In my work as codirector at Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, I am often asked by religious leaders, scholars, “people in the pews,” social activists, politicians, journalists, and others for my perspective about why the anti-abortion “side” of the debate is gaining steam today and how to shift the public narrative.
The abortion debate is often presented in terms of whose beliefs are right or wrong. While this battle rages in public religious and political arenas, individuals are jostled back and forth, regarding what their states allow them to do in matters most private to their lives.
Those not leading the debate often indicate their frustration with the reductive, binary nature of the debate. They recognize that questions of abortion, pregnancy, and childbearing are more complex than contemporary public policy debates allow, and therefore, should be guided by the personal morals of those whose reproductive lives are at issue.
Throughout US history, the abortion debate has experienced various ebbs and flows in support of women making their own intimate reproductive decisions. Some might argue that the debate has been kept active because of a righteous minority who take seriously their religious duty to protect the life potential of the unborn. Yet, current legislative trends of declining funds for public education and health care for children suggest something other than genuine concern for the potentiality of the unborn. So, what is shaping such strong anti-abortion stance?
At the core of the debate, I have observed what I believe is the operation of an implicit social contract that places social and religious responsibility on women to bear children. Women are not invited to become parties to this contract but, nonetheless, are expected to operate by its terms. The terms of the contract are even more rigidly applied to the poor, those in rural areas, and women of color. Within the clauses of this implied agreement, individuals are required to justify to religious and political leaders and society in general any reasons why they should be exempted from the expected terms.
Rebecca Todd Peters’s Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice examines the problematics of the “justification paradigm” applied to abortion. In its place, Peters urges use of reproductive justice (RJ) as a more ethical and just framework for abortion and other reproductive decisions. While Trust Women does not speak directly to the issues of social contract that I raise here, by centering reproductive decisions on realities of individuals’ lives and using reproductive justice as a guiding principle, it steps out of the presumptive social contract imposed upon women.
Peters notes that RJ raises critical moral questions about the larger landscape of reproduction—including the moral issue of being able to raise children in safe environments, where they will have access to a good education and a meaningful future. In the face of a history of forced breeding, sterilization abuse, being shackled in childbirth, being threatened with involuntary contraception, and virtually no support for the healthcare needs of infertile poor women, the reproductive justice framework is insisting upon an explicit social contract for the valuing of women and any children they may have.
The principles of reproductive justice are critical to counter the implicit social contract that does not recognize the inherent value of women. For example, in the late 1700s, Thomas Jefferson remarked, “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm; what she produces is an addition to capital.” In the early 1900s, President Woodrow Wilson charged women, especially white women, with the task of bearing and raising children as the highest social good for them to engage. More recently, in 2017, after the vehicular homicide of a peaceful protestor in Charlottesville, white nationalist males argued that her life was of no value anyway because she was thirty years old and had not borne any children. Because of this prevalent social contract, women who experience infertility often regard their inability to bear children as a cataclysmic role failure on their parts.
Outlined in this social contract are few conditions under which women are deemed to be justified in breaking this contract, such as infertility or mental or physical disability. Aside from the kinds of conditions, which are presumed to be beyond women’s individual control, religious and political conservatives are making the justifications required for setting aside the contract even more stringent. Women who chose not to become pregnant are shamed. Those who decide to terminate a pregnancy are presumed to be in breach of the contract and de facto morally deficient.
Peters uses the RJ framework to reshape the conversation from the narrow focus on abortion to a broader discussion about pregnancy, reproduction, and childbearing, thus setting the stage for thinking about what justice approach is required to address these issues. This shift away from a focus on the morality of abortion allows Peters to engage much-needed questions about ontological understandings of pregnancy. She reframes motherhood from moral obligation to moral decision and argues that sometimes the decision to end a pregnancy is a moral good.
In order for societies to thrive, there must be both explicit and implicit social contracts. Yet, there is no perceivable social good when social contracts are placed repeatedly and without consent, only upon the bodies and lives of specified demographic groups. By piercing the veil of the justification paradigm applied only to abortion care—and no other medical procedures—Trust Women opens a way for honest examination of the implicit social contract relating to all aspects of reproductive lives and needs. Trust Women insists that we look beyond the veil of the implicit social contract to assess how to determine how common good must be balanced with individual moral good.
The essays here offer important examinations of and challenges to the justification paradigm that has been shaped by an implicit social contract placed upon women. I trust as you read what my colleagues explore, you will reach the same conclusion, at least a beginning conclusion, as have I: society is better and stronger, and religion is more fulfilling and life-affirming when all individuals have the freedom to exercise their own moral agency relating to the most intimate aspects of their lives.
Yes, and a Bit of No
I begin with strong words of praise for the contributions of this book, which are many. The first contribution is situating the discussion of abortion in its social context and including relevant data that offers important context about the number of abortions, where they happen, to whom, etc. This is especially important in recognizing how much the problem of unwanted pregnancy impacts on the poor. Another significant contribution is sharing your personal experiences, Toddie; this takes courage in our current climate!
This book also forced me to challenge some of my framing of this contentious issue, such as using technical, scientific language of “zygote, embryo, fetus” for the developing prenate.
I also want to affirm something I argued long ago in my unpublished dissertation: that disability alone is not sufficient reason for abortion; rather, reflection on the family situation and the impact of disability on that situation is required.
Additionally, it is utterly important to recognize, as you do, that “abortion” is not the issue! Unwanted pregnancy is the issue. No one gets pregnant in order to have an abortion; hence, abortion is always a response to a prior problem. If we don’t want abortions, then we must ensure that all pregnancies are wanted—e.g., by providing free contraception to women.
I also affirm the importance of language—but I wish you had developed the argument for the language of “prenate” much earlier in the work. And I concur that just because abortion can be a moral good doesn’t mean it always is a moral good (205). I further agree that the stigma attached to abortion is a major problem and needs to be removed: if abortion is a correct choice, then there should be no stigma. Finally, I applaud your recognition that one can be “pro-choice” and “pro-life” at the same time and that the presumed opposition of these two stances is a false opposition. The avoidance of extremes is very important here and the complexity of abortion must be acknowledged, as you argue.
Indeed, I liked so much of what you do here, Toddie, that I really want to be able to affirm every part of it. No book can do everything, so I would temper any criticism with that caveat. But, in good ethics, challenges are important, too. So, I do have some concerns.
First, this is clearly a “feminist” view, but not so clearly a “progressive Christian” view. While there are some references here to “vocation” and “covenant,” the development of a theological base for the views offered here could certainly be expanded.
Second, for women who are partnered, what is the role of the spouse/partner? (see pp. 28 and 198) Do you presume here a concurrence in opinion between woman and partner? What happens when they do not agree? Are women, perhaps inadvertently, left alone to handle the problem of unwanted pregnancy?
My foundational challenge is this: You acknowledge (at least implicitly) that your argument depends on the assumption that the “prenate” is not yet morally a “person” and therefore should not be so in the eyes of the law. Hence, destroying the prenate is not the equivalent of killing a person. While I might agree with this, there is a problem in the logic underneath the argument. The logic looks something like this:
Persons should not be killed.
The prenate is not a person.
Therefore the prenate may be killed.
But this conclusion does not follow! Consider the following syllogism:
Red apples are good to eat.
This apple is green.
Therefore . . .
Therefore what? We cannot conclude that this apple is not good to eat unless we start a new syllogism that begins with a statement about green apples. So in order to conclude that the prenate may be killed, you are needing a new syllogism, such as the following:
All non-persons may be killed.
The prenate is a non-person.
Therefore, the prenate may be killed.
This logic is sound, but are the premises acceptable? I am from California, where we have redwood trees. Redwood trees are not persons. But that does not mean we should be allowed to destroy them. It is not sufficient just to say they are not persons. I agree with Frances Kissling (quoted on p. 135) that “ending the life of a fetus is not a morally insignificant event.” And you also say elsewhere that a decision for abortion is not trivial (165) and is a decision with moral implications (181). Thus, I would argue that even if I support decisions for abortion, those decisions arise out of a moral dilemma (contra your stance on p. 137). Just because some women do not experience a moral dilemma does not mean that there is no moral dilemma. I would argue that destroying the prenate—particularly in view of the possibility that it can become a person—does indeed require justification. If it requires justification, then there is the danger that placing the ontological status of the prenate into the private arena can result in a kind of relativism: those who think the prenate is a person should act accordingly, but those who think not should act differently. In the long run, such relativism could be very destructive for the status of women: if people think women should have rights, then we should, but if they think not, then it is ok for them to put into place social policies in which women have no rights!
And this leads me to my final point: I think there is an unresolved tension between the call to “trust women” and a “progressive” view that focuses not on individual choice but rather on social context. I completely agree that it is important to try to eradicate the history of misinterpretations of Scripture and other social factors that have led to distrust of women. But saying “trust women” seems to fall back into the trap of individualism and “choice” language that you have elsewhere criticized. Is placing abortion decisions within the private sphere (as the court did in Roe v. Wade) an adequate response to the social nature of the problem of unwanted pregnancy? You say—rightly, in my view—on p. 192 that “an emphasis on individual moral decisions prevents deeper recognition of the social structures that shape [constrain, I would argue] the moral world in which women make decisions.” But then, simply trusting women’s moral agency does not seem adequate to me as a response to such constraints. While you are absolutely correct that only the woman is ultimately able to assess the circumstances in which she would have to rear a child, those circumstances are very much socially determined. Affirming personal moral agency is important for social justice, but not, in my view, a fully adequate response to the social injustices surrounding abortion policy in the United States.
Overall, Toddie, this is a very important and challenging book, and I have already recommended it!
Accountable to the Ancestors
A Response to Trust Women
I am most grateful to have been invited to participate in this important conversation about a truly powerful and provocative book. Because I’ve known Toddie for a long time and have, in different ways, traveled the journey of parts of this book (especially the 2015 Society of Christian Ethics presentation), I’ve decided to frame my response in the form of a personal letter because my response to her is deeply personal, just as this book:
Where do I even begin? Thank you for the courage to write this book, for giving us a way (I hope) to dialogue beyond narrative extremes. You cut right to the core, showing that the framing of the debate has served one particular goal, which is to perpetuate misogyny against women’s bodies. And you’ve called it out for what it is, while offering another way. Thank you.
I echo the gratitude that others have already named about the language you’ve given us—prenate, PRIM—which are more than new terms but a way to speak from a place that is not so loaded with emotion. Your book continues to challenge me and, as I voiced in my response to your presentation at the Society of Christian Ethics meeting in 2015, I am still uncomfortable with the thought of giving our US society a “pass” in relation to the move from justification to justice. Let me share what I mean by that. As I hear the current arguments to “justify” abortion that are often named by pro-choice Christians—PRIM—I have to admit that I had fallen into that justification camp as well because I didn’t want to allow for abortion at “whatever” time under “whatever” circumstances. My reasons for this are complicated.
Ten years ago, I gave a presentation at the gathering of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology. My words stayed in that venue until I shared them with you. I wouldn’t dare share them with anyone outside of that space for all the reasons of blame and shame that you articulate. At that time, I didn’t think our liberal tolerance and rhetoric about a woman’s right to choose an abortion adequately fleshed out distinctions between benefit and loss, so your book is a lifeline. You’ve taken Beverly Harrison’s work to its next logical step in advancing the right to abortion as an ethical imperative, “The socio-moral ethos that makes abortion common is within our power to change. We would begin to create such conditions by adopting a thoroughgoing feminist program for society. Nothing less expresses genuine respect for human life” (Our Right to Choose, 1983).
But I have to be honest, even if I reject the rhetoric of liberal tolerance or that of conservative Catholicism (since I still call myself a Catholic), to opt for this “third way,” I am still making some fundamental negations that emerge from my vantage point as a Catholic, as Puerto Rican and as a feminist.
As a Catholic, sanctity of life is fundamentally connected to quality of life, achieved in community and solidarity. The notion of the common good, of all being able to flourish into the fullness of humanity, of the balance of rights and responsibility, are the pillars of my understanding of Catholic social teaching. The liberal tolerance of pro-choice feminism with its emphasis on the rights of the individual, with less consideration of the consequence of those rights on the community, feels foreign and somewhat destructive to me. At the same time, the forceful emphasis of conservative Catholicism’s equating of the sanctity of life with procreation, in such a way as to put women’s bodies at the service of all humanity and of God, is nothing more than biological determinism that has paraded itself as divine natural law. I can’t buy into either one. But “trusting women” still echoes with individualism to me; the move you make to reproductive justice doesn’t seem to address the need for communal accountability and wisdom. I think my Puerto Rican identity, and my connection to African cultural practice, has something to do with it.
You know my spouse is African, more specifically Congolese, and more specifically of the Luba nation. Your section on children as blessing resonates very strongly within this cultural context. From my vantage point standing outside of his direct cultural experience, I witness the way my spouse values children as they bless a family by the joy they bring and the connection they maintain between the past and the future. For him, thwarting the possibility of that blessing would go against ancestral wisdom; in fact, doing so without the consent of the community (including the ancestors) could lead to being cursed. Abortion then, understood from this context, could lead to an interpretation of every bad experience—illness, premature death, job loss, financial struggle—as a result of such a decision being made in a limited vacuum of an individualized context.
My own Puerto Rican sensibility complicates this even further. I appreciate your mention of the way reproductive control has been used on Puerto Rican women from the 1920s up to very recently (late twentieth century). But this project of reproductive control did not occur in a vacuum either; it is set within the history of US colonialism in Puerto Rico, with pharmaceutical company and US governmental complicity in contraceptive experimentation without consent and forced sterilization. As Iris Lopez writes, “The reshaping of the Puerto Rican population and economy was not accomplished by emigration alone. A complementary government policy of sterilization arose simultaneously and the Puerto Rican and US governments developed Puerto Rico’s economy through both emigration and sterilization, especially during the industrialization phase known as Operation Bootstrap [which began in 1948]. In essence, migration was used as the temporary response to Puerto Rico’s overpopulation problem, while sterilization became the permanent solution.”1 While it would take until Operation Bootstrap for sterilization to increase significantly, the structural foundations for its rise began in the early twentieth century through a rising birth control movement facilitated by the creation of various birth control and health clinics across the island. Luis Muñoz Marin in the 1920s, for example, advocated strongly for birth control options offered by Margaret Sanger and what would become Planned Parenthood. Margaret Sanger, and others, worked to repeal Comstock Laws, establish eugenics boards, and later would push for testing the Birth Control Pill on Puerto Rican women—many of whom became sterilized in the process.2
Here’s the thing, Toddie: there are so many Puerto Rican women who have no idea of this history of sterilization and reproductive control, myself included until I began researching my masters thesis. Historical amnesia has deadly consequences and that is precisely the goal of the colonial project. It serves to mask the truth of all that has come before us and who we are; how can we be moral agents without this deep, ancestral knowing? Puerto Rican history has been erased from the Puerto Rican collective consciousness and, as a result, many Puerto Rican women are completely ignorant of how the current debate around reproductive justice is set within a history of an intentional and systematic effort to reduce and eventually eliminate the number of Puerto Rican children born. I’m not saying that, with this knowledge, Puerto Rican women would have fewer abortions. But having this knowledge about our people, our community, could potentially inform our decisions in a much more nuanced way that might consider having a child as a revolutionary act of resistance against colonial erasure. Every reproductive decision made by Puerto Rican women has to be informed by this history and a heightened sense of communal accountability and wisdom. The ancestors are still speaking to us.
I don’t think we’re in disagreement, Toddie, but I needed to make these communal factors of moral decision-making more explicit because my culture and experience requires that I make room for the ancestors (which includes our history) to speak to us; we are still accountable to them. I am accountable to them.
With love and gratitude,
Iris López, Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Freedom (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 7.↩
See Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 93; Angela Franks, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), 132–37; Iris Morales, “Sterilized Puerto Ricans,” in The Young Lords: A Reader, ed. Darrel Enck-Wanzer (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 165–66; Jennifer A. Nelson, “Abortions under Community Control,” Journal of Women’s History 13.1 (2001) 157–80.↩
Thinking Through the “Metaphysics of Pregnancy” and Surrogacy
Rebecca Todd Peters has written a remarkable book. She has provided a rich history of how abortion became a contentious moral issue within both the Christian tradition and US politics. She has supplied statistics about how common abortions are (40 percent of all unplanned pregnancies in the United States will end in termination) and uncommon “abortion regret” is, despite widespread stigma about the procedure (95 percent of women report not regretting their abortions, though two-thirds believe others would judge them negatively for it if they knew).1 She has coined new terms I suspect will have staying power in our moral lexicon: “prenate” (a cross between “neonate” and “prenatal” in lieu of alternatives such as “unborn child,” “fetus,” or “person”) to denote the “developing entity that exists inside the pregnant woman at any stage of development” and the acronym “PRIM” to denote commonly accepted justifications for abortion: “prenatal health, rape, incest, and life of the mother” (4, 161). She has candidly shared the circumstances surrounding her own two abortions not only to counter the secrecy and “culture of shame” surrounding abortion, but also to make the methodological point that abortions cannot (and should not) be understood apart from the lives of the women who have them. And she has done all of this in an ambitious attempt to overturn the dominant way that both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps frequently talk about abortion—as a procedure requiring justification—by adopting a “reproductive justice” (RJ) approach to the topic instead.
I am grateful for this work. As a fellow feminist theological ethicist, Presbyterian, and proponent of RJ, I especially appreciated two theological moves Peters makes. The first is her rejection of the notion that conception and pregnancy itself are invariably “either the will of God or gifts . . . from God” (203, 282). While retaining the idea that children can bless us through the “joy, care, comfort, and honor” they often bring, Peters challenges the biblical and longstanding Christian association of fertility with divine blessing and infertility as a possible sign of sin or divine punishment not only because of the vision of a “cruel” or “capricious” God it engenders, but also because not everyone may actually be “called” to parenthood (so we shouldn’t assume that those capable of conceiving have been shown divine favor).2 Second, I found persuasive Peters’s analogy between progressive Christianity and the RJ framework on the one hand and a certain strand of evangelical piety and both the “justification framework” and the “narrow liberal-feminist frame of choice” she rejects on the other (188). That is, just as a progressive Christian approach to sin in the Bible focuses less on the discrete dispositions, acts, or wrongdoings of individuals (a common focus of many evangelicals) and more on the “sinful and disordering nature of power structures that oppress people,” so RJ begins with “the concrete realities of women’s lives” and thereafter seeks to examine the “social and economic barriers that limit some women’s options” (186). RJ is thus disinterested in assessing the morality of abortion (a primary concern of those working under the “justification” paradigm), while asking much more than whether individual women possess the legal right to abortion services (a perennial concern of liberal feminists).
I want to pivot now to pose two sets of questions Trust Women raises for me: the first concerns Peters’s reflections on the relationship between the prenate’s moral and ontological status; the second involves applying the book’s central thesis that a woman need not “justify” her abortion decision to others to a case Trust Women does not explicitly consider—surrogacy.
1. The Metaphysics of Pregnancy
In several places throughout the text, Peters correctly observes that moral reasoning on abortion often turns on the question of the prenate’s ontological and moral status (128, 131, 153). Trust Women ultimately rejects the view that the prenate is a person from the moment of conception who holds equal moral standing with the pregnant woman, arguing instead that the “moral status of the prenate is unclear,” the “moral boundaries between the pregnant woman and the prenate” are “fluid,” and thus it’s best to think in terms of the prenate’s “liminal moral status” (128, 153).
What Peters seems to be acknowledging is the link between an entity’s ontological status and the moral treatment it is due by others on account of it. For instance, to the extent that Christians profess that all humans bear the image of God (ontologically), they should follow the maxim to treat everyone with equal dignity and respect (morally). To the extent that Christians also profess that humans share with other animals the ontological status of creatureliness, they should treat them (morally) in accordance with the Creator’s wishes—not simply however they wish.
What Trust Women invites is speculation on what is called in philosophy the “metaphysics of pregnancy”—that is, questions about the nature of the metaphysical relationship between the maternal organism (in this case a pregnant woman) and the entity growing inside of her, including how or whether that relationship changes over time.3 There are two dominant but mutually exclusive ways of characterizing the relationship: a parthood model, where the prenate is understood to be part of the pregnant woman like your hand is part you (following philosopher Suki Finn, let’s call this the “bump” model), and a container model, where the pregnant woman is understood to be hosting the prenate—a distinct entity (following Finn again, let’s call this the “bun [in the oven]” model).4 Other ways of talking colloquially about pregnancy imply one model over the other: the “pro-choice” slogan “my body, my choice” leans more toward “bump” or parthood, but the idea that pregnant women “eat for two” suggests “bun” or container. Of course the point here is not to quibble over language for its own sake, but to see what moral (and legal) directives might be derived from the metaphysical suppositions underlying our everyday talk.
Though Trust Women never explicitly refers to the “metaphysics of pregnancy” and though Peters reasons ontologically about the prenate only to conclude that we cannot speak with any certainty or precision about it, there are places where Trust Women seems to take a stand on metaphysics nonetheless. For instance, when Peters writes, “Before viability, prenates cannot exist outside a woman’s womb. If it cannot exist independently, can it be said to be ‘alive’?” she might be tipping her hand toward the “bump”/parthood model, reasoning that the prenate would be “alive” only insofar as it remains attached to the pregnant woman just as your hand would only be “alive” to the extent that it remains a part of you (130). Further textual support for the “bump” model and prima facie denunciation of container or “bun” can be found elsewhere when Peters rejects the (ontological) conceptualization of the pregnant woman and the prenate as “separate individuals”: Peters does this on account of belief that such a view plays (morally) into an antagonistic “logic of individualism,” wherein the prenate is viewed as either “under potential attack” by the “host” (as per the pro-life position) or as an “unwanted aggressor that a woman has a right to repel” (as per the pro-choice side) (153).
That said, Trust Women also seems to affirm the idea that prenates undergo a change in ontological status throughout the course of the pregnancy: that the prenate begins as a part of the pregnant woman (the “bump”) and then becomes a separate entity (the “bun”) (161–62). When drawing upon Adrienne Rich’s poem, Peters lifts up a passage where Rich is writing of the prenate beginning as “something inside and of me, yet becoming hourly and daily more separate . . . separate from me” and where fetal movements early on “felt like ghostly tremors of my own body” but later like the “movements of a being imprisoned in me” (160, emphasis added). To be clear, Trust Women’s recognition of a potential change in ontological status does not affect its moral bottom line, since Peters insists that the morally significant threshold is neither quickening nor viability but birth. Still, I am left wondering the extent to which discussions among feminist philosophers of the ontology of the prenate—the metaphysics of pregnancy—apart from the moral directives that could be drawn for them could have helped sharpened Peters’s argument and could still now be helpful to her overall project.
2. What about Surrogacy?
I turn now to the question of surrogacy. Two of the book’s underlying assumptions are that (1) a woman becomes pregnant from the intercourse she’s had (consensually or nonconsensually), and that (2) she will be the one to mother the child if her pregnancy results in a live birth (152–54). In writing in two places about in vitro fertilization (IVF) and the resultant hundreds of thousands of cryopreserved embryos currently being “held in endless stasis,” Trust Women acknowledges that assumption #1 need not hold, since assisted reproductive technology (ART) allows for reproduction without sex (128, 170–71). What Trust Women does not explicitly consider, however, is the growing number of cases where assumption #2 does not hold either and not just because of adoption possibilities—where women are being commissioned by others to become pregnant, with the express intention of relinquishing the child once born to them to parent. Because the larger RJ movement from which Trust Women draws its inspiration has yet to come to a consensus on surrogacy and because surrogacy has increased by more than 100 percent in the United States in the last decade in which we have statistics and by 1,000 percent internationally according to The Hague in a similar timeframe, it might be prudent for RJ proponents to consider how the arguments of Trust Women might apply to the growing numbers of women and other persons affected by surrogacy.5
The position ultimately advanced in Trust Women is that (1) the moral decision whether to “continue a pregnancy . . . should be made by pregnant women with the support of their families and communities,” and that (2) this decision to become and stay pregnant must be regarded as revocable, for circumstances may change in such a way where she feels “the need to withdraw her assent” and abort (166, 175, emphasis added). The question remains whether these two prerogatives should apply to surrogate women as well or should we say in the case of surrogacy that those who will ultimately bear the moral and legal responsibilities of raising the child post-birth (i.e., the intended parents) should instead have ultimate decision-making power?
Trust Women arguably contains textual support for both positions. In lambasting the social control of women’s bodies, affirming the core RJ principles of the “right not to have a child, [and] the right to have a child” (7), and accordingly denouncing both coerced pregnancies and coerced abortions, it would seem that all women, including surrogates as a subclass, should retain the human rights of bodily integrity and reproductive autonomy (68, 99, 173, 175).
And yet, when Peters considers the special situation of a “prenatal diagnosis of disability” in pregnancy, Trust Women concludes that “the covenant commitment of the parent or parents to nurture and raise the potential child must be reaffirmed” (199, emphasis added). To be clear, Peters was not explicitly writing about surrogacy in that passage, but parent-hopefuls might read it as granting them (not their surrogate) the prerogative since it is they (not their surrogate) who will be responsible for the parenting the special-needs child once born. I hasten to add that while the overwhelming majority of surrogacy arrangements do not end in conflict of the type I have described, there are also well-publicized disasters where the intended parents press for the surrogate to abort upon diagnosis of a severe fetal anomaly, the surrogate refuses, and the situation ends either in a protracted lawsuit or otherwise tragically.6
So, I ask again: what position should the RJ movement, or a scholar like Rebecca Todd Peters committed to it, take on the matter, particularly if there is a conflict between the surrogate’s and the intended parents’ contemplated course of action? If uncertain, might sorting out the “metaphysics of pregnancy” help Peters or the RJ movement more broadly decide—that is, should the party who holds ultimate decision-making power depend on whether the prenate is viewed as a part of the surrogate or if it is more like a “bun” in her “oven”? Even if Peters were to conclude (as I have elsewhere) that the surrogate should retain the moral and legal prerogative to make all medical decisions related to her body, would we not consider it morally problematic if she were to fail to consult or even inform the intended parents before terminating (or selectively reducing the number of fetuses in a multiple pregnancy scenario)? If so, wouldn’t that simply be another way of saying that a surrogate should seek to justify her contemplated breach in agreement to carry the intended parents’ embryo(s) to term? If so, recall that one of Peters’s central aims in Trust Women is to dismantle the entire “justification framework.”
On my view—and one I have defended elsewhere—the surrogate morally ought to consult and deliberate with the intended parents about real or possible abortion or fetal reduction scenarios, given the collaborative nature of the pregnancy itself.7 Might Peters concur? I welcome her reflections on these two matters.
Unless otherwise stated, all references will be taken from Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice (Boston: Beacon, 2018), 2, 139.↩
See, e.g., 2 Sam 6:20–23; Hos 9:1, 11–12; Gen 20:1–18; Num 5:11–31.↩
To the extent that metaphysics asks about the nature of existence, being, and the world, the “metaphysics of pregnancy” questions what there is in the case of pregnancy; i.e., how many things are there and what may be a part of what? To be sure, the metaphysics of pregnancy can be asked about any mammal with a placenta, so equally human beings, cats, and dogs, but not, say, kangaroos.↩
As Suki Finn notes, the question of the metaphysics of pregnancy can be asked about any mammal with a placenta, not just human beings. The discussion that follows is a summary of Suki Finn’s presentation of these two options in “Bun or Bump: Does the Mother Contain the Foetus or Is It a Part of Her? On the Metaphysics of Pregnancy and Its Ethical Implications,” Aeon, July 27, 2017, https://aeon.co/essays/is-the-mother-a-container-for-the-foetus-or-is-it-part-of-her. For a more technical discussion, and one arguing for the parthood model, see Elselijn Kingma, “Lady Parts: The Metaphysics of Pregnancy,” Metaphysics 82 (2018) 165–87.↩
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, “2015 Assisted Reproductive Technology National Summary Report” (Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, 2017), 53 (reporting data from 2006–2015), https://www.cdc.gov/art/pdf/2015-report/ART-2015-National-Summary-Report.pdf; Deborah L. Cohen, “Surrogate Pregnancies on Rise Despite Cost Hurdles,” Reuters, March 18, 2013 (reporting data from SARTS from 2004-2011); Alex Finkelstein et al., “Surrogacy Law and Policy in the U.S.: A National Conversation Informed by Global Lawmaking,” Columbia Law School Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic (2016), 6 (reporting data from the Hague from 2006–2010), http://www.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/gender-sexuality/files/columbia_sexuality_and_gender_law_clinic_-_surrogacy_law_and_policy_report_-_june_2016.pdf.↩
These include the much-publicized 2014 “Baby Gammy” case that helped to end commercial surrogacy in Thailand and the 2013 “runaway surrogate” case of Crystal Kelley in the United States. See my forthcoming Grace Y. Kao, “Toward a Feminist Christian Vision of Gestational Surrogacy,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 39.1 (Spring/Summer 2019) for an explanation why these scenarios, though troubling, are not the norm.↩
I am trying to determine whether Peters would agree that there can be cases where an abortion is neither a “responsible moral decision” nor a “reflection of self-care” but perhaps of, say, selfishness or even cruelty (171, 176). I will be working out these and other questions in my forthcoming book entitled My Body, Their Baby: A Progressive Christian Account of Surrogacy (under contract with Stanford University Press).↩
Trust Women and the Common Good
A Catholic Proposal
Rebecca Todd Peters provides a thoroughgoing analysis of issues related to procreative choice in the United States and invites the reader to leave behind current political rhetoric of pro-choice and pro-life. Peters points out that the current sociopolitical and religious debate about abortion in the United States revolves around a justification framework. While Peters spends time on the history of procreative choice and abortion, but she does not delve into specific theologies. As someone who supports Catholics for Choice, I am routinely in conversations that dive deep into the theological weeds of Roman Catholic reproductive theology. A slice of the Catholic voting block buoyed by publicly active bishops and policies at Catholic hospitals impacts abortion policy and access in significant ways (144). The counterapproach to the Catholic hierarchy is centrally concerned with the role of conscience.
Peters’s “trust women” argument shares similarities with a conscience argument because it relies on the primacy of the moral agency of the woman (51). A conscience approach disrupts the justification framework. Simply put, there is nothing to justify because the decision is between God and the woman. More importantly, it appeals to a more complex decision-making process (136), which Peters notes “illustrates our ability to recognize that context and circumstances matter” (51). Reliance on an informed and well-formed conscience is not about oppositional positions, but choosing the best option for all involved. However, the conscience approach can also reinforce individualism that to a certain extent still fits a justification framework. Peters writes, “Reimagining pregnancy outside the logic of individualism is challenging for both sides of an abortion debate shaped by the logic of justification” (168).
Pairing a robust theology of conscience and the common good tradition in Catholic social teaching bears similarities to the Reproductive Justice frame, which Peters suggests, “shifts our thinking away from the individual and the choices that individual women make in their personal lives to the larger social context within which individual women make choices” (192). The theo-ethical tradition of the common good serves in two primary ways. It is, as William Barbieri describes it, a “hermeneutical lens” by which to understand the “telos of a given community” as well as the “criterion for evaluating courses of action.” That is to say, the common good is both an “affective reality, and a structural task.”1 It is at once static in its larger vision and dynamic in its implementation. While there is not space, nor need for a full history of the conception of the common good, there are three aspects of common good tradition that are directly pertinent to this discussion.
First, moral theology approaches to the common good have insisted on pluralistic and universal inclusion of various religious traditions. That is to say, the common good, while born of certain religious traditions, is not dependent on tradition specific claims (or tries its best not to be). For this reason, it has been and can continue to be utilized to generate broad-based political and social action. Similar to political philosophy, common good is based on normative claims about social order and cohesion using the frameworks of rights, duties, justice, and public authority. Common good presumes a general consistency or set of values that enhance and promote human life in society. It also incorporates a continual review of what structures and institutions allow for and improves the living out of the common values (e.g., accessible and affordable healthcare, public security and a justice system, representative political system, and unpolluted natural environment).2
The common good does not just happen. We need social systems to maintain or promote the common good. Reforming social systems is as much the work of individuals and communities as it is of legislatures and policymakers. Second, there have been different strands of common good moral theology including those that emphasize political structure and authority (civil rights) while others stress economic equality and monetary systems.3 In the last half-century, scholars like David Hollenbach and the movement of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudem et Spes explicitly name the causal relationship between a civil rights framework and economic justice. In other words, the guaranteeing of political rights does not necessarily entail economic viability for members of a state.
In abortion debates, political and economic rights are inextricably linked. As Peters so clearly illustrates related to abortion issues, economic instability and lack of access to services exacerbate the ability of women to exercise a legal or political right to reproductive healthcare options—the Hyde Amendment being the most obvious example. Existing without one or the other freedom, reflexively limits rights and how individuals and communities may respond to their duties.4 Not only is there a connection between political and economic rights in common good theory, but also a generally accepted notion of balance that must be created between the two.
Third, while social systems are necessary to maintain the common good, the good of the individual is inextricably linked with the common good.5 There are concerns about the common good that it may override individualism, including that some are unequally burdened by social systems seeking to establish the common good. The primarily example cited is practices that redistribute wealth. In response, David Hollenbach describes in his work The Common Good and Christian Ethics that individualism is to be enhanced by the common good, not destroyed. Claims about being unfairly burdened by the privileged are often overstated. In many cases some individuals benefit from unjust relations he defines as “unequal interdependence” without recognizing those very benefits are putting others in positions of powerlessness.6 Hollenbach lays out his claims related to poverty, but one can make a similar argument regarding procreation. When procreative control is not in the hands of the very body and human life that is most affected by it, women are in a social position of unequal interdependence.
Up to this point, I have not concentrated on Roman Catholic sexual ethics or writings specifically on abortion. There is a strategic reason for this as well as a practical one. Practically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church often divorces its political and economic teachings from its sexual ethics teachings. Most of the common good understandings of solidarity and rights/duties are not present in the gender-stratified theology related to sexuality. Strategically, I am working to place common good on its own footing, so as to later suggest that these teachings counterbalance the sexuality teachings. Peters directly addresses the link between procreation and sexual behaviors critiquing the inevitability argument that undergirds a procreative ethic. Her move to contextualize sexuality, sexual behaviors, and procreation fits with many progressive Catholic critiques. Interestingly, most Catholics agree with a renewed sexual ethic and thus that is not often a point of contention other than with official teaching and the hierarchy. Yet, there is less generosity in moving away from official teaching when it comes to abortion. This is why I argue that the pairing of conscience and common good might be a better theo-ethical approach than moving sexual ethics beyond its physicalist tradition.
As Peters’s book convincingly proves, we still do not have a robust notion of common good where all persons are valued as moral agents. Women and racial and ethnic minorities have lacked the theological status of full moral agency throughout history.7 Even today, the papal encyclicals when read as a whole devalue women as full persons with equal rights and duties. This legacy continues to affect abortion discourse and ultimately policy. Drew S. Days highlights this tension as it relates to racism and its impact on the common good. He suggests that while legal access may grant equal status, sociocultural and economic forces continue to generate unequal interdependence. He suggests that negative guarantees of equal opportunity mean little to individuals when the wider community does not provide “affirmative” reparations or remedies to economic and socially constituted discrimination.8 From medical histories of treating hysteria and involuntary sterilization to sedating women during childbirth, from a lack of legal recognition for marital rape to enduring sexual harassment to keep one’s job—women’s bodies, lives, and futures have been, and in many ways still are, at the hands of men and social institutions run by men. It continues to be younger, poor women and racial ethnic minorities who suffer disproportionately.
The common good will not be achieved through legislative and policy mandates alone. However, a robust moral theology of the common good could be used to support social policy that looks beyond whether each individual act of abortion is morally good to the prospect of full procreative choice for all individuals, including access to abortion. The pairing of theologies of conscience and common good from Catholic social teaching may just afford an open door for Catholics to trust women in the ways Peters advocates.
William A Barbieri, “Beyond the Nations: The Expansion of the Common Good in Catholic Social Thought,” Review of Politics 63 (2001) 750, 737.↩
Manuel Velasquez et al., “The Common Good,” Issues in Ethics 5.2 (1992), http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/commongood.html.↩
Lisa Sowle Cahill, “The Catholic Tradition: Religion, Morality, and the Common Good,” Journal of Law and Religion 5.1 (1987) 75.↩
Cahill, “Catholic Tradition,” 91–92.↩
David Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 183.↩
Hollenbach, Common Good, 183.↩
See M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010). Copeland’s work highlights the historical legacy of economic, physical, and social degradation of black women’s bodies as well as (and perhaps more importantly) the justification for such behavior based in theological anthropology claims.↩
Drew S. Days III, “Seeking a New Civil Rights Consensus,” Daedalus 112.4 (1983) 206–7.↩
What Would It Take to Redeem Pronatalism?
Rebecca Todd Peters has written a groundbreaking and exciting book about reproductive justice that I am honored and humbled to discuss. I want to take a moment to point out some great benefits of this book: It is extremely accessible while maintaining academic rigor. Peters incorporates and develops complex philosophical and theological concepts with ease and clarity. This book should also be commended for its thoroughness. Peters covers a broad historical period, includes important data that anyone engaged in conversations about reproductive justice should have at their fingertips (like that 50–60 percent of women who procure abortions are using some form of contraception at the time!) (32), and does this all within an intersectional, feminist, and Christian framework.
How I Enter This Conversation
As a scholar of Jews and Judaism, I have a hard time relating to feminist conversations about reproductive rights. I cringe whenever feminists blame “religion” for abortion restrictions, not only because of the complicated history (and current politics) dividing the feminist movement and Jewish feminists, but also because Judaism’s relatively liberal stance on these issues should, in my view, distinguish Judaism from Christianity in terms of abortion and reproductive rights. Although Jewish legal writings contain a justification framework for abortion, many—even those on the far right religiously—will accept women’s moral agency in deciding which justifications are relevant.1 Furthermore, prenatal life or personhood is not a common starting point for conversations about abortion in Jewish thought.2 Lastly, Jewish women have historically supported women’s access to birth control and abortion in the US, and Israel has an extremely liberal policy towards abortion.3
And yet, abortion is still not something most Jewish women talk about openly. Last year, journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt published a selection of Orthodox Jewish women’s abortion stories, and the article was met with shock and fascination in many Jewish communities. What was shocking to me about this article was not that Orthodox women were having abortions (I knew this already from my own research about reproduction among ultra-Orthodox women), but that Jews were so shocked by this. Even in the absence of a moral or legal sense of fetal personhood, many Jews still feel that abortion is not a morally valid decision. Peters’s book has forced me to think about why that is. Why is it that even within a context where abortion is legally justified, its procurement still elicits such shame and taboo? I have come to realize that this cultural shame surrounding abortion has a lot to do with Judaism’s pronatalist rhetoric.
The Dangers of Pronatalism
Trust Women is a book-long effort at convincing readers that women can be trusted to make reproductive decisions. As Peters writes, “The major problem with building a social policy based on trusting women is that we would first have to trust women” (72). This is where I think Jews and Judaism are stuck as well, and it manifests in Judaism’s pronatalist tendencies. To be clear, pronatalism is not inherently wrong; societies must possess some sense of pronatalism in order to ensure continuity. However, when taken to extremes, pronatalism in Judaism results in the denigration of a woman’s reproductive decisions, unless they contribute to Jewish continuity.
Scholars have argued that along with high birthrates among Jews in Israel, pronatalism also has damaging effects on women. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the ongoing military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the demographic war between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel created policies, directed funding, and cultivated a national message that encourage Jewish women to reproduce. This kind of nationalistic pronatalism solidifies a woman’s role as wife and mother4 who should procreate “for the glory of the state of Israel.”5 In her ethnography of reproductive technologies in Israel, Susan Martha Kahn adds that Israeli children learn the biblical narratives of barren women in school, as they understand that “barrenness is a tragic fate for a woman. The childless woman is to be pitied and prayed for; her suffering is the quintessential form of female suffering and her joy at childbirth the quintessential form of female joy.”6 Importantly, just as Peters points out in the US context, these reproductive policies encourage certain women to reproduce while discouraging others.7
In the United States, however, low reproductive rates among many liberal Jews have obscured the prevalence of pronatalism and its effects on women. Jewish families (outside the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox) usually stop short of population replacement. This may lead us to think that women are not expected to reproduce, that they are trusted to make reproductive decisions. However, after decades of fertility research in the United States demonstrating the low fertility rates among Jews, a number of demographers, sociologists, and Jewish leaders have expressed concern for the survival of the Jewish community. Notable among them is Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who has published hundreds of articles on Jewish identity and demography. Until recently, Cohen was a professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Langone. Cohen published academic articles and wrote frequently for the Jewish press about the low reproductive rates among liberal Jews in the United States.
This kind of pronatalism often overlooks the cost of infertility treatments and subsequently the cost of raising Jewish children, thereby obfuscating class differences within the Jewish community. It also leads to some troubling trends in conversations about infertility, about the worth of Jewish women who don’t have children, whether voluntarily or not, and about the worth of women’s non-reproductive work. In the wake of the #metoo scandal regarding Steven M. Cohen, three female Jewish historians noted that conversations about Jewish demographic trends, dominated by men, contain “patriarchal, misogynistic, and anachronist assumptions about what is good for the Jews. We learn that single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples are all problems. And we learn that the Jewish community, should it want to survive, must step into the role of calling out and regulating those problems.” When the Jewish community in the United States encourages reproduction, it ignores the overwhelming burden this places on women. I doubt that many people realize that this pronatalist logic is, as Peters argues, “really a conversation about forced pregnancy and childbirth” (126).
However, there is a complicating factor that we should consider. Jewish women who do not have children are often considered selfish, an insult that Peters would like to reframe as self-care, and which I agree with (177). But when aimed at Jewish women, the accusation is not about women choosing not to care for a baby because they care more about their careers or their free time. The Jewish pronatalist rhetoric accuses non-reproductive women of shirking their responsibilities to the community. This doesn’t remove much of the shame from the connotation of selfishness, but it raises an interesting question, namely: what is an ethical balance between individual rights and communal responsibilities when it comes to reproduction?
Peters recognizes that reproduction and reproductive justice mean rejecting an individualistic framework and instead recognizing that individuals exist in community. Although Peters remarks that “in an overpopulated world, the state has no reasonable vested interest promoting childbirth over abortion” (166), I suggest that this reality is different for Jews, for whom fears of annihilation are real and present. The rise in anti-Semitic acts in the last five years has led to a heightened awareness of Jews’ minority status. Encouraging reproduction, therefore, is due to the communal need for demographic continuity. In this tension between the benefits and dangers of pronatalism we see that while a woman’s ability to control her fertility is a moral good, reproduction is also a moral value for the Jewish community. The problem is that in supporting the latter, we run the risk of impeding the former. In some ways, this challenge reflects a fundamental tension between the private and public or individual and social nature of pregnancy and childrearing.
For that, Iris Young, whose philosophy is woven into Peters’s reimagining of the liminality of pregnancy and a prenate, provides us some insights. Young writes, “In pregnancy, I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends and the world begins.”8 Young writes of the experience of suddenly becoming aware of her body while pregnant, when she is doing things that aren’t particularly embodied experiences—while searching for books in the library, or listening to jazz—she feels the prenate (fetus) move or her belly harden. When pregnant, I also found myself subject to social gaze and comments, and like Young, I sometimes experienced this with frustration or pain, but sometimes with interest and pleasure.9 Young writes of the physicality of the interaction between self and society, but I wonder if we can apply this thinking to the moral interaction. In other words, I suggest that there is a way for us to understand the interaction between the moral good of the community and a woman’s reproductive choices in the same way. Sometimes a community’s sense of moral good will be experienced by women as frustration or pain, and sometimes with interest and pleasure. At its best, communal interest in pronatalism can lead to support for parental leave policies or investment in good and affordable day care options. The danger, of course, is what we see today in the Jewish community where women are encouraged to reproduce (the act is often framed as a religious obligation) but Jewish organizations lack sufficient parental leave policies, and daycare options are expensive. The challenge for thinking about pronatalism as both an individual right that one can refuse and a communal responsibility, as something that, when done ethically, results from the interaction between self and society, is to create frameworks that trust and support women’s reproductive choices and that trust the community to grow in ways that don’t overburden women. In this way, Peters’s lessons about the communal stance regarding reproductive justice speak directly to the correctives needed in the Jewish community’s approach to pronatalism.
Ronit Irshai, Fertility and Jewish Law: Feminist Perspectives on Orthodox Responsa Literature (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2012).↩
Peters argues that Christian ethics should make a similar distinction between a fetus and the birth of a baby as the point of a “changed moral status” (162).↩
Marla Brettschneider, “Jewish Feminism, Sexuality, and a Sexual Justice Agenda,” in New Jewish Feminism, edited by Elyse Goldstein (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2009); Rebecca Steinfeld, “War of the Wombs: Struggles over Abortion Policies in Israel,” Israel Studies 20.2 (2015).↩
Nitza Berkovitch, “Motherhood as a National Mission: The Construction of Womanhood in the Legal Discourse in Israel,” Women’s Studies International Forum 20.5/6 (1997) 605–19.↩
Meira Weiss, The Chosen Body: The Politics of the Body in Israeli Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 2.↩
Susan Martha Kahn, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 3.↩
Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).↩
Iris Young, “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 9.1 (1984) 49.↩
Young, “Pregnant Embodiment,” 51.↩
Training Progressives to Trust (Black) Women
An Argument for Becoming an Ally
Peters’s text offers a poignant discussion of why believing women is a necessary step to moving beyond the divisive political and religious rationales for being pro-choice or pro-life. Her work illuminates the space for common ground when we take women’s agency and embodiment as a moral starting point. Reading Trust Women as a womanist sexual ethicist who is deeply influenced by the reproductive justice framework, I am drawn to the ways that the text serves as a signal to the importance of allyship. Thus, in my review of the text, I want to highlight the book’s discussion of reproductive justice, bringing in thoughts about appropriation, and conclude with lessons that white Christian progressives can learn from black Christian progressives already advocating some of the principles of the reproductive justice framework.
First, I applaud Dr. Peters’s turn to a reproductive justice framework as a means to explore her concerns beyond abortion access. While to be clear the bulk of the book is setting up an argument that explores how/why the justification framework for abortion is faulty the decision to present the “better way” as reproductive justice is a bold move. I too was enveloped by the reproductive justice during the 2004 March for Women’s Lives as I traveled from Tennessee wildly confused as to how so many of my fellow marchers only saw the march as centered around abortion. I spent quite a bit of time the morning of the march finding signs that I felt comfortable holding with me eventually ending with reproductive justice signs (albeit without a clear theoretical understanding of all the term encompassed). This moving, life-altering march surrounded me with the many faces of feminism as well as the many agendas.
This cognitive dissonance I experienced as a woman of color spurred me to ask questions about feminist activism and the ways in which women of color are kept “outside” the movement resulting in a stagnant feminist agenda. This is especially true in regards to the reproductive rights movement because this movement speaks for a large number of women that it has not learned to speak with. Sadly, many fault lines occur with contemporary organizations that seek to adopt reproductive justice language/branding without doing the work that is crucial for the claim. This is not the work of an ally, so I must admit as a woman of color my antenna went up when I saw that the book’s subtitle was A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. Gratefully, I know and respect Dr. Peters’s work and her character so I would not just dismiss her use of the term. Yet, I would like to push Dr. Peters a bit about how she fleshes out the concept of reproductive justice because part of the work of being an ally is to show up not just in solidarity but also in praxis.
My framing for inquiry of Dr. Peters’s assertions comes from the Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon archives, which I find apropos to remember Dr. Cannon after her recent passing. In her 1993 article entitled “Appropriation and Reciprocity in the Doing of Womanist Ethics” for the Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Dr. Cannon presents the courageous question regarding the connection of womanism to feminism “Can there be appropriation without intellectual dominance?”1 To be clear this wonderful essay that I highly recommend is pondering whether there can be reciprocity among womanist and feminist scholars, but I think her question is a worthy mirror to hold up to Dr. Peters’s work. Can Dr. Peters’s heralding of reproductive justice work alongside and not over reproductive justice activists and scholars already working in the field?
I think it can and does as long as the author tells the story and situates the founding of reproductive justice with the lived experiences of black women. The founding mothers of reproductive justice brought perspectives from social justice, religious, and policy arenas as they linked reproductive rights to social justice issues impacting the lives of black people and people of color. SisterSong, a reproductive health agency, notes that reproductive justice places reproductive health concerns into the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families, and communities. Thus, in essence reproductive justice is an expansion of intersectionality theorizing developed by women of color that is grounded in a human rights framework applicable to everyone. Ultimately, this leads to a conversation centered around a host of things like religion, money, environment, language, race, gender, sexuality, laws, incarceration, etc. In this regard Dr. Peters is right in grounding her analysis with the perspective of SisterSong founder Loretta Ross, who states that reproductive justice is open code that others can use as long as they don’t change the basic code.2
However, this grounding is also a space for criticism because the moral vision that Dr. Peters contends will create a better public conversation is cast as some futuristic possibility as she provides too few contemporary examples. To be fair this section is the conclusion of the book so perhaps there was not space to further elaborate but she did choose to subtitle the book as an argument for reproductive justice and asserts that the principles of reproductive justice form the theoretical foundation of her analysis so it was striking to not see her delve more into concrete reality. While her book takes the important first step of being an ally which is to follow those who are already doing the work; this often means taking a secondary step—showing up with the privilege of her words and using them to stand up for women.3 Thus, the book points to the revolutionary transformation that can happen when allies join causes for social change, and it is to the concrete realities of black women’s organizing that the book eludes to without further exploring. I guess that’s the point of any scholarship, to start a conversation, and so I join the conversation with Dr. Peters to present a few examples.
The first example I would point Peters to further investigate is the synergy between the Black Lives Matter and Reproductive Justice campaigns. Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza acknowledges that both groups are advocating for the “right for women to be able to determine when and how and where they want to start families but it is also very much about [the] right to raise families, to be able to raise children to become adults.”4 The Black Lives Matter movement’s similarity to the reproductive justice movement has a goal of affirming black life, promoting the dignity and autonomy of black bodies, and seeking to dismantle the systems that harm and oppress black communities. It is in this framework that I have observed some progressive religious activists organizing for the fullness of black life through means that discuss more than just abortion access.
Another such example is Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of the Christ the King United Church of Christ (a church outside of Ferguson, MO). While her activism after the death of Mike Brown has gained attention she continued her activism both in and outside of Ferguson through the social media hashtag #prayingwithourfeet as she has journeyed to Washington, DC, protest the repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act. Believing in God’s image being manifested in all of life meant that as religious activists they needed to be concerned with the racial and economic realities of black people not just whether or not a fetus reached full term.
While the “I am clergy and I had an abortion” campaign last fall tended to highlight the experiences of white clergywomen, black religious activists are doing some of the same advocacy work but within a larger justice-oriented framework. They are purposely moving the discussion beyond conception or the prenate. Here I am specifically thinking of the stellar examples of the work of reproductive justice founder Toni Bond Leonard and reproductive justice advocate Charity Woods. Both of these women are doing the daily work using an intersectional framework that solidly is informed by and integrates religion into its analysis and organizing. Their work is most readily important as examples that demonstrate the difference between what the Trust Women Foundation (a reproductive rights organization) is producing and what Trust Black Women organizations (that are reproductive justice–oriented like the Afiya Center in Dallas, TX) are creating. Thankfully, Dr. Peters is aware that the reproductive justice framework is not a sexy catchphrase that you just add in to make your work the newest, most edgy option on the shelf. I appreciate her desire to be an ally, to work alongside women of color and to help white progressive religious communities do the same.
Katie Geneva Cannon, “Appropriation and Reciprocity in the Doing of Womanist Ethics,” Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, January 1993, 192.↩
Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice (Boston: Beacon, 2018), 8.↩
“Our Guide to Being an Ally,” Women of Color for Progress, https://www.womenofcolorforprogress.org/allyguide/ (accessed December 3, 2018).↩
Kenrya Rankin, “Black Lives Matter Partners with Reproductive Justice Groups to Fight for Black Women,” ColorLines, February 9, 2016, http://www.colorlines.com/articles/black-lives-matter-partners-reproductive-justice-groups-fight-black-women. See also https://trustblackwomen.org/solidarity-statement/.↩
4.3.19 | Toni Bond
The Moral Wisdom of Women
From Justification to Reproductive Justice
Former slave, abolitionist, and women’s and civil rights activist Sojourner Truth aptly called the question in her 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech where she offered a theological interpretation of the conception of Jesus Christ. Truth did not merely challenge the unfairness of the inequalities between the genders, she also put forth a bold exegesis of the conception of Jesus—man’s sperm was not part of the equation. Jesus came from God and a woman. Truth’s exposition of the conception of Jesus then begs the question, if man made no direct contribution to the corporeal existence of Jesus, what right does he have to interrogate a woman’s moral wisdom about her reproductive autonomy?
Rebecca Todd Peters’s Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice (Boston: Beacon, 2018) is a valiant effort to apply the reproductive justice theory and framework to the abortion debate. Abortion is the single aspect of a woman’s reproductive health that causes the greatest controversy. The ability to stand at the intersection of conceiving, carrying, and bringing forth life and at the same time, the ability to determine that an entity will not come forth and manifest into a life has become one of the most contentious parts of a woman’s reproductive capacity. Peters not only challenges the pronatalist stance in the United States, that a woman’s uterus was designed merely to be host to a fetus, she audaciously interrogates the notion that women must justify their reproductive decisions through explanation. Peters argues that the requirement that a woman must offer an adequate explanation to justify her decision to have an abortion is both flawed and rooted in a history of misogyny and Western Christianity.
Peters rightly highlights the fact that there is a prevailing cultural expectation that women will fulfill the duty created by patriarchal society to bear children as part of their ontological existence, simply because they were created with the anatomical parts to reproduce—ovaries and a uterus. The prevailing assumption of a reproductive obligation of women to bear children is more reflective of historical patriarchal efforts to wield political and social control over women’s bodies rather than the realization of some moral good to bring human life into existence. From the forced breeding of enslaved women and efforts to protect the purity of White women while promoting their fertility to populate the White race to the American Medical Association’s crusade to criminalize abortion, Peters provides a thorough examination of the historical origins of patriarchal control over women’s reproductive capabilities. Peters accurately links patriarchy and misogyny to the political ideology of White supremacy in her analysis as she relates the historical reproductive oppression of women, especially women of color.
Trust Women is the first scholarly effort to formally apply the reproductive justice framework and theory to the abortion debate. A term coined in Chicago in 1994 by twelve black women, reproductive justice was created to center the lived experiences of Black women around issues of reproductive and sexual health. The framework is grounded in Black feminist theory and human rights. Despite what most would call a secular grounding, a dialectical relationship between religion and human rights can be found within the reproductive justice framework. Central to reproductive justice theory is the universal human right to dignity, self-determination, and autonomy. In much the same way that liberation theology situates the poor and dispossessed, reproductive justice centers the people whose liberty has been violated and whose social and economic well-being has been deliberately ignored. Reproductive justice seeks to liberate and emancipate vulnerable populations from all forms of reproductive and sexual oppression.
The difficulty Peters runs into in applying reproductive justice theory to her argument is that her analysis is centered around a microcosm of the reproductive justice framework. Peters is attempting to put forth a progressive Christian argument for reproductive justice, but her lens is squarely focused on abortion. The reproductive justice framework challenges us to expand our analysis beyond abortion to be inclusive of the myriad other issues that preclude women from achieving reproductive and sexual autonomy. Yet, Peters is right that we need a reproductive justice analysis of the abortion debate. Peters has successfully constructed a progressive Christian argument in support of the moral good of abortion, using reproductive justice theory.
Peters skillfully pinpoints and resolves two important dilemmas in describing the state of pregnancy and abortion that activists on both sides of the debate (pro-choice and pro-life) have been unable to successfully elucidate. First, she has brilliantly adapted the term “prenate” to describe the entity that develops within the uterus of a pregnant woman (4). Both the pro-choice and pro-life movements have grappled with an appropriate way to describe the entity that a woman’s body hosts when she becomes pregnant. As Peters notes, impersonal clinical or scientific terms like embryo, fertilized egg, or fetus are used to describe the entity growing within a woman’s uterus (5). These terms are often used by pro-choice advocates who are in a continuous legislative battle to stave off conservative efforts to assign personhood rights, from the moment of conception, to the entity a woman is carrying. Conversely, in an effort to assign personhood and moral status, supporters in the pro-life movement frequently refer to the entity as an unborn life or baby and use words like “mother,” “expectant mom,” or “expecting” to refer to a woman who is pregnant. Peters, however, puts forth an ingenuous way of describing the entity the woman is carrying. Prenate acknowledges that the entity has the possibility of becoming and at the same time, has not taken shape to develop into what can be identified as a human that can breathe independently or that has identifiable, distinguishable bodily features.
The next dilemma Peters resolves is a description of the time during which a woman is hosting the prenate within her body. Peters uses the concept of liminality to describe this state. It is that period during which the prenate exists as an entity but is “between worlds,” and “on the threshold of becoming” (157). Expanding her argument, Peters draws upon the scholarship of philosopher Ann Cahill and her exposition of how the ontological experience of pregnancy transforms the woman’s body (157). Cahill argues that the moment a woman becomes aware of her pregnancy, “whether that pregnancy is sought after or not—her embodied subjectivity becomes enmeshed with the fact of the embryo/fetus’s existence.”1 The pregnancy then becomes an embodied experience that forever transforms the woman’s identity because she will never be someone who is “‘nulligravida’ or someone who has never been pregnant” (157). It is the ontological experience of becoming, of becoming pregnant that changes the woman’s identity, not whether she carries the pregnancy to term.
Herein lies the golden nugget in Peters’s argument. Drawing upon Cahill, the woman stands at the intersection of continuing the relationship with the prenate by remaining pregnant and allowing the prenate to utilize her body to progress into the process of becoming or she can decide to sever her relationship with the prenate by terminating the pregnancy. Accordingly, Peters has constructed an argument that supports a woman intervening in the physical relationship she holds with the prenate because the pregnancy is itself, a state of liminality. Integral to the process of the prenate becoming, is the need to utilize the woman’s body as the vehicle through which it arrives into ontological existence. Thus, the woman is presented with the moral authority to make an important decision of whether to allow her body to serve as the host for this entity that has the possibility of becoming or intervening to disunite herself from the physical relationship with the prenate and stopping the entity from passing through the womb into the world, completing its becoming.
Peters posits that abortion disrupts the culture of shame and blame associated with abortion. However, I would offer that the genius of her argument lies in her conceptualization of the liminal state of both the prenate and pregnancy, which affords the woman a period during which she can determine whether motherhood or abortion is the moral good. Accordingly, it is the liminality of the prenate and the pregnancy and the moral authority that the woman retains during that state of liminality, which disrupts the culture of shame and blame that has become associated with abortion.
Peters offers a granular approach to the abortion discourse using the application of the reproductive justice lens, leaning heavily upon the human rights aspect of the framework. At the same time, all the granular parts of the reproductive justice framework are relevant and interconnected. Reproductive justice is a framework created as a pathway to achieving human rights. Thus, drawing upon the human rights aspect of reproductive justice provides us with the threads of liberation and emancipation that are at the intersection of religion and reproductive justice. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Black feminist theory is coexistent with the human rights aspect of the reproductive justice framework. It is this fundamental component of reproductive justice theory that provides us with the concept of intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor, civil rights advocate, and scholar of critical race theory. Within the context of reproductive justice, intersectionality describes how interlocking forms of oppressions (race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.) function simultaneously and contribute to the reproductive and sexual oppression of all of humanity.2
It is the confluence of human rights and Black feminist theory that undergirds reproductive justice theory. Both aspects of the framework are vital, even when applying the framework to the microscopic discussion of abortion because it ensures that we fold into the conversation numerous topics like access to contraceptive, reproductive and sexual health education, sexual and domestic violence, maternal mortality, lack of access to safe abortion owing to a paucity of financial resources, the dwindling number of clinics across the country, the continued need for trained providers, and increasing access to other ways for women to obtain abortions should the landmark decision Roe v. Wade be overturned.
Across the issue of abortion access lies the blanket of racism and economic discrimination that puts abortion out of the grasp of predominantly economically disenfranchised women who are disproportionately women of color, oftentimes forcing them to receive abortions later in their pregnancy. A deepened reproductive justice analysis also requires a critique of the medical profession that has intentionally excluded the reproductive epistemology of lay professionals like Black and Native and Indigenous midwives and doulas who have expertly helped women of color deliver their babies and have safe abortions.
Peters’s book is a much-needed micro-analysis of an aspect of reproductive justice—abortion justification and the associated shaming and blaming that occurs when satisfactory explanation for a woman’s decision is deemed insufficient. Her pointed focus on abortion, applying a reproductive justice lens, embodies the spirit of reproductive justice and provides a solid argument in support of abortion as moral good.
Cahill, “Miscarriage and Intercorporeality,” Journal of Social Philosophy 46.1 (2015) 53.↩
Loretta J. Ross, “Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist Activism,” Souls 19.3 (2017) 287.↩
4.3.19 | Rebecca Todd Peters
Gratitude to Cari Jackson, Response to Toni Bond
Given the origins of this symposium as a book panel at the American Academy of Religion meeting in 2018, they very much reflect a dialogical tone between a group of scholars who care very deeply about women’s reproductive lives and health and justice in the world. It is a real pleasure to be able to expand that original panel through the inclusion of Toni Bond in the conversation and to be able to invite readers to join us in this dialogue.
After decades of stagnant and unproductive conversations about abortion in this country, it is exciting to be part of moving the conversation forward in new and productive ways. The diversity of voices and perspectives represented here have helped push me to think deeper and harder about the ideas I put forward in Trust Women. It is good to push the boundaries of an idea as we seek to find the elasticity of an argument as well as the places where it may need to be shored up or even rethought.
As a feminist, Christian social ethicist, my methodological orientation in this project included deep social analysis informed by feminist theory and philosophy as well as sociology and public health. Methodologically, I am also committed to grounding my work in listening to the voices of people who are most impacted by the experiences of social injustice that I am engaging, in this case, it was the experiences of women who have decided to end their pregnancies.
By making my starting point for thinking about the social issue of abortion listening to the experiences of women, I chose to begin my theological reflection and my social analysis from the perspective of the most maligned, the most targeted, and the most abused people impacted by the issue of abortion. When I listened to the stories of women who terminated wanted pregnancies in the interviews I did; when I heard the struggles of poor women, young women, and women of color in the social scientific literature I read; when I paid attention to black women’s critical assessment of liberal arguments of choice and rights in the RJ movement—my understanding of the social problem shifted and my theological imagination was activated.
The RJ frame offers us a whole new way of shaping a more just, thoughtful, and compassionate approach to supporting the lives of women and the families and communities in which they live. My scholarly and personal commitment to reciprocity and respect for the origins and commitments of the reproductive justice movement requires that I always acknowledge and work to support and partner with women of color and their organizations that are working toward the health and support of communities of color.
There is still much work that needs to be done to cover a host of issues that my one book could not attend to and the dialogue represented here reflects some aspects of the work that remains to be done. The tone and voice in these pieces reflect an ongoing set of conversations and we are excited to invite readers to jump in and think with us through these issues.
To have one’s work read deeply, carefully, and critically is the goal of scholarship and I am honored by the occasion of this symposium and by the gift of time and talents offered by my colleagues in pushing conversations about abortion and reproductive justice deeper together through dialogue. For this, I offer my deepest gratitude.
Response to Toni Bond
It is fitting to begin this forum on my book with a response from Toni M. Bond, who is one of the founding mothers of the RJ movement and an emerging scholar in the field of reproductive justice and theology/ethics. While her professional skills as an academic are being honed through her doctoral work at Claremont School of Theology, her analysis and intellectual insight have been developing over decades and have been deeply formed through her twenty years of experience as a reproductive justice activist. As bell hooks reminds us, important intellectual work and theorizing has never been the exclusive purview of the academy even as patriarchal forces have sought to contain and constrain definitions of authority and knowledge to the ivory towers of the academy.
Bond’s response is also an appropriate start to this forum because she offers a careful and incisive analysis of the contributions and limitations of my argument. She generously outlines how she sees my work naming and resolving two dilemmas that have plagued the modern abortion debate, both related to the impoverishment of our language to adequately discuss the physical and ontological realities of pregnancy.
I am delighted that Toni and others are finding my offering of the term “prenate” to be a useful contribution to the debate. Early in my work on this project it became painfully clear to me that our existing language was one of the root causes of our inability to have meaningful dialogue about the issue of abortion. Our current options are either too clinical (e.g., zygote, embryo, fetus) or too emotional (e.g., pre-born, unborn child, baby). These words are not only awkward and politically charged when used in the context of pregnancy and abortion, they do not adequately represent the complexity of pregnancy, prenatal development, or the moral and physiological distinctions between growth inside the womb and life outside the womb. Existing language also does not allow us the freedom to discuss our moral questions in a morally unbiased way.
While I struggled for months to coin new words or to find words in other languages that might convey the complexity that we need, when I finally hit upon “prenate,” it just seemed to work. While I was writing the book, I used the word around my youngest when she was about ten and I was puzzling out this problem. When she heard the word, she said “What’s that? I know ‘pre’ means before, what’s ‘nate’ mean?” I explained to her that it comes from the root word “natal” meaning “birth” and she said, “O, before-birth—that makes sense.”
While neologism’s can be awkward and difficult to ease into our vernacular, I have been delighted by the number of people who have commented that while they found it awkward at the beginning of the book, by the end they found it flowing off the tongue. Given the important role that language plays in shaping how we think about ideas and topics, I do hope that a shift in language toward the incorporation of “prenate” into our vocabulary can help us in the abortion debate, but I think that its usefulness may be even broader.
Recognizing and marking the difference between prenatal life and a baby can also help highlight that while there is continuity between the potential life developing in the womb and a baby that is born, these two forms of “life” are also distinct. Though both a prenate and an infant are dependent, the nature of this dependency is different. A prenate’s dependency is absolute and exclusive. It is linked to a single human body, the body of the pregnant woman. After birth, while an infant is still dependent on others to meet its needs for many years, these needs can be met by a variety of people and its dependency is not contingent upon the physical lifeblood and body of a particular human being.
This experience of the sui generis nature of pregnancy and my discussion of it as a period of liminality is what Toni highlights as the second dilemma that I resolve in my book. While I deeply appreciate Toni’s assessment of my argument, it was her own discussion of this second dilemma that offered me deeper insight into my discussion of pregnancy, liminality, and childbearing as moral choice. Toni’s discussion of the liminality of pregnancy and prenatal development as marking a period “during which [the pregnant woman] can determine whether motherhood or abortion is the moral good” goes even farther in pushing my analysis than I did in the book. While I argue that abortion can be a moral good, I have struggled with how to think about what criteria help to establish when abortion is a moral good and when it might not be a moral good. This, too, is a question that a number of people (including philosopher Ann Cahill) have challenged me to clarify. I think Toni’s argument offers the clarification I sought.
Because childbearing is such a significant moral commitment and parenthood such a sacred trust, it is only the individual woman, in the context of her family and community, who is able to determine whether motherhood or abortion is the moral good. In this scenario, the goodness resides not in determining whether ending a pregnancy is good or bad but in a pregnant woman determining the rightness of wrongness of bearing a child at that moment in her life.
Allowing the moral decision to rest with the pregnant woman and trusting her to make the morally correct decision does not abrogate my call for a revised moral conversation that attends to the potential value and moral significance that pregnancy represents. In fact, despite the cultural trope that pregnant women who have abortions do so carelessly—social scientific research indicates that women making decisions to end their pregnancies do so with great thought and attention to the realities that constrain them from welcoming a child or another child (remember that 60 percent of women who have abortions already have at least one child) into their lives at that moment.
It is past time to look to women who have had abortions for deeper moral insight into how to think about the seriousness of motherhood.