In 2016, Kaeley McEvoy was a student at New York’s Union Theological Seminary and a ministry intern at Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square. She hadn’t expected to get pregnant; a long-acting contraceptive implant was supposed to have prevented it. But the pink line on the plastic test strip didn’t lie.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the largest church building in the United States. Kaeley and her boyfriend made their way there, to the Chapel of St. Saviour, where hangs a bronze sculpture called Christa: a female nude figure nailed to a cross. They prayed there, this unexpectedly pregnant couple with heads bowed before the Christ that was not Christ; then her boyfriend left her alone and stationed himself at the door. While she called a doctor’s office to arrange an abortion, the boyfriend turned away all would-be intruders: “This is a holy place. Something holy is happening, and you can’t come in here right now.”
This is the story McEvoy has told in the Washington Post and other publications, a story she has retailed in high-profile speaking engagements across the country. Perhaps it really did happen as she says. But it is an extraordinary story, mythic in its scope and import. On sacred ground, a young woman dials a number. On the other end of the line, a messenger brings tidings of great joy: She will have an abortion. This is the Annunciation through the looking glass.
The justification for McEvoy’s abortion emerges nine months later at a dinner party. The host, learning of her terminated pregnancy, says, “You know, we could’ve had a baby at this dinner, and it would have been OK.” McEvoy replies, “But I wouldn’t have wanted that.” Christian opponents of abortion frequently speak of it—especially of abortions like McEvoy’s, for the sake of “what I want”—as a form of child sacrifice, blood murder on the altar of the god of the self. The metaphor of child sacrifice is a shorthand for what is most horrifying about a culture that places abortion at the center of what is euphemistically called “reproductive health.” McEvoy’s abortion story fits the child sacrifice mold. But it also complicates it. In the grand drama of abortion, the abortion opponents are supposed to be the religious ones, righteously imposing their peculiar dogmas on everyone else. Here comes McEvoy, with her Christian faith and her prayers and her “holy abortion.” Wrong, to be sure. But powerful.
“Is Abortion Sacred?” So asks a headline in the July 16, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, published in the weeks after the overturning of Roe v. Wade by Dobbs v. Jackson. Jia Tolentino recounts her conversion to the cause of radical abortion rights as a consequence of her own, deliberate and desired, pregnancy and motherhood. She hadn’t been “forced” to have a baby, hadn’t struggled with material want, had freely chosen her baby and the new life the baby brought. And all of this brought her to a quasi-religious realization: “I had been able to choose this permanent rearrangement of my existence. That volition felt sacred.”
In other words, it wasn’t the pregnancy or the baby that was sacred; it was her own capacity to decide the pregnancy’s outcome. She contrasts this sacred volition with being “forced by law” to give birth or “driven by need” to give a baby away. Her free choice is, for Tolentino, at the root of her relation to her child: “I felt able to love my baby fully and singularly because I had chosen to give my body and life over to her.” Choice, in Tolentino’s formulation, is the necessary condition for love and responsibility.
Since the 1970s, abortion has been defended on the grounds of privacy and bodily autonomy: “my body, my choice.” The legal and philosophical debates that culminated in Roe v. Wade considered abortion in terms of competing rights: the woman’s right to control her body against the baby’s right not to be killed. Roe’s solution was to stipulate a deadline, namely the end of the second trimester, after which the baby’s right not to be killed could be legally recognized by state legislatures and supersede the woman’s right to abort. That there was life was never the question; always, the question was whether and when the unborn child became a distinct bearer of rights.
Morality was another matter. Even where the law made abortion licit, the cultural consensus held that abortion was, at best, a lesser evil, a last resort that, even when necessary, was still wrong. This judgment was implicit in the slogan of the 1990s and early 2000s: “Safe, Legal, and Rare.” In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the religious pro-life movement leaned hard on the sacredness of life and the immorality of killing as the moral basis for an absolute prohibition on abortion. Public opinion seemed to be shifting toward greater restrictions on abortion, revealing that choice alone was a weak foundation. After all, a choice made freely may be wrong.
By the 2010s, abortion advocates were resisting the moral censure implied by “Safe, Legal, and Rare,” and beginning to wage what Wesley Smith called “a more honestly pro-abortion pushback.” For abortion absolutists, the harm to women comes not from abortion itself, but from the culture of stigma and shame that surrounds abortion. Some activists have taken what seems an emotionally brutal approach, simply denying that the act of terminating a pregnancy should have any significance at all. But this denialism hasn’t gone far; for many women, religious or not, abortion is a powerful event in their lives. And so a new, religiously framed advocacy has emerged. Katey Zeh, an “ordained Baptist minister” and member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board, describes her ministry as “working to dismantle abortion stigma within myself, in the church, and in the world so that we can start showing up fully and lovingly for the people in our communities who have abortions.” In her book A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement (2022), Zeh calls on “followers of Christ” to “honor the full spectrum of abortion experiences and provide sacred spaces for anyone who needs supportive spiritual care along the way.”
Religious leaders like Zeh are taking a stand for abortion as a positive moral good. In early 2022, the Washington Post identified “an increasingly bold and more visible religious movement for reproductive choice, a hard shove back to the decades-old American narrative [whereby] a devout person sees abortion only as murder.” The movement to provide a theological grounding and religious justification for abortion originated with Howard Moody, who from 1956 to 1992 presided over the radically progressive Judson Memorial Church—the church where McEvoy would serve as an intern during the year of her holy abortion.
Ordained in the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, Moody was the force behind the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a pre-Roe network of Protestant ministers and rabbis that connected women with abortion providers under the cloak of clergy confidentiality, circumventing the law when necessary. By the time Roe was decided in 1973, the group had grown to three thousand members across thirty-eight states and had referred 450,000 women for abortions. Moody took a leading role in other progressive causes, including homelessness, drug addiction, and AIDS. But he remained prominent in the religious pro-abortion movement, and his “theology of abortion” provides the framework for the religious pro-abortion movement today.
Moody’s theology is grounded not in Christ’s call to repentance, but in the foundational value of personal liberation: “The right to choose is a God-given right with which persons are endowed. . . . Freedom of choice is what makes us human and responsible. And for women, the preeminent freedom is the choice to control her reproductive process.” The free will that in orthodox theology is the condition of our assent to God is twisted, in Moody’s formulation, into freedom of choice. Beyond the absolute good of choice, Moody provides no moral criteria to guide a woman’s decision; emphatically, “the imaginary screams of a fetus” have no moral significance. Moody accuses “religious anti-choice people” of succumbing to the “heresy of the deification of the fetus,” and regards preventing abortion as akin to “any pagan practice whereby a human was sacrificed for the sake of some idolized animal, stone, or tree.” But as Moody decries the deification of the fetus, the god of Choice rises in its place.
After Roe made the Clergy Consultation Service obsolete, Moody’s successors continued to develop a religious framework for pro-abortion policies. The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, formed in 1973, initially sought to unite the mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations that had advocated liberalized abortion laws, and thereby create a more powerful lobby for legal protections. By the 1990s, the group, now called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, had expanded its mission to include developing religious resources such as prayers, sermons, creedal statements, and rituals, all of which elaborated a spiritual, theological, and moral language for abortion advocacy.
In the 2003 exposé Holy Abortion?: A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Michael J. Gorman and Ann Loar Brooks emphasize the gap between what most mainline Protestant groups professed—a qualified support for abortion as “a tragic last resort that should generally be avoided and cannot easily be condoned”—and the radical affirmation promoted by Moody’s theological disciples in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice: “abortion as a holy, moral, liberating, empowering, divine gift and right.” The fact that mainline religious groups declined to distance themselves from this radical theology lent the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice a sheen of legitimacy. And when the abortion fight shifted to more overt religious terrain in the 2010s, the ethical and theological framework that had been quietly taking shape under the auspices of the coalition was suddenly propounded as a valid Christian position.
Willie Parker is a case in point. A board member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in the mid-2010s he became the public face of a purportedly Christian moral case for abortion. For a few years he was perhaps the most celebrated face of abortion advocacy in America. He contributed congressional testimony in support of the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” received Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award, and was profiled in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Esquire, and Rolling Stone. His memoir Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice was published to wide acclaim at the peak of his celebrity in 2017.
Parker was the man for the moment. An obstetrician born to a poor black family in the South and raised in a fundamentalist Christian faith, he early refused to perform abortions, before converting to advocacy and activism. Following an awakening that led him to reject the moral foundations of his childhood faith, he dedicated his medical career to providing abortion on demand, mostly for poor black women in publicly funded clinics and hospitals. His book is full of poignant accounts of his efforts to “alleviate needless suffering” by providing abortion whenever asked. His practice, he believes, follows Jesus’s calling in the parable of the good Samaritan: “The faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not to judge her or to impose upon her any restriction, penalty, or shame.” His view of Christian charity is narrow and specific: These women needed help, the help they needed was abortion, and he was equipped to provide it. Providing abortion thus becomes God’s work.
Parker’s Christianity, which defines charity as giving people what they want, was catnip to a liberal media besotted with a Christian who had come over to the “right side” of the abortion debate. But it is Christianity in name only. Parker rejects the biblical Christian God, whom he takes to be “like Siri, telling you to go left or to go right.” Instead he embraces “a new understanding of God, which would prompt, embrace, and support my professional choice” to perform abortions on demand. This idea of God has become a familiar one in the popularized realm of pseudo-Christianity. Christian Smith termed it “moralistic therapeutic deism”: the doctrine that God wants me to be happy, so whatever makes me happy is what God wants. But Parker is not content to attribute to God the quality of unconditional approval. He intends to secure a divine warrant for choice itself: “You don’t become sacred, like Mary, just because you conceived. . . . The part of you that’s like God is the part that makes a choice. That says I choose to. Or, I choose not to. That’s what’s sacred. That’s the part of you that’s like God to me.” Like Moody before him, Parker regards choice as sacred, more sacred than the life that lies in the balance in every abortion decision.
Parker is a doctor, not a theologian, and his musings are merely suggestive. A more rigorous version of the theology of choice is elaborated by Rebecca Todd Peters in her 2018 book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. Peters, it should be noted, is not a fringe radical; she is a professor of religious studies at Elon University and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and she represents the Presbyterian Church at the World Council of Churches. Her work sits comfortably within what is rapidly becoming mainstream liberal Protestant thought.
Peters locates abortion within a broader context of “reproductive justice,” a women’s health movement spanning feminist, anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, and anti-colonial ideologies and activism. The idea of reproductive justice owes more to Marxism than to Christianity; it is founded on a neo-Marxian worldview that pits “oppressors” against the “oppressed,” locates “oppression” in systemic and structural relations, and advocates systemic transformation—that is, revolution. Peters theologizes this worldview, aligning the “sacred” and the “moral” with a vision of radical female power and autonomy, which will be realized when the yoke of patriarchal oppression is cast off.
For Peters, the traditional Christian view that the purpose of sexuality is procreation evinces a “patriarchal” and “misogynistic” tradition in Christian thinking, which persists for the sole purpose of controlling women’s bodies. Sexuality, in Peters’s view, has no necessary connection to “the desire or even the willingness to have a baby.” Instead, she asserts that the God-given purpose of sex is primarily to “deepen and reinforce mutual bonds of caring and commitment.” Because pregnancy is not the purpose of a sexual relationship, it can be dismissed as incidental. A woman has no absolute responsibility for the potential life she holds in pregnancy. Instead, the moral decision about what to do when confronted with a pregnancy requires “discerning who God is calling you to be”—mother or not? “You shouldn’t have a baby just because you are pregnant. You should have a baby because you want to be a mother, because you want to have a child, because you are ready to have a family.” For a woman unwilling or unable to commit to the responsibilities of parenthood, abortion is a “responsible moral decision.” This is a rather clever trick of moral inversion: By Peters’s logic, the refusal to take responsibility for the baby that may result from sexual activity is itself a responsible decision.
In Peters’s theology, moral responsibility is reduced to a contingency: I am responsible only for the things I want to be responsible for. Thus, there can be no moral obligation that is not freely chosen. As Peters puts it (using “prenate” for “unborn baby”), “To honor women’s moral wisdom to discern God’s calling, we must view a woman’s moral obligation to a prenate as a covenant commitment that requires her assent.” If a woman does not freely assent to motherhood, she has no moral obligation to the unborn baby and is free to abort it. Abortion, in this view, is neither positively good nor positively wrong, because there is no measure of the good that transcends individual will, assent, and choice.
The emergence and increasing acceptance of this abortion theology signals a deeper shift in abortion politics and discourse, one that resonates with current debates about the nature and necessity of bodily limits when it comes to such contentious issues as choosing one’s sex or choosing one’s death. From Moody to Parker to Peters, “pro-choice” is no longer a regrettable concession to the difficulties and practicalities of unwanted pregnancy. It is an assertion concerning the basic truth of who we are as created beings. The theologization of choice denies the reality of our bodies and our embeddedness in relations of vulnerability, generation, and dependence. And it perverts the relation between Creator and creation, elevating “I want” and “I choose” to the position of sovereign god. Moody and his inheritors call their theology “Christian,” but they have turned Christianity on its head.
Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker essay about the role of “sacred volition” in her decision to have a baby dramatizes the consequences of this radically relativized morality. The decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy, Tolentino discovers, “occurs in such an intricate web of systemic and individual circumstances that only the person who is pregnant could hope to evaluate the situation and make a moral decision among the options at hand.” For her, these circumstances are largely existential; she recounts the terrors of pandemic, global warming, resource depletion, and looming extinction as the anxious context for her own pregnancy. “I knew that my child would not only live in this degrading world but contribute to that degradation,” she confesses. Thus, “bringing a new life into the world felt, to me, like the decision that more clearly risked being a moral mistake.” Somehow, Tolentino’s baby escaped this frightening calculus and emerged alive. Nevertheless, under these dire circumstances Tolentino suggests that abortion might very well be the right thing to do, not only for the “degrading world” but for the child.
Recall Kaeley McEvoy in the Christa chapel, awaiting the good news that soon she would be relieved of the pregnancy she did not want. This is a religious war, after all—just not the one conservatives thought they were fighting, with the religious value of “life” pitted against the secular value of “choice.” Quite the contrary: The spear tip of radical abortion absolutism is a new faithful. Choice has become a religious value, the bedrock of an emergent morality that bears no resemblance to the Abrahamic tradition. It is a stealthy adversary, donning the mantle of Christian love and charity to corrupt traditional faith from the inside. In this topsy-turvy faith, the immoral is called moral. The irresponsible is called responsible. The life-destroying is called life-protecting. Murder is called rescue. The pregnant mother is, in her omniscience and power, her own god. Her volition is sacred and absolute. And her holy abortion is saving the world.
Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.
Image by Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?