- Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice by Rebecca Todd Peters
BY REBECCA TODD PETERS
Boston: Beacon Press, 2018. 240 pp. $27.95
Some arguments about abortion begin with scripture. Some begin with statistics, or with an examination of the existential and moral status of fetuses. In a move that remains lamentably rare in Christian theology and ethics, Rebecca Todd Peters begins her argument with experience, owning up to her personal stake in the debate on the first page. This is not a simple matter of confession or personal indulgence. “The decision to tell my story in these pages is a methodological one,” she writes; “Stories matter, and abortion cannot be understood—culturally, theologically, socially, or politically—outside the lives of women who have [End Page 421] abortions” (15). In offering up her own reproductive history, she gives readers our first reason to trust her.
But the book does not stop at self-reflection. Drawing richly and cogently from history, theology, and social science, her top priority is to overturn the “justification paradigm” of American abortion debates, which starts with the question: When, if ever, is an abortion morally justified? Underlying this paradigm are the assumptions that abortion is murder, that sex is primarily for procreation, and that every pregnancy must end in childbirth—all of which she categorically rejects. For Peters, there is no generic abortion because there is no generic woman; every abortion is morally distinct, so there can be no generic stance toward it (29).
Her argument develops in three parts. First, she talks about realities on the ground: who are the “One in Three” women who have abortions; what are their reasons; and how are women “publicly abused” by restrictive abortion policies? She moves on in part two to an extended examination of patriarchy in Christian tradition and the U.S., which views women as either stupid and helpless, or reckless and selfish. She sees these misogynistic forces as having decisively shaped a “flawed moral discourse” about abortion in which pregnancy tragically becomes a “punishment”—first for women and then for children born into a world that will not care for them (54). Finally, she moves on to constructive work in support of the “reproductive justice” paradigm, arising from communities of color, which takes the focus off narrow questions of individual rights (whether maternal or fetal) and instead locates abortion within a larger framework of social justice and women’s lived realities.
Peters concludes that abortion is a moral good because it allows women greater freedom over their reproduction and their lives. This rests on her belief that prenatal, potential life, while valuable, is never fully human. A prenate is a “human becoming” (157), a liminal creature that cannot exist except in symbiosis with a pregnant woman—in contrast with the individualistic, baby-like images to which we’ve been exposed for half a century (42). She points out that even most abortion opponents make exceptions to save the life of a pregnant woman, thus proving that most humans intuitively see “a difference between prenatal and neonatal life” (142).
Peters’s solution is to “trust women” by placing no restrictions whatsoever on people’s choices about abortion. From her point of view, only when it becomes physically separate from a woman does a prenate become a human being with rights; until birth, it is whatever its host decides it is (156). While I fear that this is an overly-individualistic approach to prenatal value, and I am likewise skeptical about any individual’s ability to make a genuinely “free” reproductive decision in our current context, Peters’s overall argument about the tragic injustices of man-made [sic] abortion policy is persuasive. “The oppression of women has often taken the form of restricting, brutalizing, and controlling women’s bodies, [End Page 422] their sexuality, and their reproduction. Women of color and poor women have undeniably suffered the most . . . and it is past time for things to change” (186).