When Donald Trump appointed three new and extremely conservative justices to the US Supreme Court he was making more than a presidential decision. It was a statement, a roar, against what he saw as a liberal establishment intent on bringing him down. In fact, it was democracy and common sense that booted the hideous narcissist from power, but his court appointees will stand for decades to come.
Which is precisely why the court has been hearing oral arguments about abortion, based on a case that would never have been considered just a few years ago. Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization concerns a Mississippi law banning abortion at 15 weeks. Under Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established a woman’s right to abortion in the US, and the less well-known Planned Parenthood of south-eastern Pennsylvania vs Casey, the Mississippi law is unconstitutional. Yet while the Dobbs decision won’t be known for several months, it now seems possible – even probable – that the six conservative justices on the nine-person court will reverse Roe. Such a decision would trash decades of struggle and reform.
It’s the result of intense and long-term activism from Christian conservatives. Though the majority of Americans believe the issue to be closed, the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christians believe that abortion is the taking of unborn life. Many increasingly speak of “murder”, and make comparisons with the Holocaust.
In fact, abortion rates have been shown to decline if contraceptives are freely available, sex education provided in schools, public daycare guaranteed, healthcare socialised and paid maternity leave extended. Yet most on the Christian right oppose all of these policies, making it difficult not to conclude that they’re more interested in controlling women than protecting what they define as life.
That definition, however, is not rooted in Christianity. The Christian position, and that of all of the Abrahamic faiths, has traditionally and historically been that life begins with the first breath. The abortion obsession – and it has become a virtual litmus test for one’s faith within right-wing churches – is a recent phenomenon. As for scripture, it’s vague at best and at one point even demands abortion. That’s in the Book of Numbers, where if a husband thinks that his wife is pregnant due to a relationship with another man, she is to drink an abortion-inducing poison.
In Exodus we’re told that, “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” So, a miscarriage caused by violence leads to a fine but if there is harm to the woman, or if she dies, the wrongdoer could be executed. The life of the mother is considered to have far greater value than that of the foetus.
Anti-abortionists, strangely enough, ignore these texts. They instead point to the sin of murder reference in Genesis. But the Hebrew used in Genesis refers to adults – not unborn children. They counter with Psalm 139: “For it was you who formed my inward parts/you knit me together in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from you,/when I was being made in secret,/intricately woven in the depths of the earth./Your eyes beheld my unformed substance./In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”
It’s poetic but has nothing to do with the scientific definition of life’s beginning. The style of the Old Testament is often hyperbolic and metaphorical, and this passage is about God’s omnipotence, the deity’s intimate knowledge of all creatures. Jeremiah uses similar wording: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” But, again, consider what is being emphasised here. A “prophet to the nations” is not like other people, but chosen specifically by God for a holy purpose. The language describes the uniqueness of God’s prophet, not foetal development.
Jeremiah also happens to write: “Cursed be the day, the day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed… Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?”
The New Testament story usually quoted by those opposing abortion concerns Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, meeting Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s gospel reads: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Lyrical but hardly pertinent. Nobody disputes that there is movement in the womb and, as with Jeremiah, the phrasing is used because of the significance of who is being described.
There really is little else about the issue in more than 700,000 words of the Bible.
But there are myriad calls for justice, equality, solidarity with the poor and marginalised, welcoming the stranger, and transforming the world in a permanent revolution of love. These are the genuine Christian issues, as is the fact that if Roe vs Wade is overturned many women in the US, particularly the poor, will lose their dignity, jobs, health and even lives.
As Joan Chittister famously said in an interview in 2004, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
Sister Joan, by the way, is a Roman Catholic nun.