abortion. life. dignity. theology.

what about the women?
The story of Moses is one of the most well-known stories in the biblical canon. Sunday school classes study it, pastors preach it, Charlton Heston portrayed him, and Disney adapted his story. Moses’ story is so common that most people assume they know it and breeze through when reading or hearing it, focusing on Moses and the greater good that manifests despite Pharaoh’s plan to murder him and all other Hebrew babies. Even feminist biblical interpreters are often satisfied centering the story on Moses because he was surrounded by strong, defiant women who saved him and helped escort him into his purpose:

  • his mother, Jochebed, who refused to submit to Pharaoh’s orders and have her son murdered,
  • Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ savior who had sympathy on the poor Hebrew baby and raised him as her own,
  • and his sister, Miriam, who watched over her brother and made sure he was returned to his mother for nursing.

Three women escorting a man into his destiny is huge in biblical feminist studies! Most would count the presence of these women a victory. But when we decenter Moses, apply a womanist hermeneutical lens, and read for all the women in the story, we find the ignored and disregarded pain and grief of women –– women who have been relegated to the margins in both their ancient society and our contemporary biblical study.

a womanist reading of exodus 1
The term womanist was first used by writer and activist Alice Walker in 1980. In its most simplistic form, womanist is defined as Black feminism. In biblical interpretation, womanism “attends to the marginalized characters in biblical narratives, especially women and girls, intentionally including and centering on non-Israelite peoples and enslaved people.”[1] In her book, Womanist Midrash, Wilford Gafney “listens to and for [these] voices in and through the Hebrew Bible, while acknowledging that often the text does not speak, or even intend to speak, to or for them, let alone hear them.”[2] Gafney, knowing their stories are ignored in biblical tradition, then uses the rabbinic practices of midrash and her “sanctified imagination” to go beyond what is written of these women in the Bible and tell their stories as she envisions them.

When you read the story of Moses, specifically Exodus 1, from a womanist perspective, the marginalized characters who long to be re-centered are the nameless Israelite women who must have feared pregnancy and motherhood under the threat of the Pharaoh’s murderous rage. Few readers ask, “How did these women feel?” Few writers choose to describe their terror, grief, and desperation on paper. How many women sought to end their pregnancies in order to prevent the murder of their children? How many women had stress-induced miscarriages due to the anxiety that emerged as they wondered if they were carrying a son? How many women chose to end their lives instead of allowing their infant sons to become Pharaoh’s victims? How many of these women became a shell of themselves and had their lives and their families destroyed by their grief?

It may seem convenient to use Exodus 1 and the story of Moses as a narrative in support anti-abortion causes. Many will choose the easy reading of Exodus, sum it up with “God was in control and saved Moses in order to save Israel.” However, to arrive here, one must ignore the wailing, fear, and grief of thousands of the Israelite women who are not named Jochebed. Readers would have to accept that God’s plan included the death of thousands of innocent babies and the anguish of thousands of innocent mothers. But when the simplistic and fairy tale version of the story is ignored for a more complex reading of Exodus 1 –– where more than only the male protagonist is valued –– a reproductive justice argument emerges.

choice would have been humane
Women may not be able to instantly control the institutionalized values, politics, and policies of the societies they live in, but they should be able to control their bodies and decided whether or not they give birth to children in these environments. They should be trusted to make decisions about their bodies and have access to healthcare that prevents pregnancy and birth if they choose. As enslaved people in a foreign country, Hebrew women had little control over their sociopolitical condition, but could you imagine the collective sigh of relief that would’ve swept their neighborhoods if they had options to prevent pregnancy and birth instead of being forced to give birth and have their babies murdered by Pharaoh’s orders? This would have immediately restored a sense of control and a level of dignity to their lives. While the Hebrew people in antiquity did not have advanced scientific technologies to prevent and end pregnancies, contemporary societies do. Yet we are still attempting to force terror, grief, and detriment onto women by forcing them to give birth in a society that has proven not to value their lives or their children’s lives.

Since 2018, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah have passed anti-abortion bills, and Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming have introduced similar bills to restrict women’s access to abortion. When Governor Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Human Life Protection Act into law, she recited the age old pro-life talking points declaring that this legislation was about the sanctity of life.  “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.”[3] However, in these discussions of life, dignity –– an essential element of life –– is often overlooked.

the importance of dignity
Dignity is a person’s right to be valued, respected, and treated ethically FOR THEIR OWN SAKE. As people who are created in the image of God, it is our divine right to be treated with dignity. Dignity is an essential component in ensuring that we can reach our full potential and live happy and healthy lives, live the abundant lives Jesus refers to in John 10:10. Life should never be absent of dignity. So whenever we discuss life, we must also discuss dignity. Even when the discussions make us uncomfortable or tension is created, we must never attempt to discuss the value of life without also ensuring that life is accompanied with dignity.

In the attempt to grant personhood to a fetus, the pro-life activists and legislators are stripping dignity away from women. When the state attempts to criminalize abortions, which has been acknowledged as essential reproductive healthcare for over 30 years, they are actually telling women, “You can’t decide what’s best for you, and your life must be micromanaged.” They are stripping women of their autonomy. They are denying women of the right to determine what is medically, physically, mentally, emotionally, economically, AND SPIRITUALLY safe, healthy, and right for themselves.

Dignity is having the power to make decisions about our own bodies. Dignity requires affirming and upholding the personhood, value, and autonomy of women. And dignity requires a society that provides the structural and cultural supports to ensure all people can reach their full potential and live happy and healthy lives. And when we take dignity away from people, we are simultaneously stripping their lives away from them as well.

more than just gender
Just like many feminists would be satisfied with Jochebed, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Miriam’s dominating presence in the story of Moses, there are feminists who would be content with only applying a gender analysis to the re-emerging challenge to women’s reproductive healthcare. However, as a womanist, more is required. Womanism requires an intersectional lens.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar and pioneer on critical race theory, introduced the concept of intersectionality into academia. Intersectionality describes how our different identities overlap and work together in determining how we experience the world, particularly when it comes to power, privilege, and oppression.[4] Intersectionality does not allow one to isolate gender in their analysis. Instead, one must give a more holistic examination and work to understand how race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and other identifiers work together. When an intersectional analysis is applied, it becomes evident that restricting and criminalizing abortion will become a driver of inequality for women who are already marginalized, particularly women of color, low-income women, and immigrant women.

people will still have abortions
Criminalizing abortion does not stop people from having abortions. “According to the Guttmacher Institute, a US-based reproductive health non-profit, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 people in countries that prohibit abortion altogether or allow it only in instances to save a woman’s life, and 34 per 1,000 people in countries that broadly allow for abortion, a difference that is not statistically significant.”[5] People who live in states with restrictive abortion laws but can afford to travel and access private care will do so in order to end their pregnancies, and those who cannot afford to travel for legal abortions will seek out unsafe methods to terminate their pregnancies. These “unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide and lead to an additional five million largely preventable disabilities, according to the WHO.”[6]

What does this have to do with race? According to the New York Times, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold $5.04.[7] Even more, “between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700), and the median Latino household declined 50 percent (from $4,000 to $2,000). At the same time, wealth for the median white household increased 14 percent from $102,000 to $116,800.”[8]

caregiving without support
Based on our understanding of race and wealth in the United States, women of color and immigrant women will be disproportionately affected by the restriction and criminalization of abortion. White women living in states where abortion bans are in place will be more likely to access safe abortions in other states, while women of color and immigrant women will be forced to undergo unsafe termination procedures or they will be forced to give birth to unwanted children, further straining their economic situation with few supports from the government that is forcing them to birth these children.

Caregiving without proper supports becomes a driver of inequality for people who are already marginalized, and the United States fundamentally lacks the care infrastructure and policies to properly support parents, especially the women of color, low-income women, and immigrant women who will be disproportionately affected by these abortion bans. There are no standardized parental leave policies at the federal or state levels, which means mothers must use up their sick days, take unpaid time away from work, or return to work immediately after giving birth. Childcare costs are also unaffordable for many working- and middle-class families, costing nearly $10,000 per year.[9] In 28 states, childcare costs are actually higher than college tuition.[10]

Denying families proper supports and then forcing women into caregiving situations by restricting and criminalizing their right to an abortion creates or increases their economic hardships, while stifling their ability remain in the workforce. This is a targeted assault on their dignity. It devalues the sanctity of their lives, presents families with impossible choices, and denies women, children, and families of their divine dignity.

It’s also important to note that child birth offers a greater risk to the mother’s life than an abortion.[11] While the world has seen a steady decline in women who die from child birth, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has been rising, and now rivals Afghanistan, Lesotho and Swaziland,[12] making the United States’ maternal mortality rate the highest in the industrialized world. Black women’s maternal mortality rate is three times that of white women in the United States, providing evidence that racial inequities lead to increase deaths for Black mothers.

This is further evidence that forcing women to give birth isn’t about the sanctity of life. If it were, it would be a much more nuanced conversation that also discussed the sanctity of mothers’ lives. It’s also proof that the state should never be able to make blanket decisions that place so many lives at risk. An abortion is a medical procedure, a basic healthcare need of millions of women, girls, trans, and non-binary people, a deeply personal decision that should be made in conjunction with medical counsel, not denied by the state.

Finally, denying abortion based on the religious interpretations of evangelical Christians denies the dignity of non-religious women and women of other religious beliefs. It’s a violation of the first amendment that prevents women who do not share these religious philosophies from practicing their own beliefs with dignity. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explained how Jewish law deals with abortion saying, “Jewish law allows for abortion and does not hold that a fetus is a person at conception. For the first 40 days of gestation, a fetus is considered ‘mere fluid’ (Talmud Yevamot 69b), and the fetus is regarded as part of the mother for the duration of the pregnancy.”[13]

creating the kingdom of god
The dignity of people, specifically those who have been historically marginalized in our society, should be the meter we use to ensure we are creating a society that bears God’s divine image. Kelly Brown Douglas dug into this in book her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, reminding readers that in order for society to be just, black bodies must be treated with dignity. Quoting theologian, author, and professor Daniel Day Williams, she wrote, “God’s justice is manifest in [God] working to put down the unrighteous, expose idols, show mercy, and achieve reconciliation in a new order which expresses [human beings’] dignity as the bearer of the divine image.[14] 

Justice is one of the most reoccurring themes of the Bible. Across testaments, books, authors, and time, biblical writers and prophets call for there to be just rule on earth. God delivers the Hebrew people from their oppressors in the name of justice. Deuteronomic law calls on the Hebrew people to take care of the marginalized among them to ensure justice. The prophets of old renounced practices that took advantage of the weak and the poor for justice’s sake. And Jesus challenged Roman authorities and the religious establishments who used their power to bring harm to marginalized people because it was the just thing to do.

In his book, Journey to the Common Good, Walter Brueggeman makes clear that mispat or justice, which “in the Old Testament concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and goods for the sake of a viable life of dignity,”[15] is one of the pillars that ensures societies are founded on a common good. Justice, dignity, and common good don’t just magically manifest. They aren’t miracles sent from heaven. We are responsible for their presence on earth. When Jesus says, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”[16] in the Lord’s Prayer, it is a call for justice on earth as it is in heaven. And as the hands and feet of God on earth, as advocates and activists working to make the world a better place, as decent human beings, it is our job to bring about justice and make sure the kingdom of God manifests itself on earth in our lifetime.

but what about the babies
With all this talk about life, dignity, and justice, some of you may still be asking, “But what about the unborn babies’ lives, dignity, and justice?” If you are a person who believes that life starts at conception –– which not all Christians or religious people believe, which science does not prove, and which will likely always remain one of the unknowables of God –– you’d probably like for this issue to be pretty black and white. But honestly, it just isn’t.

Jia Tolentino explores these complexities in a piece for the New Yorker writing:

If the fetus is a person, it is a person who possesses, as Sally Rooney put it in the London Review of Books, ‘a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen’—the right to ‘make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body.’ In the relationship between woman and fetus, she wrote, the woman is ‘granted fewer rights than a corpse.’”[17]

We cannot extend rights to a fetus at the expense of the people who host them. No matter what you feel about the unborn, you cannot ignore the lives and dignity of the girls, women, trans and nonbinary people who become pregnant. Their lives matter.

Blanket abortion bans hurt women, and those women who have been marginalized by society’s racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and religiosity are harmed the most. Now, more than ever, we must do as Jesus would do and sit with this crucified class, advocating for them, protecting their rights, and fighting for their lives and dignity. As Kelly Brown Douglas writes, “The resurrection of Jesus solidifies God’s commitment to the restoration of life for the ‘crucified class’ of people.”[18]

[1] Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 3.

[2] Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 3.

[3] Doha Madani, “Alabama Governor Signs Controversial Abortion Ban Bill into Law,” NBCNews.com, Accessed May 18, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/alabama-governor-signs-controversial-abortion-ban-bill-law-n1006211.

[4] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Transcript of “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” TED, Accessed May 18, 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/transcript?language=en.

[5] “Key Facts,” Amnesty International, Accessed May 18, 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/abortion-facts/.

[6] “Key Facts,” Amnesty International, Accessed May 18, 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/abortion-facts/.

[7] Emily Badger, “Whites Have Huge Wealth Edge Over Blacks (but Don’t Know It),” The New York Times, September 18, 2017, Accessed May 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/18/upshot/black-white-wealth-gap-perceptions.html.

[8] Brian Thompson, “The Racial Wealth Gap: Addressing America’s Most Pressing Epidemic,” Forbes, February 18, 2018, Accessed May 18, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianthompson1/2018/02/18/the-racial-wealth-gap-addressing-americas-most-pressing-epidemic/#31ad22d27a48.

[9] Andrew Keshner, “Child-care Costs in America Have Soared to Nearly $10K per Year.” MarketWatch. March 08, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/child-care-costs-just-hit-a-new-high-2018-10-22.

[10] Claire Zillman, “Childcare Costs More Than College Tuition in 28 U.S. States,” Fortune, May 18, 2019, http://fortune.com/2018/10/22/childcare-costs-per-year-us/.

[11] “Key Facts,” Amnesty International, May 18, 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/abortion-facts/.

[12] “More U.S. Women Dying From Childbirth. How One State Bucks the Trend,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, May 18, 2019, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/10/23/more-us-women-keep-dying-from-childbirth-except-in-this-state.

[13] Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Twitter post, May 7, 2019, 5:41 p.m., https://twitter.com/theradr/status/1125878322779623424?s=21

[14] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Orbis Books, 2015), Location 3760.

[15] Walter Brueggemann, Journey to The Common Good, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 62.

[16] “BibleGateway.” Matthew 6 NRSV – – Bible Gateway. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew 6&version=NRSV

[17] Jill Tolention, “The Messiness of Reproduction and the Dishonesty of Anti-Abortion Propaganda,” The New Yorker, Accessed May 17, 2019,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-messiness-of-reproduction-and-the-dishonesty-of-anti-abortion-propaganda?fbclid=IwAR2h-fpBlpub-ZuukRFWekfSqJVyzWfFmgfQ55Jiqu2TJmmJlC6zPQApPKk

[18] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Orbis Books, 2015), Location 3760.