Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice
By Rebecca Todd Peters
Beacon Press, 2018
Most women seek an abortion for the simple reason that they are pregnant and wish to no longer be so. And yet, in much of our contemporary public discourse, this reason is not enough. According to Christian ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters, women are continually asked to justify their abortions in response to a default assumption that abortion is morally wrong.
This assumption is incorrect, she argues in her new book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, and it stems from a particular theological framework that values motherhood over the needs, decisions, and desires of individual women.
“In a country where abortion is legal and women do not have to explain to their health-care providers why they wish to end a pregnancy, why does our cultural debate continue to judge and shame women for having abortions?” asks Peters, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a professor of religious studies at Elon University. “The problem that we face in this country is our failure to trust women to act as rational, capable, responsible moral agents,” she answers in the book.
These cultural expectations are baked into public policy, Peters writes, pointing to legislation requiring ultrasounds and waiting periods for women seeking an abortion. Thirty-five states currently require counseling before an abortion is performed. In six of those, women are told that personhood begins at conception, and in five, women are inaccurately told that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. These restrictions, according to Peters, are “rooted in a paternalistic presumption that pregnant women are not capable moral agents with the intellectual capacity to understand that a pregnancy, if carried to term, will result in the birth of a baby.”
As a result, we operate in what Peters calls the “justification framework,” where women must justify why each abortion is morally acceptable because abortion is treated, by default, as an immoral choice. The socially acceptable reasons for ending a pregnancy, according to Peters, are prenatal health, rape, incest, and the life of the mother. And yet, these only represent a quarter of all abortions in the United States. In all other instances, women are told to “suffer the consequences” or “accept their responsibility” for having sex. “The necessity of justification permeates the very language of the debate itself,” she writes. “Pro-choice arguments seek to justify women’s right to abortion, while pro-life arguments seek to limit and even eliminate acceptable justifications.”
In lieu of justification, Peters’ argues for an abortion ethic rooted in reproductive justice, a term coined by a collective of black women activists in the 1990s. One of those women, activist Loretta Ross, once described reproductive justice as an “open-source code” on which advocates for justice can build their new ideas and platforms. The code consists of three core principles: individuals have the right to have a child, or to not have a child, and to parent children in a safe and healthy environment. Reproductive justice must, by definition, approach reproductive rights within the context of women’s access to resources like health care, housing, education, and living wages. Choice never occurs in a vacuum. In Trust Women, Peters aims to build on that framework from a progressive Christian perspective.
For Peters, the moral status of a fetus is an ethical and theological question that should be asked and answered by women themselves, not by legislators or judges. Her Christian ethic for abortion is not built on Scripture, but rather “a feminist theological perspective that affirms both the goodness and justice of God.” In other words, she’s not interested in telling us what God wants, other than to say that God wants justice, which means moral agency for women.
Her arguments are unlikely to find purchase among anti-abortion activists, but that still leaves as an audience the majority of Americans who believe abortion should at least be legal in some cases. To those, she presents the case that abortion cannot—and should not—be debated in the abstract.
The core of Peters’ reproductive justice ethic is that women’s ability to control their fertility is a moral good, meaning women have the moral capacity to discern what is right and to act on that accordingly. When a woman is faced with an unplanned or medically threatened pregnancy, the moral status of the fetus is just one question of many, she argues, and each woman will approach that question in many ways. “The fact that our public discourse frames the larger question of abortion as a moral dilemma illustrates how much one theological belief about when life begins has distorted the abortion debate in our country,” Peters writes. This theological belief, that life begins at conception, is not shared among all religions, and was not even held widely by conservative Christians in the United States until the twentieth century.
“Even people who are pro-choice often go out of their way to clarify that they are not pro-abortion (heaven forbid!) but that abortion should be legal as a matter of public health,” Peters adds. For much of the 1990s and aughts, this was true. Since the Clinton administration, mainstream abortion rights advocates supported abortion under the conditions that it be “safe, legal, and rare.” There has been resistance to this positioning, however. In 2014, Katha Pollitt declared in Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights that abortion should indeed be treated as a moral good, an “essential option for women.” In her final chapter, Pollitt briefly mentions the work of reproductive justice advocates, but leaves the framework largely unexamined. In Trust Women, Peters takes up that task.
Within a reproductive framework, Peters addresses the paucity of language we have been left with in decades spent justifying individual abortions. The words we have now, she writes, “constrain our moral imagination and fail to adequately describe the moral, physical, developmental and social uniqueness of what happens over nine months of pregnancy.”
Specifically, Peters is dissatisfied with terms most commonly used to describe the developing entity: “fetus” (which she argues is too clinical) and “unborn child” (which is morally loaded). Instead, she proposes the term “prenate,” based on the word prenatal. “Prenates, of course, are human,” Peters writes. “But even though they are human, they are not human beings in the same way that pregnant women are human beings.” It’s only through the physical process of birth that prenates “cross the threshold into life.” The status of the prenate is a fluid moral question, one that isn’t properly addressed by the debates of our time, Peters argues.
Here, Peters’ ethical approach closely resembles that of Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider in the deep South who publicly speaks of the role his Christian faith has played in his chosen career path. In his 2017 memoir, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Parker writes that a fetus may be human, but that does not make it a person. As a practicing OB-GYN, Parker prefers the clinical terms “embryo” and “fetus,” but his point is the same: pregnant women are fully formed individuals, “not merely biological organisms with the potential to become such.”
According to Peters, prenates occupy a liminal space both separate from and part of the pregnant woman that defies categorization in a society obsessed with individualism. Her description of this liminality is deeply reminiscent of the way in which Maggie Nelson describes pregnancy in The Argonauts, her seminal work of theory-laced memoir. Nelson writes on the dangers of individualism in anti-abortion movements: “The sooner you can pry the twofer apart, the sooner you can dispense with one constituent of the relationship: the woman with rights.” Nelson tells us that her pregnancy deepened her pro-choice convictions, even as she felt a life growing inside her uterus. She boldly claims the moral agency that women are so often denied, writing, “We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death.” Recounting the second of her own two abortions, which ended a wanted but medically compromised pregnancy, Peters writes that she and her husband grieved the “death of the imagined child we were expecting.” But the death of this imagined child, Peters says, happened when they received the prenatal diagnosis, and not with the abortion.
Trust Women, while rich with theory, is also deeply personal, as the book begins with accounts of Peters’ first abortion, which took place as her marriage seemed to be ending and she was not ready to be a mother. The second abortion came after Peters was already a mother. In both instances, she writes, she chose to end her pregnancies not despite her Christian identity, but because of it: “My abortions were part of exercising my responsibility as a fertile woman who believes that parenthood is a sacred calling; they were rooted in my theological understanding of pregnancy, life, children, and parenting.”
Following this introduction, the book is divided into three sections building up to Peters’ thesis. The first section covers the everyday experience of abortion and how it fits into the context of real women’s reproductive lives. Although abortion is legal and common, public debate and policy decisions are still “rooted in a basic distrust of women,” Peters writes. Because we do not treat women as competent and independent moral actors, “the sheer power of women to make these kinds of life-and-death decisions about their bodies and their future is simply untenable for some people.”
The second section, most easily summed up as Christian Patriarchy 101, places the current American abortion debates in historical context. Peters points out that Christian Scripture is “completely silent on the topic of abortion,” and that current anti-abortion attitudes stem from a social control of women exerted by predominantly male theologians. “For centuries, Christianity has been used and abused to shape how people think about women, sexuality, and families,” she writes. “Uncovering Christianity’s deep and abiding role in how we think and talk about abortion is essential, whether we are Christian or not.”
Peters cites Tertullian, an early Christian leader who in the third century challenged the right of Christian women to engage in acts of ministry. “His agenda was to establish within Christianity a gender hierarchy in which men were dominant and women were subordinate,” she writes. To do so, he invoked Eve as evidence that women were the root of sin in the world. These ideas were later picked up by influential theologians like Augustine, who wrote that “the woman does not possess the image of God in herself, but only when taken together with the male who is her head,” and Martin Luther, who believed women’s bodies to be exclusively designed for homemaking and child-rearing.
These beliefs are reflections of what those men thought of women, not of what God does, writes Peters. And as a feminist Christian ethicist, Peters is here to remind us that they can change: “While misogyny is deeply embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity, the religion is not inherently misogynist or patriarchal.” She adds, “We need to let go of the belief that each pregnancy is a gift from God if we are to develop a theology of reproductive justice that centers women’s sexuality and their moral agency as the most relevant theological issues. The fertilization of an egg with a sperm is a biological fact, not a blessing.”
In her final section, Peters gets to the heart of the matter: abortion is a moral issue, but not necessarily a moral problem. “To say that abortion is a moral action is not a Christian argument but rather a moral one consistent with Christian teaching,” she writes. The biblical story of Eve has long been used to cast women as sinful and thereby control what they do with their bodies. But humanity’s ability to discern good from evil is actually what makes us “like God,” Peters writes. “When we recognize that one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity, our moral agency, is the result of Eve’s actions, we can read this story in entirely new ways.”
Peters’ ethics stem from a progressive Christianity that draws moral lessons from the traditions of the faith rather than make hard pronouncements from Scripture. At first glance, her book may seem like the latest marker in a resurgence of the religious left. The fact that Peters is a Christian ethicist might be viewed as a shrewd selling-point for her arguments and a reminder that not all Christians vilify abortion. Yet the current media focus on religious progressives rising up as an anti-Trump force belies the fact that they have been there all along, and Peters, who studied at New York’s Union Theological Seminary in the late 1990s, has been there for at least two decades.
Nonetheless, Peters’ book has arrived at a heady time in which abortion access is being increasingly limited at state and local levels, while women, in the face of policies and politicians that deny their bodily agency, are loudly and boldly reclaiming the public sphere. Those who are interested in defending the rights of women will likely need a wide variety of rhetorical tools to make their case in the public sphere, and Peters’ words are well-suited to the task.
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter covering the intersections of religion, culture, law and gender. She has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Religion Dispatches, among others, and is a regular contributing reporter for Bloomberg Law.