By Lynn Shuler Teague
One of the many things I value about the Episcopal Church is its official position that women should have moral agency in the difficult issue of abortion. The teachings of our Church tell us that abortion is not to be used for “mere convenience” or as a substitute for birth control. However, the Church affirms the dignity and bodily autonomy of those who are pregnant and clearly opposes legislation to prohibit abortion.
I therefore was surprised by Dr. Brown’s article in Episcopal Journal (originally reported in Religion Unplugged that tells us what he expects if Roe v. Wade ends or is greatly weakened in the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. He tells us that we can expect violence, which he specifies probably will come from “leftists.” (He fails to identify his credentials as an expert on extremist violence.) He appears to have little or no concern for either the official position of the Episcopal Church or the United States Constitution’s protections against forcing all to live by the religious beliefs of some, views that most Americans do not share. His stated expectations do not extend to the great harm that will be inflicted on individuals who are prohibited from terminating their pregnancies by the very extreme anti-abortion bills that are now being passed in many states, in expectation of putting them into place soon after the Supreme Court rules.
I don’t look to the Episcopal Church for perspectives like Dr. Brown’s. For that, I have those who I hear at the South Carolina Statehouse speaking on behalf of evangelical and Roman Catholic denominations (when those same religious representatives aren’t busy fighting to restrict the rights of LGBTQ persons, limit what can be taught in schools, or drain public money into private schools, most of them founded and supported to avoid school integration). This summer we will hear this again, as the South Carolina General Assembly takes up an abortion prohibition bill that the Governor has demanded include no exceptions at all. This will echo what has already happened in other states and could happen in more.
Dr. Brown should be pleased to hear that even when faced with this terrible prospect, the pro-choice people of my acquaintance are not planning the violence that he predicts. We are planning, though. We are planning to help the victims who he doesn’t even mention in passing. Those are the 11-year-old incest victims, victims of rape, impoverished women with more children than they can care for, women whose health is at risk, and all the others whose lives will be harmed and even endangered. They include those persons who tragically will be forced to continue wanted pregnancies that have gone terribly wrong, to an awful end that bears no resemblance to the loved baby that they anticipated.
The victims will include women who will die. Our nation already has a disgracefully high maternal mortality rate. That mortality rate is especially high for women of color. They will suffer disproportionately from the draconian abortion bans awaiting the demise of Roe. Even for those with good access to medical care, lives will be in danger, and many will be lost, when physicians are compelled to wait until maternal death is otherwise inevitable before ending a pregnancy.
The victims will include those who had have miscarriages or stillbirths and will be charged with crimes, in the suspicion that something they did contributed to the loss of the pregnancy. This is already happening.
At a very basic level, everyone should be concerned about the disregard for the personal autonomy and dignity of pregnant persons in the laws that will take effect with the end of Roe, as well as the damage to the separation of church and state. When coercion by the state is in question, laws must be built on a foundation of generally shared moral principles, not the beliefs of specific religious traditions. Equating a pre-viability fetus with a living breathing person is a religious belief that most Americans do not share. Extreme abortion prohibitions giving these fetuses legal rights equal to those of pregnant persons violate the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. This case has been made in detail by constitutional scholars in the 1992 volume “Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom” edited by Peter Wenz, and by many other legal scholars since then.
Those of us who defend abortion rights are deeply concerned for the dignity of women. At its foundation, an end to Roe is an end to women having authority over decisions that determine the course of our lives. This does not dismay denominations that teach that women do not have the authority of men in the family, in the church, and in society – which are, not by coincidence, the same churches lobbying for abortion bans. However, it should dismay members of the Episcopal Church, which teaches the dignity of all and in the case of abortion, great personal moral responsibility rather than government coercion.
Lynn Teague is a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Parish in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also an active volunteer advocate as the principal lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.