As a Catholic I have to reject a lot of hypocrisy. And frustratingly, a lot of this has to do with choices I make about my own life and body and whether or not I — a woman with a PhD in a field related to human health — should allow random unknown men without any background in even basic physiology dictate life and death choices for me. According to such men the Bible says I should be willing to die in pregnancy or childbirth even if the foetus is not viable. According to these men, my life and the entirety of my experiences, the attachment and love my family and friends bear for me is not worth a collection of cells and upon miscarriage (something about one in four women experience) my life is forfeit.
But the Bible doesn’t actually say anything about abortion. What it does say is:
If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life. — Exodus 21:22–23
The interpretation of this passage which has stood in both Christian and Rabbinic tradition is that “and she gives birth prematurely” includes or means miscarriage, and the life in question is that of the woman. That means if the WOMAN is killed or seriously injured then the person who murdered her must die. It does not mean that if she miscarries or the child is stillborn that anyone should be executed. Even less does it mean she herself should be punished.
Literally, and I’m using that word correctly, there is no Biblical or Talmudic proscription against abortion. There’s a few passages reinforcing the rights of women, but there’s nothing saying that if a woman ends her pregnancy that’s bad. It’s just not a thing. And in fact I get the impression that Jewish tradition still understands this but it was only very recently that Catholic tradition decided it wasn’t okay.
Until about the 19th century there was an idea in the Catholic tradition that when the foetus started kicking and moving around it could possibly maybe perhaps be considered a human life, but probably not until birth and definitely not before the “quickening.” There’s periods (no pun intended) where some popes thought differently, but really until about 1869 Catholics were not so hard-line about abortion.
And this brings us to my point. We’re talking about the wrong thing.
If a foetus’ life begins at conception, then when does its mother’s?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the Bible says or what Rabbinic tradition imparts because this isn’t a religious issue and never has been. Unless your religion explicitly says that women have no souls and are not sentient beings then this is a women’s health issue rather than a religious one. (And frankly, if your religion does hold that as one of its tenets you’re not so much in a religion as a cultish terrorist movement so … yeah, don’t do that.)
One of the best ways to conceptualize this is asking yourself honestly why a woman would want an abortion. And the answers are going to have a pretty wide range. In some rare cases it may be something like, “this was a mistake, I did not know I was pregnant and I didn’t mean to get pregnant. I’m not ready/cannot afford a baby right now.” And while you may not personally approve of that answer you don’t get to decide for other people. Sure such a woman or girl as the case may be could put that baby up for adoption after birth, but she would have to go through nine whole months of her life where she may be barfing every morning, she might not be able to work or go to school, there might be social implications, she won’t be able to eat or drink whatever she wants, and she’s going to have discomfort from time to time. And this assuming she has a perfectly healthy dream pregnancy. It’s not fair to tell women they have to give up nine months of their life because their birth control failed. Do you sentence men to nine months of prison if you catch them masturbating? No, that would be weird. So don’t do it to women.
More typically though women getting abortions are doing so for far more serious reasons even than “I really can’t give up nine months of work right now if I expect to stay in my home.” Pregnancy can be pretty dangerous and there are things like ectopic pregnancies or life threatening illnesses. There are pregnancies that if they go forward will not only result in the death of the foetus but will render the mother sterile. And if a woman has a disease like cancer where treatment is pretty brutal she cannot be pregnant for it. Women with cancer in countries which do not allow abortion have to either lie about their menstrual cycles to continue their treatment or die.
The Bible may not have any proscription against abortion but it does have one against lying so if you actually are a Christian you should really support abortion. Just sayin’.
And the worst part of specifically this issue is that women don’t even have to be pregnant or sexually active to be denied treatment. I personally remained celibate until just before I turned thirty. I know that’s rather late, but there’s a correlation between intelligence and age of first sexual encounter and while that actually statistically means nothing just roll with it. Anyway, I got a pretty nasty injury when I was about 21 and needed an x-ray. The doctor wanted me to take a pregnancy test beforehand. I told him with no small amount of lip that I was not the Holy Mother and therefore it was unlikely that I — a virgin — could be pregnant. He did not believe me. I REALLY don’t like urine samples. It’s one of the big reasons I don’t work with living or recently dead patients so I was not going to take that damn pregnancy test. Finally, I told him that if he really wanted the damn urine he’d have to deal with the menstrual blood that I was fairly certain would wick out because I was actually menstruating at the time. Only then did he back off.
Now, yeah it is possible to have a period or something like a period while pregnant, and it would be pretty hard to get menstrual blood into a urine sample, but … it would be considerably harder for a young woman who hadn’t at that time engaged in any sexual activity consensual or otherwise by that point to be pregnant. And this doctor would not trust my word that I was not pregnant. I told him I wasn’t sexually active. I told him I didn’t drink, I told him I was menstruating at the time, but the only way I could get treatment without taking the test was by threatening to put some of the blood in the urine sample to prove it. I think this guy was just covering his butt legally, but he was willing to turn me away without so much as diagnosing me when I came to him with pain and difficulty breathing because he was afraid I might be pregnant. To him or at least the legal system he feared my life was less important than the theoretical possibility that I might be pregnant.
Anti-abortion groups will claim that abortion causes all of these horrible things. According to them it can cause anything from severe depression to cervical or breast cancer. Some even claim that abortion leads to infertility which is patently false. But ultimately what it really always boils down to is restricting care. Anti-abortion groups call themselves “pro-life” because what they really want is control and power. They do not care about people’s lives or health or children or morality or anything like that. They’ll tell you that abortion is a liberal scam to lower birth rates for minority populations when in fact it is the EXACT OPPOSITE. Abortion bans do negatively impact all women but they are especially draconian for BIPOC women and contribute heavily to the high rate of maternal mortality for specifically Black women.
Additionally, it’s pretty darn simple to lower the rate of abortions particularly “medically unnecessary,” abortions. You just increase access to healthcare. Sorted. But, mysteriously, anti-abortion groups are almost unilaterally against birth control sometimes even including condoms but more typically things like hormonal birth control which a woman can get on her own and control dosage for. Tellingly, they’re also the driving force behind misinformation regarding the HPV vaccine which is known to prevent most cervical cancers. Rush Limbaugh — famous instant karma recipient — defamed and mocked Sandra Fluke and other women with conditions including terminal ovarian cancer that might have been helped with access to hormonal birth control. At least one of these women wanted to be a mother and died for lack of care before she had the opportunity.
So let me state that more simply. Supposedly “pro-life” groups are ensuring that women who want to be mothers die horrifically before they can. What baby was being protected here? The baby she missed out having because she died unnecessarily? That baby?
But the hypocrisy hardly ends at simply denying women their human rights and preventing them from having healthy pregnancies when they want them. Oh no.
Dr. George Tiller is hardly the only victim of violence carried out by the “pro-life” movement, but his assassination is one of the more blatant examples of the hypocrisy and unhinged barbarism endemic within the “pro-life,” mentality. Dr. Tiller’s motto was “Trust Women.” He was one of very few doctors willing to perform late term abortions (which occur late in the second term or early in the third and are performed because the pregnancy is life-threatening.) Before his assassination he had been shot twice, his clinic had been bombed and he had been sent what amounts to innumerable threats. And yet per his oath he carried on providing care to women. On the morning of March 31, 2009 he went to Mass at his Church where he served as an usher and during the service was shot dead in his pew. The murderer fled the scene and it was later discovered that the murderer had discussed “justifiable homicide,” with one Cheryl Sullenger who was then the vice president of “Operation Rescue West,” and a known anti-abortion terrorist who had done time for an attempted bombing. Unsurprisingly, she was attached to the San Diego Republican Party and wrote in favour of yet another anti-abortion terrorist by the name of Paul Jennings Hill who murdered yet another doctor, John Britton and his bodyguard, Lt. Col. James Barrett retd., and injured his wife June Barrett who had apparently dove for cover.
I understand I’m sort of beating a dead horse here, but I really have to emphasize that these people who are saying they are “pro-life,” and “protecting the unborn,” are ensuring women die before becoming mothers, keeping women from accessing healthcare while pregnant, murdering doctors and innocent bystanders, and even doing so while said doctor is attending Church. Make it make sense.
Anti-abortion groups are absolutely not about protecting mothers or babies or anything like that. If they were they’d help women access prenatal care. And they do not. They have “crisis pregnancy centres,” where they’ll pose as medical practitioners and spread misinformation and even pressure women with ectopic pregnancies which could kill them to roll the dice. Anti-abortion groups will picket clinics that do not even offer abortion services and the threat is so serious that when I visited a Planned Parenthood with a friend who needed to make sure that the guy who had sexually assaulted her hadn’t also given her an STI when I went back for something we’d forgotten in the car I nearly couldn’t go back into the waiting room because the receptionist didn’t immediately recognize me.
Accessing pre-natal and reproductive care should not require navigating a gauntlet of screeching protestors waving what look like Halloween horror movie screen-shots and spewing misogynist violent rhetoric and yet for a lot of American women getting healthcare is like going to war.
Too long anti-abortionists have been able to use the term “pro-life,” to describe their cause despite engaging in violent terrorism and homicide and preventing women many of whom want to be mothers from seeking appropriate healthcare.
We are talking about the wrong things.
This is not a question of upholding religious values because if it were the Bible and Rabbinic tradition are clearly pro-woman. This is not a question of protecting the “unborn,” or minority populations because again, if it were access to healthcare would be the best answer. What this is about is hurting and controlling women. Anti-abortionists don’t care when they’ve killed a woman or even a child because despite what they say, it never was about protecting life. It was always about control.
So stop calling it “pro-life,” when it’s clearly just irreligious domestic terrorism.