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.

Theology Outside the Clinic

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


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.


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.