A thin layer of watery ice covered the street between me and my parked car. The slick road wouldn’t have bothered me—except that I was nine months pregnant and carrying a laundry basket full of baby gifts as well as my book bag for teaching. I made it safely across, shuffling slowly in a pair of sandals, the only shoes that still fit. I was exhausted by the time I got everything, including my swollen body, into the parked car.
Four days later, with the wintery weather still lingering, I gave birth to my second child. It didn’t go smoothly. She ended up in the NICU while I had to recover from a C-section. Because I was still teaching two courses that semester, as delineated by my assistant professor contract, I had work to do; it didn’t matter that I was barely post-partum. I remember sitting on my hospital bed trying to finish an online lecture, responding to student questions about an honors thesis, and pumping milk to feed my newborn, all while trying to ignore the burning pain from the staples holding my insides together. It was one of the few times in my life that I questioned my vocation.
I was lucky, though.
In 2010, the year I had my daughter, only two states—California and New Jersey—had paid family leave. I worked for a university in the state of Texas that had not yet implemented a maternity policy, which meant no clear guidelines existed to navigate having a baby without taking a semester of unpaid leave. Yet, I managed to take a few weeks off without missing a paycheck. The flexibility of my department chair and the generosity of my colleagues enabled me to cobble together four weeks of maternity leave. Spring break gave me a fifth week. It wasn’t a fun semester, but I was grateful to keep my job.
I was also grateful for my private office and the means to purchase a breast pump, as neither lactation rooms nor a lactation policy existed at my workplace in 2010. I had good insurance that covered 80 percent of the hospital bills for my surgery, hospital stay, my daughter’s birth, and the five days she spent in the NICU. I had a supportive husband with a moderately flexible work schedule. I had family willing and able to take care of an infant, saving us the high cost of childcare. Although 31,000 pregnancy discrimination suits were filed in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015, my biggest workplace issue at the time was a negative student comment in my course evaluations.
I was so lucky—a white, educated woman with a good job, access to quality medical care, enough medical insurance, and sufficient support networks to alleviate the physical, financial, and professional cost of birthing a baby. When the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization reversed Roe v. Wade, filling my twitter feed with celebratory comments from white women just like me, it reminded me of how lucky my pregnancy experiences had been.
I experienced complications with the birth of both my children. It is hard to comprehend that if my skin had been a different color, my chances of surviving would have decreased significantly. Regardless of income and education levels, Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die due to pregnancy complications.
I was able to carve out a few unofficial weeks of paid maternity leave when I had my daughter. Yet, I qualified for up to 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA, and if my husband and I had chosen that path, we would have survived financially. I can’t imagine having gone through what I did to birth my daughter and be back in the classroom after only a few days of sick time, but as late as 2018, only 30 percent of Black mothers were both eligible and able to afford unpaid work leave.
Shouldn’t it be telling that Black Christians, who are just as religiously devout as white evangelicals, are less likely to identify as pro-life? According to a recent PRRI survey, 75 percent of Black Protestants support abortion being legal in most or all cases in contrast to only 25 percent of white evangelical Protestants. The Washington Post recently interviewed Black pastors Rev. Cheryl Sanders of Washington D.C.’s Third Street Church of God and Rev. John Fils-Aime of Central Baptist Church in New York City. Sanders agreed the Bible is “absolutely pro-life” but does not want to align with the political pro-life movement, remarking that it is “fraught with problematic racial views and exceptions and blind spots.” Fils-Aime similarly called reversing abortion laws a “hollow victory” without sufficient support to help Black mothers who face greater physical and financial challenges than white women.
The feelings of these pastors resonate deeply with me. The reality is that 67 percent of women in the U.S. support legal abortion in most or all cases. Instead of seeing this majority of women as the liberal enemy, shouldn’t the pro-life movement be asking what they have done to alienate them?
It is true that many anti-abortion activists support helping women bear the financial and physical costs of pregnancies. But it is also true that that they are more likely to funnel their support to local churches and private non-profits than to government-supported programs that can make lasting change. As historian Daniel K. Williams explains:
In fact, nearly all of the political victories that the pro-life movement has gained in the past few decades have attempted to reduce abortion rates by making abortion more difficult to obtain – that is, by transferring the cost of an unwanted pregnancy onto the pregnant woman until the costs of obtaining an abortion outweigh the perceived costs of raising a child. Whether she keeps the pregnancy or terminates it, a woman in such a situation will have to pay the costs of her pregnancy – which individualistic-minded conservatives think is fair, since they believe that each person is responsible for their own actions.
Rather than voting for affordable childcare, expansive Medicaid, higher and equitable wages, paid parental leave, and free access to contraception—all measures that can help reduce abortion—the pro-life movement has resisted laws that could help alleviate the precarious circumstances faced by pregnant women; instead, it has advocated for laws that restrict women.
I remember, many years ago, watching a conservative Christian family of seven or eight children stand with the eldest son at his home-school graduation. The son spoke proudly of how his family had protested at the local Planned Parenthood, which he called a “baby-killing mill.” While I do not know the politics of that family, I can guess. Strong alignment exists between conservative evangelical Christians, the Republican Party, and the pro-life movement. I can also guess their theological stance on gender roles, as some at that graduation wore pink t-shirts that boasted biblical women (Titus 2) were “workers at home.”
I suggested in my recent book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, that those who identify as evangelical are more hesitant than other demographic groups to support both women’s work outside the home and women in leadership positions such as CEO and pastor. I wrote, “For evangelicals these attitudes are connected: limiting women’s spiritual authority goes hand in hand with limiting women’s economic power.” When we consider that these same evangelicals tend to be pro-life, a pattern emerges between the anti-abortion movement and Christians who are less likely to support women in the workplace, women in leadership, and social safety nets that benefit women. For those who believe that a woman’s place is in the home, the wage disparity faced by women (for white women, an average of 79.6 cents for every $1.00 earned by a white man) might seem a less urgent matter.
Is it any wonder that so many people in this nation perceive being anti-abortion as synonymous with being anti-women? Could it be that in their quest to validate the personhood of an unborn child, the pro-life movement has diminished the personhood of a woman?
“Love them Both” has been a long-standing mantra for the pro-life movement—both mother and child matter. However, consistently voting against social safety nets and constitutional equality for women as well as rejecting the reality of systemic racism speaks louder than words. Life matters, but to many within the pro-life movement, especially those from conservative evangelical traditions, some lives seem to matter more than others.
At another point in my life, I would have joined with my white evangelical sisters in viewing the fall of Roe v. Wade as a victory for life. After all, I have voted pro-life, financially supported pro-life causes, and even volunteered in a crisis pregnancy center. But I no longer see it as a victory. Not because my convictions about the value of life have changed, but rather because they have strengthened. The lives of mothers—Black, brown, and white—matter at least as much as their unborn babies. Yet, while the pro-life movement has fought at the local, state, and national level to save unborn lives, it has not fought with the same vigor to help the lives of women, especially women of color doubly burdened by sexism and racism.
Until the pro-life movement understands how much it has left women behind, it will continue to fall short of its name. It will also continue to lose the support of women like me.
Beth Allison Barr is James Vardaman Professor of History at Baylor University and author of the bestseller The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.