Abortion is a moral issue, just not in the way we’ve been taught, argues Rebecca Todd Peters, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and professor of religious studies at Elon University. She is also the author of the new book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. Rather than an abstract moral question, she argues, abortion is a morally valid option to a concrete question women face on a regular basis: “What should I do when faced with an unplanned, unwanted, or medically compromised pregnancy?”
Right now, much of our society seems unable to let women answer that question for themselves. Peters attributes that state of things to misogynistic and patriarchal ideas of womanhood that judge motherhood to be a moral end that supersedes all others. Peters pulls no punches against Christianity, which she holds responsible for shaping many of these cultural norms.
As an alternative, Peters offers a moral framework in the language of progressive Christianity and built on a foundation of reproductive justice—an intersectional approach conceptualized by a small cohort of black women activists in the 1990s that recognizes the complexity of women’s reproductive lives. Within the context of a specific woman’s life, the moral consequences of having a child can be equal to—if not greater than—the moral consequences of having an abortion. And so, in many cases, she argues, abortion can be a morally good decision.
I recently spoke with Peters about the book and her vision for the role of progressive, feminist Christian theology in contemporary abortion debates. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You begin the book with a description of your own abortion, before diving into the philosophical, legal, and religious attitudes about women that shape the contemporary discourse around abortion. Why was it important for you to start from the personal?
It took me a long time to make that decision to start from the personal. I’ve been working on this project for 25 years, but when I began specifically writing this book in my sabbatical two years ago, it was an open question about whether or not I was going to talk about my personal experience. And for me, figuring out whether or not to do that was really about what I’m trying to do in the book.
In the book, the whole argument is oriented around shifting the conversation from a justification framework to a reproductive-justice framework. And the point of a reproductive-justice framework is to say, abortions are events in the larger lives of women’s reproductive experiences, and we can only understand them within the history of those lives. And women’s stories are absent. The sort of ordinary abortions, those stories are absent. So it felt important to have those stories, to normalize those stories, and to say, abortion is a normal part of women’s lives. That was absolutely the case for me, and telling my story in a landscape where those stories are so silent seemed very important to me. Once I decided it was important to tell my story, opening with it was just an editorial decision, in terms of the effectiveness of starting with a story as a way of confronting that silence.