Upfront, I need to state that I am not for abortion, I believe in life and life abundantly. I believe that the Bible teaches the infinite worth and value of human beings which includes unborn children. And I believe unborn children are human beings.
I also recognize the gray areas of abortion and I acknowledge the wide disagreement about when life begins. I don’t claim to know all of the science around this debate but wish to speak to some of the Patriarchy surrounding it. I also acknowledge that at times women are faced with difficult decisions around birth, illness, and other medical situations that threaten the lives of mothers–I offer no judgement. And finally, I acknowledge how political abortion is and how it is used to bolster power and how it is co-opted by politicos to target our fears and moral anxieties in order to gain our votes.
I feel a little nervous about entering this sphere of discussion because it is heated and can at time be filled with lots of angry words. But I am speaking up because I believe that Patriarchal thinking is embedded in much of the pro-life dialogue. And that bothers me.
So whether you are pro-life or pro-choice I ask you to consider how the abortion debate is used to bolster Patriarchy. And that if we notice the Patriarchy, perhaps we might do a better job promoting life and respecting women.
First, Let’s talk about Agency.
Some lawmakers are stating that women are only hosts. I get where they are coming from, we do in some sense host a child until birth but I am concerned that this term reduces a woman to merely a host or womb for a man to use in order to procreate. Her agency and contribution is denied. She should be seen as an equal partner consenting in the creation of another human life. Ideally bearing a child is an act a couple does together within the context of a loving relationship. Speaking of a woman as a only host dehumanizes her and reduces the relationship within which a child is conceived.
In a Christian vision, sexuality is expressed within a loving relationship between two human beings. In healthy relationships each member has agency and the ability to consent or not consent to having sex. Often in conservative Christian circles I hear the notion that women do not have the right to consent and that she must provide sex whenever her husband wants to have it. If she does not have the right to consent then she does not have agency and is not given her full humanity by her partner. Not all Christians believe this but the book Love And Respect, cited in the above link, is immensely popular and widely used in many Evangelical and Charismatic Christian circles.
I feel that what is lost in the discussion about abortion is that women are people too–not mere hosts, or existing only for the sexual pleasure of a spouse. They should be considered in the discussion about when to have children–the timing–the consequences and be able to consent. Which leads to the helpful nature of birth control.
Many who speak out in the abortion discussions also are opposed to birth control and are seeking to outlaw or reduce the ability to obtain birth control. Again, what I see is that women are supposed to give their spouse sex whenever they want it as taught by many Christian groups, without the use of birth control. And that they have little or no choice in whether or not to have children. A woman is once again robbed of agency.
Worse, many teach that couples must humbly accept as many children as their bodies can conceive and bear as is common in the Quiverfull Movement. Birth control is perceived by these Christians as being anti-life. And both mothers and fathers bear the enormous emotional and financial weight of many, many children.
Birth control is also helpful in preventing many abortions. I know that there are discussions about kinds of birth control and some are considered unethical. However most birth control simply prevents pregnancy. And I know that not all pregnancies are preventable. But, I think that mature couples can work this through together and create space in their lives for a child. And mature couples can discern for themselves what kind of birth control fits within their ethical framework.
Secondly, let’s talk about rape and incest. (1% of pregnancies)
Once again the agency of the woman is not considered. She is taken, forced or coerced into a sex act that she does not want to participate in. And if the result is becoming pregnant, then she bears the challenges of raising a child born of hostile circumstances without help, without a loving relationship AND she bears the stigma in the community. Or she carries that child to term and gives the baby up for adoption. Hard stuff that a traumatized rape victim experiences in circumstances that she did not choose. If she has an abortion then she is solely blamed and her rapist is missing from the dialogue. And in some states her rapist is even given visitation rights.
Someone who violates another in such a matter should not be given rights to parent or have any contact with the victim or the victim’s child. Rape is a violent act, an abuse, a crime–many think it’s about attraction and sex but its about violence and entitlement.
Once again, where is the humanity of the woman? It seems that she has little agency or choice in what happens to her. Honestly, we talk about abortion as if it is only the responsibility of the woman and we seldom discuss rape or incest as Christians. In these situations a woman is robbed of consent and asked to bear the consequences of having been exploited by another human being. Often, rapists are granted light sentences or the woman is blamed for provoking the rape. I think that rapists need to be held more accountable for their actions and that we could be better at teaching about consent in relationships.
Thirdly, once a woman gives birth to that child and tries to make it economically, we abandon her.
Again I hear conservative Christians speak about poverty as if it is solely about the responsibility of the persons in poverty when in reality women with small children are quite vulnerable to poverty because they have small children who need to be cared for. Their poverty is not a mere matter of being lazy or irresponsible. Children, especially little ones need caregivers so that their lives can be preserved and nourished. If they are trying to raise a child alone, it is even more likely they are struggling financially.
Those who profess an ethic of life have abandoned single mothers and their born children.
Often mothers find themselves trying to pay for housing, childcare, health care, and food working low paying jobs that revolve around their children’s school schedule. And mind you daycare hours are only between about 6 am and 6 pm. Anyone working odd hours is out of luck unless she has family support.
Further, the same people who are often pro-life vote against measures that would help women who are being battered and abused get out of abusive relationships and relationships that could potentially kill a woman and her children. When we put these ideas together, it appears that due to this Patriarchal thinking, women are not granted agency in matters that deeply affect their well-being and the well being of their children.
I believe that we must begin to value women in the debate and ascribe to them their full humanity as agents in their own well-being. And we must hold rapists and abusers accountable in the church and in society. As image bearers, women are also given the task to rule and reign and by limiting a woman’s agency, we block that capacity to share in decision making.
I wonder when we are going to discuss male responsibility in abortion and sexuality and develop an ethic of sexuality that will honor the agency of wives, girlfriends and women and hold rapists accountable for their actions.
Please be gentle with your comments and try to see some of the challenges women face in a Patriarchal culture and how the abortion debate is being used to justify and further Patriarchy. We could talk about this differently and create better policy that would honor women, mothers and children born and unborn.