Christians and Reproductive Justice: Hearing New Voices – by Cheryl B. Anderson

Reproductive justice assumes that women can and should make decisions about their reproductive health—including decisions about if they want to have children and, if they do, how many children to have and when to have them.  Since a woman who gives birth to a child is likely to be the one to raise that child, she naturally should be the one to make those decisions.  Yet, some, if not many, Christians find it difficult to wholeheartedly support reproductive justice, even if they do not oppose it completely.

Reproductive justice includes access to contraception and to legal abortions.  It is difficult to identify, though, one unified “Christian” perspective becausethere is a range of attitudes on the topic.  There are Christians who reject both contraceptive use and abortion, by arguing that life begins with conception; consequently,they would equate some forms of artificial contraception with abortion.   There are also Christians who accept contraceptive use, but not access to abortions under any circumstances.  Then, there are Christians who understand that women need to have access to contraceptives, and they feel there are circumstances when abortionshould be an option as well.  How could such a range of perspectives come from people in the same Christian faith tradition? Maybe it depends on whether they are willing to hear new voices.  Could it be that some groups are able to hear new voices with their different perspectives,but some groups are not?  If there are new voices, where do they come from?  I suggest that these new voices come from within the Bible itself and within our own denominations.

Hearing new voices within the Bible

Christians are familiar with, for example, two biblical references that have been used by those opposed to contraception and abortion: Psalm 139:13 and Jeremiah 1:5. The first one, Psalm 139: 13, reads “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Similarly, Jeremiah 1:5 reads “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” In contrast, however, Christians usually have not heard the texts that assume a fetus is not a person.  Specifically, Exodus 21:22-25 describes a situation in which a pregnant woman who intervenes in a fight between two men is injured and suffers a miscarriage as a result.  The penalty is just the payment of a fine which would not have been possible if a human life had been taken (Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12).  Then, in Numbers 5:11-31, a husband who suspects his wife has committed adultery can take her to the priests.  They will make her take a potion that, if she is guilty, will make “her womb discharge” and her “uterus drop” (5:21-22).   If she is not guilty, “then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children (5:28).

The significance of Numbers 5 in this discussion is that the passage does not have qualms about inducing an abortion if the woman were pregnant.  The husband’s fear, it would seem, is that his wife has become pregnant during suspected encounters with another man and this process would allay those fears. Indeed, after the visit with the priest, the husband is in a “win-win position.” Any pregnancy from the other man would be terminated if she were pregnant (or so he would believe), and, if she were not pregnant, she would be able to conceive and bear his children in the future.  Such a procedure is entirely in keeping with biblical family laws that, on the whole, were geared to making sure that an Israelite head of household could be sure that he was the father of his wife’s children.[1]Consequently, the Bible is not crystal clear about contraception and abortion.  If Christiansare to make moral determinations about reproduction, they must listen to the broader biblical witness found in Exodus and Numbers.

Another aspect of listening to new voices within the Bible is to read familiar passages in a new way.  The most common interpretations of Judges 19, for example, are helpful illustrations of how some passages must notbe read.Judges 19 is the story of the Levite’s concubine.In that story, a Levite and his concubine are guests of a host in the town of Gibeah. While the two are there, the men of the city come to the host’s door and demand that the Levite come out so that they “may have intercourse with him” (Judges 19:22).  While the host is offering his virgin daughter and the concubine, the Levite hands over only his concubine to the crowd. The men rape and abuse her all night long and leave her barely alive, if not dead, at the door of the host the next morning.

Conservative Christians, on the one hand, understand Judges 19 to condemn homosexuality, (focusing the intended act of the men in Gibeah) and, on the other hand, liberal Christians see Judges 19 as addressing the issue of hospitality(focusing on the host’s efforts to protect the Levite).  Both interpretations are problematic for several reasons, but my point here is that both interpretations—whether done by conservatives or by liberals—do not address the damaging way the females are treated in the text.  My fear is that, over time, ignoring the harm caused to women has become equated with the Christian tradition itself.   Yet the need to support reproductive justice initiatives becomes clearer when we hear the voices of the women who are harmed bya lack of justice.If Christians are to hear the voices of women today, they need to start reading texts such as Judges 19 in ways in which a woman’s voice can be heard—or in ways that make us aware of the silence where her voice should be heard.

Hearing new voices within our denominations

Traditional images of women revolve around a woman who married at a young age and is a full-time stay-at-home mother; her husband earns enough money to support the family in a lovely suburban home.  She and her husband abstained from sex until they got married, neither of them ever has an affair, their sex is only for procreation, and, given his salary, they can afford to have several children.  In this scenario, presumably contraceptives would not be needed and abortion would be unthinkable.

In our contemporary society, though, the reality is far removed from that traditional image.  Increasing numbers of babies in the United States today are born to single mothers. These mothers then have to work outside of the home to support theirchildren.  Men and women, if they marry, marry later than in their teenage years and, even if women are married when they have children, their husbands may not earn enough to support them on his salary alone.  In such circumstances, a married woman may very well have to work outside the home, too.  Furthermore,  the recent economic downturn disproportionately affected jobs in sectors that employed men, such as manufacturing, which means that some men who are now unemployed have wives who are the sole wage earner for the family.  Although the economy is improving, the situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, with the growing employment sectors requiring at least a college education, and there are more women now in college than men.  Women cannot be limited to their homes today—they have responsibilities at home and in the job market.  An integral part of women handling these increased responsibilities is being able to make decisions about having children.  In today’s setting, Christians must hear the voices of these women who live lives that are so different from the traditional ideal.  We must also recognize that the lives of woman vary greatly according to race, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, and even incarceration status.  More important, we must acknowledge that many of these women are sitting in our congregations.

Although women are the majority of many of our congregational membership, denominational leaders tend to be men.  As a result, men have been the ones to establish Christian policies for reproduction.  Yet there is a basic discrepancy between (male) denominational policies and the practices of the women in those denominations. According to statistics offered by the Guttmacher Institute, over 90 percent of all women who have had sex have used some form of contraception (other than natural family planning which is the only form accepted by the Roman Catholic Church), contraceptive use is consistent for women from Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant and Evangelical backgrounds, and over 70 percent of women who have had abortions report a religious affiliation, with the overwhelming majority being Christian women.[2] Consequently, Christians in each denomination must hear the voices of their own women.  These women have an understanding of the denominational requirements for faithful living that differ greatly from those of their (male) denominational leaders.  The richness of all our denominations could be deepened by listening to their witness.

Conclusion

The “war on women” is a hot topic these days, but the refusal to consider the impact of our biblical interpretations and our denominational policies on women is not new.  All too often, our denominational traditions have been defined by the exclusion of women and their perspectives and realities.  Consequently, we have made the lives of women more difficult and caused greater harm.  For example, African American and Latina women do use contraception at lower rates than the national averages, as faith leaders might want, but that lower usage is associated with higher rates of unintended pregnancy and, in turn, with higher rates of abortion.[3]

Denominational policies on reproductive issues do vary according to the ability of denominational leaders and their congregations to hear new voices in the Bible and within their own denominations.  Butlistening to these new voices is our responsibility.  As mentioned in my book, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies,we need to continue Christ’s work of redemption and reconciliation in our midst (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).  With the help of the Holy Spirit, listening to these new voices will allow us to create a world in which males and females alike can have life in all its fullness (John 10:10).  We can then live out our commitments to justice, hope, and compassion in ways that are truly a celebration of God’s grace.

All direct Scriptural quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version. Used by permission.

Rev. Cheryl B. Anderson, Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She is an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church (Baltimore-Washington Conference) and the author of two books and several articles. Her most recent book is Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2009). Earlier in her career, Professor Anderson was a practicing attorney with the federal government in Washington, D.C. In addition to teaching, she works with congregations on reading the Bible in the context of HIV and AIDS.


[1] Carolyn Pressler, The View of Women Found in Deuteronomic Family Laws (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1993) and Cheryl B. Anderson, Women, Ideology and Violence; Critical Theory and the Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and the Deuteronmic Law (London:T&T Clark International, 2004).

[2]http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/Religion-and-Contraceptive-Use.pdf and http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/US-Abortion-Patients.pdf

[3]http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/11/3/gpr110302.html

Comments are closed.