Co-authored by Dr. Susanne Scholz, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology
On April 15, Arizona instituted warrantless surprise searches of abortion clinics, even though abortion is one of the safest medical procedures women use in the United States, with one-tenth the death rates as childbirth. You can be assured that the state will not authorize intrusive and potentially traumatizing searches for birthing centers because the intent is not women's safety or well-being. Instead, the current rash of anti-abortion laws are part of a 30-year campaign to use abortion as a wedge issue to advance a sexist white supremacist religious agenda.
Most people of faith, unlike the aging patriarchs of the religious right, support legal abortion rights. Three-fourths of all women who seek abortions claim a religious affiliation, and most religious traditions accept certain conditions under which abortion is a good moral choice, which means the vast majority of Americans, a total of 86 percent, support the right of women to have access to abortions. Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe abortion can be the most responsible choice a woman can make. Sixty-five percent of all Catholics support abortion in most cases -- this despite Pope Frances' popularity. Roe v. Wade drew a line at viability and permitted abortions until the fetus can survive outside the woman's body, which aligns with majority support for access to abortion in most or all cases.
Women face many challenges in our lives that are uniquely related to our reproductive systems, something callous lawmakers exploit for political purposes that have nothing to do with real concern for women. Our bodily integrity and our right to determine our reproductive health needs should be protected from their government intrusion.
Since the early 1980s, conservative evangelicals and right-wing lawmakers have worked to overturn Roe and prevent women from having abortions, a futile and life-endangering approach. As dozens of reproductive health clinics began closing in Texas this year, clinic workers who had to stop providing abortions found themselves caring for women who sought help after attempting to abort themselves and harming themselves, echoing the terrible tragedies of pre-Roe days. Texas will go from forty-four clinics to less than a half dozen to serve twelve million women across 250,000 square miles.
Clearly, fringe right religious leaders and their political and corporate enablers will maintain their extreme position on abortion in order to keep their voting base engaged. Their alleged intention to help women and save fetuses is polite cover for their nefarious goal of restoring the white supremacist patriarchal culture of the Jim Crow south. As evangelical Randall Balmer witnessed in the early 1980s, leaders like Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson were angry that the IRS had removed segregationist Bob Jones University's nonprofit status. They eventually decided abortion rather than segregation was a better political issue to engage their followers. Balmer asserts, "The religious right of the late twentieth century organized to perpetuate racial discrimination." Anyone like W. A. Criswell was no longer welcome in their ranks.
Earlier religious leaders, like Criswell, understood that women are moral agents and should be allowed the freedom to decide what happens to our bodies. Women face challenges about whether to reproduce, when to reproduce, and how many children to have. Our ability to face these challenges depends on a whole series of social factors that cannot be controlled by legislation. Lawmakers could do far more to improve women's welfare, but not by trying to control our bodies and denying us the power to make decisions for ourselves.
We can reduce unnecessary abortions if we assure that every woman has free lifelong mental and physical health care; effective, easy-to-use birth control; a safe neighborhood; and dignified work with a living wage. It is much more likely that a happy, educated, and healthy woman who respects herself and feels in charge of her sexual choices will carry a pregnancy to term and raise responsible and happy children. And, of course, parents should receive two years of paid leave, access to affordable and expert childcare, and free education for their children.
GOP-controlled states are waging a callous war on poor women. Sixty-nine percent of abortions are sought by low-income women. Financially well-off women can usually get abortion services if they need them, whereas lack of access to abortion facilities has enormous and debilitating consequences for women who already struggle financially. These profound inequalities make access to safe and legal abortions a matter of reproductive justice, and we should all want greater justice.
Even if, however, we provide achieve greater reproductive justice, there will always be unwanted pregnancies because birth control is never foolproof. In addition, as most women know well, a lot of things can go wrong during pregnancy. A fetus may implant in a fallopian tube, it may die in utero, or it may be genetically malformed. Even if a woman wants to have a baby, her pregnancy may become toxic and threaten her life. The most emotionally agonizing abortions are often when a woman must abort a wanted child that cannot survive or live a meaningful life. Thus, new laws that require waiting periods, transvaginal ultrasounds, the viewing of anti-abortion films, or the sudden arrival of police officers in the clinic, inflicted on a grieving and traumatized woman, are cruel beyond comprehension. They must be overturned.
When a woman faces a difficult decision to abort, she needs support for her grief, and women of faith should be able to turn to their faith communities to help them recover from the loss. That is the compassionate space of '"the mother and the future" that even Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, used to honor not that long ago. And it is the compassionate space of moral discernment that our society must protect for women who face unwanted pregnancies. Arizona lawmakers should be ashamed of themselves.