Why I Need to Leave Church for Awhile

I had two experiences last week that are great examples of why I’m once again on the side of “no ordination”. I do have to say though, these feel pretty definitive for me. Allow me to explain:

In the first instance, I was at church. A parishioner who is very conservative when it comes to women suddenly began to talk about how he does not believe in abortion but that “liberal women” need to have an abortion every time they get pregnant. He said this to me, knowing I am what he would call “liberal” and knowing that my three-year-old daughter was right there. He essentially told me that I should have aborted my daughter. The women around me were shocked and disgusted but he seemed not to notice their reactions and carried on. He said that if we all just had abortions, there would be no liberals (a huge failure in logic I, the daughter of hard-core, bunker-having, Glen Beck-loving conservatives, am not even going to address here). He then told us that none of “his house” would ever “be allowed” to have an abortion. That was the only point at which I opened my mouth to tell him that that his attitude was probably why “his house” would just come to someone like me. I told him that my ministry was helping women obtain care and that none of my patients had ever told their families because they knew they’d be ostracized. He told me that my work was emphatically not a religious calling and said it with all the confidence of a man who is used to sitting in for God.

I was a bit put out by this scene but put it out of my head and went ahead with church. But I made the mistake many women make – I spoke about it. I mentioned it to a select group friends online but word got around until I was approached by someone who was concerned that I was saying something that could reflect negatively on the church. I should mention that I had not said anything negative at all but simply narrated the experience and ended by imploring people not to say negative things about the person who attacked me but simply to use it to recognize how we often choose our politics before we choose our religion. However, the topic of abortion is often something that can be interpreted by some as negative in and of itself, without them realizing it. I also need to say that this person had very good private reasons for approaching me and I don’t fault them for it at all but rather the structure and culture of the church that makes it necessary.

All that aside, what really bothered me was that I felt that I was ultimately being tasked with the responsibility for the situation. The man who had verbally attacked and defamed me and my child was not, as far as I am aware, ever really confronted over his sin (and yup, that’s what that was). He certainly never apologized or acknowledged it. There are probably several reasons for this – one being that he has been at the church for quite some time and I am rather newish. The other I’ll demonstrate with a quote from pro-choice Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison who said that when it comes to abortion, “the demand to speak judiciously falls exclusively upon [women]” (from Our Right to Choose, 2011). In other words, we, knowingly or unknowingly, often excuse men from out-of-control speech regarding abortion while scrutinizing women’s speech.

Weirdly enough, I had another experience like this just five days later in, of all places, my knitting group. As I sat there cursing the fact that my hat was too big and I was going to have to frog it and start again, someone asked me what I do. I explained that I was an abortion doula and that I attempt to construct positive feminist theologies, especially surrounding abortion. Some of the women murmured their support as their fingers worked away at their shawls and sweaters. But others began to tell me that women who have abortions are irresponsible, that they just need birth control, etc. This is not shocking anymore as I get the same script, almost verbatim, from women who have clearly not had to struggle when it comes to their reproductive health. I took a few minutes to explain the realities behind the stereotypes (most women having abortions ARE using birth control, abortion IS a responsible act, the myth of the friend of a friend of a friend who had six million abortions in five seconds because it is “easier” than using birth control is not a thing, etc.) but soon gave up. It never actually matters because none of these people are interested in anything but condemnation, even if they are otherwise good people (patriarchy really instills this need to condemn so that we aren’t ourselves perceived as bad girls). So, I just went back to my knitting. But I was upset. Not for myself but because in a room of roughly 20 women, statistically speaking, at least three or four will have had an abortion and those women were probably listening to all this bullshit thinking, “And THIS is why I’ll never tell anyone.” It could have been left at that but the women with OPINIONS just went on and on and then I heard someone say to me, “Autumn, change the conversation.”

And that’s when I lost my shit a little. Because for the second time in a week I was asked to manage a conversation I wasn’t even really a part of. It seems that my very presence is all it takes to offend people and no one wants to stop and examine why they need to put me in charge of that or why I should be censured for my having the audacity to mention what I do and then stand up, in the politest way possible, for myself, my work, and the many women who I’ve been privileged to walk with. And if that isn’t enough, I am put into that quintessentially female role of assuaging the uncomfortable feelings of others.

But I UTTERLY FUCKING REFUSE to manage other people’s feelings. And therein lies the problem for my life trajectory at this point. As clergy, my job would be tied to that role of Emotion Manager and doubly so with an abortion doula ministry.  When I sat down to reflect on both of these experiences, I realized that I would be spending so goddamn much of my time and energy having to explain myself, defend myself, etc. that I’d have nothing left for those I minister to and that is hideously unfair to them. Being clergy would kill my ministry.

In the end decided two things – that I am not able to stand up for women and destigmatization in the way I feel called to within the ecclesiastical structure of the church,  even as a deacon whose job it is to “speak truth to the church”. And also, I need a break. I love church. I’m an absolute church nerd. But as long as men like that man I ran into are given implicit permission to determine who is heard and who is silenced, I cannot hear God in such a place. Her voice is drowned out by the loud, aggressive, and unfounded confidence of entitled white men.

So, in the meantime I’ll just go to another knitting group I’m fond of and I’ll participate in my women’s circle for religious and spiritual feminist community. Will I go back to church? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine right now. After all, what was I thinking? A post-theist who is an abortion doula – I may as well have wrapped myself in tin foil and stood on the roof of the church in a storm.

The Bad Theology of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Crisis pregnancy centers have been the bane of my existence as a woman for many years. In fact, when I do public speaking around abortion issues, crisis pregnancy centers receive my special wrath. That’s because CPCs are sneaky and deceptive while spreading terrible theology about women.

For those who are unaware, a crisis pregnancy center, or CPC, is an anti-abortion religious ministry often masquerading as a women’s health clinic. They’re usually behind any “Pregnant and Scared?” bus advertisement you’ve seen around town. They are often staffed by church volunteers, most of whom have no medical training and who peddle disinformation about STIs, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion.Many people are aware of CPCs and the bullshit they traffic in. However, most people haven’t stopped to consider the underlying theology upon which CPCs operate. For many people with little or no experience of Christianity, CPCs are just another intolerant arm of the Church. But I argue that it is much worse than that. The bad theology behind the religious anti-abortion movement is twice damaging  in that it does a disservice to Christianity while also specifically damaging women spiritually.

Religious anti-abortion culture and thus, CPCs, rest on the assumption that women are not capable moral agents, in other words, that women are unable to make their own decisions about pregnancy. This is what lies behind the idea that women will regret their abortion or that she needs to have a 24-72 hour legally mandated waiting period between her consultation and her procedure, or that it is a good idea to try to intercept women as they enter abortion clinics. Women can’t possibly understand what’s at stake unless someone else more informed tells them.

Religious anti-abortion theology also tends to equate womanhood with motherhood and reduces women to their biological ability to reproduce. Thus, the rejection of motherhood is considered unnatural and as taking something away from men that rightfully belongs to them. This is why we see signs in black neighborhoods accusing black women who abort of genocide. Or why the anti-abortion lobby had to invent “post-abortion syndrome”, a fake mental disorder that can supposedly result in guilt and suicide for a woman who rejects motherhood. Or why protesters at my old clinic used to tell men that they needed to take “their women” out of the clinic to save their “seed” which rightfully belonged to the man.”

So, where did this theology come from? Aristotle, whose philosophies influenced much early theology, believed that women did not have a rational spirit and Augustine concluded that there was absolutely no reason for woman to exist except as womb in which to grow children for men. Both Aristotle and Augustine may have existed long ago but their thought was hugely influential in the Church and I argue that much of our current attitudes toward women as rational beings who can be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive lives, is, in turn, consciously or unconsciously influenced by these biases still sanctioned and active in our churches.

I’m not saying that CPCs keep Aristotle close to hand or that they chat about Augustinian ideas in between potential converts. I’m simply saying that it pays to investigate where ideas come from, how they mutate over time, and continue to show up again and again unless interrogated and confronted. In our culture which, for good or ill, is culturally steeped in Christianity, ancient attitudes about women (which, by the way, Christianity did not invent but which were in turn inherited from classical civilization), still hold some sway. We see them reflected in supposedly secular anti-abortion laws and in religious institutions alike. The only alternative is to confront these ideas  head on and create new theological ways of understanding and honoring the rational spirit that lives in  women.

If you want a more in-depth look at the bad theology behind the the anti-abortion lobby, check out Theology Outside the Clinic or feel free to drop me a line.

 

Who Is For Me?

Who is for me_

My ministry and, indeed, one could say my entire way of being, is quite different for some people. This isn’t a shock. I’m an abortion doula. I help women access reproductive healthcare and I construct theologies that support reproductive justice. It’s not standard church fare. As such, I’m used to being either a little ostracized or feted, depending on the crowd. There are times when people love what I’m doing or they fear it. You really need good support system to do this work.

Yesterday was an interesting lesson in who my supporters are. When I turned off the lights and climbed into bed last night, the people I thought I knew who had my back when I got up that morning had changed and I was physically sick with apprehension. It was a day filled with intense anger, some of the most white hot fury I’d ever felt in my life, and a day of abject sadness and isolation. It was also a day in which I found myself more grateful than ever for the people I love.

***

It’s really hard sometimes being an aspiring clergywoman who advocates for the positives of abortion care. But one place where I’d felt completely supported in my work was in my doctoral program. After all, its here that I’m studying the spiritual lives of abortion care workers and everyone knows what I’m doing – or so I thought. I had been struggling for about a year with a couple of people in my program who weren’t quite sure what I was doing regardless of having read my work. At first, I thought perhaps I hadn’t been very clear myself. So, I send out my lit review to a few outside informal advisors who assured me that my work was quite clear. So, I persevered with the two in my program until it came to a head last week. The details are unnecessary but the summary is this: these two had negative views about both abortion and feminism that were making it difficult for them to be able to understand the crux of my work. Unfortunately, it was these same two people who had the responsibility of conveying my progress to the doctoral committee. In short, I realized that for an entire year, no one at the school had the facts about my work, nor did they know anything about my background, my education, or my experience. For the last year, I had been looking like a joke, like a loose cannon who was writing a “dissertation” on how great abortion is and that everyone should have at least ten of them.

I was alarmed and immediately met with the appropriate person at the school to express that alarm and hopefully find a solution. This person was very sympathetic to the situation, thankfully, but they, also being on the committee, had no idea of my background and began to ask me questions based on assumptions they had made from imperfect information.

She said that she remembered that I said I ran a bible study. It’s called Bible Study for the Rest of Us and is a way for people who have no interest in being converted can study what scholars have said about the bible through the ages. It’s a safe place for theists, nontheists, and post-theists to find common areas of appreciation for wisdom literature. But while this might sound harmless to most of us, she asked me a question that lit a fire of fury in me. She said, “Where do you get the confidence to think you can teach this?”

In other words, what gives you the right to engage in this ministry when you’re not a bible scholar. She said she was worried that people taking part would see that I’m a student of theology and have “certain expectations” that she seemed to think I wouldn’t be able to fulfill. “Why,” she asked, “do you think you can give them answers?”

And right there we have the problem, folks. There are still people (especially in the academy) who believe that laypeople and even students of theology are not equipped to read bible scholarship and talk about it amongst themselves (by the way, this would make every single church bible study illegitimate). The implication is that without a formal degree (yet, or ever) somehow no one has or ever should engage in learning on their own.

Friends, this is EXACTLY the bullshit I try to push against every day in my ministry. “How can you help people get abortions and be a Christian?” “How can you be a Christian and not believe in a theistic God-being?” In other words, how can I or anyone else be exactly who we are? Ironically, it is because we HAVE studied and we understand the long traditions that support both post-theism as well as reproductive justice. It’s a process called theological reflection that is as second nature to us as breathing. I shared with her that I didn’t feel I needed permission and that the confidence came from an intimacy with scripture and the support of those who felt I could introduce them to it. Moreover, I said, I come from a liberation theology perspective which believes that both theology and biblical interpretation are built from the ground up, not handed down from on high.

I was then told as an aside that when I speak of being ordained in the Anglican Church, I need to make sure I tell everyone that it is ordination to the diaconate and not the priesthood. The assumption here seems to be that the diaconate is an inferior order and that we don’t want people to think I’m in any way getting above my station. But the truth is that in the Anglican Church, the diaconate is a “full and equal order,” not a lower part of a made-up hierarchy of awesomeness. Moreover, I am always happy to talk about the diaconate but who the hell knows what that is? I don’t have the time during an introduction to talk about the history and significance of the diaconate so, when I meet people, I tell them that I am discerning ordination in the church. If they want to know more, that’s great, I will happily tell you why I chose the diaconate over the priesthood or, rather, why God made this choice for me.

At this point in the meeting, I was very upset inside but kept it together on the outside. I left as soon as I could and drove home, literally screaming the whole way with the windows up. I had never been this angry in my life! Seriously! Like, EVER. Once I got home, I curled up into a ball on my stairs and sobbed. I felt that everything that I am, all that I hope to do, was deemed inadequate by the powers that be, the people that apparently get to decide these things.

My question for them is, “WHERE DO YOU GET THE CONFIDENCE?”

Where do you get the confidence that you hold the answers?

Where do you get the confidence to assert that only those with multiple theology degrees get to tell everyone what’s what?

Where do you get the confident belief that laypeople haven’t read extensively, haven’t studied constantly, haven’t had a passion for wisdom that is worth sharing?

WHERE DO YOU GET THIS CONFIDENCE?

***

I sat there sobbing on my stairs until my priest and great friend Colleen texted me to see if I was okay. She suggested I stop by for knitting and tea, so we could chat about what had happened. Colleen is kind of the most amazing human being ever. She is open, sunny, and very easy to talk to. In fact, as I cried in front of her, I was startled to realize that she was the first person I had never apologized to for my crying. We chatted (well, I ranted) and she gave me what I absolutely most needed at that moment – reassurance that I wasn’t delusional, that I was doing good work, and that my research was important. Because as much as I rail against pointless authority and ridiculous assertions by the academy, something in them makes me doubt myself a little. I told Colleen all of this and about how a lot of it stemmed from my mother not really believing that I was capable of college, let alone an advance degree and ordination. I told her how ridiculous I felt that at almost 40 any of this still mattered.

But it did matter. I DO have moments of doubt. That’s what its like having ministries like mine or being someone who thinks a bit differently. We’re not the people who get famous or win massive adherents to our way of thinking. We’re the people who continue to do our work, even when in pain, because we can’t NOT do the work. God has called us to something for some damn fool reason we don’t quite get and our lives aren’t right until we answer.  We’re told in scripture, specifically, Romans 8:31 that “If God is for us, who can be against us,” but I’m not so good at claiming that I know what She is about. But I do know that God wants me in this stupid, agonizing, lame-ass struggle.

And this is why human support is so vital. No, I’ll never be famous. I also know I may not have the support of my program. I’ll never have more than a handful of supporters but that is all I need. I just need someone to feed me tons of tea and Chocolate Crack and tell me that the work that I love so much matters.

Literally Anything Above Women

The time has come for us to push back against a patriarchal theology that has been quietly normalizing itself for thousands of years and poisoning our lives and legal systems.

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.

Holy shit.

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.

Post – Abortion Care Packages

When I arrived in Canada in June 2015, I immediately made contact with the local abortion care clinic to see what their needs were. I had founded a clinic escort group back in Richmond, Virginia years before and wanted to continue the work. It turns out that the clinic here didn’t want an escort team (they’re not for all clinics) but I found another way in which I could be useful –  Post-abortion care packages! Lovely gift bags full of items to help ease recovery both physically and emotionally. I’ve been doing these now for two years and love the shit out of them. The patients seem to like them too.

What follows is something I wrote when I made my first package. Please feel free to use and share!

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There isn’t much about post-abortion care packages online so I thought I would share my process here. If you can think of anything to add, please comment and let me know!

I am a very poor little writer so I hit up Walmart for some supplies. I needed the following:

  • Lap blanket (nice and fleecy)
  • Tea (Chamomile has a relaxing effect, peppermint is a good choice as well)
  • Protein bars
  • Soup packets
  • Chocolate (DO NOT give this to the patient before the procedure!)
  • Fabric and rice for a homemade heating pad (directions to follow)
  • Tylenol or Ibuprofen (no Aspirin! It is not good for post-operative bleeding)
  • Pads (make sure you get incontinence pads rather than the regular ones shown)
  • Bag (I am useless and could only find a Christmas bag)

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The total came to just under $40 Canadian so homegirl needs to think of some cheaper ways to do this and/or get some donations – more about that later.

Once I got home and got my daughter settled in her high chair with some pasta, I pulled out my sewing machine and set to work on the homemade heating pad. It’s just one of those very simple bean bag type things you see at craft fairs that you can put into the microwave for a minute. Before you go and make a zillion of these, make sure that the doctors in your clinic approve of applying heat post-surgery. Some suggest it while others suggest cold packs. It’s important for the patient to follow doctor’s orders!

So, first thing’s first – grab some cotton fabric. It MUST be 100% cotton because it will go in the microwave. Fat quarters from quilting stores are perfect but flannel is amazing because of its hand (this is sewspeak for “feel”). Ideally, you would first iron your fabric but I am driving a patient tomorrow and therefore, need this one ASAP. I basically had to make it in the fifteen minutes between my daughter happily munching away and her screaming to be let out of her high chair. Other things you’re going to need are:

  • Fabric scissors
  • Sewing machine (unless you want to hand sew entirely)
  • Needle
  • Thread
  • Pins

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Cut out some random rectangle of fabric. Yes, I know, this is terribly non-specific but I was in such a hurry that I didn’t measure. I cut out something that, when folded in half, would comfortably cover a decent amount of the lower abdomen, where most women will use it when experiencing post-operative cramping.

Once you cut it out, fold it in half with right sides together and get ready to sew!  My suggestion is to set your stitch length to small since you’ll have lots of itty bitty pieces of rice in there and you don’t want them to leak. Using the foot as a width guide, sew around all the edges, leaving about a six inch gap at the end as an opening for the rice.

 

Reach into the little bag you’ve just made and pull it right side out, using a pencil or other pointed object to poke out the corners so they don’t look rounded.

Now is the fun part – spilling rice all over the kitchen! Those of you with partners who know how to open a bag of rice will be able to just pour those bad girls right in there. The rest of us will use an ice cream scoop.

*Here’s an extra-special tip – add two drops of peppermint oil to your rice! Though most essential oils do not have evidence to back the properties they claim, there is definite science to the anti-nausea properties of peppermint. You can get some inexpensively at any vitamin store.

 

Now you’re ready to sew up the opening using your hand sewing needle and a blind stitch. This is a very easy stitch to learn, even for beginners!

VOILA! You’re finished!

Once I was done with the heating pad (took about fifteen to twenty minutes because of the ice cream scoop technique), I put the entire care package together and added a note. Please don’t forget the note! Regardless of why a woman chooses to have an abortion or how she feels about it afterward, it is important that you let her know that you are thinking of her well-being.

Notecard

It doesn’t even matter if you have the penwomanship of a Kindergartner.

***

Now my post-abortion care package is ready! But it does feel a little lacking. What would you add?

If you’re interested in donating supplies, please email me at areinhardtsimpson@gmail.com!

Theology Outside the Clinic

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Protesters from Mt. Gilead Full Gospel Ministries stop traffic to proselytize in Richmond, VA.

*This is an unedited version of an article that appeared in the December 2017 issue of CrossCurrents

Introduction

The majority of a woman’s life will be spent worried about either getting pregnant or not getting pregnant. For those that choose motherhood, even more time is spent worrying about poverty, healthcare, education, racism, and a whole host of other concerns related to her reproductive and family life in some way. Reproduction and family care is the primary focus of a woman’s life for the simple reason that she exists in a world that is not framed to understand her biological, emotional, and social realities. Where society and religious institutions have not stepped up to include her experience as a primary focus of concern, she must instead focus her own energy on framing her life around those biological and social realities.

Since the beginning of time, women have had every other reality of their lives made subject to her biology. For instance, a woman’s career trajectory must take into account the possibility that she may become pregnant and decide to have children. Apart from the time she must be off to recover, the reality of our capitalist work structure and gendered parenting expectations practically insist that she will need additional time off to care for sick family or to stay at home for a period while her children are young. Women are, in fact, expected to take on the “second shift” as a matter of accepted fact. The power women’s biology has to either liberate her or to circumscribe her life can mean the difference between being a full participant in her own life and becoming a footnote in the lives of others.

Along with the work world, society, and other areas, theology has often failed to take into account the varied lives of women. While the twentieth century saw an explosion in feminist theology and biblical interpretation, theology often still failed to address the single, overriding concern of every single woman who is physically capable of becoming pregnant – the power of reproduction to shape her life in a way that is different from men. There is an incredible amount of work now being done to rectify the situation but we still see many more theological defenses of women’s subjection to biology than we do liberating theologies of reproductive justice. Those theological defenses of women’s reproductive rights that do exist tend to focus on statistics, abstractions, and apology, as though women should be allowed to guide their reproductive lives simply because it is expedient for everyone else. Theologically, women’s experiences have been written about as a subset to the “normal” and “standard” spiritual life, which is to say, that of men. Feminist theology is seen as a kind of theology, not as theology itself.  Any theology that sees, either implicitly or explicitly, the experience of men as the default, is a theology that cannot speak to all of humanity.

It’s my hope that this short piece, with its focus on women’s lived experiences and not on simple academic abstractions, will go some small way to beginning the work of a woman-centered theology of reproductive rights/justice. I have structured this essay in sections dealing with theologically based concepts I have witnessed outside the clinic as I escorted patients past protesters. These include the theologies at work in protesters and clinic workers. I have provided what I believe are sound theological arguments that speak to the urgency of recognizing reproductive justice and especially non-coercion in childbearing as a theological concern for women and the health of the entire church of which they are a vital part.

Reproductive justice is an incredibly large topic that encompasses a wide variety of issues and concerns connected to women’s ability to procreate. Because the subject is such a large one, I focus mostly in this paper on the right of women to control their fertility through abortion. I frame my arguments through the lens of my experience working with women at an abortion clinic in Richmond, Virginia from 2010 – 2015. However, it is important that readers understand the totality of reproductive justice so that we can set the arguments within their proper framework.

What is reproductive justice and why is it a theological concern?

Reproductive justice is a term coined by women of color in the nineties who recognized that women needed more than access to abortion and contraceptives to fully live out reproductive freedom. With the vision of prophets, these women pointed out to the world that our reproductive lives encompass a great deal more than pregnancy and birth, but also extend to the freedom of women and families to raise children in healthy environments, free from coercion by the state, the ravages of poverty, and the racism that infects our society. Reproductive justice also recognizes the freedom to choose not to have children and the dignity of women who cannot. It hears the voices of those who choose adoption as well as those coerced into it. Reproductive justice is the recognition that women’s lives and that of their families are impacted by social concerns and policy decisions that, on the surface, do not seem to have anything to do with the issue of reproduction. Outside of North America, reproductive justice concerns itself with child marriage, genital mutilation, and other issues that affect the reproductive and family lives of women across the globe.

Women spend the majority of their lives concerned in some way with childbearing; avoiding it, attaining it, raising children, making money to raise those children, dealing with violence and racism in the lives and environments of their children, struggling with day care and breastfeeding, and seeking access to birth control and abortion. In short, women’s lives are intimately centered around questions of reproduction in its multiple aspects and, as women are full human and spiritual beings, the things that concern them must and should concern the church. In fact, within those concerns listed are some that have been the special focus of Christianity for millennia – poverty, education, the care of families, violence, and loss of personhood. That these concerns should cease to be interesting to the church when they impact women’s reproductive lives is a tragedy. Theology and the church should take note that issues such as these have a very targeted impact on women (mothers or not) and families.

We should also consider our varied definitions of religion when beginning to ask why reproductive justice is a theological concern. Daniel Maguire says that religion is our response to the sacred[1]. I would take this even further and say that if religion is responding to what is sacred, religion must also respond to desacrilization. The rejection of women’s lives and experiences as part of the tapestry of creation, is a rejection of their sanctity, both of person and of creation itself. This idea can extend even further. Many theologians admit to the sacredness of sex and therefore it seems fitting that we respond religiously and theologically to anything that threatens the sanctity of sexual and reproductive life. This includes forced childbearing, rape and sexual assault, enforced ignorance of sexuality, child marriage, denial of women’s sexuality, and all manner of crimes against women’s sexuality.

Finally, all Christians are tasked with working in the world for the kingdom of god. For women, this can only ever be a secondary task when combined with the effects of forced birth, lack of health care, lack of daycare, and the other concerns that take over their daily lives. To deny women the ability to determine their own reproductive and family lives is to deny them the ability to fully live out their religious calling. At present, many women live this double life and the result is that the world has not yet benefited from the same flow of theological writings, innovative ministries, and other endeavors in which unencumbered men are free to engage.

Outside the Clinic

On any given Saturday in Richmond, Virginia, there are about twenty protesters that gather outside an abortion clinic on Boulevard. These twenty are divided into three main groups: a group of Roman Catholics from several different parishes, a group of congregants from an African American prosperity gospel church called Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, and an interdenominational group from Sidewalk Advocates for Life, an organization that instructs volunteers on how to engage with patients entering clinics. I’d like to briefly mention the general overall theological outlook of each of these groups.

Roman Catholic: This group is staunchly Catholic in that they are largely influenced by Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that formally enshrined what many see as the Catholic view on abortion and contraception. This group believes strongly that use of contraception of any kind is prohibited and that abortion is the murder of a fully human child. The tactics this group employs are largely singing and praying the rosary around the clinic. They see prayer as a stronger weapon than engagement with patients, though patients often report their presence as intimidating. A few members of the group regularly break rank and yell loudly at the clinic or at patients.

Mt. Gilead: This church is heavily steeped in the prosperity gospel which promises not just wealth and health but that God will see anyone through any difficulty so long as they are praying using the right words (right speech is incredibly important to adherents to prosperity gospel[2]). Church members can often be found engaging in glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and even in performing theatrical pieces outside the clinic. They are the loudest and most aggressive of protest groups, often trespassing onto clinic property to take photographs of license plates and patients. Most of the theology of this group is found couched in the Black Genocide Theory about which I’ll say more later. It is enough to say here that this group sees themselves engaged in a very real, non-metaphorical struggle against Satan to save their race and ensure its prosperity which gives them an urgency and boldness not seen in other groups. A quick glance at their website shows their preoccupation with concepts such as victory, prosperity, character, and rigid gender roles in the service of all three.

Now that I’ve laid out some introductory theological viewpoints, I’d like to examine in more detail what I see as the two major points at which these various theologies intersect: the full humanity of women and the idea of the invisible woman.

The Humanity of Women

One of the most noticeable shared ideas between all the protest groups, and the one I argue is at the root of most of their actions and words outside the clinic, is the conditional humanity of women. Though I imagine that none of the protesters would ever say that they believe women are anything less than full human beings, I believe that most of their anti-abortion advocacy rests on certain assumptions and beliefs about women that are not compatible with the idea that women are fully human.

My past work as a Humanist chaplain and now as an Anglican seeking diaconal ordination, has always been centered on a concept I call female personhood. In simple terms, it is the philosophy that women are full human beings and that they were made to be reflective of their creator. Though this statement about personhood seems non-controversial, it is actually revolutionary. Lurking beneath the surface of all our institutions, systems, and cultural discourse is the ugly realization that, in many cases, women are considered wombs first and human second. Take, for example, the advice recently given to pregnant women by the Centers for Disease Control in the United States: women should “stop drinking alcohol if they…could get pregnant”[3]. We all know that excessive alcohol consumption can cause serious problems for the fetus during pregnancy but we also know that any woman with normal fertility can get pregnant. What the CDC is saying, probably unwittingly, is that women between the ages of roughly 12-50 should abstain from alcohol altogether until after menopause. Note that this abstention is not recommended for her own good but for the good of the potential contents of her uterus and this despite the fact that we know that it is excessive alcohol that damages fetuses. There is no similar recommendation for men to avoid alcohol even though there is plenty of evidence that the father’s alcohol use figures into the health of the fetus as well. We see this same dynamic play out time and time again whenever we’re in the presence of a pregnant woman. Well-meaning people are likely to give her astonishing amounts of advice and even commands about how to care for her fetus. While the impulse to give such advice is usually coming from a place of love, the effect is to dehumanize a woman and turn her into a mere receptacle. This is only compounded by the constant uninvited caressing of her belly. By all these means, a pregnant woman ceases to be a private individual and becomes public property.

There are even more obvious ways in which we deny women’s humanity. When it comes to the issue of abortion, women are considered to have no particularly important input. Many abortion opponents claim that women should not be allowed to choose abortion because they will regret it. Despite studies that consistently show that women overwhelmingly understand their decisions and that most do not regret their abortions[4], we are led to believe that women do not make rational choices about their reproductive health and thus, these choices need to be made for them. Even in cases in which a woman does regret her abortion, the logic of forced birth does not hold. No other laws exist in the United States that are designed to protect a class of people from the regret they are supposed to feel as a consequence of an individual decision. That is, no class except for children. That women are expected to feel remorse and that they must be protected from making decisions unique to their experience are evidence that we have not yet truly accepted women as full human beings with their own power of reasoning.

There is precedence for these sexist views of women in the writings of Aristotle and the early church fathers. Aristotle believed that women were “incomplete males” and that they lacked rationality and Aristotle’s thought was highly influential to the medieval church. Augustine said that if it were not for reproducing the species, there would be absolutely no use for women at all. In fact, according to Augustine, women were not made in the image of God unless joined to a man:

“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 the role as 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.”[5]

Such has been the nature of popular interpretation throughout the centuries. Though often softened to a more paternalistic tone, this basic thinking has pervaded the view of women as spiritual people. For instance, it is the reason Mormon women cannot attain heaven on their own but must instead be sealed to a male to ensure salvation. A woman is not complete before God. The implication here is not just that women are not fully capable of spiritual recognition by the creator, but also that her assigned male is to be her guardian. He is the one to make decisions regarding the family, including decisions regarding reproduction. The idea that women exist in the private sphere only, under the guardianship of her nearest male is nothing new and it still exists today, amply demonstrated by Sheila Jeffreys in her essays on the subordination of women’s human rights to male religious rights. She skillfully demonstrates that the UN is reluctant to insist that women be given full human status when working with countries that have, through the application of religious law, pushed women into the tyranny of the private sphere[6].

The Roman Catholic protesters at the Richmond clinic demonstrate the softer, paternalistic side of this thinking. To begin with, the Roman Catholic Church does not admit women into decision making roles at the higher levels. This means that men will always be making the decisions that affect women based only on abstractions. The real lives of the women who enter the clinic each week are not real but simply pieces on a theological chessboard. No better demonstration of this can be found than in the opening greeting of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical dealing specifically with female reproduction, “Honored Brothers and Dear Sons,”. The only audience to the encyclical is the all-male, celibate leadership of the church whose job it is to disseminate it to the faithful. It then goes on to speak only to the male side of a heterosexual couple, leaving women out, even linguistically. The document further cites that the commission examining questions relating to conjugal relations spoke with married couples to ascertain their opinions, not the women whose bodies endure repeated pregnancies and whose lives endure repeated interruptions, but the couple who, conjoined, represent Aristotle’s vision of the only acceptable spiritual state in which women should be considered. Humanae Vitae explains that procreation is God’s design for married couples and, in the end, Paul VI declares that, “From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow.”[7]  Of course, Humanae Vitae made some small provision for spacing/delaying births but many laypeople have absorbed the culture of Humanae Vitae without the substance. In fact, many protesters, though claiming to be very influenced by the encyclical, admitted to never having read it. What they believe they know of the document is simply that if a woman becomes pregnant, it is God’s will that she carry the pregnancy to term without regard for her situation, the overpopulation of the planet, or ecological issues surrounding the white pronatalist tendencies that some of the group have. Many protesters I spoke to also seemed intent on punishing a woman with pregnancy. In this case, it became clear that what was important was less God’s will or the fetus and more that a woman be punished for transgressing the rules about her place. Protesters who believe pregnancy is a punishment are typically those who also subscribe to a complementarian idea of womanhood – that is, the idea that women have a specific nature in relationship to men. What we see in all of this is the belief that women, like children, must be led by God’s representative in the family, the male head.

When it comes to the humanity of women, the Mt. Gilead group is particularly vocal about the inferiority of woman to man. This group, with its belief in the pronatalist Black Genocide Theory (the idea that abortion is an attempt to exterminate black babies, described in more detail in another section) sees women’s role as primarily that of a spiritual subservient whose duty it is to bear more black children. Mt. Gilead believes strongly in fixed gender roles and the headship of the male, as evidenced by their sermons which can be found on their website. Their theology of woman is one that reduces them to their biological function. Indeed, the church has itself hosted the Duggar family, made famous by the reality television show 19 and Counting,  who believe that a woman is to bear as many children as possible, not seek higher education, and submit entirely to her husband in all things. With such beliefs, it is not surprising that Mt. Gilead has an “Abortion Clinic Ministry”:

Members of our ministry stand outside of abortion clinics and only have a matter of seconds to communicate with the men and women entering the clinics to gently convincing [sic] mothers to preserve the lives of their unborn children. Due to the intensity associated with this ministry, volunteers are approved after an assessment and recommendation from the ministry’s overseer.”[8]

Part of this “gentle” convincing is yelling at men that they need to “be men” and “take your woman out of there, pick her up and carry her out if you have to”. For Mt. Gilead, men taking over women’s decisions is an extension of a man’s duty to be the God-ordained leader in a relationship. In fact, when the group is successful in surrounding a couple entering the clinic, they will often forcibly separate the male from the female and while the women of the group witness to the woman, the men of the church will talk to the male companion about headship and his right to make the decision about “his seed”.

In both the case of the Roman Catholic protest group and the Mt. Gilead protest group, elements of punishment can be discerned in their theology as it pertains to women seeking abortion care. While the Roman Catholics will claim that their theology is grounded in Humanae Vitae and the Mt. Gilead group claims it is the infallible word of God spoken in love, both groups attempt to shame women by asking them personal sexual questions and ensuring them that seeking abortion care is a prideful and selfish act that will result in years of guilt and mental illness. As theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison puts it, “every abortion represents a heinous act of self-assertion, a bloody, wicked renunciation of all that women were created and born to be.”[9] The conclusion many observers of the situation outside the clinic come to is that the real abortion debate isn’t about abortion at all but about the true place of women in the human family.

The Invisible Woman

The second tendency I see outside the clinic, and which is very much entwined with concepts about women’s humanity, is the tendency to take women themselves completely out of discussions of reproduction, often by reducing them to statistics and other abstract concepts.

Abortion and contraception are, without a doubt, the most contentious issues when it comes to religion and female agency and yet women are seldom part of the conversation. In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, there are no women in positions of significant decision making power and yet the Catholic Church is one of the most vocal participants in issues affecting women’s reproductive lives. We can add to this the fact that most nations on earth do not have significant female representation in their legislative bodies and the result is that women are directly and purposefully excluded from discussions about issues that literally shape their entire lives. As Beverly Wildung Harrison puts it:

Only women can get pregnant, yet men, almost exclusively, interpret the morality of and make the laws about abortion. The political conflict over abortion is so intense partly because the population at risk from the effects of public policy is all but excluded from a direct voice in the policy-making process. Whenever such politics of exclusion obtain, it is predictable that those who make the policy, or favor it, will focus on the intensity rather than the substance of the conflict”[10]

In other words, the debate around abortion both in religious and political circles is so intense simply because the males that make decisions about it are unable, by virtue of being men, of experiencing the true complexity of the issue. One way in which this plays out is in the significant difference one sees when men speak about abortion versus women. Men on either “side” of the issue tend to see abortion as a heartbreaking and difficult decision, which gives more power to the idea that someone needs to be helping her to make it, while women tend to understand that abortion is sometimes a hard decision, often not, and usually made more difficult simply by the manufactured intensity of the debate surrounding it.

This last point is something I’ve personally witnessed. In my ministry of providing escorts to women accessing abortion care, I’ve watched women who were confident in their decision to terminate a pregnancy, women who were not ambivalent or conflicted about it, reduced to tears by the spiritual bullying of protesters who reach out to grab her, who hurl insults at her and call her a murderer, a slut. This becomes truly a Valley of the Shadow of Death moment for patients. The protesters are never interested in a woman’s reasons for controlling her fertility because to them (all of whom come from patriarchal faith communities), it is not the point. To them, a woman aborting a fetus is committing the crime of stepping outside a narrow theological definition of womanhood that has been central to the operation of most of our social, political, and economic systems for thousands of years.

The invisibility of the woman is a central theme in both protester group philosophies. It exists especially in two contexts  – that of the Black Genocide Theory and the Catholic principle of Double Effect.

Black Genocide Theory is the idea that abortion is a crime against  African-Americans and that abortion and contraception became mainstream in the 1920s to eradicate the black race. Though many working for reproductive justice deride this theory, it has some basis in fact. The eugenics movement enthusiastically embraced modern birth control technology as a method of controlling race reproduction. However, this theory ignores the fact that many black women found relief from the availability of birth control and abortion and it also ignores economic realities and continuing American segregation with its claim that clinics exist in low-income neighborhoods simply to target black women’s children for genocide. The fact that most women who choose abortion are white (though black women are overrepresented, likely due to economic and social segregation)[11] is not accepted by the movement which seems impervious to the experiences of black women. The Black Genocide theory is a pronatalist theory and, as such, is not interested in the actual lives and wellbeing of women when it collides with their justified anger over a birth-control based eugenics policy. It is a theory that has gained huge acceptance lately among black Christian churches but as early as 1940, black male scholars were writing editorials critical of birth control, saying, “It [birth control] is a move away from the full development of the race”[12].

For many of these churches, including the one that protests outside the clinic in Richmond, prosperity includes as many children as a woman can have. Black Genocide Theory, though championed by some women in the movement, does not put women at the center of conversations about reproductive health despite women being those who absorb the realities of those decisions. In fact, it openly calls black women genocidal traitors when they opt for abortion as evidenced by billboards with sayings such as, “The most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb.”

But perhaps the most disturbing portrayal of the invisible woman is that which I learned about from Amberlee, the president of the University of Alberta’s anti-abortion group. It is a philosophical concept popular among Catholics, particularly among those who protest outside of clinics, including in Richmond. Amberlee is a very pleasant young woman in her senior year. She protests my workshops and speaking events but, nonetheless, we have a cordial relationship and she agreed to be interviewed for my upcoming book. During the interview, I had asked Amberlee to explain to me how she deals theologically with the idea of something like an ectopic pregnancy, where the fetus will not survive in any possible outcome. She told me that she had recently taken a bioethics class at St. Joseph College which described a concept called Double Effect. Double effect is a theological justification that allows someone to perform an action that will result in an outcome one would normally want to avoid. It is a way to absolve someone of guilt when they are performing some action that results in what the church believes is sin. Amberlee told me that the instructor explained that in an ectopic pregnancy, a doctor could perform a surgery on the woman by cutting out the affected portion of her fallopian tube. In this way, the doctor would not be performing an abortion, even though they knew that the result would be the death of the fetus.

In describing Double Effect, Amberlee was, in effect, describing the perfect case of the invisible (and expendable) woman. Ectopic pregnancies are usually discovered quite early in pregnancy and can be terminated simply with a dose of methotrexate.. It is incredibly safe and the effects are minimal. What Amberlee suggested was the more theologically sound route was to perform an invasive surgery, one that would involve recovery time far beyond that of an abortion (even surgical abortion recovery is measured in days) and non-therapeutically removing a portion of a woman’s body, a portion that is not guaranteed to heal or regain functionality. In this scenario, the woman is indeed invisible to the entire decision making process around her as the doctor focuses on performing an abortion that is not an abortion.

Indeed, whether examining Mt. Gilead’s assertion of a Satanic genocide being perpetrated against black people or the Roman Catholic group’s view of a cosmic war being fought for the souls of the unborn, women are nowhere near the center of concern for these groups. The women are invisible in a debate that tends to center on the morality of the act of abortion itself. When abortion is taken out of its context, divested of its meaning to women and their well-being, women become nothing more than an abstraction in a theological debate. At times, both groups of protesters try to make up for this lack of focus on women as agents by trying to paint the act of abortion as gruesome, bloody, and violent, as damaging to their health and wellbeing. To this end they use medically discredited information about the procedure and its effects. Abortion as it is usually performed is about a ten to fifteen minute procedure (unless one is having a late-term abortion, only 2% of abortions performed in the United States). There is minimal blood and recovery includes a couple of days of cramping and heavy menstrual-like bleeding. There are no mental illnesses associated with abortion and absolutely no link to breast cancer (one protester used to shout for hours that 88% of all cancer was caused by abortion). Before having the procedure, a woman meets with a counselor to determine that she is not being coerced and that she understands her rights and options. Nonetheless, protesters will claim concern for women by painting a horrific and bloody picture of an operating room (operating rooms are not usually used) and the extraction of fetal limbs (the fetus is usually too small for anyone to discern limbs). They will also claim that death is a very real possibility despite abortion being one of the safest procedures anyone can have, about four times safer than a colonoscopy[13].  Some protesters are, no doubt, accepting debunked science as valid in good faith. But there is another current of thinking that one can find on their social media sites and in conversation outside the clinic and that is that one is justified in telling falsehoods if it results in a moral victory, in this case, saving a fetus. There is a long tradition in Roman Catholicism of theological debate on the nature of falsehood (Augustine’s On Lying being but one of many) and what a falsehood truly is. Some Roman Catholic protesters I’ve spoken with have embraced the idea that telling a lie is justified if a life (fetus) is saved. Still others take a more nuanced approach and believe that a person is justified in deceiving but that some subtlety is necessary. This would be in accordance with what Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, writes about lying, “…it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says”[14]

This approach has been used to formulate laws such as in Texas where a doctor or genetic counselor may withhold information about fetal abnormalities if they have reason to believe a woman may seek an abortion. What all of these arguments and approaches demonstrate is that the woman, who should be the focus of any discussion regarding her reproductive life, is shunted off to the corner to await abstract theological conclusion.

A Woman-Centered Theology

But the story outside the clinic is not simply one of a negative use of theology that is used to justify an ancient social order. Many of the clinic workers I’ve known have come to their work not just with spiritual convictions but with theological justifications for putting women back into the story of their own lives. My own story follows this path. I founded Richmond Clinic Defense in 2010 as a ministry of presence for patients. I saw that women and their lives were abstractions to many of the protesters and that this resulted in dehumanization and stereotyping that was damaging for everyone. My idea was that clinic volunteer escorts would not contribute to the abstract debate, philosophical or theological, but instead simply be present with a woman in her current situation. By walking with her and providing comfort when needed, we would demonstrate a theology or, ( for the atheist members among us) a philosophy that was woman-centered and focused on a patient’s real world needs. The practical duties are simple: to ask an arriving patient if she would like an escort past the protesters at our entrance. If the woman declines, we respect that and fall back. Likewise if she says that she wants to talk with the protesters. This is all part of respecting that a woman has been given the ability to make decisions about her life and situation, sometimes even decisions that might make us individually uncomfortable. For women who want an escort, we never touch or hug her without consent as the protesters do because we recognize that to do so is to continue in the tradition of denying bodily autonomy. We also recognize that some of the women coming to the clinic had been sexually victimized and might not welcome non-consensual touching. In short, the experience is purposefully tailored to the needs of the patient as a means of putting her back in charge of her experience and its interpretation.

Patients and clinic workers themselves represent a variety of religious views. Because they do not come to the clinic as a religious group, we must speak to them as individuals to get a sense of how they might theologically interpret their experience. Most patients who have felt comfortable talking to me have claimed Christianity as their religion and some have felt that, though they’re making the right decision for themselves, God must be condemning them. Other patients have told me that they believe that God does not want them to bring a suffering life into the world and a few told me that they believed it was immoral for protesters to impose dogma on others, especially when they don’t understand the situation.

The other most common group of patients claim no religion or atheism/humanism. Clinic workers fall largely into these same categories – mostly Christian or Atheist/Humanist though the Atheist/Humanist presence is slightly more dominant. Among the Christians are clinic workers who feel specifically called to this work as a vocation. The Atheist/Humanist contingent feel similarly pulled but for nonreligious reasons. A few of the latter have very negative attitudes toward religion, particularly in its historic attitudes toward women, and this can result in breaking the non-engagement policy when protesters use scripture to promote the inferiority of women.

The vast majority of religiously-minded clinic escorts felt that being a presence was the most important part of their work. Emily, who is a Quaker and a clinic escort in New York told me, “George Fox, who founded the Religious Society of Friends said, ‘Do rightly, justly, truly, holily, equally, to all people in all things.’ I definitely see clinic protesters as not doing justly to patients and staff and so escorting is a way to mitigate that and do rightly. We also believe that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ which, to me, speaks of the divinity of individual choice rather than imposing doctrine.” Emily also finds the Quaker injunction to “speak only when you feel powerfully and directly called to do so” helpful in her work. Clinic escorts are meant to be non-engaging which means that they should not return the insults or debate with protesters since this turns the focus of the work from being woman-centered to being about egos and an abstract principle. Emily’s practice of silence in worship is, she feels, a powerful way of countering what she sees as an imposition of doctrine on women.

Among the religious escorts is a rather large group of Unitarian Universalists who see working for reproductive justice as a sacred act. These escorts see the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism as speaking directly to the issue. When speaking with UU escorts, you will often hear them talk about the First Principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. For UU escorts, this means that women possess an inherent dignity that is challenged each time she walks the gauntlet of protesters who shout insults or insensitive remarks. The Fourth Principle: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning speaks powerfully for them against what they see as an imposition of a single church’s dogma upon a stranger. The Sixth Principle: the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is a call to create a world in which women are at liberty to make their own reproductive decisions without interference.

Clinic escorts are not the only people who come to reproductive justice work for religious reasons. Dr. Willie Parker, who provides abortions in the southern United States began his career with dreams of working as an OBGYN in Hawaii. Over the years, he began to hear more and more from his female patients about the realities of their lives and he realized that he was only providing part of the care they needed. In an article for the CBC, Parker said, “For me, the challenge came around what it meant for me to self-describe as a woman’s health provider and yet to feel unable to provide one of the most essential health services that a woman needs. One in three women (in the United States) by the time they reach age 45 will have experienced abortion.” His answer came later as he was listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King on the Good Samaritan in which King said, “The first question that the Levite asked was  ‘If I stop to help this man what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The result was that Dr. Parker packed his bags and moved back to his hometown to begin providing full spectrum care for women[15]. He is active within our network of activists and continues to lend a religious voice to the struggle.

Conclusion

My own theological views have undergone a change since founding Richmond Clinic Defense. I began the group as a dedicated humanist who saw the protesters as individuals wishing to impose a single theological doctrine on women entering the clinic. As the work went on, I began to see the ways in which well-meaning people (the protesters) could promote a dogma of subjection without realizing they are doing it. It was at this point that it became clear that what was truly happening was a clash of ideas about what it meant to be a woman couched that were being fought through theological claims. For many traditionalist religions that were founded on and continue to operate out of, a patriarchal worldview, the change in women’s status was profoundly threatening. If women can control their fertility, they can engage more fully with life on their own terms. They can go to college if they want to, they can choose not to have children or to have many, they can become more and more the authors of their own lives. For religions that promote female subjection, this is not a welcoming prospect because control of women’s bodies ensures control of women’s lives. Thus, the abortion and contraception debates are just one more front on the war against female personhood. People who view, consciously or subconsciously, controlling women’s bodies as necessary for the survival of their tradition or faith can deny overpopulation, climate change, and worsening economic realities because, for them, these are lesser concerns than that of preserving an ancient way of life in which women and reproduction are relegated entirely to the private sphere for the survival and benefit of the tribe. Theology has, for far too long, been interpreted in the service of a male-dominated world. As Harrison puts it, “Christian theology has advanced when it comes to man. We do not rely on iron age observations, etc. But when it comes to women, we are still apt to view childbearing and child rearing from the Iron Age perspective. It is the one area that did not receive a critical historical analysis or evolve in theology as man did.”[16]

A theology that speaks directly to women must include a theological understanding of women as bearing the image of God, as having agency, as having the capacity to make decisions for herself, her body, and her family that promote their wellbeing. It must recognize women as a part of humanity, containing the wisdom of the female experience, an experience of half of humanity, an experience that is centered around what it means to have the power to reproduce the species. Such a theology, bearing on the lives and happiness of 51% of the population must involve women in its crafting and interpretation and it must involve them at the highest levels of leadership in order to avoid abstraction. Anything less is only half a theology of what it means to be human.

 

[1] Maguire, Daniel C. Sacred choices: the right to contraception and abortion in ten world religions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

[2] Bowler, Kate. Blessed: a history of the American prosperity gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[3] “Alcohol and Pregnancy | VitalSigns | CDC.” Alcohol and Pregnancy. February 2, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/fasd/index.html. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[4] Rocca, Corinne H., Katrina Kimport, Sarah C. M. Roberts, Heather Gould, John Neuhaus, and Diana G. Foster. “Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study.” PLOS ONE 10, no. 7 (2015).

[5] Augustine, and John Hammond Taylor. The literal meaning of Genesis. New York, NY: Newman Press, 1982.

[6] Jeffreys, Sheila. Man’s dominion: religion and the eclipse of women’s rights in world politics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.

[7] “Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968) | Paul VI – Vatican.va. http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[8]Mt. Gilead Full Gospel Ministries, International in Richmond, VA http://www.mtgileadfgim.org/church-ministries/. Accessed September 22, 2016.

[9] Wildung Harrison, Beverly. Our right to choose: toward a new ethic of abortion. Boston: Wipf and Stock, 1983.

[10] Wildung Harrison. Our right to choose: toward a new ethic of abortion. 1983.

[11] ” Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients in 2014 and Changes Since 2008”. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/characteristics-us-abortion-patients-2014. Accessed September 14, 2016.

[12] Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the black body: race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. New York: Vintage, 1997.

[13] Reinhardt-Simpson, Autumn, and David Simpson. Mortality Rates for Abortion as Contrasted With Other Outpatient Procedures. XLS. Richmond Clinic Defense Press Release, February 2012.

[14] Aquinas, Thomas. “Of the vices opposed to truth, and first of lying …” Summa Theologica. 2016. http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/sum366.htm. Accessed September 2nd, 2016.

[15] Hynes, Mary. “Christian Doctor Believes He Has a Moral Duty to Provide Abortions – Home | Tapestry with Mary Hynes | CBC Radio.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 26 June 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

[16] Wildung Harrison. Our right to choose: toward a new ethic of abortion. 1983.