnancy, or the intimately personal considerations involved in continuing or ending a pregnancy. This is a women’s issue, and men should respect their right to decide the matter.
The pervasive dishonesty around this issue is corrosive, degrading to society and damaging to everyone.
Those who wish to see fewer abortions (there will never be zero) will have greater success by favoring supportive measures rather than engaging in judgement and punishment, which only heap more harm on women and their families.
It’s time to do something different – try supporting women with healthcare, honest non-judgmental counseling, alternatives and real support – childcare, education, opportunity and protection. And then trust the women to do what is right!