Religion and abortion are two topics that have had a complicated relationship with each other — particularly Christianity and abortion.
There's usually the assumption that Christians are against abortion, that they think that life begins at conception, and that abortion is akin to murder. And while there are certainly Christians (and non-Christians) who believe that, Rebecca Todd Peters, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and professor of religious studies at Elon University, says that those aren't really beliefs that all Christians share.
In her book, Trust Women, Peters offers what she calls a progressive Christian argument for reproductive justice: the full and complete well-being of women and girls. And in doing so, she highlights the complex relationship between Christianity and abortion, and makes the case for why abortion is a moral issue — but not in the way you might think.
Refinery29 recently spoke with Peters about what it means to be a progressive Christian, why abortion isn't just about being pro-choice or pro-life, and how her fellow Christians have received her work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You say you consider yourself a progressive Christian. What does it mean to be a progressive Christian in America?
"For me, being a progressive Christian is standing in the tradition of the social gospel, which is oriented towards thinking about the social call of Christianity — which is the gospel but it’s also the prophets and the old testament.
"I think for me, as to what that means today in America, it’s a real challenge to be Christian because I feel like the whole dominant discourse around Christianity has really been hijacked by Evangelicals. And I think that Evangelicalism is a very particular strain of Christianity that differs in a lot of ways from the progressive Christian tradition. Certainly there are Evangelicals who are working on social justice issues, but I feel like the dominant understanding in America today about what it means to be a Christian is a very conservative and traditionalist understanding."
There’s a generalization that Christians are anti-abortion — do you think that’s accurate?
"No, I don’t think it is, and I think that if you look at the polling data, there are lots of different ways that people identify as Christian, and I think if you look at Evangelical Christians, the dominant perspective is anti-abortion. But that’s not true for other groups, and mainline Christianity — Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran — the traditional mainline churches, the polling data shows that a majority of those folks are pro-choice.
"And the statements of the mainline churches support a pro-choice position, and if you look into those statements further, it’s a very interesting discussion, because the position is largely that abortion is a very difficult decision, and these church traditions recognize the difficulty of that decision and feel like that’s a decision that should be made by women in consultation with their families and their communities, but that it is a decision that women should make. And so I think the notion that all Christians are anti-abortion is very false."
What made you want to write a book about abortion and reproductive justice?
"As the climate in the country has shifted, particularly since the state houses have been passing restrictive legislation since 2011, it became a much more serious threat to women’s health. And I was just continually dismayed by the way the state laws were really targeted at the most economically vulnerable, the most marginalized in society.
"The barriers were being put in place for women who are the most marginalized to have access to healthcare and a legal right to abortion. And recognizing how deeply that bias against women’s access to abortion was motivated by perceptions of Christianity, as a Christian ethicist, I felt this obligation to say something."
In the book, you describe abortion as a moral issue. What does that mean, and why do you think we need a moral argument for choice?
"One of the things that surprised me when I got into this work was that it seems like increasingly, there is a group of people in the country who want to say it isn’t a moral issue at all. As an ethicist that distresses me. I think there are lots of things that are moral issues that deserve serious moral consideration: What we do with our bodies, who we have sex with, whether or not we have a child. All of these are moral issues and I don't think we should blithely go about our business and fail to recognize the moral seriousness of having a child."
You also argue that it's a problem to frame abortion as either being pro-choice or pro-life. Why?
"When you think about what is an ethical question, [it's] 'here’s a situation, what should I do?' And that’s not how we’re approaching the question of abortion. We’re approaching that question as if abortion is wrong, and therefore anyone who wants to end a pregnancy has to have a reason that’s 'accepted,' that a larger populace will grudgingly say, 'yes under these circumstances, we’ll let you have an abortion.' And that’s a very flawed framework for a moral conversation.
"One of the byproducts of that flawed conversation is the creation of this binary where you’re either for it or against it, and then the corresponding 'sides' of pro-choice vs pro-life. When I talk with people, particularly Christians, but others as well, many people reject the reductive nature of those terms. Many people say, 'I think abortion should be legal and women should be able to decide whether to have a child or not. And I’m pro-life, pro the woman’s life, pro the family’s life, and pro having an abundance of life.
"To reduce the idea of pro-life to being anti-abortion is a misnomer and a reduction of our capacity to understand what it means to have an abundant life."
You wrote about your own abortion and said that you “did not choose to end [your] pregnancies despite [your] Christian identity and faith but rather because of it.” Can you talk a little more about what you mean by that?
"Yeah, I’ve had two abortions, and they were very different circumstances, and I didn’t become pro-choice or I didn’t move into the position of women’s moral right to end their pregnancies because of my personal circumstances.
"It was a decision I had come to much earlier in my life. And so when I was in the situation that so many women are, I was in a position where I had to decide what to do when I had first an unplanned pregnancy and then second a problem pregnancy.
"So it was as a Christian, as a person of faith, a wife, a mother, that I made those decisions about what was best for my family."
Do you still feel accepted in your faith community after being open about your beliefs? What kind of reaction have you gotten from your work within your faith community?
"Certainly I’ve had some hate mail, but most of the reaction I’ve gotten has been from Christians who have said thank you, [who have said] 'This is how I feel, this is what I stand for, and the cultural narrative is so far afield from what I believe, and it is wonderful to have a faithful expression of my beliefs.'"
Read These Stories Next: