I’ve been thinking about end of Roe v. Wade, and in particular about the scientific illiteracy and twisted theology that shape our laws.
I’m sure anyone who reads the news is familiar with statements coming from Republicans that display a profound ignorance of science, an unlimited capacity for venality, or a combination of the two. Remember Jim Imhofe tossing a snowball around the Senate floor, to demonstrate that climate change was a hoax? Yes, it was idiotic, but it should come as no surprise that his largest campaign contributors are major oil and gas companies.
For genuine ignorance, though, you can’t beat Republican pontifications on female anatomy. We can start with Rep. Todd Akin saying that a woman can’t get pregnant from “legitimate” rape because, when raped, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Even GOP women seem to have slept through Sex Education and Biology 101. Yesli Vega, a Republican woman currently running for Congress, recently opined that it’s harder for women to get pregnant during rape “because it’s not something that’s happening organically.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, an ectopic pregnancy is one where the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, usually in a fallopian tube. These pregnancies can’t survive and are life-threatening for the mother, too. In 2019, Ohio state reps Candace Keller and Ron Hood, who described themselves as “forever Trumpers,” sponsored a bill ordering doctors who encounter ectopic pregnancies to transplant them into the womb—a medical impossibility—or face murder charges.
This brings me to some of the reasoning—if you can call it that—behind the Dobbs decision.
Anti-abortion activists frequently refer to the taking of “innocent life.” Suspecting that religious dogma lay behind this expression, I did a little research. Since the primary authors of Dobbs are Catholic ideologues, I checked that source first, and also looked at Protestant teachings.
I’m not aiming to condemn the Catholic Church in particular, or any of the various flavors of Protestant Christianity. All of the world’s major religions are patriarchal and oppress women in their own ways. With respect to abortion, however, both Judaism and Islam allow it for various reasons, and give priority to the life and health of the mother. Hinduism forbids it except to save the life of the mother. Buddhist doctrine varies widely, depending on the sect and the country you live in. These other faiths, however, have no influence on the current SCOTUS members.
The Catholic Church’s position on abortion has varied over time. During the first six centuries of the Christian era, abortion was considered a sin only if it was used to hide evidence of fornication or adultery. Also, during that period, sexual pleasure itself was considered evil. St. Augustine wrote that Adam and Eve would not have committed their first sin if their nature hadn’t been wounded by concupiscence, or libido. Although various Protestant denominations have slightly different interpretations, they all subscribe to the doctrine of original sin.
From the get-go, Catholic theology has said we are all born with original sin, and that this sin—which would otherwise bar us from going to Heaven—is wiped away by baptism. “In the fifth century, St. Augustine declared that all unbaptized babies went to hell upon death. By the Middle Ages, the idea was softened to suggest a less-severe fate, limbo.” Limbo wasn’t unpleasant, but it’s not near God. Virtuous people, including Jews who lived before the time of Christ, went there. (Any Jew living after the time of Christ who hasn’t converted to Christianity is going to Hell. Same with members of other faiths who have heard of Jesus but refused to accept him as their deity.) In 2007, the Vatican abolished the idea of limbo, and allowed all those babies to go to Heaven. Conservative Catholics disagreed, objecting that this new doctrine would make baptism unnecessary.
Isn’t it wonderful that a council of mere mortals is in direct communication with God and can tell us what His rules are? And change them from time to time?
If we’re born in sin, does that mean that the unborn are not sinful? It depends on the time and place. Before the 4th Century CE, Christianity had no concept of original sin, and children were considered to be innocent from birth. The doctrine of original sin developed over time, and now we are considered to be sinful from the moment of conception. Still, a fetus isn’t capable of doing anything contrary to the will of God (as interpreted by the clergy), and I believe that’s what the anti-abortion crowd means when they use the phrase “innocent life.”
On the other hand, sexual desire and sexual acts, except within a church-sanctified marriage and only for the purpose of having children, are inherently sinful. Although Christian doctrine doesn’t specifically say so, blame for these sins falls almost exclusively on women. We are the temptresses, we get shamed, and if we get pregnant out of wedlock we may get sent to prisons for unwed mothers such as the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.
In practice, even though it isn’t explicitly spelled out in doctrine, Catholicism gives saving the fetus priority over saving the life of the mother. Gianna Beretta Molla was born in Italy in 1922, and became a pediatrician. After bearing three children and suffering two miscarriages, she became pregnant again. During that pregnancy, she was diagnosed with cancer. The tumor could have been removed, but that would have killed the fetus. She declined surgery and died a week after bearing her fourth child. The Church canonized her—she is now Saint Gianna—for her “brave actions to save her unborn baby over her own life.” Never mind that she left her other children motherless.
Protestants also have had different positions on abortion over time. After Roe v. Wade, in 1971, 1974 and 1976, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions to the effect that women should have access to abortion for a variety of reasons and that the government should play a limited role in that matter. That relatively progressive stance changed under the influence of conservative activists Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell, and others. These right-wingers were first moved by racism—in a campaign to protect the tax exemptions for private schools that were set up to avoid integration—and then by opposition to feminist and gay rights advances.
Weyrich co-founded the conservative think tanks The Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). For those unfamiliar with this last organization, ALEC writes the texts of conservative—oh, let’s call it what it is, neo-fascist—bills and gets them through state governments. However President Carter, a Baptist, didn’t share those conservative views.
What Weyrich did was team up with anti-abortion activists to spread their views among evangelicals. They formed the “Moral Majority” and put Ronald Reagan in office. This began the relationship between the Republican Party and white evangelicals.
While they never signed an official treaty, these evangelicals have formed an unholy alliance with the Catholic hierarchy. They not only have adopted the Church’s teachings on abortion, they oppose contraception and sex education. This sits well with the GOP. Just a few days ago, on July 21, the House passed a bill protecting people’s right to contraception. Only eight Republicans voted in favor; 195 voted no. The bill is unlikely to get through the Senate.
The Already Born
The already born don’t seem to qualify as innocents in need of protection. We don’t see anti-abortion groups forming picket lines and screaming about those who would take “innocent life” at conventions of the National Rifle Association. These groups are remarkably silent about mass shootings in schools, churches, and even July Fourth celebrations. We don’t seem them demonstrating in front of the Pentagon to protest our bombing of civilians—including children—in countries that never attacked us, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Or the civilians massacred by weapons we sell to murderous tyrants, e.g. Yemenites killed by Saudis.
We have seen them bomb clinics and kill abortion providers. They make anonymous death threats. Some of them now call for prosecuting women who have abortions as murderers.
Their indifference to the survival of those already born tells me everything I need to know about the so-called right-to-lifers. In the words of the man they pretend to consider their teacher: “By their fruits shall ye know them.”