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.
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A significant portion of your book is then spent challenging and prodding what you call the “flawed moral discourse” in public discussions of abortion, that we are unable to recognize the bodily integrity of women because we are culturally conditioned to expect motherhood as the default outcome of pregnancy. What would a better moral discourse look like?
That’s what I think a reproductive-justice framework offers us. I think it offers us a counter-narrative, a counter-framework. The simplicity of a reproductive-justice framework is one of its strengths. The three principles that that movement identifies are the right not to have a child, the right to have a child, and the right to parent the children that we have. I think what is so powerful about that framework is that it recognizes that the issue is about parenting and families and motherhood, and the right not to be a mother, and the right to be a mother, and the right to raise our children in healthy and safe environments. A reproductive-justice framework highlights the difficulties women face when they do have children, in raising those children in a country that tolerates obscene levels of poverty, obscene levels of racism and damage to vulnerable children and families.
So it’s putting abortion back into a context, rather than isolating it.
Yes, right. I think that’s the problem that I identify with the justification framework, is it forces public conversation into this narrow moral binary abstract question: Is abortion right or wrong? And that’s the wrong starting point. Abortion is only ever the answer to a question a woman faces about, What should I do when I have an unplanned or a medically fragile pregnancy? That’s the question: What should I do? That’s absolutely a moral question. One of the things I really want to lift up in this book is, abortion is definitely a moral issue. But it’s a moral issue within the context of women’s lives, where women make moral decisions about their sexuality all the time. Having a child, I argue, is a larger moral decision than having an abortion, because the moral requirements of motherhood are enormous.
Part of that is the way we talk about women and motherhood. I’m particularly fascinated by your linguistic choices in the book, specifically your coining of the term “prenate” to refer to the developing fetus inside a pregnant woman. To be honest, I found it somewhat jarring at first, but by the end of reading, it seemed natural. Can you tell me more about why you chose to use this word?
I needed a word, because in my experience, when I hear women’s accounts, when I talk to women about their abortions, very few use the term “fetus.” And pregnant women with wanted pregnancies don’t talk about their “fetus,” they talk about their “baby.” And yet, that is so inadequate. It blurs our capacity to recognize the difference between a prenate and a baby.
I searched for months and months, I looked at other languages to see if there were other ways that people talked about this entity, and I just never found one. So I started trying to coin a phrase and came up with “prenate.” It felt like it worked, it felt right to me. I remember when I was talking to my daughter, who at the time was probably 10 or 11, and she was asking about this, she said, “What is this term?” And I said, “Well, ‘pre’ means before, and ‘nate’ is from natal, for birth, so it’s before birth.” And she was like, “Oh, that makes sense.” It had a simplistic logic to it, and I hope that having a new term will allow us to recognize the very important moral distinction between a prenate and a baby.
I feel like so much of the broader public, on a gut level, feels torn about this, because they sort of feel like there’s something there but they don’t have language for it. I’m hoping the book will have a language to have a better conversation about abortion and the morality of abortion and the morality of pregnancy and motherhood.
Speaking of language, you write that the frames of pro-life and pro-choice limit the contemporary abortion debate because the categories they represent are “incommensurable.” You write, “one category is a theological position, and the other a legal position.” Do you believe theological and legal arguments can be compatible? And how should those of us without a theological position engage with theological arguments?
I feel we can’t do that within the justification paradigm, precisely because it’s a flawed paradigm. You cannot have a conversation with someone when you’re talking about two different things. When it’s framed as pro-life or pro-choice, you don’t share a common vocabulary. So if you change the paradigm, if you move to a reproductive-justice paradigm, when we’re talking about women’s ability to have children, not have children, and raise the children they have, then you have created a neutral conversation to ask the question: Is it moral to have an abortion? That’s not a legal question. Within that neutral paradigm, you can ask legal questions and you can ask theological questions, but they don’t have to overlap. The theological claim shouldn’t be in a legislative debate. A legislator can say, as a Jew or as Christian or as a Hindu, this is what I believe, but that is not an adequate basis for legislation. You would have to then translate that into legal principles, into a common discourse.
I’m skeptical of this approach, because so many legal decisions in the US already have been influenced by theological positions. Is it possible to remove them?
We’ve done that in other ways, around homosexuality. The prohibitions around homosexual sexual acts were absolutely influenced by theological beliefs around homosexuality, and we have managed to disentangle those beliefs about the morality of homosexuality from the legal position that people have a right to have sex with whomever and in whatever way they want, as long as no one is being harmed. So we have instances where we’ve done that. We just haven’t figured out how to do it with this topic.
There’s somewhat of a growing movement among religious progressives in the United States to reclaim a space in the political sphere. Would you consider yourself a part of that? And was that space ever lost in the first place?
I consider myself a progressive Christian and have for a while. I’ve written about progressive Christianity, as a feminist social ethicist, and that’s how I position myself within the intellectual history of progressive Christianity. I trace that back to the social gospel movement of the late 19th century, leading through the liberation movements in the 1960s and ’70s. I’ve been very active in that movement for the last 30 years and so I don’t think that moment ever disappeared. I think that movement has a very strong trajectory that has been historically represented through largely mainline Christianity. My experience is that it’s a very male movement, and there’s not much attention to feminist theology, feminist leadership, feminist concerns.
In your book, you lay much of the blame for our society’s conception of women on early Christian male theologians, many of whom believed women to be the root of sin and thus excluded them from church leadership. What role should contemporary Christians play in rewriting these assumptions?
I think this has been the work of feminist theology for the past 30 or 40 years, but it’s not mainstream. Even these progressive Christian movements are very male, and most of them are not incorporating feminist theological ideals and assumptions and liturgy into their understanding and definition of progressive Christianity. I think until that happens, until feminist theology can make the leap from the academy into churches, and into the more popular understanding of what it means to be Christian, I think that’s the leap that needs to be made.
There was a big movement in the ’70s and ’80s around inclusive language in churches, even opening up our understanding around who and what God is, and pushing past very androcentric ideas about the divine. In 1993, there was a Re-Imagining God conference that had 2,000 people attend, and it was mostly laypeople, and it was this celebration of feminist theology, and the most prominent scholars and theologians of the day presented. It was absolutely attacked, it became this flashpoint for conservative Christianity, and there was a massive backlash after that conference. What I’ve found in the last 10 or 15 years is that fewer and fewer churches use inclusive language, and even the influence of feminist ideological ideas. That backlash has been really effective.
The shifts will happen as voices become more prominent in popular culture and in public discourse. I think Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, is a leading voice in trying to move in that direction, but it will take more people and more voices and more platforms for having alternative visions of progressive and feminist forms of Christianity, before we can really shift those traditions.
Christians are often crudely categorized as anti-abortion in the American abortion debate. What’s missing in the way we talk about religion, and Christianity specifically, in the context of reproductive rights?
The dominant narrative is that Christianity is opposed to abortion, and that dominant narrative is being pushed by the Catholic Church and very conservative Evangelical voices, both clergy and laypeople. There are legislators who are evangelical, or Catholic, mostly men, who push those ideas in the debates that are happening in state houses across the country. And when that gets covered in the media, it gets covered in ways that give the impression that Christianity is anti-abortion. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book, is to try to lift up a counter-narrative, because there’s a very strong counter-narrative, and there are many Christians who are pro-choice.
I don’t think there’s been the depth of conversation around the morality of abortion or sexuality or motherhood or parenting that we need to have, that would be healthy for us as a country. My hope is that the book will offer a Christian counter-narrative that really engages in a much more nuanced and complex conversation about the morality of abortion. Even though I work out of a Christian tradition, I try to do so in ways that are not exclusively Christian. So when I talk about justice or morality, I don’t do that in ways that require one to be Christian.
One thing I found surprising was how little of the book was explicitly Christian.
Well, what do you mean when you say that?
Maybe that’s my own misunderstanding, based on that dominant narrative.
What I would say is, my book embodies progressive Christianity, and that’s what most people don’t understand. Progressive Christianity, for me, and for many people, is about focusing on what the social teachings are in the Bible, in the traditions, in the church, that help us think about and address the social problems we see in the world. That’s very different from an evangelical understanding of Christianity, which is about salvation. I actually don’t care that much about salvation. That’s not my primary concern. My primary concern is about the world that we live in, and how we make a more just world. That’s the tradition of the social gospel.