Prolife leaders trying to convince the world that they are actually pro-woman have failed to convince even their own followers.
For years now, the professional class of abortion foes has been working to polish the Prolife brand, claiming that they are not mere fetal fetishists but actually protectors of women, who are being exploited by profit-hungry abortion doctors. They bolster their pro-woman positioning with false claims that abortion causes cancer (it doesn’t), or sterility (it doesn’t), or death (it’s a hundred times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term), or that women regret their abortions and suffer depression (as with any major life decision, some do; but most experience relief).
Even ignoring the disinformation, just beneath the thin layer of chivalry lies a toxic stew of religion, sexism, and judgmental certitude. Religious right politicians seeking to regulate abortion out of existence with bogus safety laws may have memorized their lines, but rank-and-file believers keep saying what they really think.
The Comment Thread Conundrum
Like most writers, I send articles to a variety of outlets, but I also cross-post to my own website, where religious conservatives and abortion foes not infrequently send me an unedited earful. (Do the people ranting or even making threats not realize that I have editorial control at my own site?) I don’t always publish such comments, but I do keep them, in part because they so clearly illustrate the dark underbelly of religious conservatism and its obsession with controlling sex and reproduction.
Consider a few of the recent tidbits:
- “These clinics are greedy and if a woman leaves there is no profit for them. Most of these women could meet a mother that desperately wants a child and would provide their baby with a great life, but these women are too self-absorbed to care about that. These women don’t want anyone knowing they were pregnant and gave their baby up, they would rather murder their child to save face.”
- “Sorry but nothing justifies abortion that’s why god condemns premarital sex in the first place because of its consequences if everybody obeyed gods rules instead of doing what they want there would not be any unwanted pregnancies or children being born out of wedlock or any other things I doubt that the majority of abortions are of women use birth control and the birth control failed that’s why the bible says that are going to see good as something bad and the bad as something good that’s why the world is so messed up today because the wicked one is misleading the entire earth.”
- “You are nothing but a wicked woman who loves to murder babies. You are a Satanist, a Devil worshipper. I pray for you to trust in Jesus and be saved, Valerie. I pity you because you will one day face a HOLY GOD named the LORD JESUS CHRIST who created those babies and those children who you advocate for the mass murder of. To support abortion, aka, baby slaughter, baby murder, is to be complicit in it. God can forgive you if you will trust in His eternal Son the Lord Jesus Christ and His shed blood atonement alone, Valerie.”
- “Abortion should be illegal and the participants charged with murder and punished.”
- “Shooting an abortionist is as “wrong” as shooting a sniper on the roof of a school, you do what you have to do to save the lives of children, both born and unborn.”
Once Set in Motion . . . .
Prolife™ leaders may cringe and seek to distance themselves from comments like these, or from the prayer circles and rosaries and gauntlet of hell-threats outside of abortion clinics—or worse, from stochastic terrorism like the murders at Colorado’s Planned Parenthood. But ordinary Evangelicals and conservative Catholics really can’t be blamed for their difficulty in getting the branding right.
Many have been taught from childhood that every fetus is a teeny weeny baby, and that God values each from the moment of conception. Scientifically or statistically this may be implausible, but it’s black and white, beyond question like other points of theology. Some abortion opponents—most—retain an intuitive sense that the difference between an embryo and a child is morally consequential. But others simply follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion: An abortion provider is a sniper on a school roof. A woman aborting a pregnancy might as well be drowning her preschooler in a bathtub. The only possible explanation is that those who disagree lack morals or are in the thrall of Satan.
The Fruit of the Prolife Spirit
One of the New Testament writers made the mistake of saying that Christians would be known by their “fruit,” meaning their actions and the consequences of those actions. If this is the case, the motives and morality of ProLifeTM Christians are laid bare not only by their own ugly words and behavior but by the fruit of their relentless, obsessive campaign to obstruct abortion access while simultaneously denying prospective parents the information and contraceptives needed to time their pregnancies. Pro-woman? Guess again.
- Over 200 women in the U.S.—and over 200,000 globally—dead each year from an unsought pregnancy.
- Millions more with permanent changes to health or mental health.
- Pregnant teens and young women forced to drop out of school, floundering for years or decades instead of flourishing.
- Fragile families locked into deeper poverty by mistimed and unwanted fertility.
Underlying all of this is the foundational assumption that women don’t know what is best for them and their families, can’t know what is best, can’t be trusted as autonomous moral agents—which is why God put men in charge. Women were made for childbearing. The Bible says so!
Not Gender Justice, Not Social Justice
If there’s one thing that can be said for the ancient texts gathered in the Bible, it is that many of them have a strong social justice message. Prolife leaders, recognizing this, often claim that they are advocating justice for the most vulnerable members of society, which includes children and racial minorities as well as women. They relentlessly link abortion with genocide or with the misguided eugenics push of the early 20th Century, proclaiming for example that Black babies are in particular danger of being aborted. (Poor Black women do abort somewhat more than white women but also carry more pregnancies forward because of a higher rate of pregnancy.)
In reality, families living at the hardscrabble edges of life are those most negatively affected by the Religious Right’s obstruction of family planning services.
I was in Singapore when my husband and I discovered that my first trimester pregnancy was infected with Toxoplasmosis. The consequences can be much like Zika, so we decided to abort and start over; and we received supportive, competent abortion care from a Singaporean doctor trained in Canada. Had timely care not been available in Singapore, we could have gone wherever we needed. Our privileged reality is inconceivable for most couples or women facing an ill-timed or unhealthy pregnancy.
Abortions have always been more available to upper and middle class couples than families struggling to get by. Knowing that they can’t control women of means, the Religious Right has doubled down on poor women who rely on public healthcare services, denying them insurance coverage and forcing on them long distance travel and childcare costs that [abortion foes hope will] become insurmountable barriers. In the Pacific Northwest, poor women in need of abortion turn to complete strangers for financial support via a program known as the CAIR Project, one of several “underground railroads” providing housing, transportation and funding for women in need.
Nationally, advocates for poor women and families are fighting through the coordinated campaign All* Above All to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which for 40 years has stripped abortion coverage out of Medicaid. Women of color—long denied the full right to manage their own fertility and disproportionately impacted by this restriction—are taking the lead.
Pro Woman, Pro Family, Pro Child
Not all women and men want children, but for all of us decisions about parenthood are among the most important and life-shaping choices we will ever make.
As parents, we all want to stack the odds in favor of our children flourishing. Those who can, seek prenatal and pediatric care, and provide nutritious food, and read stories, and help with homework, and get up bleary-eyed and go to work, and sock away a little financial buffer. Even men and women whose lives are destitute or desperate, or who are plagued with illness or mental illness, want what is best for their kids.
Religious rhetoric aside, we all know that parenting begins before conception, not at some magical moment when a sperm penetrates an egg. We know that the timing and circumstances of birth can shape the course of a child’s life. Mindful of our own limits, most of us try to time and limit our pregnancies, and we sometimes end them, so that we can bring our kids into the world under the best possible conditions available to us, with enough bounty to thrive.
Real pro-life passion is more than just lipstick on a pig in a clerical collar. It means thinking about what makes life so precious to all of us, regardless of our religion or circumstances. It means doing what we can to create genuine reproductive empowerment so that perhaps, someday, all children will come into loving families who are ready to welcome them with open arms.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of http://www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.