Richard Weaver, rhetorician and philosopher, wrote concerning the use of “devil terms” and “god terms” in rhetorical discourse. As we consider the recent book by Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, we are provided with abundant examples of what Weaver meant.
Consider just a few representative quotations:
Women’s ability to exercise their legal rights to abortion has increasingly fallen victim to the patriarchal desire for control of women’s sexuality and women’s bodies.
Given the continued scorn aimed at women who have abortions in our culture, we need to identify and expose how patriarchy and misogyny have shaped attitudes about contraception and abortion if we are to build an alternative theology of reproductive justice.
[Pro-choice] language indicates a focus primarily on the autonomy and moral agency of the pregnant woman. For this side, the issue is about pregnant women’s ability to exercise control over their bodies and what happens to them.
Once we dislodge the assumption that women are obligated to carry every pregnancy to term and we establish that women must assent to a pregnancy before moral obligation arises, the question that remains is how women discern what to do when they face an unplanned or problem pregnancy.
Patriarchy, misogyny, and unchosen moral obligations are clearly the devil terms; reproductive justice, autonomy, moral agency, and control over one’s body are the god terms.
The deepest shift that Peters attempts to accomplish in the book as a whole is to move the word “abortion” itself from the bad side to the good side of the rhetorical toolkit: “The heart of an ethic of reproductive justice is the affirmation that women’s capacity to control their fertility—whether that happens through contraception, abstinence, or abortion—is a moral good.” This is a very conscious critique of those pro-choice advocates—such as Naomi Wolf, with her famous essay “Our Bodies, Our Souls”—who speak of abortion as a tragedy, a moral failing, a sin that needs to be grieved over and atoned for.
A Critique of the “Justification Framework”
Peters, a professor of religious studies at Elon University, earned her M.Div. and Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Her book develops a critique of what she calls the “justification framework” that is favored by pro-life advocates, and makes a plea for its replacement by the “reproductive justice framework” that she favors.
The “justification” approach assumes that abortion is a grave moral evil, for which very compelling arguments need to be made if it is to be allowed, reluctantly, in some rare circumstances. By contrast, the “reproductive justice” position works with the idea that women’s lives are often difficult, complicated, and messy; every pregnant woman ought to be trusted as a competent moral reasoner who can make a choice to have or not have a child, and there should be no moral criticisms of whatever choice she makes and no legal impediments between her and abortion, if that is what she seeks. Peters discusses the history of abortion practice and law in the United States, and she provides extensive commentary on the contemporary scene. Throughout, she consistently portrays the pro-life position as “abstract” and “absolutist,” while the position she favors is presented as realistic and attuned to the lives of “real women.”
Peters does clearly recognize that the question of personhood needs to be faced seriously. She employs the term “prenate” as an alternative to “fetus” and “unborn child,” which are the more common pro-choice and pro-life terms. Functionally, though, “prenate” is an alternative to “fetus” without any real difference in philosophical content. For her, the inhabitant of the womb has no objective moral status, recognized by reason, as a person who is a bearer of the right to life. “Since the prenate is not a person, there are no rights at stake.” The prenate has a status that is entirely dependent on the subjective will and imagination of the pregnant woman. If the woman wants to be pregnant, then it is her wanting that socially confers on the prenate its developing personhood and eventually its right to life (only after it is born).
There is nothing new here; Marjorie Reiley Maguire and other pro-choice authors have been making similar arguments for decades. It is worth noting, however, that this baldly nominalist philosophical stance contradicts the pseudo-realist stance that is often present in other pro-choice authors, who connect personhood with objective features of the inhabitant of the womb, such as advanced brain-wave patterns, self-awareness, or rationality. This line of thought often leads to the embarrassing conclusion that infanticide is approved of, as in the infamous article by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, because the definition of the word “person” fits neither the fetus nor the infant. Peters does not approve of infanticide, but she expresses no outrage that others do, and, of course, she makes no mention of the actual practice of infanticide by the notorious Kermit Gosnell and others like him.
As one might expect, there is no engagement with and critique of pro-life books and articles written by men, but Peters also makes no mention of the arguments made by pro-life women. She is too well educated to be unaware of such arguments, so she must have made the conscious decision to give this facet of the abortion debate the silent treatment.
This renders her title, Trust Women, highly confusing. Authors such as Cecilia Wolf-Devine, Mary Ann Glendon, Abby Johnson, Sue Ellen Browder, Lorraine Murray, Rachel MacNair, Alveda King, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Bernadette Waterman Ward, Erika Bachiochi, and dozens of others have produced trenchant critiques of precisely the sort of arguments that Peters is making about the ontological status of the human being killed in an abortion and the supposed “benefits” to women of access to abortion. Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade, converted to the pro-life cause and became one of its highest profile speakers. Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and used the teachable moment to criticize the modern West for its legalization of abortion.
From Peters’s point of view, such women obviously cannot be trusted as moral reasoners, because they support what for her is “the dark side of the force”: the evil machinations of patriarchy and misogyny. She obviously does not respect their opinions. She apparently feels no need to abide by the traditional rule of philosophical debate that says that one should seek out the best and most articulate presentations of the position one is arguing against if one hopes to demonstrate the preferability of one’s own position. Her title thus seems to mean “trust pro-choice women to make pro-choice decisions.” There is no real encounter with the other side in the abortion debate, just as the inhabitant of the womb is not taken seriously as an other whose existence could possibly hinder the liberty of the individualistic (adult) rights-bearer in the modern world.
The cornerstone of the pro-choice worldview is the denial of the equality of the inhabitant of the womb and born persons. Peters argues that “the prenate exists as a separate moral category from personhood,” which entails that “it possesses a different moral value.” There are many variations on this thought throughout the book, which always express the subtext that the idea of “equality” between the born and the unborn is a dire threat that must be fended off.
The pro-life belief in equality is described as a “theological belief that a prenate is a person.” This adds another layer of confusion to the book, because there are pro-life advocates who are non-theists, and pro-life advocates who are religious believers can and have often made their arguments on a secular basis, without drawing on theological axioms. Just two pages later, Peters says: “These questions of when life begins and ends and what constitutes personhood are primarily theological and philosophical questions, not biological.” This is actually a statement that pro-life advocates can agree with, but Peters does not seem to notice that her addition of the phrase “and philosophical” undermines her frequent rhetorical choice to depict the pro-life position as nothing but that of religious dogmatists imposing their “beliefs” on others.
Peters’s Liberal Theology
As if another layer of confusion were needed, Peters’s own argument is, in the end, theological. It is obviously a liberal theological view, in contrast with the more conservative views that one usually finds in pro-life books, but it is clearly theological. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and her overall message is that God has given individual women a conscience they can use to make “a potentially life-defining decision” that they “know is right with God.” She refers to the story of Adam and Eve, describing it as an explanation of
why humanity can distinguish right from wrong; it marks our moral agency as part of what it means to be made “in God’s image.” Reinterpreting Eve’s actions as the origin of one of humankind’s deepest connections with the divine offers a new warrant for respecting the moral agency of women.
Most readers, even “liberal” ones, will likely be surprised by this sleight of hand that turns the Fall into a positive good. Peters makes no reference to the next chapter of Genesis, however, which tells the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, and describes Cain as the “builder of the first city.”
That violence is at the foundation of human culture is the central thesis of René Girard’s thought. Whether Peters has read Girard or not, I do not know, but I could not detect any trace in this book that she has. One of the authors mentioned above, Bernadette Ward, has written a brilliant article applying Girard’s thought to the abortion debate. She argues that the inhabitant of the womb is the unrecognized scapegoat of our era, and that legalized abortion is a form of child sacrifice.
True progress in human history is understood, in the Girardian framework, as recognizing one’s own complicity in structures and processes of social violence that always seek to manage the psychological difficulties of life through the killing of those members of the human race who cannot defend themselves. Human beings construct their identities, in cultures, by engaging in “othering”: interpreting those who are being killed as inhabiting a lower moral status than themselves. The Great Chain of Being form of othering that made slavery possible has thankfully gone out of style. Horizontal othering, which pits social groups against each other, is still present in our world, but its only defenders are what Eric Voegelin calls, using very technical language, philosophical idiots. The form of othering that is acceptable in our world, however, precisely because it is not recognized as such by those who engage in it, is temporal othering within the trajectory of the individual’s journey through time. Those who are older establish their identity as “persons” in the very act of defining those who are younger as “nonpersons.”
As a final counterpoint to the argument of the book under consideration, we can consider these eloquent words by Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and a prominent pro-life speaker from the 1960s up to her death in 2010: “I became a physician in order to help save lives. I am at once a physician, a citizen, and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow the concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged, and the planned have the right to live.” Dr. Peters would have to have written a different sort of book if she had stepped up to the challenge of taking seriously words such as these and the worldview out of which they were spoken. What she has written is, unfortunately, just another form of preaching to the choir.
Charles K. Bellinger is an associate professor of Theology and Ethics at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Jesus v. Abortion: They Know Not What They Do.