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.