Browsing Tag

anti-abortion

Feminism

Gatekeeping vs. Coalition Building

The second I first heard about a possible march happening in DC the day after the inauguration, my reaction was where do I sign up. Marching will not be the only way I resist the incoming regimeadministration, but I will stand in the streets tomorrow and scream my rage and sorrow with my sisters. I know many of you can’t– having fibromyalgia means I will be paying for this all next week, so I understand not being able to make marching work for you. I also know not everyone feels that the Women’s March tomorrow either represents you well or is something you want to give your energy to, and I respect that.

However, since Wednesday, a large part of the conversation of can I, should I march on Saturday has revolved around abortion, and I feel that the conversation has been plagued with misrepresentations. We are talking about abortion after all so the fact that everything is being flagrantly misunderstood is unsurprising. Since I’m in seminary primarily to advocate for reproductive justice in my Christian context, this conversation is critical to me, and I want to try to push it in an honest and fact-based direction.

The discussion we’re having was sparked when the Women’s March leadership decided to partner with an organization called New Wave Feminists. I am frustrated with the people who made that decision because it’s clear that New Wave Feminists was not vetted at all. If they’d looked into this organization, they would have found out that the founder testified in favor of HB2 in Texas (the bill Wendy Davis filibustered)– the bill that would have removed abortion access from most women in Texas. New Wave Feminists also lie about hormonal contraception and their founder said that women shouldn’t be “full-service sluts.” The goal of this organization is to restrict abortion access, restrict access to birth control, and control women’s sexuality. It is not an organization that the Women’s March should support, and they were right to remove them as partners.

However, after removing them as partners, they faced some criticism. I heard about it because Rachel Held Evans– as y’all know, one of my heroes– tweeted “Progressives have a chance to build a broader coalition here, and they are blowing it” … which was incredibly disappointing because of the narrative that weaves. Over the past two days I’ve seen a ridiculous number of people claim that the Women’s March is forbidding any pro-life woman from participating, which is just ridiculous. Removing an anti-woman organization from partnership and being unwilling to partner with those who want to make abortion illegal does not mean that pro-life women can’t march, if they want to. They couldn’t have made that clearer.

Rachel’s tweet– and the widespread sentiment her tweet represents– was also incredibly frustrating on top of being disappointing because this situation is the result of a terrible amount of confusion. The New Wave Feminists are an organization pro-lifers like Karen Swallow Prior, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans want to defend? People who lie to women, who lie about medicine, who shame us and demean us? Who call us “sluts” for having sex, who misrepresent themselves and their goals?

I have saidrepeatedly— that I want to work with the sort of pro-life women Rachel represents. I value their work, I value them, and I understand where they’re coming from. In the past I’ve respected their position because I saw it as realistic, loving, and consistent. I welcome their particular articulation of pro-life ethics into my feminist work with open arms. I may think that abortion is ethical, but I understand having reservations. This isn’t an easy issue– and, regardless of why any particular person may be having an abortion, it represents a failure somewhere. People who will fight with me to overcome those failures– who want to make birth control accessible, who want accurate and thorough sex education, who want to remove the cultural oppression that force women into these situations– I want you at my side.

After all, I’m pro-choice. If someone is having an abortion because they have no other option, I do not consider that acceptable. We should be able to choose whether or not we want to remain pregnant, and not have circumstances limit us or force us. We should be able to feed our babies, we should be able to get our children to the doctor, we should be able to keep our jobs, we should be able to recover after giving birth … and it’s wrong that those are the considerations pregnant people face.

So I’m all in favor of coalition building. I think feminism is a big tent and a lot of us should be able to squeeze together under here– even if we don’t always agree.

However.

There has to be a line somewhere.

If you’ve read me for a bit, you know I’m not a fan of shibboleths. I don’t like setting up a bunch of fences and boundaries to movements and I don’t, in general, like people who say “you’re in, you’re in, you’re not.” I like big, broad, encompassing tents. I like it when we don’t always get along, don’t always agree. I want serious discussions, not a bunch of people who preach to the choir all of the time.

But I think it is appropriate and good for feminists to say “being a feminist means you don’t support policies that lead to the suffering and death of women,” and unfortunately, that’s what being “pro-life” means for a not-insignificant part of the pro-life movement. If there’s going to be a line that keeps some people out of the feminist tent, the “you want women to die for no god-forsaken reason” is a damn good line. It’s the only line really worth enforcing. If Feminism weren’t The We Want Women to Not Die tent, it wouldn’t be good for anything.

I’m not apologizing for that being my price of admission. If you support policies and laws that lead to nothing else but suffering and death, I don’t want you in my tent and I don’t understand why you’d want to be in it. Banning abortion, criminalizing abortion, “making it illegal except in cases of life-threatening emergencies” leads to death and suffering. Those actions do not change the abortion rate— they result in the same number of abortions, but more life-threatening medical problems, more death, more abuse, more violence, more tragedies, and yes, women being sent to prison because they miscarried.

On this one issue– whether or not our nation’s laws result in women dying– I will be a gatekeeper. Kate Shellnutt and Hannah Anderson at Christianity Today want to tell me that ““If Dem[ocrats] could have entertained possibility of a pro-life women’s vote, they’d have won,” and it makes me scream inside because that “pro-life women’s vote” was a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal. It wasn’t a vote against rape or sexual assault. It wasn’t a vote to protect our jobs, our wages, our children, our healthcare, our autonomy, or our bodies in any way. It was one vote: to criminalize abortion. To condemn women to needless suffering, unnecessary physical torment, and death for many of us. No, I will not “entertain” that idea, and I don’t think feminism should.

These “pro-life women voters” like the New Wave Feminists have spent a massive amount of time telling us that our actions have consequences– and surprisingly, this is where I agree. Pro-life people who want to ban abortion apparently live in a land without consequences. They want to enforce their religious interpretation of when life begins onto everyone and pretend that nothing bad could ever come of that. That their actions, their choices, would not be the reason why more women would be thrown in prison or killed. They want to ban abortion– even though it would not even accomplish what they want. They want to prevent us from accessing birth control– even though that actively opposes what they want. They want to punish us for even daring to take control of our lives.

If that doesn’t describe you, welcome inside my big feminist tent.

If it does, stay out in the cold and shiver.

Feminism

personally pro-life, politically pro-choice

I’m about as pro-choice as it’s possible to be. I’m unflinchingly pro-choice, even. There are no ifs, ands, or buts  in my approach to abortion, no caveats, no disclaimers. I am completely opposed to “late-term” abortion bans, TRAP laws, and any other restrictions on a person’s ability to conduct their own medical affairs. I believe that abortion should be treated no differently from any other medical procedure: it is safe– far safer than childbirth— and it is private.

However, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, this position is relatively recent– more recent, even, than where I was when I wrote the Ordeal of the Bitter Waters series over two years ago. My feminism is continuously evolving, and back when I wrote that series I was more uncomfortable with so-called “late-term” abortions than I am today. I’ve been evaluating and re-evaluating my stances on reproductive rights for almost eight years now, and I’ve arrived at a place that feels more drastic than a complete reversal should.

As an inexperienced and woefully uninformed young woman, I was fervently pro-life. I picketed clinics a handful of times; I canvassed neighborhoods trying to get TRAP laws put on my state’s ballot. I didn’t think there should be exceptions for rape and incest. Over time, however, circumstances forced me to confront what I believed about abortion, and I realized that my pro-life position was morally indefensible.

My theological and political background puts me in an interesting position, especially as I’ve been observing this election season– my first presidential election as a registered Democrat. My social media feeds are a sometimes-hilarious mix of extremes because some of my friends are Marxists, some are Libertarians, and at least two friends post almost nothing but pictures of guns. What’s becoming troubling to me is that we all seem to have forgotten the value– and governing necessity– of compromise, of embracing a spectrum of beliefs and positions in order to accomplish a good work.

I don’t think there’s anything that demonstrates how polarized we can be than abortion. This election season, it seems that tension has coalesced around Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine. He, like other Democratic men like Joe Biden, embrace a complicated position toward reproductive rights: personally opposed to abortion (a somewhat ridiculous position for a man to hold, I’ll admit), but still in support of abortion remaining legal and accessible.

This is where my perspective can seem a little bit wonky to some of my pro-choice friends and colleagues: I don’t have a problem with Clinton choosing Kaine as her running mate. He wasn’t who I was hoping for, but I think the reasoning for choosing him is logical and practical– two of the things I admire most about Clinton’s approach to politics.

I do have a problem with Kaine’s history. He supported abstinence-only education because he felt it would lower the abortion rate in Virginia, which flies in the face of common sense and well-established fact. He banned “partial birth” abortions, a ridiculous position that speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of medical procedures. He used state funds to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which use deceptive, manipulative, and unethical tactics. Even though he’s seemed to have evolved on these positions, I understand the hesitancy many of my pro-choice colleagues are feeling.

However, as fervently pro-choice as I am and as much as I will fight to protect our reproductive rights, I can support Kaine for vice president because he embodies one of my most valued positions:

I will work with anyone,  even someone who’s pro-life, to advance reproductive justice.

I am absolutely for what some call “abortion on demand.” I am vocally in support of bodily autonomy being seen as a fundamental right. However, I am troubled by certain unfortunate realities surrounding reproductive care in this country because I am pro-choice. The US has a much higher abortion rate than many other developed nations, and I think that’s indicative of larger problems.

For example, for teenage girls who gave birth by fifteen, 39% of their partners were older than twenty. For girls who gave birth by seventeen, 53% of their partners were older than 20. There’s some nuance there, of course, but that research indicates that up to half of all teenage pregnancies are a result of rape. That, to me, highlights the gross and horrifying failure in sex education. The abstinence-only “purity” approach leaves people, especially girls, vulnerable to violence and abuse.

In a survey from 2004, a huge number of the people who responded— 73%– said they’d had abortions because they couldn’t afford to have a baby. There’s other reasons to have an abortion, obviously, but when three quarters of the people having an abortion cite their finances as the most important reason they needed an abortion, it means that there’s a definite lack of choice involved in their decision. That’s unfortunate, and upsetting. Abortion should be available without limits– you shouldn’t have to prove you have a “good enough” reason– but if they would have preferred to keep their pregnancy but can’t afford to, that’s a problem.

There are so many avenues to provide real choices. Reducing child care costs. Making reliable contraception widely available. Offering comprehensive education on reproductive health and consensual sex. All of those things are proven in reducing the abortion rate (as well as just being good ideas on their own), and this abortion-on-demand feminist thinks that’s an important enough goal that I’ll even work with Tim Kaine to ensure that people are free to make a true, unbounded, personal choice.

I don’t need ideological purity in the people I work with. I don’t need to agree with you on everything to try to get something accomplished. I don’t like litmus tests, and I abhor movements that are unwilling to bend in order to get the work done. If you’re personally pro-life, but think that decision is a personal one best left to a person and their doctor, we can shake on it.

If you’d like to know more about these pro-choice positions, I recommend Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich.

Photo by Toshiyuki
Feminism

what hast thou wrought: Christians and Trump

I’ve read a lot of articles about Donald Trump. If you look at my last “stuff I’ve been into” post, there’s about a half-dozen articles on him that represents the best-of-the-best of my reading on the subject. I’ve got a lot of angry-and/or-panicking friends on social media, so I’m inundated with quite a bit of material that represent a gamut of positions. My friends range from hard right, center-right, center-left, and hard-hard-hard-hard-left, and one of the biggest conversation topics shared among all these groups is this question:

How can Christians be voting for him?

I’ve already explained why I think Christians shouldn’t be voting for Trump, but now I’d like to take a stab at why Christians– namely white evangelicals– are supporting him in even greater numbers than they supported Romney. There’s been multitudes of ink spilled attempting to answer this, and the obvious answer is white supremacy. Evangelicals exist as a voting bloc because of racism. Trump with all of his flagrant racism is calling to one of the most basic motivations of the evangelical movement, and we ignore this to our detriment. Another obvious answer is misogyny. He embodies everything wrong with masculinity in American culture– braggadocio, chauvinism, narcissism, anger, insecurity– but it’s appealing to those among us who see powerful women and feminism as an innate threat to their manhood or their sense of social order.

The internet is filled to the brim with articles covering all those reasons, as well as plenty of articles pointing out all the ways that Trump’s actions, history, and proposed policies are antithetical to everything Christians have been saying they expect in a presidential candidate for decades. Like having family values. Or being a Christian. So, a lot of my friends are confused: how is this possible? On top of the fore-mentioned white supremacy and misogyny that are integral to evangelical culture, I’d like to highlight two more elements that make supporting Trump a foregone conclusion for so many evangelicals.

Abortion

Yes, this is also obvious. Wayne Grudem even included Trump’s supposed pro-life platform as a part of his argument for why Trump is a “morally good choice.” What’s been confusing to many of my friends is that Trump’s “pro-life” position is recent and possibly a lie, so how can evangelicals be staking an election on something they can’t possibly be sure of?

The answer is simple: Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, and will appoint pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. Trump, while perhaps not personally pro-life, will most likely appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

They have to take that chance. They have to because being anti-abortion is all they’ve got. Modern evangelicals and other conservative Christians aren’t, by and large, holistically pro-life in the sense that they consider human life sacred and inestimably valuable. They’re pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-healthcare, against policies that could end starvation and hunger, anti-gun control, and many even believe that parents should have the right to murder their children once they’re not, y’know, fetuses. They’re not pro-life in any meaningful way, but they are anti-abortion and pro-birth, and holding onto that position makes them incredibly powerful.

With their stance of being a single-issue voter in their back pocket, they control elections. They get to say who stays and who goes, who gets power and who doesn’t, all through this one platform: overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s the Southern Strategy reborn, and there’s no way in hell that they’re going to let go of this, no matter how deep into the muck and slime and mire they have to go to justify it. They’ve staked their soul on this ground. This is the line in the sand they’ve drawn.

Granted, there are plenty of anti-abortion Christians who aren’t being cynical and hypocritical about this. Their theological system simply cannot let them back down from this political position, because if they were to accept the concept that private faith and public life aren’t necessarily eternally bonded concepts, a lot of other things start unraveling. Or, if they were to shift their thinking about abortion from a biblical perspective, the whole house of cards might come crashing down. They can’t afford to question this, because questioning their stance on abortion means questioning everything. It means reassessing their identity, their character, their morality. It means re-examining almost everything they’ve ever done and said to women, to children, to their LGBT brothers and sisters … to orphans and widows and prisoners.

I’ve done it. It’s painful. Too painful, possibly, for many.

Redemption

The one element that I haven’t seen anyone talking about is the redemption narrative intrinsic to the evangelical faith system. To many of my friends and colleagues, it’s inconceivable that Christians could look at Trump– a man who sexually abused his wife, who raped a child, who harasses women with impunity, who sent Hillary Clinton a death threat— and think yes, this man represents my Christian values. How could James Dobson say he’s “tender to things of the spirit” or Jerry Falwell claim that he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” much less do so with a straight face? This man is an abominable monster, and yet Christians are flocking to him. How can this be?

The answer is in two parts. First, “Creation, Fall, Redemption” is essential to understanding the evangelical viewpoint. Mankind fell into sin in the Garden, but Jesus promises us redemption and ultimately resurrection. To them, this narrative is woven into Scripture from beginning to end, and our lives reflect this pattern, this Truth about reality. We are born Fallen but can be Redeemed no matter what, no matter when.

Trump can’t be excepted from this narrative. He’s a fallen sinner, just like the rest of us, and God can redeem him, too. The fact that he’s converting to conservative Christian-style politics is a checkmark in his favor– in a culture where religion and nationalism are horribly mixed, Trump’s promises for “Christians to be powerful again” ring true in their ears. In this only-Republicans-are-really-Christians climate, it’s the only “spiritual fruit” they need. To those who believe that We Are a Christian Nation, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” speaks to their dominionist, theocratic vision for their country.

Secondly… I’m surprised that anyone is surprised.

Yes, Trump is a child rapist. Yes, Trump abused his wife, making her feel “violated.” Yes, Trump has harassed and attacked multiple women. Yes, yes, yes. But if you look around Christian culture, it’s populated by people exactly like him.

Joshua Duggar attacks his sisters and girls from his church, and it’s written off as “normal.” Bill Gothard sexually abuses teenage girls for decades and he’s still the head of a thriving ministry. Pope Francis has participated in a horrific and disgusting cover-up of child sexual abuse, and he even lands a cover on the AdvocatePastors, youth pastors, evangelists, missionaries, priests– they can rape women, men, children, and it doesn’t matter. They’re protected, even given positions of power. They can rape children, be convicted and sent to prison, and still get to write feature articles for Christian leadership magazines. Their churches and missionary boards will cover it up and shelter them.

Christian culture is a haven for abusers.

It’s a shelter for rapists and molesters because of the redemption narrative they cling to. If a rapist or abuser says “I’m sorry, I’ve repented,” anyone who questions that is harshly censored. If a woman wants to divorce her husband because he enjoyed watching people rape children, she’s censored by her church and shunned. Or if your husband “repents” of sexually abusing a child for years, you’ll be the one seen as “breaking your marriage vows” if you decide to leave him. Even if he’s abusing you, according to John Piper you’re just supposed to stick it out. After all, if you listen to Debi Pearl, maybe if he beats you long enough you’ll bring him to a saving knowledge of Christ. Or, maybe Debi Pearl’s too extreme for you– how about Lori Wick, one of the most popular Christian fiction authors?

This is why Trump is succeeding so well among evangelical voters. He’s an abuser, but now he’s converted to their nationalistic, dominionist, theocratic, white supremacist and misogynistic faith, and through that has been Redeemed.

He fits right in.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Feminism, Social Issues

ordeal of the bitter waters, part six

mother and baby

This is the final post in this series. I wanted to thank everyone who’s been reading and commenting for your support and encouragement as I put all of this into writing– very public writing. I also wanted to note, again, that everything I’ve written here is merely my story– I’m not expecting to convince anyone, merely explain why I’ve changed my mind on this issue so totally.

In 2009, the facade of my fierce pro-life beliefs suffered its first crack when I was facing a choice I’d never expected to encounter.

In 2010, I started understanding that many of the beliefs I had were either self-contradictory or dangerous.

In 2011, my eyes were opened to the innate hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement, which was only really pro-birth and anti-abortion.

In 2012, coming to terms with my culture and society meant that I could no longer support pro-life politics.

In 2013, I put not my politics, but my beliefs under the microscope.

In June, I was held in thrall by Wendy Davis.

In July, I was confronted by the truth of Numbers, Hosea, Genesis, Isaiah, Exodus, and 2 Kings.

In August, I finally came to terms with the concept of potential life, and that is when it finally, finally hit me: through most of my thoughts, my explorations, my research, I was almost exclusively focused on whether or not the zygote, the conceptus, and ultimately the fetus had fully endowed, inalienable human rights . . . and I realized that what I’d been reading from pro-choice women was absolutely, undeniably right in my own life– pro-life beliefs view women almost entirely as a vessel instead of as a person.

Even when I’d been raped and I thought I might be pregnant, I saw myself as merely a support structure for an embryo. I was traumatized by the idea of needing an abortion– how could I do that to this innocent baby? What right did I have to end its life? When my period finally came, I collapsed on the bathroom floor, more relieved than I have ever been, while simultaneously grief-stricken and horrified that I had ever considered an abortion.

That was the belief that had caused me to struggle with this system for years. I believed that a zygote, a conceptus, an embryo, and a fetus were all fully human while simultaneously believing that my rights as a person, my autonomy, did not exist and that my own body did not belong to me but to a growing, developing fetus. As long as I believed that my own rights as a fully human person with inalienable rights were completely subjugated to a potential life, I was incapable of seeing anything about this issue– and these women— fairly. In my own head, I saw pregnant women as less than the developing life inside of her. All the imagery, all the narratives, everything I’d had access to as a young woman taught me to see a fetus in terms of a miracle and the woman creating that miracle as little more than a necessary tool.

That was truly the only thing keeping me from committing to being pro-choice. But, a few months ago, that balance shifted.

I am not a vessel. I am a person.

I am not a procreative tool. I am a person.

I am not my reproductive organs. I am a person.

I am a person, and I am fully endowed with inalienable human rights.

That shift changed everything.

I felt like Saul-becoming-Paul, with the scales falling away from my eyes, and the light more blinding than the darkness had been. This was a revolutionary change in paradigm, and it took two more months to truly come to terms with it, to accept what had happened to me. And, as I walked around in this brand-new world that was terrifying and thrilling all at once, I started understanding what it means to be pro-choice.

For me, it almost entirely boils down to the simple fact that I believe in women. I believe that we are intelligent and capable. I believe that we are fully able to examine the situations of our lives, examine what we need and want, and make up our own damn mind about our own damn decisions– and we do not need a male-dominated bureaucracy that has next-to-no understanding about (and absolutely no personal experience whatsoever) women’s lives telling us what to do about an incredibly personal decision that is really no one else’s business.

I had grown up in a systemic belief that women do not know any better- and are really incapable of knowing any better, so they must have their decisions controlled by the government. Women were making decisions that were different than what we believed was right, so all I saw were characterizations of man-hating feminists and stupid sluts. There was no in between. I had no image of a woman who rationally made an emotional decision based on personal experience and the evidence available. That woman simply did not exist in the universe I grew up in. Women were being constantly manipulated and lied to, and that was the only possible reason any of them could think differently than us.

Becoming pro-choice meant that, for the first time, I saw those women. I got to know some of them. Sometimes, I merely read their stories. I saw women look into the eyes of her precious child and sorrowfully realize that she could not afford to feed him if she had another baby. I watched as women struggled with the fact that if they carried to term, they would most likely find themselves unemployed— and unemployable. I saw women with visions for their future who wanted children but lived in the harsh, bleak reality that women with children are either not hired, paid less, or are given less opportunities than women without children. I talked with women who were afraid of having children because they could be denied tenure. I read the heartbreaking stories of women whose health was seriously threatened by pregnancy. Of women who could not afford going off of their pain medication or their anti-depressants for a pregnancy.

I realized that there are as many reasons for having an abortion as there are women, and it is wrong for anyone, especially a government, to dictate what reasons are permissible and what reasons are not– and the only concessions that the pro-life movement seem willing to make are not the concessions women desperately need.

As I became more familiar with the ethics and morality in the pro-choice movement (not that I’m claiming it’s perfect, it is not), I also became increasingly disturbed by the strict pro-life politics and legislation being enacted all over the country. Even though I had already been convinced that the rhetoric and goals of the leaders of the pro-life movement were dangerous, I started seeing the threat they pose to women’s health care. Up until this point, I largely thought of it as almost harmless. Now, when I listen to men like Todd Akin and Trent Franks, I’m horrified and very, very worried.

Today, I’m pro-choice not because I think that a fetus is some form of “parasitic invader” or that an embryo is a worthless group of cells.

I’m not pro-choice because I don’t care about my faith.

I’m not pro-choice because I value convenience more than life.

I’m not pro-choice because I’m uninformed and haven’t thought through my position logically.

I’m not pro-choice because I’m heartless and lack “natural affection” or some nurturing, motherly instinct.

I’m not pro-choice because I believe in population control.

I’m not pro-choice because I’m racist.

I’m pro-choice because I’m awake and looking at the desperate, broken world around me.

I’m pro-choice because women need to have concrete options and resources.

I’m pro-choice because women are magnificent and brave, and we wake up every morning and go out into a world that wants to crush us.

I’m pro-choice because I believe that women deserve to be understood, and known, and loved.

Feminism, Social Issues

ordeal of the bitter waters, part five

mother and baby

I puzzled over yarek naphal for days– I dug through commentary after commentary, through lexicons, through concordances, through history books– and what I found was frustrating. Of the people who bothered to remark on what yarek naphal meant, most seemed comfortable assuming that “thigh to rot” was a euphemism for miscarriage– but no one said why. It was usually a short phrase, perhaps a sentence, and then the commentary would move on to explanations why this ritual appeared in Numbers. Exasperated, I ranted for a bit on twitter, and one of my amazing readers, Jennifer, directed me to some resources I am ashamed to say I hadn’t thought about.

She gently pointed me in the direction of Judaism, and told me that I was likely to find answers there that I was unlikely to find elsewhere. And she was right.

When I first started researching this passage in Numbers 5 in Judaism, I was incredibly overwhelmed. Many of the websites I was visiting assumed you had a basic knowledge of Judaism– which I did not. I had to familiarize myself with terms like Tanakh and Torah Shebictav and Mishnah.

So, I started reading what the Mishnah (the written record of rabbinic oral tradition) had to say about Numbers 5. This ritual, known as ‘The Ordeal of the Bitter Waters” in Christianity, is referred to in Judaism as the Sotah (“Errant Woman”). One of the first things that was consistently pointed out is that the Sotah is a specific type of ritual very common in ancient Middle Eastern cultures– the “divine ordeal.” Western culture is most familiar with the “divine ordeal” in the form of ordeal by cold water— commonly used in witch hunts. However, what is curious about the Sotah is that this is the only time that this form of ritual appears anywhere in the Tanakh. There is no other form of “divine ordeal.” It is also significant to note that the Sotah was discontinued, and there are no concrete records of it ever being performed.

However, the startling thing that stood out to me was that in translations by Jewish scholars– people who are steeped in the culture that I am wholly separated from– the way they translate yarek naphal is as “discharged uterus” (this is also how it appears in the NRSV). And what I discovered is that this is because there is a linguistic connection between “thigh,” “belly,” and the feminine genitals. Yarek, in other places in the Tanakh, means “place of procreative power“– for both men and women. And naphal is actually closer to “fall,” but it is connected to violent death, to wasting away, and to failure.

The linguistic connections in yarek naphal paints a picture of something either dying or wasting away in a woman’s uterus.

This picture clicked with me in an epiphany a little while later as I was reading Half the Sky. In it, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn spend a lot of time talking about the global maternal mortality rate, and one of the primary reasons for it: fistulas. Specifically, obstetric fistulas due to obstructed labor. Nicholas and Sheryl spent time in Africa, in hospitals dedicated to helping women with this medical problem. They tell the stories of many women who have fistulas, and the medical care that they desperately need.

But, as I read, something struck me. When they described the horrific plight of these women, they described these woman as surrounded by shame and ostracism– because their thighs are literally rotting away. For the women who survive, they are shunned by their families and communities because of this. It is not an image that I, as a modern American, am at all familiar with. I’m barely even aware of maternal mortality (although America’s rate is the same as Iran, Bahrain, and Hungary, and close to Saudi Arabia and Turkey)– but, it is an image that would have been common in the ancient middle East– and in 1611 England, when the translators chose the phrase “thigh to rot” for yarak naphal.

I had an answer of sorts– the Sotah ritual, if the woman was guilty, would resort in any pregnancy being aborted as well as a lifetime of barrenness.

As I continued reading about the ritual and Hebrew perspectives on it, the question that I’d been terrified to face, the question what does this mean about God, slowly faded, and I realized something that’s continued to help me in the few months since then.

I was afraid of Numbers 5 because I didn’t know how to face a God that would command that. I didn’t know if I could continue believing in a God that forced abortions. To me, that’s the only thing this passage could mean; God had created a ritual that forced abortions in order to prove a woman’s guilt.

But, as I explored the “ordeal of bitter waters,” I began to view the ritual through a different light. My perspective grew, and I attempted to see Numbers 5 not through the eyes that I’d been given as a child– the eyes that saw a holy, righteous, wrathful God ruthlessly punishing disobedience– but through eyes that see God as a mother-father trying to protect her children from themselves. Something Rabbi Riskin wrote nudged me in that direction:

Judaism emerged from the Middle East, where jealousy is rampant and women are often considered the chattel of their husbands. A jealous husband can easily persuade himself to harm the wife whom he suspects of adultery. I therefore believe this trial of the bitter waters provided a marvelous psychological ploy to protect the woman from a husband’s wrath.

This was an idea I started encountering everywhere I went. In a culture almost completely dominated by patriarchal jealousy and the belief that women were property, this ritual could have been instituted to give women a concrete, unassailable way to prove their innocence. Husbands could not divorce their wives on the grounds of some nebulous suspicion that she’d been unfaithful– he’d have to prove it in front of God and men. A woman could agree to the Sotahknowing that she was innocent, and be supported by the kohen, the priests of the Tabernacle, and G-d himself.

But . . . now I felt truly rudderless. There’s no truly pro-life stance anywhere in the Bible. Between the story of Tamar; passages in Isaiah and 2 Kings that declare “their women with child shall be ripped up” and another in Hosea that God will give them “miscarrying wombs”; the fact that pregnant women aren’t counted twice in the census; that there’s only a fee for causing a woman to miscarry instead of the usual execution for murder . . . none of it adds up to a “biblical” position on a-fetus-is-fully-human-with-rights that pro-life advocates say that the Bible “clearly” has.

All of this led me away from thinking of “pro-choice” on purely religious terms. I had to look at it as a citizen, as a part of my culture, as a voting woman who would either have to take a stand on this issue or melt away into the shadows.

Feminism

ordeal of the bitter waters, part three

mother and baby
This is simply my story of how I became pro-choice. I’m not writing this to convince anyone– it was a journey that took years, and what convinced me may not convince anyone else. I believe that writing my story for you is important; in all the reading I did during those years, I only found one person who was willing to explain what she had been through. Hearing her story helped me process what I was going through. I hope it does the same for someone else.

For over a year I existed in that place of tension– somewhere in-between pro-choice and pro-life, uncertain of some things, yet completely certain of others.

One of the things I was utterly certain of was that a fetus was a person. Another thing I was also completely certain of was that this was the only real question regarding the pro-choice/pro-life debate: Pro-choice people believe that a fetus was not a person, pro-life people believe that it is, and that was that.

The reason I believed that a fetus was a person, endowed with the same inalienable rights as all other persons, was, of course, my religion. I had been raised a Christian, and excepting a four-year period when I didn’t particularly care if God existed or not, Christianity’s principles regarding the sacredness of all life, including the lives of the unborn, was something I simply accepted. There were nebulous, unformed arguments I knew of– things about Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, leaping in her womb and being fearfully and wonderfully made. It was just a part of my faith. For me, life began at conception. It was the only way I knew how to think about this mystery, this miracle, in hard, concrete terms.

And then, in November 2012, when I was researching NFP versus hormonal contraception, I stumbled across this:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

I . . . had never heard this before. It took me a while just to process what I’d read. A woman’s body naturally expels the vast majority of fertilized eggs? I was faced with a conundrum I had never encountered before: what is conception? Does it really happen when sperm meets egg? How can that be, when up to 80% of all zygotes are naturally aborted? I read the common arguments– that this is just a natural part of the reproductive process. However, I noticed a contradiction I couldn’t overcome. In discussions concerning hormonal contraception, what frequently came up was that if the body expels it naturally, it’s normal and acceptable, but if a woman swallows a pill, it’s . . . murder? That didn’t make any sense to me. If the “intention” of not wanting to become pregnant makes it murder, how is not doing everything within our power to save this fully endowed human life not at least medical neglect? No one seemed to be very bothered by the fact that perhaps 80% of the human population was being decimated by “natural processes.” If conception really happens when the egg is fertilized . . . how is that anything less than a horrific tragedy?

It bothered me that we could argue that conception was the moment of ensoulment, but that all these souls– all these billions and billions of fully human people– were dying in a matter of hours or days, and no one in the pro-life movement seemed to mind that it was happening. And it hit me: I didn’t value a zygote. I didn’t really see it as a person, with life. I believed that a zygote was a person in a rhetorical, philosophical sense– it was merely a logical place to draw the line.

My initial response was simply to bump it forward: oh, that must mean that conception happens when the egg implants on the uterine wall, which is how the medical community defines pregnancy. But . . . up to 70% of all pregnancies are also naturally aborted.

The confusion was overwhelming. I avoided thinking about it– really thinking about it– for months, simply because I couldn’t handle it. The closest word I have to describe my feelings when I tried to wrestle with this issue was panic. This was the first time I started reading about, and actually considering, the concept potential life. In the evangelical atmosphere I’d grown up in, there was no such thing as “potential life”– things are either alive, or they are not. It is a alive, or it is a rock. It is alive, or it is dead. There’s no such thing as some nebulous, murky, in-between life-but-not-alive state. That was simply a rhetorical invention of anti-life people who want the right to murder babies.

Which, I ironically discovered, is not really true. In fact, “potential life” is a very, very old concept:

And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man’s power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being.

St. Augustine, from If They have Ever Lived

St. Augustine wrote that. Augustine. And he wrote it sometime in the early 5th century. Christianity had been wrestling with the concept of potential life almost as long as it had existed. I knew that Augustine was influenced by the classical Greek authors who also all believed in some pre-life-yet-life-state, but he was not alone. The idea of potential life was one of the first that I discovered that I immediately latched on to; something inside of me resonated with this idea. Intuitively, it felt true. It made sense. It aligned with not only my experiences, but what I was starting to feel was a communal experience: somehow, as a pregnancy progresses from zygote to baby, we respond to that.

And pro-life people are not the only ones who feel this way:

It was when I [Noami Wolf] was four months pregnant, sick as a dog, and in the middle of an argument, that I realized I could no longer tolerate the fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement. I was being interrogated by a conservative, and the subject of abortion rights came up. “You’re four months pregnant,” he said. “Are you going to tell me that’s not a baby you’re carrying?”

Had I not been so nauseated and so cranky and so weighed down with the physical gravity of what was going on inside me, I might not have told what is the truth for me. “Of course it’s a baby,” I snapped. And went rashly on: “And if I found myself in circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life, then that would be between myself and God.”

But, even as I settled into this concept of potential life,  I realized that I was in serious trouble. Because, the only concrete thing I was clinging to had evaporated. The unshakable belief that conception is the beginning and conception is life was gone, and I couldn’t touch bottom. If there is no beginning, if there’s this slow, inexorable process of not-quite-life-becoming-life, then I had to ask myself the question: am I even pro-life at all?

So, in my twilight hour, when I had completely exhausted every other resource, when there was nothing left to research, no more perspectives left to read and understand, no other opinions to listen to, no more facts . . . I opened my Bible, hoping that it would be the place I could discover some kind of an answer. And, for what was probably the first time in my life, I turned to the Bible completely empty of what I believed it said. I didn’t know what it said at all.

What I found shocked me.

Feminism

ordeal of the bitter waters, part two

mother and baby

For this series, I’m going to be monitoring the comments a little more closely than I ordinarily do. I haven’t gotten any comments that I’ve needed to moderate, yet, but I am discussing an incredibly charged issue. I will not tolerate any personal attacks– on me or anyone else.
Also, I am not really writing this series to convince anyone. This series is about my story
— the road I traveled that brought me to this point.

For a long time– years, actually– I was in a very similar space to many of you. It’s a place that is beginning to fill with people who are searching for answers and realizing that there aren’t many. So, I used to exist in a sort of limbo where nothing quite makes sense, but somehow it feels the most honest and the most compassionate. It’s an in-between place where your hearts can grieve over a tragedy, but still see the necessity for women to have access to safe reproductive medicine. Being willing to protect the reproductive rights of women, all while believing that abortion is morally wrong. Politically and legally necessary, but still wrong.

The interesting thing about this place is that there is a huge spectrum. No one is there for exactly the same reason, and the gray is constantly shifting. When I first entered that space, I was there because I had my first glimpse at the harsh, broken reality.

For most of my life, I believed that almost all abortions were wrong– evil, actually. The only exception– the only one— was in cases where the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother. Only then was it acceptable. Only then. Exceptions for rape and incest weren’t even on my horizon– after all, why punish an innocent baby? It’s not his fault that the father was a rapist. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and the words would come out glib and blithe while I confidently flipped my hair and turned up my nose at women who would murder their own baby.

But then I came staggering, bewildered, into the gray place. Because, at the time, I didn’t have the word rape for what had happened to me. The only thing I knew was that the thought of having my fiancé’s baby terrified me for reasons I couldn’t explain. I could not have his baby. I could not. And I didn’t understand why. But, in those weeks, before I either miscarried (most pregnancies fail in the first few weeks) or was merely late, I came to understand that there were probably thousands of girls who were so frightened they could barely breathe or eat or sleep, and I could no longer judge them– because I was one. It took me years to understand that one of the reasons why the thought of carrying my abuser’s baby frightened me beyond reason was that he was also my rapist.

And that’s when I understood that being pro-life and advocating for the rape exception was wrong.

Because, if I’d lived in a system where you have to prove you were raped? I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I didn’t even understand that I was raped– and, even if I had, that would have meant going through the excruciating, traumatic process of reporting him. All of that would have had to happen before I could have even called a clinic. And the thought of living in that world . . . it sickens me.  And when I first stumbled into the gray place, one of the first things I discovered was that, in 31 states, rapists can sue for custody of the child— and they frequently do this in order to get the woman to drop criminal charges. If she doesn’t take him to trial for raping her, he’ll surrender all legal rights to the baby.

My eyes were forced open, and the reality I’d been denying all my life came crashing in. None of what I’d been taught to believe was as clear-cut, as black-and-white, as it had been given to me. There were reasons– desperate, horrible reasons– for a woman to need to end her pregnancy. I understood that, had felt it in a way that now, when I try to remember what those weeks were like, I can barely breathe and all I want to do is cry.

I wandered deeper into the gray when I started reading the stories of women who had terminated for medical reasons. I had come into this place believing, with all my heart, that it was all right– even merciful– to terminate a pregnancy if it threatened the mother’s life. It never occurred to me how untenable that position was, or what it revealed about what I believed about unborn life. But these stories brought that piece of me into the harsh light: there was a sliver inside of me that already knew that an unborn fetus was not the same thing as a full-grown human being. I had accepted that, in this worse-case scenario, it is morally acceptable to terminate a pregnancy, and I had made that decision because I believed that a fetus did not have the same rights as a mother.

But I read stories, like this one, and my heart broke. Because these mothers didn’t see it that way. They wanted their precious babies, to cradle them in their arms and smell their skin and touch their fuzzy-soft hair. But they gave them up, valuing them as life unlived, because of a diagnoses that meant their child would live in constant, unending pain. And what I’d always believed– that God is in control, and he created that little baby with all its medical problems — that belief was crushed under their grief. And they didn’t decide to terminate their pregnancies because it would eventually result in their own death: they ended them because they loved their baby, and were trying to do the right thing, the best thing, for their child.

So I stepped further into the gray. I decided that I could no longer accept any of what the pro-life/anti-abortion movement wants to accomplish. They seek to reduce access to contraception– even though that raises the teen pregnancy and abortion rates. They believe that a rape exception would be all right– but living in that world would be heinous and terrifying. They want to ban any abortion after 20 weeks outright, with many laws having no exceptions for any medical reason.

In short, they want Ireland.

Ireland is a pro-life advocate’s dream.

But, Ireland is being forced to come to terms with the real-life consequences of its policies. Tania McCabe, pregnant with twins, died in 2007, because doctors could not legally terminate her pregnancy. Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 from sepsis, because the doctors had to wait until the fetus’ heart had stopped beating in order to perform the procedure. And, today, lawmakers in Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, North Carolina and others are pursuing the same type of legislation that killed these women.

So, I became politically pro-choice.

But, morally, I couldn’t bring myself to embrace it.

That changed when, after years of struggling, I turned to the Bible for answers– and what I found unraveled everything I believed.

Feminism

ordeal of the bitter waters, part one

mother and baby

trigger warning for rape and abortion

My heart was in my throat, my fingers floating over the refresh button on my twitter feed. I was curled up under a gigantic down-alternative comforter, huddled under the half-tent I’d made on the floor of my bathroom. Hours went by as I watched what was happening– the strikes, the interruptions. In the last few minutes I joined with thousands of other voices shouting and screaming, a cacophonous din stretching over the internet, across twitter mentions and live feeds. Together, we watched the underhanded attempt at deceiving an entire country of watching people.

The next day, we celebrated. We declared “We Do Not Sit.” We’d spent the night standing. It didn’t matter that we all knew what would happen, that all of that would swiftly be overturned, and the voices screaming into the night would be silenced. We’d stood. For that single day, it was . . . almost enough.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m pro-abortion. Pro-reproductive rights. Pro-choice.

This is not something I’m revealing flippantly. I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to even write this series for weeks now. I started writing about these ideas back in February. I took the time to explain my stance toward hormonal birth control. I’ve believed, for a long time now, that the most common rhetoric of the pro-life/anti-abortion movement is at best misleading, but that most of the information commonly available to pro-life individuals is, much of the time, outright deceptions.

This isn’t a recent development. It started over four years ago, now. It started when I was raped. It started when I realized I was over two weeks late. It started the day I called the Crisis Pregnancy Center, frightened and desperate, and the woman on the phone implied that I was a slut and I deserved whatever happened to me. It started when I called Planned Parenthood, and she said the words “whatever you decide you want to do, we will help you get there.” She told me about helping me apply for assistance and aid, about adoption, about my optionsall of my options. And I realized that at least part of what I’d always believed had been a lie.

Over the next few years, my views began developing. My perspective developed nuance. I accepted the confusion I felt about all these ideas as something I would struggle with; I decided I could live with the tension, the uncomfortable gray.

But, even through all of these subtle changes, I remained staunchly pro-life. I began thinking that maybe it wasn’t my place to campaign against what another woman wanted to do, but for me– well, I couldn’t budge on that. I believed that a zygote was a baby, and removing it was murder. I even joined the pro-life advocacy group on my grad school’s campus. I became friends with other pro-life activists.

And then, one day, someone asked me if I could drive them to Richmond so they could sit outside the abortion clinic.

I squirmed. “I . . . I’m sorry. I can’t.”

She nodded affably. “Too much work that weekend?”

Do I say anything? Do I just let her think that? That would be the easiest thing. “Actually . . . I don’t really agree with that.”

“With what?” She stopped, turned to face me, her stance becoming aggressive.

“With sitting outside the abortion clinic. Oh, I know you don’t do anything crazy,” I rushed to add. “But I’m not comfortable with the whole thing.”

“Oh.”

She defriended me on facebook. When I saw her around campus, she wouldn’t look me in the eye.

Later, in the private facebook group, the principle leader called one of the women he’d seen going into the clinic on Saturday a misogynistic slur. I called him on it– and was immediately and viciously attacked.

I left the facebook group. I stopped participating in any of their events.

I stopped calling myself pro-life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At this point, I started reading everything I could get my hands on — in dead earnest. I started reading Natural Family Planing blogs– so many now, everything I learned about NFP and all the various methods is one gigantic tangle I still can’t quite sort out. I learned about a completely different approach to being pro-life– a way of seeing procreation as something beautiful and sacred. I began appreciating the earnestness in the dedication of these men and women, who saw a part of the divine in the act itself.

I read about women who were feminist and pro-life, who argued from an interesting perspective on history– and even though I couldn’t quite bring myself to validate their arguments, I liked that they defied the “norm” I’d been taught my entire life: that all feminists are selfish baby-killers.

And I started researching what it meant to be truly pro-life. I asked myself what it would look like if the pro-life movement were actually life-affirming. Would that look like pacifism? Could you claim to believe in the sacredness and dignity of all human life and allow the death penalty? Could you advocate for the rights of the unborn while completely ignoring the desperate needs of the born? What would it look like to bring balance to these issues? I started finding whole organizations who were dedicated to advocating for federally-mandated maternity leave, for legal protections for pregnant women and working mothers. I found people trying to educate others on what women who also want to be mothers face in our world today– realistically, not just the cozy, rose-gold suburban middle-class vision I’d been handed as a child.

I saw people asking the question: how can we help mothers when so many of them are the sole provider? What can we do to make sure their children are clothed, and fed, and healthy, and educated?

All of it made me hopeful.

But then, one day, I read Numbers 5.

And everything fell apart.