A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice
by rebecca todd peters
beacon, 248 pages, $27.95
In Trust Women, Rebecca Todd Peters aims to advance a progressive Christian feminist project, but her book is neither progressive nor feminist.
Peters, a professor and Presbyterian minister, supports a libertarian deference to individual autonomy over against any justice-centered moral analysis of individual actions. Indeed, some of her sentences could have been written by Charles Koch: “While public policy sets the boundaries that shape our moral lives together as a society, public policy is not usually used to monitor or control individual citizens’ moral choices.” But restricting the individual moral choices of individuals, especially when they threaten the most vulnerable, is central to the progressive mindset. Progressives support coercing the choices of individual people in many matters: from their greenhouse gas emissions to what they pay their employees.
What about Peters’s theology? Does she make a “progressive Christian” argument? Ironically, in the relatively little time Peters spends engaging explicitly Christian theology, she spends her time conserving earlier stages of the Christian tradition regarding prenatal life. She notes that Scripture is “completely silent” on the topic of abortion, and that the Church fathers had varying opinions about when the prenatal child became a full member of the moral community. She notes that both Innocent III and Thomas Aquinas favored delayed hominization, which dated development of a rational nature to some months after fertilization.
“Even within the Roman Catholic Church, abortion was not completely prohibited until 1889,” she argues. And it wasn’t “until the Second Vatican Council” that Catholic teaching forbade abortion to ensure “protection of life.” Peters thus rejects the progressive theological position—which includes prenatal life among the least ones bearing the face of Christ—in order to embrace the part of the tradition that was ambiguous about the moral status of the prenatal child.
Most of the other theological references are hopelessly vacuous. Peters says, for instance, that “Christians are right to care about sex and to approach it as a moral issue. Sex is a sacred and wonderful activity that can be shared between two people in ways that deepen and reinforce mutual bonds of caring and commitment. And it’s fun!” Elsewhere she says, “From a feminist theological perspective that affirms both the goodness and justice of God, I find it impossible to believe that conception and pregnancy, much less the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, are either the will of God or gifts or blessings from God.” Why? Because of the “theological ramifications” of belief in a God who would give her a pregnancy “while withholding one from another woman.”
And what, exactly, makes this a feminist work?
When I give talks on abortion, more than 90 percent of the question-and-answer periods feature at least one question asking how I, as a male, have any business discussing the issue. It is of course an ad hominem argument. Anyone interested in justice for a vulnerable population ought to be able to act on behalf of that vulnerable population, regardless of sex or gender. But such questions give pro-life men a chance to offer a helpful rejoinder: Historically, it is men who have been at the forefront of abortion rights. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself argued that the men who decided Roe v. Wade were making patriarchal and not feminist arguments. Half of American women identify as pro-life, and many more are skeptical of abortion, especially later in pregnancy. A higher percentage of women (60 percent) than men (50 percent) support a twenty-week ban on abortion.
These women are invisible in Peters’s analysis. When Peters says “trust women,” she apparently means “trust women who have abortions.” Her book never engages with pro-life feminism—even though she must be aware of how dramatically the Women’s March (which she attended) led to the spotlighting of pro-life feminism in major media outlets.
I knew something was amiss when I flipped to the index and didn’t see Sidney Callahan’s name. In many ways the grandmother of contemporary pro-life feminism, Callahan consistently argues that abortion on demand relies on male assumptions about sex and bodily normativity, and primarily supports the sexual interests of men. It heaps hopeless burdens on women, including a society that assumes women should have abortions rather than keep their babies and expect to receive social support.
Callahan also criticizes abortion-rights feminists for not insisting on legal protection for the vulnerable. The idea that women may bestow or deny the right to life of prenatal children is ironic, given the history of men who claimed the authority to bestow or deny the rights of women. Peters ought to have responded to the powerful claim of the New Wave Feminists: “When our liberation costs innocent lives, it is merely oppression redistributed.”
Of course, Peters denies that abortion costs innocent lives. But the foundational question of the abortion debate—the moral status of the prenatal child—gets just a handful of pages. If the prenatal child is a full person with the same moral and legal claims as other children, then the abortion debate is one thing. If the prenatal child is something less than a full person, then the abortion debate is an entirely different thing. Peters gives no serious attention to this fundamental question. And for good reason: When the reality of the prenatal child is faced honestly, the debate usually doesn’t end in favor of the extreme positions of abortion rights activists.
But justice discourses—especially progressive justice discourses—demand that we pay attention to invisible and marginalized populations. Those whose dignity inconveniences those who have power over them. Progressive justice discourses also tend to pay attention to the views of marginalized groups. But Peters fails to acknowledge that people of color are less supportive of abortion rights than white people, or that economically disadvantaged people are less supportive of abortion rights than economically privileged people, or that women are less supportive of broad access to abortion than are men. (Not to mention that each of the major pro-life organizations today is led by a woman.)
Though Peters claims to be interested in justice, her justice concerns are directed at one population only: the minority of women who enjoy or support the right to abortion on demand for any reason at any stage of pregnancy. Her book, like the broader throw-away culture, discards the prenatal child as so much trash.
If Peters had written a more courageous book—one which challenged the abortion rights culture so pervasive within the centers of power to which she is connected (her university, her church, the academy, etc.), she might have been able to build bridges. She is willing to criticize the idea that (especially poor) women always have “choice,” and she advocates social support for women who choose not to kill their prenatal children. These are important areas for dialogue between pro-life feminists and reproductive-justice advocates.
But Peters was apparently not interested in opening a dialogue of that sort. Perhaps she thinks such a dialogue would come too close to implying that there should be fewer abortions. Or perhaps the source of her reluctance is articulated in this interview: “I’ll never reach the hardcore pro-lifers and that’s fine—most aren’t interested in having a conversation.”
She could not be more wrong. Thousands of pro-life feminists stand ready to have a conversation and find common ground. With the prospect of changes coming to the Supreme Court, the struggle to make sure women have the resources to bring their children to term is more important than ever.
Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and author of Too Expensive to Treat?—Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU.