If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately in reproductive health circles, you may have seen that two priests and their co-defendants avoided jail time after storming an abortion clinic in northern Virginia and refusing to leave. This news has, of course, dismayed those of us working for reproductive justice. It has highlighted the way women and people of color are treated by the justice system as well as shone a spotlight on the cozy relationship between patriarchal law and patriarchal theology.
So, here are the facts; police gave the group an incredibly generous two hour window of opportunity to leave before being dragged out. During that time, the group tried to dissuade the now captive women from having abortions. This tactic is what is known as a “red rose rescue” because they also hand out roses to the women they want to convert. When police finally arrested the invading group, they refused to go quietly and had to be carried out of the clinic. In court, the judge dismissed an obstruction charge because he felt that telling the police “no” politely when asked to get into the squad car did not constitute obstruction. We’ll come back to that later.
The prosecutor tried to argue for jail time for at least one of the priests who has a history of storming clinics but the judged decided instead to set suspended fines at $500 for each defendant. That means that defendants won’t have to pay their fines if they stay out of trouble for a year. Not that this matters, both priests have said that they refuse to pay the fine anyway.
So, what’s going on here? Why should this matter to spiritual and religious women?
This should matter for three reasons: the fact that the law prioritizes priests over women and people of color; the fact that patriarchal theology is being used to deny women their rights, and, the fact this theology is at least tacitly recognized by the law. So, let’s explore this.
The law prioritizes priests over women and people of color
Want to know what happens if a black man politely refuses to get into the back of a police car? No, trust me, you don’t. In fact, it is so interesting to me that the judge referenced the priests’ politeness as reason for dropping the charges. This reinforces the idea that your tone of voice is more important to police than whether you have broken the law or not.
I’m also fascinated by the fact that it took cops two hours to remove the group. Two hours. I haven’t yet heard back from anyone at the clinic who might be able to shed more light on this but so far it seems that the cops were in no hurry to disperse or arrest a group of people who invaded a health clinic with the sole purpose of harassing women. One has to wonder again if a group that didn’t contain priests or that contained people of color would get the same deference.
Patriarchal theology is being used to deny women their rights
When asked, the priests in the group said that that their arrest was illegal and that any detention or fines would be illegal too. Why? Because abortion rights laws are invalid because they are “intrinsically evil” and therefore the court has no jurisdiction in the matter.
You guys, this is not simply the speech of the impassioned. This is a literal calling for secular courts to be made subject to patriarchal theology. And that, my friends, is the heart of what’s really going on here. Anti abortion groups believe that they are completely vindicated of harassment, assault, and yes, even murder, simply because their dogma is a higher law than that of the United States of America. By this logic, anything can be condoned that is done in the service of patriarchal dogma. Just let that sink in. And then, if you can stomach it, Google the Army of God or the Nuremberg Files. These priests may not have killed anyone but their theology opens a lot of scary doors that perhaps should stay locked. In effect, they are continuing to prop up an old and so far unsuccessful anti abortion defense strategy – that of justifiable homicide. And while you may be comforted by its lack of success, think again. The success is not necessarily in having someone acquitted of murder charges but in encouraging would-be assassins to act on their patriarchal faith.
This theology is at least tacitly recognized by the law
And finally, the courtroom. I don’t have transcripts of what went on so I have to rely on the reporting but according to one of the defendants, even though the judge ultimately rejected “saving the unborn” as a legitimate defense, he still seemed to be “somewhat open” to it. That could be posturing but in any case, it is terrifying. Also, we need to remember that what was once considered posturing is now being raised seriously in our courts. For instance, the idea that one man who heads a company can now deny women basic health coverage, simply for being women, was unthinkable twenty years ago. And think of this: so far, the theology overwhelmingly being normalized by the courts is patriarchal theology, theology obsessed with women’s agency or the love lives of same sex couples.
The Missing Factor
Women are what is missing in nearly all reporting of this story as well as others regarding abortion rights. It seems that we’re more interested in abstract debate about “choice” and “religious liberty” than we are the actual lives of women. We’ve been so focused on winning an ideological war that we’ve been careless with the casualties.
So far, patriarchal law and patriarchal theology, who seem so at odds with each other, actually have in common the lack of concern for women’s lives. That those women at the clinic, who were held captive for two hours, might have been afraid for their lives isn’t even considered, not to mention their right to access health care that is confidential and safe. And on “our side”, we have a problem too. Eager to score political points, we don’t want to stop and consider “the hard cases”, those women for whom abortion may have been the right choice but who still feel guilt, sadness, and grief.
This is why it is so important, now more than ever, that coherent feminist theologies continue to be constructed. The joy of feminist theology is that it is a lived theology with women’s lives at the center. It is built from the ground up, not handed down from an authority up above. What women experience every day is made sacred by our acknowledgement and care, without judgment. The time has come for us to push back against a patriarchal theology that has been quietly normalizing itself for thousands of years, poisoning our relationships and legal systems.