The “Pro-Life” Movement’s Hidden Subtext

The most vociferous and sometimes violent opponents of women’s right to choose claim they act in the name of Christianity and of life.  The truth seems to me to be very different.

Interpreting scripture

I expected anti-choice zealots would be able to easily quote biblical passages clearly condemning abortion. I was surprised that instead, the citations they offered were always open to multiple interpretations, and even more surprised that their anti-choice interpretations historically had been in the minority. I will examine one of the most important of these passages and then explore what I believe to be the deeper reasons behind zealous attacks in the name of Christianity on women’s control over their own lives.

Consider the following passage from Exodus 21:22-25:

And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.  But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

This passage, the longest, most detailed Biblical discussion of an issue relating to abortion, does not support the views of conservative Christianity that a fetus, let alone a zygote, is a human being.  Aggressively and violently inducing a miscarriage is punished by a fine, and an uncertain one at that.  Every other injury is compensated by the principle “an eye for an eye.”  If the mother is accidentally killed, the responsible party is still executed.  But if she miscarries, even if she was deliberately pushed, only a fine is levied.

Some anti-choice advocates claim that this passage refers to premature births where the expelled fetus lives. No eye for an eye was necessary. Given the times, it was hard enough to keep many normally birthed babies alive, so this claim seems bizarre.  In such a hypothetical situation, if the premature baby died soon after—as was often the case—could its death be attributed to the violence against the woman, or would it be considered just one more of many all too frequent infant deaths?

Those making this bizarre claim assert they know ancient Hebrew better than those making a more straightforward interpretation. They claim the term translated as “miscarriage” meant a live birth.

How is a reasonable person who is not a Hebraic scholar to decide? Fortunately we are not at the mercy of rival modern scholars debating what words meant more than 2000 years ago.  A community exists with an unbroken record of studying these texts since they were written. Many are quite conversant with ancient Hebrew. Of course I am talking about the Jews.

While Jewish law explicitly recognizes a fetus’ potential for becoming human, it is not considered a complete human being.  Rabbis Raymon Zwerin and Richard Shapiro write, “Rashi, the great 12th century commentator on the Bible and Talmud, states clearly of the fetus ’av nefesh hu – it is not a person.’ The Talmud contains the expression ‘ubar yerech imo – the fetus is as the thigh of its mother,’ i.e., the fetus is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant woman’s body.” Rashi (1040-1105) used the passage above to justify his interpretation of the scriptures. Maimonides (1135-1204) took a different view. When considering a threat to the mother’s life, he compared the fetus to a rodef, or pursuer, for whom one was not to have pity. Abortion was justified because the fetus actively endangered the mother. Wikipedia also gives a good overview of the fact that Jews, who have studied their scripture since long before there were Christians, have not considered the fetus human in the moral sense.

Two of Judaism’s most respected authorities agree the woman’s life always comes before that of a fetus, with one clearly arguing the fetus is not human, only potentially so. The strongest contemporary Jewish argument I found that is critical of abortion nevertheless emphasizes that the issue is complex and simple answers are impossible: decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Jews are famous for their skills in debate, and religious Jews have mastered the art of textual dispute and interpretation as have few other communities.  Today an enormous variety of Jewish positions exists on virtually every question important to their religion and to their community as a whole. We would expect the same pattern to exist regarding abortion. Certainly if the bulk of textual evidence suggested abortion was murder, a large majority of religious Jews would be against abortion. But this is not the case.

In 2012 the Public Religion Research Institute published a survey of Jewish values. As one might expect, Jews varied widely in their political, economic, and religious opinions, with one exception. Fully 93% of all American Jews support making abortion legal in at least some cases, and 49% argued it should be legal in all cases.  77% of Jewish Republicans supported making abortion legal for at least some cases. Jews are the only religious group surveyed where a plurality supported abortion in all cases. Only 1% of American Jews supported completely outlawing abortion.

And my point is?

My point here is not to settle a dispute over another religion’s texts.  Christians have been arguing with and killing one another for over a thousand years and are no closer to agreement today than they were then.  How can a non-Christian expect to settle the matter?

From my perspective (which is open to either biblical interpretation, because the Bible’s position is irrelevant to my own), there is no absolutely certain interpretation of these passages. However, the historical record favors pro-choice interpretations of Exodus and other shorter texts that argue the fetus does not have the moral standing of a human being.

Given the texts’ ambiguity, and that the anti-choice position has been a minority position for most of this time among the Jewish community, why the vehemence, arrogance, and even violence of those most deeply involved with the anti-choice position?

Pro-life or pro-something else?

As I was writing this column, I came across a report that anti-choice ‘pregnancy centers’ in Virginia and Ohio routinely lie to the women visiting them, even over issues unconnected to abortion, such as birth control.  If they truly care about ending abortion, this record of lies is strange. Contraception dramatically reduces abortion rates.

But such anti-choice ‘pregnancy centers’ do not care primarily about abortion, nor are they particularly ‘pro-life.’  Their behavior fits a different pattern.  To understand this pattern, we need to see the anti-choice movement in its larger context.

Every study of which I am aware indicates states whose citizens most accept the anti-choice argument (and so would presumably be concerned about the health of defenseless ‘human beings’ within a woman) spend far less money on providing prenatal care for mothers than do other states. This lack of concern with fetal well-being is accompanied by their lack of concern for children’s health and nutrition, a similar lack of concern for women’s health in general, and support for torture even though it is against Jesus’s explicit teachings (as well as US and international law). A great many anti-choice zealots also oppose giving girls the HPV vaccine despite the fact it could provide life-saving protection from cervical cancers acquired through intercourse.

How can we make sense of this behavior?  Southern Democrat-turned-Republican Zell Miller, who spoke at a Republican presidential convention, gave us more than a hint. In 2007, Miller charged that abortion has contributed to our military’s manpower shortage. More babies are needed to grow up and become soldiers.  In addition, a lower rate of abortion would produce more Americans to do the minimally paid jobs Mexican laborers now seek, thus “solving” the immigration problem. The key clue is Miller’s reference to the importance of stoop agricultural labor.

The monster under the surface

On PaganSquare, I argued the vehemence of the struggle over abortion is rooted in a deeper transformation of a world where the institutions, attitudes, and mores of agricultural societies no longer fit the needs of a modern civilization. But many people remain wedded to those old agricultural civilization-rooted values, and conflict arises.

Two of those values are veneration of hierarchy and the subordination of women. They are linked. Over time, agricultural societies generate steep hierarchies based on unequal land ownership. Extreme hierarchy comes to appear natural, along with the belief that most people should be subordinate to a very small elite.

Early America’s situation was uniquely different. Particularly in the north, the circumstances of its European settlement created a society of many independent small farmers rather than a mass of poverty-stricken peasants. Early Americans were accustomed to considerable self-governance, a reality the American Revolution strengthened. The world’s first liberal democracy arose, and with it a challenge to an old set of dominant values thousands of years old. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

Despite Jefferson’s optimistic words, had the previously normal course of events unfolded, increasing population would have gradually decreased the size and viability of farms, and farmers’ debts would have led to the consolidation of land holdings.  In time, these small independent farmers would have become a large peasant class ruled by an oligarchy or aristocracy of landowners. It had happened before.

But this time it did not happen.

Our democratic republic arose just as industrial growth began transforming the world. Starting first in England (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations first appeared in 1776!), it soon spread to the US and elsewhere. The fatal dynamic of prosperity leading to peonage was broken. Jefferson’s hopes were fulfilled here at home and, increasingly, abroad. Modern societies and their ideals of equality transformed the human world as deeply as had the earlier transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But the new order inherited ways of thought and customs rooted in the old.

Agricultural societies also dominated women, partly to ensure land and the power it facilitated was kept in the family, and partly because these societies were war-like either by choice or necessity: physical strength plus wealth usually determined who won. In such societies, organized religion ended up supporting extreme hierarchies and claimed the subordination of women was divinely ordained. In a world where extreme hierarchy seemed natural, the subordination of women appeared only reasonable, even to women. This attitude also initially carried over into the new society being birthed.

Much of modern history can be understood as the gradual transformation of agriculturally-based customs and ethics into outlooks more in keeping with the requirements of an industrial market order.

Degenerating into nihilism

Today, the agricultural, hierarchical way of life is no longer a force for anything positive. I believe this explains why the efforts of the most extreme advocates for subordinating women and honoring hierarchy are so lacking in intellectual honesty, moral decency, or concern for rational argument. Their tradition has run dry intellectually, morally, and spiritually. Its advocates are characterized instead by anger, self-righteousness, and disrespect for those who see the world differently.

In seeking to preserve domination by a few over most, and by men over women, supporters of this older paradigm are abandoning everything of value that agricultural societies contributed to humankind.  Their own program being ultimately sterile, defined by opposing whatever the new society favors, they themselves have no future, instead serving the interests of those who would re-establish hierarchy and domination on an industrial and financial basis. But that important issue is for another column.

I do not mean to denounce all hierarchies, not at all. But hierarchies need to be able to justify themselves in terms benefiting those below.  The old hierarchies of agricultural orders no longer perform positive functions and have no rational arguments on their behalf, and so their modern advocates simply attack newer cultural and religious values in better harmony with the needs of this new society.

This is why they reject science, as in their espousal of creationism and denial of ecological and climate science. (Small wonder that a 2009 Pew Research Center report found only 6% of scientists identified as Republicans and 9% called themselves ‘conservatives.’) This is why they seek the continued militarization of the police despite their contradictory claim that government cannot be trusted: a brutal police force encourages people to see themselves as subjects rather than as citizens.  This is why they support making higher education out of reach for most young Americans, reversing the trends of the last decades of the twentieth century: education flattens hierarchy.

This is also why they attack every late twentieth-century development that empowered women. Subordinating women to their biology provides firm support for a society of hierarchy and domination: those beneath the elite (but not at the very bottom) will always have someone they can dominate.  This strategy worked with poor white men in Dixie who, no matter how exploited they felt, could still in turn dominate Blacks and women. Dominant Southern religion helped everyone accept being kept ‘in their place.’

Am I too harsh?  If the anti-choice people—the most powerful of them anyway—were truly pro-life, they would support providing prenatal care. They would support women and children’s health. They do not because their real priorities have little to do with life.

A spiritual dimension

A secular analysis like this can take us pretty far. But I think there is another, deeper level to probe. What we are witnessing here is the influence of a Power grown strong through centuries of domination, a Power that is now fighting against its greatest earthly challenge.  It seems as if the energies that fed sumptuously off the old totalitarian states of the twentieth century had to find new human hosts once those states collapsed, or fade. Consequently, they were attracted to those who already see the world in terms of domination and subordination, and who worship a deity because it is “all-powerful,” not because it is good. When Power is the defining divine quality, Power is what that religion truly worships.

But it is not fulfilling to be at the bottom of a divine hierarchy. Others need to be below the worshippers as they are below their God—that allows them to exercise the domination they worship at the wholesale on the retail level. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, gays: all these and more will do as the bottom. The list is long. Claiming to be pro-life, the anti-choice people are really pro-domination.  Their image of a good world is of a divine baboon troop, not of a free society.

We can summarize it in George Orwell’s words: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This is the spiritual energy behind the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement.

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