Thistlethwaite: A woman’s life is a human life
A wave of anti-abortion legislation is now rolling over the country, threatening to curtail even further a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, and thus deny women’s full humanity as moral decision makers. In some cases, these laws could even put women’s very lives at risk.
As a pastor and theology teacher, I base my arguments for women’s full humanity on Genesis 1:27, which states that both women and men are created in the Image of God. In our democracy, women’s lives are fully equal human lives under the law.
But increasingly, this round of legislation threatens to undermine women’s full humanity. That is why, in statehouses around the country, you will see the red robes and white-winged bonnets of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” worn in protest of the current attempts to roll back women’s reproductive rights.
Atwood’s best-selling novel and the TV series based off it, which will premiere its third season starting June 5, portrays the fictional world of Gilead. A fundamentalist-type religious takeover of the U.S. has produced a totalitarian society where women are merely possessions. They are only slaves and thus handmaidens to the rich and powerful, especially as mere reproductive vessels. They are denied any right to make decisions about their own bodies.
The red robes the handmaidens are forced to don are now seen in demonstrations across the country, worn by women protesting this new legislation that denies a women’s full humanity.
This form of protest, I believe, underlines the fundamental issue at stake in these current struggles. Are women’s lives human lives, or not?
Those who are pushing this new round of anti-abortion legislation often call themselves “pro-life,” but it does not seem to me that women’s lives are considered valuable as full and equal human lives by this movement.
Abortion bans won’t end abortion
First, let me point out that, if not overturned in the courts, these laws will not serve to end abortion. All these laws will do is end safe abortion and women will go back to dying or being physically maimed from an illegal abortion.
I am old enough to remember those days when abortion was illegal. In college, young women would disappear from school for a while, and some of them never came back. Some women died in those days from so-called “back room” abortions.
Second, women can be killed or jailed under some of these new laws. This is especially clear under Georgia’s new draconian anti-abortion legislation. For example, women who “illegally” end a pregnancy could be charged with first-degree murder and even given the death penalty. Miscarriage could potentially be prosecuted, under certain conditions, as second-degree murder.
This could not be more clear. In the drive to defend “life,” women’s lives don’t count as human lives that must be protected.
But women are, in fact, full human beings, and that means, both constitutionally, and, for me, theologically, women have a conscience and can make moral judgments. This means they can make choices about their own reproductive lives and they are entitled to privacy as they do so.
Today, however, the very idea that women can be moral actors is also contested. Instead, if this legislation is allowed to stand, the state is going to step in and take over the moral decision making from women. In fact, this is exactly like what happens in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It is ironic that the very same people who say they want to “get government out of our lives” seem to want government in the room when women are pregnant. And they want government to be considered the only moral actor present.
The reason for this contradictory position, in my view, is that women are not respected as moral agents by those pushing this extreme anti-abortion view.
Women’s rights are human rights
It comes down to this: women can be reduced to mere vessels for reproduction.
After the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights was formed, and as a seminary student, I joined it. I have supported this multi-faith organization for the decades of its work. If you visit the website, as I encourage you to do, you will find this statement:
“RCRC values and promotes religious liberty which upholds the human and constitutional rights of all people to exercise their conscience to make their own reproductive health decisions without shame and stigma. RCRC challenges systems of oppression and seeks to remove the multiple barriers that impede individuals, especially those in marginalized communities, in accessing comprehensive reproductive health care with respect and dignity.”
Anti-abortion legislation is, indeed, an attack on the religious freedom of women and their right to exercise their consciences when it comes to reproduction. It is especially an attack on poor and marginalized women, as they will be the ones most impacted by the denial of reproductive services.
Let’s not have this fight again. We are not, as a nation, going to come to consensus on abortion. That is clear. But perhaps we can agree on the prevention of unwanted pregnancy and that means public support for birth control.
We in Colorado have had enormous success in this direction. Colorado’s teen birth rate fell 54 percent and the teen abortion rate declined 64 percent in the last eight years due to free access to contraception, especially IUD’s.
This is a practical and moral direction that the vast majority of Americans (89% per a 2016 Gallup poll) support.
Here’s an idea — let’s do what we agree on and that is proven to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.