a book review of
A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice
by Rebecca Todd Peters
(Beacon Press, 2018)
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5(2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, social ethicist and feminist Rebecca Todd Peters argues that abortion can be a moral good when a woman chooses what is right for herself. She rejects moral absolutism, and writes, “Moral meaning and value can only be measured within the context of an existing moral life” (p. 7).
But if the morality of abortion is subjective, as Peters claims, then it isn’t real. One individual’s preference on a given matter has no more authority than another’s.
It’s an interesting twist, especially since other moral issues that Peters takes on — such as women’s equality and racism — aren’t viewed as matters of preference.
From Justification to “Justice.” Peters’s transparency is admirable as she shares very personal accounts of her own sexual history and her two abortions, none of which she views as wrong or regrettable. Her compassion for women facing hardship that is unimaginable to some is laudable, and ought to be shared by thoughtful individuals across the spectrum of views on abortion.
However, because Peters has transplanted the “good” from the transcendent to individual preference, her efforts to determine what ought to be morally good for the rest of us — namely, trusting women to choose if and when to terminate a pregnancy — can’t get off the ground.
Her stated goal with Trust Women is to cause a cultural conversational shift in what she calls the current “justification paradigm” surrounding abortion to one of “reproductive justice.” The former is centered on an outdated (according to Peters) assumption that when women get pregnant, they must have babies. The justification framework focuses the debate on the moral status of the “prenate,” her preferred term. This paradigm created today’s binary abortion battlefield and, consequently, the cultural stigma that requires women to justify their abortions to avoid being vilified.
Better, believes Peters, to frame the debate as one of reproductive justice, an intersectional approach that shifts the debate’s primary focus to individual women whose pregnancies, wanted or unwanted, should be considered in light of their entire reproductive narratives. By starting with the “concrete” realities of women’s circumstances (as opposed to the supposed abstract status of prenates), we can better address the underlying social structure issues to enable women to make responsible decisions regarding their sexualities, fertility, and pregnancies.
When Does “Personhood” Begin? To make her progressive Christian argument, Peters paints a caricature of the prolife view, attributing its purported flaws to a history of patriarchal and misogynistic — two of the most-used adjectives in her book — traditions that she claims have shaped negative Christian attitudes about women. The book is confusing at best and misses the mark of being Christian both in terms of content and of charitable interaction with critics who offer a robust prolife argument. Instead of engaging with intelligent philosophical arguments that demonstrate no relevant difference between the “prenate” and Peters herself, she simply asserts that though the prenate is unquestionably human, personhood shouldn’t be granted until birth — specifically when the prenate takes its first breath, is removed from the mother, and shifts from total to moderate dependency.
Peters’s argument collapses in inconsistencies, the most glaring of which is her failure to include some “humans” — a scientifically accurate status that she grants the unborn — in her demand for equal human rights, which she defines as “those afforded to all humans because of the membership in the human race” (190).
In withholding full personhood from so-called prenates based on the ability to breathe, a change in location, and a slight shift in degree of dependency, Peters never explains which of these traits brings about the magical metamorphosis from mere human to person, nor why it is these traits — and not others — that ought to ground full membership in the human community. Additionally, in drawing the line at these abilities, she disqualifies whole other classes of human beings — those unable to breathe without assistance, prenates who exit the womb for surgical procedures and are replaced for continued gestation, and anyone dependent on another for survival.
The prolife view, supported by scientific and philosophical reasoning, debunks the idea that a pregnant woman must decide if and when she wants to be a mother — she already is one. Just as a mother wouldn’t kill her two-year-old for any of the justifications Peters offers — despite her claim that justifications aren’t necessary — neither should she kill her unborn child for those reasons, even those that are unarguably emotionally gut-wrenching. Neither circumstances nor feelings about the unborn change what it actually is.
Furthermore, grounding human value in functional differences when it comes to abortion undermines Peters’s (correct) view that racism and misogyny are morally abhorrent. Philosophically, anything other than intrinsic human value (the view that says human beings matter just because they’re human) results in the very kind of society Peters promotes — one in which some human beings matter more than others.
The intrinsic view grants value to all regardless of arbitrary differences, and seeks creative and better solutions to problematic social structure issues than the intentional killing of innocent human beings.
Body–Self Dualism. The anthropology Peters promotes in Trust Women is far from Christian, but it is prevalent in today’s culture. Her advocacy for women as autonomous individuals who control their own sexualities and bodies through abortion actually promotes a lesser view of the body as a mere machine that serves the desires of the true, feeling self. This body–self dualism indicates that one is free to do to and with her body what she wishes — even denying any biological connection between sex and pregnancy — as long as the true self is satisfied.
Peters uses terms such as “self-care,” which she insists is not the same as selfishness, as reason enough for women to abort, and coins an entire chapter “Reimagining Pregnancy” — an attempt to rewrite reality on her own terms.
This view is much closer to Gnosticism than Christianity, which has unwaveringly defined human beings as essentially body and soul from the point at which they come into existence. Because the two cannot be ontologically separated during one’s earthly existence, whatever one does to or with the body affects the individual as a whole. This offers more insight into the widespread pain, shame, and guilt associated with abortion than does Peters’s indiscriminate blame-casting toward middle-class, White Christians who purportedly hurl judgment from their patriarchal high horses.
Peters’s body–self dualism holds self-fulfillment as the highest good, which in turn fuels her understanding of the purposes of sex, God, and children. She rejects that sex should take place only within the confines of a husband-and wife relationship, or that it was designed for the purpose of procreation. (She overlooks the unitive aspect of sex’s design as part of the traditional Christian view.) As for the Bible, she claims that there are “limitations in seeking direct ethical guidance for contemporary sexual behavior from a book that reflects sexual and cultural attitudes two thousand years old” (17). Her interaction with biblical passages confuses descriptions of patriarchal cultural norms with prescriptions for biblical marriage. She affirms God’s goodness and justice, but only as she defines those terms; and she finds “impossible to believe” that “the fertilization of egg by a sperm” could be a gift from God (202). Rather, children are blessings only insomuch as they actively bless us.
Real Sexual Freedom. Peters argues that though our culture suffers from a long history of misogynistic undercurrents, statistics show that abortion is a normal part of women’s lives. The Greco-Roman world, steeped in sexual hedonism, practiced abortion as a cultural norm, a trend that continued in Western societies (especially prior to quickening in the second trimester) and the United States until the scientific advances of the nineteenth century. But something being normal doesn’t make it normative. We might have said the same of slavery!
From its conception, Christianity was scandalously countercultural. It provided a safe haven for women, both in terms of marital security and greater equality. The New Testament was shocking to Roman mores because it taught that both women and men were to be faithful to their respective spouses. Clear Christian teaching provides greater freedom, sexual and otherwise, within God’s loving limits — not hatred of women.
Pregnancy and childbirth are essentially and uniquely female, yet Peters treats them as a disease unless consent to pregnancy is granted by the woman. In order to attain success by today’s cultural standards, women who want marriage and children are pressured to wait to secure their education and career status. As Christian apologist Nancy Pearcey writes, “To avoid being derailed from their education or career path, women are urged to ‘meet their sexual needs’ through casual affairs without emotional commitment.”1 Many wait until pregnancy is difficult or even impossible and turn to technologies that often commodify children. Sexual idolatry requires women to deny their essential natures in order to seek what others have deemed an ultimate good — sex without side effects, as long as one is willing to deny reality.
On the contrary, as Pearcey writes, “A culture that respects women’s bodies will create more flexible career trajectories that allow women to have their families at the time that is biologically optimal. It will create education and work patterns that fit around family responsibilities.”2
Peters desires justice but fails to see that the problem with justice is she, like the rest of us, stands to receive it herself. Contrary to her claims, Christians can’t condemn women for having had abortions. Apart from Christ, every individual stands on equal footing — deserving of justice — before an infinitely perfect and just God. “But God, being rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4a ESV).
The gospel, which isn’t mentioned in Peters’s book, offers mercy to any who will receive it in repentance and faith through Christ’s victory over death and sin. The result of such abounding grace is not shame and silence but life-giving freedom.—Megan Almon
Megan Almon is a speaker with Life Training Institute and addresses audiences and trains students nationally on prolife apologetics and related topics.
- Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 74.
- Pearcey, Love Thy Body, 76.