The day that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her resignation from the Supreme Court in the summer of 2005, I was camping out at a Christian rock festival in Illinois with an anti-abortion activist group called Rock for Life. That morning, I was sitting in the dusty shade of the group’s RV with the Rock for Life director, Erik Whittington, and his wife, Tina, when we heard the news.
“It might finally be time,” Erik said, before scurrying off to meet with his all-male leadership team.
Several years earlier, Erik was a musician for bands in Portland, Oregon, with a girlfriend with an irregular menstrual cycle; his sanity, he told me, relied on her terminating a pregnancy each time her period was late. One night, he said, he was driving down an Oregon highway when he saw a minion of Satan, an actual monster, staring through him from the car next to his. That’s how he became a born-again Christian. His work in the anti-abortion movement was a natural fit, a boomerang of shame from his past, but painted in the language of feminism he knew from his Gen-X punk days.
“We do it for the women” was the mantra he shared from the stage throughout the festival, as Tina watched proudly, shushing her babies.
Tina explained to me that “anything that hinders women in their God-driven calling to be givers of life hastens Satan’s work.” That’s real female liberation, she said, to give oneself to the Lord according to the Bible’s guidance.
She is now a vice president of Students for Life, the nation’s largest anti-abortion youth organization, which released a statement this week declaring President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, “a bold choice.”
Kavanaugh is not an evangelical Christian. He is, however, a thriving alumnus of President George W. Bush’s administration, the White House that best understood the vigorous political power of cultural conservatives. Their source document for understanding the rights of Americans is not the Constitution, but the New Testament.
Kavanaugh’s ambitions flourished in a White House that labored to satisfy this powerful minority bloc that demands their beliefs be honored as the rule of law. His Yale University pedigree is a secular stamp on so-called religious liberty.
It doesn’t matter how Kavanaugh prays, any more than how likable he is as a carpool dad. (I like Erik Whittington tremendously and am glad, all these years later, to see pictures of the kids on Tina’s Facebook page.) What matters is how Kavanaugh interprets the prudence of precedence. The Federalist Society — such a misnomer for a group that wants to throw human rights back to the feral back alleys of the states—backs Kavanaugh. Other hardline anti-choice groups from Concerned Women for America to March for Life support him too. His stance on my right to determine my own fertility, and thus my own future, is obvious.
This is not only about abortion; it’s about the desire to strip women of agency and give our men de facto power of attorney over our bodies, ourselves. For the evangelicals who form a minority of our country but the solid rock of the Republican base, gender roles can be understood in one simple Bible verse, Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your husband as to the lord.”
This means women are not to be trusted. We do not know our own minds. It is the men in our lives who must draw the shape of our futures and govern whether we grow, birth, suckle and raise children. They must be our sponsors.
This is not only about abortion; it’s about the desire to strip women of agency and give our men de facto power of attorney over our bodies, our selves.
If the trained ear listens closely, it can hear Ephesians 5:22 vibrate through the two most relevant cases to Kavanaugh’s — and our — possible future relationship to Roe v. Wade.
Consider Garza v. Hargan, the 2017 case in which a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant wanted to terminate a pregnancy without having to secure consent from a family member. Kavanaugh’s dissent laughed so heartily in the face of her choice — the choice of a girl in ICE custody, who considered her circumstances to be hostile to motherhood and who was fleeing a land where abortion is not a legal option — that you can practically read the spittle clinging to his words. “Is it really absurd for the United States to think that the minor should be transferred to her immigration sponsor ― ordinarily a family member, relative, or friend ― before she makes that decision?” Her protected right to an abortion on U.S. soil would only be honored if a sponsor could approve her choice.
In conservative Christianity, that approval, that sponsorship, exists within the ordained hierarchy of marriage. If a conservative Christian family follows the doctrine of wifely submission, a husband has dominion over his wife’s womb. Evangelical marriage guides, a publishing cottage industry devoted to the creed of put out and shut up, double down on the Biblical inerrancy of Paul’s letter to Timothy, which said, “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” And per Ephesians 5:22, a woman must please the kangaroo court of her master bedroom (pay no attention, disciple, to evangelical faith as an unusually strong predictor for divorce).
If a conservative Christian family follows the doctrine of wifely submission, a husband has dominion over his wife’s womb.
Conservative justices rarely question the Supreme Court’s 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which found that states that banned married couples from buying contraceptives violated marital privacy. (The court would take another seven years to recognize the right to birth control for all other couples). In his then-progressive decision, Justice William Douglas wrote that to bring the law into the marital bedroom “is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.” That relationship, and what happens between its sheets, is a sanctified one, according to the evangelical reading of the Bible. Anything else is sin.
Chief Justice John Roberts, George W. Bush’s pick to replace O’Connor, said in his 2005 confirmation hearings that he would support the Griswold ruling, and frankly could not imagine a scenario in which Douglas’ decision would be in question. He did not offer comment — or faith — in the judicial safety of the Eisenstadt v. Baird, the 1972 ruling protecting contraception outside of the jurisdiction of marriage; Griswold was the most recent precedent to Roe he felt was secure enough to discuss in his hearings. We don’t know yet whether Kavanaugh agrees.
If the newly remade Supreme Court rolls back reproductive rights all the way to Griswold, single women, and the growing number of unmarried couples, may lose the right to contraception. Griswold but nothing beyond it would create two separate classes of women of childbearing age: ones who can legally plan their families, and ones who can’t. Women who have a legal right to privacy in their bedrooms and bodies, and women who don’t. Or, in evangelical terms, those who live under the righteous dominion of a husband, and those who don’t.
If the newly remade Supreme Court rolls back reproductive rights all the way to Griswold, single women may lose the right to contraception.
Should Roe be overturned, we’ll see if Roberts was right about the inviolability of Griswold. Plenty of anti-abortion groups are also anti-contraception, believing that their god alone should determine when to conceive a life. Anything else, like Tina told me, is Satan’s work.
The morning O’Connor resigned, opening the bench to Roberts, Tina and I were keeping an eye on her young son Justus — pronounced “justice” — as he played in the dirt near the Rock for Life tent. She was telling me about her first three births and the likelihood that her uterus might rupture the next time she got pregnant. Still, she would conceive her daughter later that year. Erik stopped by for a sandwich and a chat. When he left, she suggested I read a now-bestselling book called the Lies Women Believe and the Truth that Sets Them Free; it would transform my marriage, she said. “What are the lies women believe?” I asked her. “Lies like ‘I have my rights,’” she said.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.