Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Saturday, June 19, marked the 156th commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth National Independence Day, commonly known as Juneteenth, marks the moment that 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to announce that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in Texas were freed. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, states in Confederate-controlled areas still enslaved African-Americans. Therefore, Juneteenth has been traditionally recognized as the official end of 200-plus years of enslavement in the United States. However, it wasn’t until last week that Congress, after a year of the beginnings of racial reckoning in the United States, finally took action to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Slavery in the United States was justified by Christian slaveholders. Indeed, the bible has many verses that condone and decree slavery. For example, Genesis 9:25 states “God cursed Ham, son of Noah, with perpetual slavery for seeing father naked” and Exodus 21:4 explains: “A male slave may marry and have children, and may go free after six years; but his family remains the property of his master.” Additionally, 1 Timothy 6:1 commands that “slaves must count their masters worthy of all honor.”
Exodus 21:20-21 implicitly states that it is okay to beat slaves so long as they don’t die. Jesus tells a parable involving slavery without condemnation in Matthew 18:21-35. Such barbaric scripture was used to support slavery, as well as assure slaveholders that owning another human being was synonymous with being a good Christian.
James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar and senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., expounded that the Christian scriptures “not only fail to condemn; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man.” From the pulpit, he outrageously sermonized that “bondage is a normal condition” and assuaged any feelings of guilt that Christians may have felt.
Noel Rae, author of The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery, explains how Christian bishops manipulated ideas of punishment and sacrifice to rewards in the afterlife. For example, Bishop William Meade cruelly described that “there is this great comfort in it, that if you bear it patiently, and leave your cause in the hands of God, He will reward you for it in heaven, and the punishment you suffer unjustly here shall turn to your exceeding great glory hereafter.” Shockingly, another bishop, Stephen Elliott, stated that slavery was actually a force for good because it brought those in bondage to Jesus: “I may say millions, who have learned the way to Heaven and who have been made to know their Savior through the means of African slavery!”
It is from this lens that Black women not only became slaves to their masters in servitude, but also through slave breeding and rape. Slave breeding allowed masters to rape their slaves with no recourse, dictate when and with whom slaves could have sex, separate children from their parents, and manipulate slaves into having more children through promises of time off from intensive work in the fields or minor tokens.
In her groundbreaking text Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, scholar Dorothy Roberts details the misery of reproduction in bondage, including that “slave mothers had no legal claim to their children” and that “rape law explicitly excluded Black women from its protection.” Slaveowners raped slaves in an effort to “enhance the productivity of their own plantations and more rarely to increase their slaves’ marketability.” Again, such villainous actions are sanctifieded by the bible. For instance, Exodus 21:7 says that “a man may sell his daughter as a sex slave” and Leviticus 19:20 commands that “when a man has sex with a female slave, she must be scourged.”
Roberts’ book also details how slave women fought back to reclaim their bodily autonomy through clandestine contraception and abortions, by abstaining from sex, and physically defending themselves against slaveowners. In Christopher Cameron’s book Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism, Cameron details that dissent from religion as a result of such cruel treatment occurred early in slave communities. For example, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs writes about how the “conditions of slavery fostered a lack of religious belief within her family” and that “the dehumanization and commodification inherent in slavery fostered an attitude of nonbelief.”
Freethinking abolitionists also spoke out against the horrors of slavery. In Women Without Superstition: “No Gods- No Masters,” edited by FFRF co-founder and Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, the details about such progressive women are outlined. For instance, Lydia Maria Child wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery books and denounced racism, miscegenation laws, segregation, and sexual degradation of slave women.
And while Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery, the ramifications of religiously rooted reproductive health care laws are still seen today. For example, lack of contraception access, abortion care, comprehensive insurance, maternal health care, maternal paid time off and inclusive sex education undermine bodily autonomy. Catholic hospitals and tax-funded crisis pregnancy centers deny reproductive health care and spread disinformation. These disparities disproportionately target Black communities. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women due to lack of quality of health care, underlying health conditions, structural racism and implicit bias.
In Wisconsin, FFRF’s home state, Black women are five times more likely to die during or within one year of pregnancy than white women. At the same time, Catholic hospitals comprise one-third of Wisconsin hospitals, twice the national average. Catholic hospitals have proliferated in Milwaukee and other Black communities, and more than half of births to black women in Wisconsin are in Catholic hospitals. At these hospitals, many reproductive health care services are off-limits because of religious conflicts, jeopardizing women’s health.
The Reproductive Justice framework, first articulated in June 1994 by 12 Black women who worked in the reproductive health and rights movement, is key to racial equity and reproductive health care in the United States. By focusing on the holistic health of families and communities, Reproductive Justice is defined by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” That means that we must invest in affordable health care, housing and food, social services — and analyze power structures so that we can build intersectional and inclusive communities.
As secular voters, it also means that we must stand up against religiously rooted health care laws that defy science and disregard women’s health. The Women’s Health Protection Act was recently reintroduced in Congress. The Women’s Health Protection Act protects abortion care throughout the United States by working toward reproductive, economic and racial justice. As the legislation explains, if we can eliminate medically unnecessary restrictions that impedes abortion access, people can maintain their bodily autonomy and live in safe and sustainable communities. FFRF is a supporter of the Women’s Health Protection Act, submitting congressional testimony last week in support of its passage.
Women will never be free if they cannot control their own bodies. We ask you to contact your representative today and urge them to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act,. Let’s stand up for reproductive justice, racial equity and secular values together.