Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) recent claim that women were unlikely to get pregnant from "legitimate rape" prompted a whirlwind of online commentary on abortion. Republicans weighed in with a platform including no rape exemption for their proposed abortion ban. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has equivocated, but his voting record on the subject is consistent with Akin's. And, in a recent interview, former Saturday Night Live cast member and prominent conservative Christian Victoria Jackson repeated Akin's claim before going on to defend her relationships with her "gay best friends" in which their sexuality is rarely discussed.
Relationships such as Jackson's aren't so surprising. Gay men's tendency toward friendships with straight women is so well-known that it's the stuff of TV cliché. Because we love our straight friends, even the conservative ones, we agree to little conspiracies of silence about the details of our sex lives, perhaps, or theirs, or about politics, children, or fashion. Some conspiracies are petty; some are as profound as this: "You try not to think of us gays as an existential threat to civilization, and we'll keep our opinions about abortion to ourselves." But what happens when one of our friends calls on us for more than our silence?
"Kelsie is pregnant, wants to get an abortion, and isn't telling her parents. She wants to talk to you." The call was from a mutual friend, whom I suspect had volunteered my aid. Kelsie (I've changed her name for privacy's sake) was a 22-year-old woman I'd met through theater work. She was talented, intelligent, and possessed of a certain nervous, smart-alecky energy, but unfailingly polite to me. But what did she want? We were friendly but not particularly close, as I was nearly old enough to be her dad. She knew me to be involved in a church. Did she want a prayer? A blessing? Did she want me to talk her out of it? Into it? Did she want permission? Should I give it? Could I?
"All right, then," I replied, after too long a pause. "Let's have lunch."
I nervously prepared myself for what may come, instinctively turning to my religious education, which wasn't much help. See, despite all the fury from certain "Bible-believing Christians," there's simply nothing in the Bible about abortion. That's why, instead of pointing to specific scriptures, the Christian right's objection to abortion rests on the idea that the immortal soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception. The problem is, that isn't biblical, either. In the Bible, even the idea of an immortal, individuated soul is confused, because the ancient Hebrews had no such concept. Instead, they had ruah, the "breath" of God, which gave life to flesh, suggesting that life entered the body at the moment of first breath, not conception. Even where the immortal soul was mentioned, the concept invited an indifference to the body (or zygote), not a special effort to preserve it: "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
So, no, my trepidations were not specifically biblical but worse: they were familial. Like Kelsie, my mom was 22 and unmarried when she first got pregnant. Raised poor in a close-knit, Catholic, ancestral community in rural Louisiana, Mama was educated by nuns to be ignorant of birth control. Mama's parents despised the father and wouldn't allow a marriage. Abortion was unthinkable, but neither did the family wish to ruin Mama's marriage prospects by saddling her with a child, so the extended family raised the baby. Mama endured such shame and economic hardship from her pregnancy that, when the same man got her pregnant again, she went away to have the second baby in secret, putting the child up for adoption. Mama kept her silence on this issue nearly all her life, until the child grew to adulthood and contacted the family. Had abortion been an option for Mama, and had she opted for it, she would have been spared a great deal of suffering, but the family -- and the world -- would have been denied my older brother and sister, whom we all cherish. In that sense, I'm thankful for my mom's upbringing. Without it, my older siblings would not exist.
But would anything in this experience be of use to Kelsie, a white, educated, middle-class, California woman? Should I even mention it? What could Kelsie possibly have in common with my mom -- or with me?
Lunch with Kelsie was rather breezy, if self-consciously so. When she finally introduced her plans, she discussed them only in logistical terms: The nearby clinic had botched something. The pill they gave her didn't work and made her sick. She needed a surgical procedure that was only available across the Bay. Would I come with her, please?
Would I? First, I had questions: How had this happened? Was it date rape? Did the guy know? Would she ever tell her parents? Before I got involved, I wanted assurance that she had been responsible, or, failing those, that she would be responsible in the future. But what were my questions really about? Did I feel the need to approve before I could help? Why did I need to know?
I thought of what Bill Napoli, that state representative in South Dakota, had said a few years prior, explaining his view of the rape exemption for abortion: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated." Napoli thinks that previous sexual history, or even desire to have sex before marriage, should be a disqualification for the rape exemption, as should a rape experience that wasn't sufficiently brutal. He thinks that abortion is only for "good" girls.
Did something in me agree? Rather than give credence to this frightening idea, I decided not to ask my questions. After all, what answers could she give that would make me unwilling to help my friend? Conditional support is not a Christian value. Of course I would go, if for no other reason than that she had asked.
The clinic was a shopping mall converted into mostly abandoned government offices. We arrived as early as possible to avoid traffic. The panhandlers in the morning cold were friendly if pushy, but the clerk in the medical office was rude, her attitude punitive. They took Kelsie into the back room for the quick procedure. They gave her Advil for the pain.
The ride back was long and quiet. Kelsie seemed tense. The moment I had dreaded came as we approached the bridge.
"So, Wayne, what do you think of all of this?" she asked.
What did I think? Did she really want to know?
A school near my hometown recently introduced a policy mandating pregnancy tests and banning those students whose tests were positive. This invasion of privacy and subsequent shunning make it plain to a girl that there is no place in civil society for her if she's pregnant. For groups that push these measures, the goal is to eliminate all options, even the option of claiming rape, so that the potential consequences of losing her virginity are so frightening to a girl that she wouldn't dream of doing it. Even when the girl becomes an adult, coercion away from sex continues, through the naming and shaming of sexually active women, and through ongoing indoctrination via church groups, "purity balls," virginity vows, the color white, and the promise of a white wedding.
But the system of prohibitions and coercions didn't work for my mom; it only contributed to her poverty, her lack of education, her lack of options, and her despair, and for what? To protect us from abortion? No. In fact, abortion was the least of the options denied to my mom. No sex education. No birth control. No schooling, even though every single one of these things is proven to reduce the the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy or subsequent abortion.
No, it's not abortion that's the enemy for religious conservatives, and it never was. For them, the enemy is the fearsome possibility that a woman might have sex with someone not selected for her. And what's the source of this fear? It's the same source that drove my officiously protective attitude toward Kelsie, an ancient source: "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine" (Exodus 21:22).
Like it or not, the Bible is one of the founding documents of our culture. And, though it's written toward liberation, it's written from a time and place of subjugation. In this passage, as in nearly all of them, the agency belongs to the men. Men decide what happens to mother and baby alike. Men have the ownership. Men have the dominion. In the ancient world, maleness meant dominion, and because dominion was always under threat (from rapacious, physically dominant invading armies, and from cuckolding wives and wayward daughters), men built protective mechanisms into society, into religion, to protect their fragile maleness. Men demanded ownership of their progeny and, through that ownership, tried to control the (until recently) unknowable: lineage, parentage, inheritance, the mystery of who a woman slept with and how the baby in her belly came to be.
My protectiveness toward Kelsie, kind as it may have seemed, came from my habit of viewing her, a younger woman, not as a peer to assist but as a child for me to protect. But simply by being a woman who asserts dominion over her own body, Kelsie challenges my ways of thinking about the place of men and women in society. And, when I speak of my life (take note, Victoria Jackson), I challenge hers.
To many people who think same-gender love is a "sin," their objection is that heterosexual marriage is supposed to represent the relationship "between Christ and His Church. The man represents Christ who represents the head; while the woman represents the Church who represent the body. By two men marrying, you have two heads and no body to head over." The blogger I've quoted believes that I've debased myself by renouncing my place in the sexual hierarchy. To his mind, making this renunciation as desirable as the norm would hasten the destruction of the hierarchy itself.
Together, Kelsie and I challenge the idea that manhood means sex with women, and that women must participate in the ancient social system we created. By having sex with whom we choose, when we choose, we shake the unstable ground on which they stand.
Poor Kelsie, a young, single girl looking out at the traffic and awaiting my reply, vulnerable, shaken, and finding her way. She didn't look much like the downfall of civilization. But neither do I. Neither did my mom. But we do threaten the ancient view that certain powerful groups are dedicated to protecting and preserving, a view that creates powerful men while robbing everyone else of health, happiness, and freedom.
So if I want permanent dominion over my own body, her dominion over hers is my cause, too.
"What do I think?" I finally replied. "I think you're an amazing young woman who has handled herself with good humor, courage, and class. You didn't need my approval to make the decisions that were best for you, and you don't need it now. But just know: When it comes to your control over your own body, I will always defend you."
We turned onto the bridge, and, in silence, we drove across the bay.
Wayne Self is a playwright and composer whose musicals explore the spiritual lives of people who live outside society's prescribed gender expectations. Through his essays, art, and advocacy, Self has helped people across the political spectrum to understand and model a more inclusive spirituality. See more of his essays and performance clips at owldolatrous.com.
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