As a national strategy unfolds to ban all legal abortion in the United States, progressive Christians should look with skepticism on 6-week abortion bans passed by several states.
Georgia is the latest state to adopt such legislation. Often called “fetal heartbeat” bills, these laws are currently unconstitutional but are part of an aggressive, ongoing effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Often anti-abortion activists talk as if they represent all Christians, but Christians do disagree on the issue, and progressive Christians have offered alternative frameworks for understanding abortion. These other ways of thinking about the issue are rooted in sound science, responsible rhetoric and progressive Christian theology.
Sound science and responsible rhetoric
As a New York Times opinion article and other news media have pointed out, many of the legislators who make rules governing women’s bodies do not have even a basic understanding of how female bodies work. One Texas lawmaker who opposed an amendment exempting victims of rape and incest from a 20-week limit on abortion suggested that rape kits can prevent pregnancy. She said, “the emergency rooms they have what’s called rape kits, that the woman can get cleaned out, basically like a D and C”—dilation and curettage surgery, a surgical procedure performed after a miscarriage.
That’s not at all what a rape kit does. A rape kit consists of tools for collecting evidence after a sexual assault. It’s not a surgical procedure.
Another legislator thought abortion involved cutting into women’s bodies. It doesn’t. And a Missouri congressman famously claimed that women can’t get pregnant from rape because a woman’s body “has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
These most recent anti-abortion bills seek to prevent legal abortions after six weeks, although an Alabama legislator has introduced a bill that would ban abortion in the state two weeks after conception. Most women don’t even know they’re pregnant at six weeks, much less two.
The moniker “heartbeat” bill is also misleading. OB-GYN Jennifer Gunter explains that the prohibition on abortion after cardiac activity can be detected uses “heartbeat” as a rhetorical device to suggest that fetal development is further along than it really is. She says what politicians really mean is “fetal pole cardiac activity.” The fetal pole is a 4.3 mm thickening in the yolk sac that can be detected through a vaginal ultrasound. This causes some motion on the ultrasound that is considered early cardiac activity.
After Georgia passed its draconian bill, Gov. Brian Kemp tweeted, “Georgia values life. We stand up for the innocent and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. The legislature’s bold action reaffirms our priorities and who we are as a state.” And yet Georgia has more maternal deaths than any other state in the country.
We know that since Roe v. Wade, most women obtain abortions by the 13th week of pregnancy when health risks are lowest. Only 8 percent of legal abortions occur after that.
We also know factors that decrease the likelihood of someone having an abortion early: “being under the age of 20, relying on financial assistance to pay for the procedure, recent exposure to two or more disruptive events and living in a state that requires in-person counseling 24 to 72 hours prior to the procedure.” In other words, many of the mechanisms put in place by anti-abortion legislators actually lead to later abortions.
Of course, this is not the first time anti-abortion activists have used misleading terms and suspect data to sway public opinion. The National Right to Life Committee coined the term “partial-birth” abortion in 1995. It’s not a medical term. The procedure, known as dilation and extraction, occurs later in pregnancy and carries less health risk to the woman than dilation and evacuation. The procedures do not happen in the third trimester or after fetal viability.
Some state legislatures have also approved bills requiring doctors to tell their patients that a medical abortion (through use of two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol) can be reversed. Yet the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has stated that this procedure is not supported by science and is unethical.
Reproductive justice framework
Rather than seeing abortion as a single issue, progressives understand abortion access as part of a much larger framework of reproductive justice. SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” In other words, reproductive justice sees abortion and other reproductive issues as one facet of the much larger context of people’s lives.
“A reproductive justice framework calls us to address all the intersecting social problems that frame reproductive decision-making.”
Women of color activists coined the term “reproductive justice” in the 1990s to reflect a broader understanding of reproductive rights integrated with social justice and attentive to issues of race, sexuality and social class, as well as gender. Reproductive justice is also much bigger than abortion access. It includes an entire range of issues related to reproduction and bodily autonomy, such as contraception, comprehensive sex education, reproductive healthcare, domestic violence assistance and a living wage.
Reproductive justice acts as a counter to “reproductive oppression,” which is “the controlling and exploiting of women and girls through our bodies, sexuality and reproduction (both biological and social) by families, communities, institutions and society.” Specifically, reproductive justice frames abortion within a larger context of social differences, inequalities, systems of oppression and social justice. The issue then is not simply one of “choice,” but of access, control, freedom and autonomy across the full range of gender, sexuality and reproduction.
Reproductive justice recognizes that decisions about one’s body, sexuality and reproductive life happen within contexts of inequality, including the ways bodies are exploited for economic, sexual and reproductive labor. By using a reproductive justice framework, we move the conversations about abortion from “choice” to a fuller understanding of the many competing forces that create complicated and constrained situations in which people make decisions about reproduction.
A reproductive justice framework calls us to address all the intersecting social problems that frame reproductive decision-making. It also challenges the myriad ways bodies are controlled and self-determination is curtailed. And it demands we hear the voices and support the leadership of the most marginalized. They are the ones whose lives will be most affected by governmental decisions about reproduction.
Theology of personhood
Additionally, for Christians, a theological understanding of personhood is key to support for reproductive justice.
As the United Church of Christ makes clear in its 1971 statement on abortion, a Christian view of the valuing of life does not have to be “undifferentiated.” This view emphasizes the person of the one who is pregnant and that person’s quality of life. It recognizes that an embryo in its early stages is potential life, not actual life, although both forms of life have value. Yet, as the statement suggests, other factors besides the fact of the existence of the embryo come into consideration, such as the welfare of the whole family, the family’s economic condition and the age of the parents, among others.
“Affirming the personhood of all people means we as the church have the obligation to address the broader social, cultural, political, religious and economic issues that a reproductive justice framework highlights.”
The question of the personhood of a fetus is a theological one upon which Christians disagree. If as Baptists, however, we truly respect the competency of the individual soul before God and the priesthood of the believer, then we can understand that all people must have the freedom to act in consonance with their own consciences before God. Those who are pregnant must answer this theological question for themselves and be able to act upon their own personal theological and moral convictions.
Six-week abortion bans result from the theology of one group of Christians. They restrict access to abortion, however, for all people, regardless of their religious convictions. In so doing, these bans violate core Baptist commitments to separation of church and state and religious liberty, as well as freedom of the individual conscience.
In the early 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention chose a middle path on abortion access in recognition of these core Baptist beliefs. In 1971, two years before the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade, the convention passed a resolution that affirmed the value of “fetal life” and at the same time urged Southern Baptists to work for “legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother.” The convention reaffirmed this statement in 1974.
By 1976, as Roe took effect, the SBC’s language on abortion started to change, becoming ever more strident in its opposition as fundamentalists gained control of the denomination. By 1980, a resolution on abortion called for “appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.”
A theology of personhood also extends to the person who is pregnant – someone who is an actual, not potential, person, and someone who is, theologically speaking, certainly more than a “host” for a fetus, as one lawmaker suggested. While we can recognize that both the fetus and the pregnant person have value, we can also recognize that the value of fetal life does not negate the personhood or right to bodily integrity for someone who is pregnant. Theologically, we affirm that every person, including pregnant persons, have full personhood as beings created in God’s image.
“Six-week abortion bans violate fundamental principles of reproductive justice, personhood and the individual conscience before God.”
Moreover, affirming the personhood of all people means we as the church have the obligation to address the broader social, cultural, political, religious and economic issues that a reproductive justice framework highlights. The church’s moral shortcoming is not in failing to end abortion access but in failing to transform the socio-political context in which the intersections of sexism, racism and inequality disadvantage people and limit their ability to control reproduction.
A church that truly values personhood will be concerned with the poverty, racism and misogyny that circumscribe people’s lives. Furthermore, as I have argued in a previous commentary, addressing these issues will in fact lower abortion rates, unlike ending access to safe, legal abortion.
Six-week abortion bans violate fundamental principles of reproductive justice, personhood and the individual conscience before God. They rely on misleading rhetoric and ignore sound science.
These legislative efforts intend to eradicate all legal access to abortion. They seek to impose a particular theology on all people. And they pose a grave threat to the most vulnerable and marginalized.
Progressive Christians should steadfastly resist all the over-simplified and misleading rhetoric about abortion. Instead, we should embrace a framework of reproductive justice that rejects draconian abortion bans and works toward social transformations that address the poverty, sexism and racism that create vulnerabilities to unintended pregnancy.
Susan M. Shaw | Can Christians come together to reduce the need for abortion?