9 Ways to Beat the Patriarchal Christian Right on Abortion
Heavy clouds are seen at sunset over Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in November 2012. An independent Roman Catholic newspaper in the United States called Monday for a campaign to reverse the Vatican's refusal to allow women to become priests.
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Most Americans think of childbearing as a deeply personal or even sacred decision. So do most reproductive rights advocates. That is why we don’t think anybody’s boss or any institution should have a say in it. But for almost three decades, those of us who hold this view have failed to create a resonant conversation about why, sometimes, it is morally or spiritually imperative that a woman can stop a pregnancy that is underway.
My friend Patricia offers a single reason for her passionate defense of reproductive care that includes abortion: Every baby should have its toes kissed. If life is precious and helping our children to flourish is one of the most precious obligations we take on in life, then being able to stop an ill-conceived gestation is a sacred gift. Deciding whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy is a process that is laden with enduring values: responsibility, stewardship, love, honesty, compassion, freedom, balance, discernment. But how often do we hear words like these coming from pro-choice advocates?
Can we reclaim the moral and spiritual high ground? Yes. But to do so will require a challenge to the status quo on two fronts. Rather than ignoring the right's claims, we must confront their arguments. We must also express our pro-choice position in clear, resonant moral and spiritual terms. In other words, in combination, we must show why ours is the more moral, more spiritual position.
This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Most “pro-life” positions aren’t really pro-life; they are no-choice. They are designed to protecttraditional gender roles and patriarchal institutions and, specifically, institutional religion. The Catholic Bishops and Southern Baptist Convention—both leaders in the charge against reproductive rights-- represent traditions in which male “headship” and control of female fertility have long been tools of competition for money and power. They use moral language to advance goals that have little to do with the wellbeing of women or children or the sacred web of life that sustains us all.
The arguments they make to attain these ends are powerful emotionally but not rationally. They appeal to antiquated and brittle conceptions of God. They appeal to the crumbling illusion of biblical and ecclesiastical perfection—and the crumbling authority of authority itself. They corrupt the civil rights tradition and turn religious freedom on its head. They play games with our protective instinct and cheapen what it means to be a person. They lie.
That adds up to a lot of vulnerability in what should be the stronghold of the priesthood: their claim to speak for what is good and right.
If we want Americans to understand and distance from the moral emptiness of the “pro-life” movement, we will have to challenge the patriarchs in on their home turf, in their position as moral guides.
Here, for openers, are a few ways we might change the conversation:
1. Talk about the whole moral continuum. A moral continuum ranges from actions that are forbidden, to those that are allowed, to those that are obligatory. When it comes to abortion, we talk only about one half of this continuum—Is it forbidden or is it allowed?—when, in actuality, a women faced with an ill-conceived pregnancy often experiences herself at the other end of the continuum, wrestling with a set of competing duties or obligations. What is my responsibility to my other children? To society? To my partner? To myself? (To cite a personal example, my husband and I chose an abortion under circumstances where it would have felt like a violation of our core values to do otherwise.) The current conversation doesn’t reflect the real quandaries women face, one in which moral imperatives can and do compete with other moral imperatives. Nor does it reflect the wide range of spiritual values and god concepts that enter into the decision making process.