It’s hard for hot button issues like abortion and the death penalty to not become entangled with religion in a Bible Belt state like Texas. The state is both the execution capitol of America and one of the most restrictive states when it comes to abortion laws and funding for abortion services. In Texas, many Christian Conservatives advocate to protect the lives of fetuses while lobbying for the death penalty, which begs the question: Where does playing God begin and end for Christians?
In 2018, 13 of the 25 death penalty executions in the U.S. took place in Texas. In April 2019, Texas lawmakers introduced a bill that would criminalize all abortions and classify the medical procedure as a homicide, which could in theory be punished with the death penalty. In a new episode of Refinery29’s YouTube webseries, State of Grace, host Grace Baldrige traveled to the Lone Star state to unpack "the extreme juxtaposition of life and death" that exists within these two major issues.
“How are we, and the systems and institutions we've created in this country, valuing lives?” she asks. “In the battle to protect the innocent unborn, are we losing the fight for humanity?” To answer these crucial questions, Baldrige visited abortion providers and churches in Texas, interviewing activists, faith leaders, and experts who feel that the religious pro-life movement misinterprets God’s will at the expense of human life.
In the episode, Baldrige interviews a single mother who had an abortion when she became unexpectedly pregnant while on birth control. "No one looks at the mothers afterwards,” Stephanie, who used to identify as a Catholic and Republican, says. “The mothers seem to be the forgotten shells — we make the babies but we are forgotten afterwards. The process is just very unforgiving in so many ways, that if you have the abortion, how dare you; if you need assistance after having a child, how dare you; if you take child support, 'oh well, you're just greedy.'”
According to a recent poll, a slight majority of Texans would support banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy; 48% said they would support such a measure, while 42% say they would oppose it.
And while many view the church as being diametrically opposed to abortion, some church leaders, like Rev. Keatan King of St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston, believe that Jesus would support reproductive freedom and organizations like Planned Parenthood. "God gave women choice and expects us to use it," Rev. King says. "Christians are so fond of quoting John 3:16, but what John 3:17 — the very next verse — says is 'God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world.'"
Both Rev. King and Rev. Cheryl Smith of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Huntsville, believe that the same ideology extends to how Christians should view capital punishment — which they both oppose. "No matter what someone has done, that does not cut them off from God's love," King says. Rev. Smith spent years pastoring and standing vigil outside the execution center at the Huntsville prison, the nation's busiest death chamber.
Do I get to decide, based on somebody else's behavior, how much dignity they're going to have?
Rev. Cheryl Smith
In 2015, Smith joined 550 other faith leaders in Texas in sending a letter addressed to Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas legislators expressing their opposition to the death penalty. Meanwhile, a June 2018 poll from the University of Texas at Austin shows that the majority of Texans support capital punishment.
"Do I get to decide, based on somebody else's behavior, how much dignity they're going to have? I don't think [death row prisoners] become some other class of creation, just because they made bad choices,” Rev. Smith says, expanding on her views.
It is these “impossible questions and strongly-held opinions,” Baldrige says, that should “encourage us to lean closer, take a moment to listen, adjust our lens, and understand the lived experience of someone different than ourselves. Because when we're valuing each other, we're valuing life."