Get Your Laws off my Body! by Elise Edwards


After considering Virginia’s Transvaginal Utrasound Bill in light of the womanist critique, I wonder if religiously-motivated lawmakers considered that they alone do not have access to God’s intentions, but that the divine spirit is operative in a pregnant woman as well, would they be so willing to negate her moral agency?

On Tuesday, the senate in Virginia approved a law that would require women to get an external ultrasound before an abortion.  This is a scaled-back version of an original bill that mandated transvaginal ultrasounds prior to abortions. According to this Washington Post article, opponents like Sen. Janet D. Howell describe the measure as “state rape,” since it is the state, not the woman and her doctor who decides that she must undergo this procedure  requiring the insertion of a probe into the vagina.  Although proponents of the bill say that it is designed to give women more information about a fetus’ gestational age and development, most would agree that it is ultimately intended to discourage the women from having an abortion.  This is why bloggers like Kendra Hamilton believe that religion is the moti­va­tion behind this and the other 5 abortion-related bills introduced in the Virginia General Assembly connected to issues of women’s sovereignty over their bodies.  Yet, as I heard about these bills, another religious response came to mind – one that expresses horror and condemnation of coercive practices regarding women’s childbearing.

Delores Williams critically discusses surrogacy in Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, an early work of African-American womanist theology.  Although positive images of mothering and nurturing are sometimes drawn from depictions of African-American slave women, Williams encourages us to seriously examine the history of the black women’s motherhood roles that were institutionalized in America’s slaveocracy (35).  Slave women’s bodies were exploited to labor, produce more labor (children), and nurture the black and white children in their care.  “Breeder women” and “mammies” had surrogate motherhood imposed on them to further the interests of the dominant society.  In other words, control over a slave woman’s reproductive health was not her own in a culture of pervasive rape, premature birth, and ownership of bodies.

There are significant differences between then and now which I do not seek to minimize – most notably the institution of slavery and the broad applicability of the contemporary policy regarding ultrasounds to all women, not only those of color. (I do, however, refer you again to the link I posted above for “The Goddess of Gumbo”’s description of the intertwined history of such legislative acts, slavery, and gynecological “research.”)  Yet I recalled Williams’ description of surrogacy because of two similarities with today’s issue – the institutional, coercive pressure for women to bear children, and the lack of identification with the woman who is being coerced by the religious community.  Williams effectively uses the biblical figure of Hagar to re-orient our identification with Abraham and Sarah to the outsider woman who is “given” as a surrogate mother for the couple, cast into the desert, but ultimately protected by God.  Hagar, then, becomes a prototype and model for contemporary African-American women’s struggles.

Through an argument comparing Alice Walker’s writings to those of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Williams asserts that “the idea of the divine spirit working within humans is more efficacious for women’s development of self-worth than notions of God in male or female form” (56).  I wonder if religiously-motivated lawmakers considered that they alone do not have access to God’s intentions, but that the divine spirit is operative in a pregnant woman as well, would they be so willing to negate her moral agency, her decision-making abilities and responsibilities? My belief in the pervasiveness of patriarchy leads me to think it would not make much of a difference.   But the question helps us see the influence an image of an externally-operative God/dess vs. and internally operative God/dess can make on the ways we regard moral choices.  If God is external, we will be more likely to substitute institutional power (the state, the church) for the power of individual selves to make decisions regarding those individual selves.

Obviously, there is a connection between the motivations behind the Transvaginal Ultrasound Bill and the health care act regarding contraceptive coverage that I discussed in a previous post.  A comment I saw online remarked that women are foolish to think we can have it both ways – that we can desire mandated health care coverage for contraception while also wishing to remain free of government imposed procedures.  The sentiment expressed was that if we want conservatives to get involved in our health care, than this is what will happen.  But that view distorts the core argument.  The common thread in feminist and pro-choice arguments FOR mandated coverage and AGAINST mandated ultrasounds is that both positions uphold a woman’s competency to decide for herself what is right, hopefully in conversation with her doctors and other concerned parties.  Policies that exempt religious institutions from contraceptive coverage or require a woman to have additional medical procedures before an abortion limit her choices depending on which organization she works for or which state she lives in. We should be critical and concerned when religion is motivated to do that.

Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Activism, Bible, Black Feminism, Childbirth, Children, Contraception, Feminism, God-talk, Motherhood, Rape Culture, Reproductive Justice, Scripture, Textual Interpretation, Thealogy, Theology, Womanist Theology

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21 replies

  1. Thank you so much for your strong, outspoken post.

    When will these bullies ever understand that 1) NO woman in her right mind ever wants an abortion? Abortion is ALWAYS a last resort.
    2) Better and more available contraception services result in less abortion (its a no-brainer)
    3) Not only is it a woman’s right to choose, but ONLY a woman can choose if and when she is to terminate her pregnancy.
    4) Better abortion services will reduce both late and illegal abortions, and very early terminations would negate much of the hysteria surrounding the matter.
    5) The desire to control women’s reproductive health is typical of both communist and fascist states.
    Moreover, yes,of course women can have it ‘both ways’. here in the UK no politician would DARE impose proceedures. All medical proceedures are decided by doctors, who are free to act within the remit of their own conscience. No proceedure can be forced on a person with the rare exception of where a court may insist on medical intervention to save a child’s life, or in the case of insanity.

    The idea of a forced ultrasound is so cruel, so violent, and so debased, I am astonished that rational people are even prepared to discuss it. Shame on all who suggest such barbarism!

    Blessings, June

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    • PS I was so FURIOUS when I posted the above comment that I didn’t edit it properly: I want to change point 3) from ……’but ONLY a woman can choose if and when she is to terminate her pregnancy’ to ‘but ONLY a woman can choose if she is to terminate her pregnancy.’

      Late abortion is a profound and troubling issue, but I don’t see how it can be rationally discussed until all women have access to easy, supported, and free early termination should they need or want it. J

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  2. Great post! I had a transvaginal ultrasound when I was living in VA and pregnant with my first child – it was considered good OB/GYN care and thus I fully consented, upon consultation with my doctor, to the procedure. While the context is different (women about to get an abortion vs. women wanting to eventually give birth), I can’t even imagine being coerced by the state to have had the transvaginal ultrasound regardless of my or my doctor’s wishes. What a horrible prospect.

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    • Thank you, Grace. I don’t have any experience with pregnancy, but based on second-hand knowledge through friends and associates, I was aware of the different kinds of ultrasounds. One of the articles I read that encouraged me to blog about this noted that both transvaginal and “jelly-on-the-belly” ultrasounds are already commonly performed for women who are getting abortions. The difference, of course, is that this is done with the woman’s consent, in consultation with her medical providers, not at the insistence of the state. It is so horrific to me that the state would proscribe any kind of medical procedure, especially one so invasive, and one that deals with reproductive health.

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  3. Brava! Every woman on the planet should read your blog and rise up against men who want to control women’s bodies, minds, spirituality, finances, education, and anything else belonging to women.

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  4. Thank you Elise for this timely and important post. I have been following the Virginia bill with interest, even amazement. Recently the FBI updated its definition of rape to be “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object.” While it may be argued that consent is given for transvaginal ultrasounds, how can that be the case? In order for a woman to acquire the abortion, a state mandated rape with a foreign object must first take place. For women who have had an abortion or accompanied relatives/friends who have, this latest assault on women’s bodies only complicates an already painful decision and process.

    @ Barbara, sadly the need to control our bodies is not relegated to (some) men alone, (some) women are complicit in this form of state ordered rape as well. I listened in disbelief as female callers to NPR defended transvaginal ultrasounds, specifically taking exception to the comparison between rape and transvaginal ultrasounds.

    My question. What now? (and I don’t mean this rhetorically). What do those of us who have benefited from women’s reproductive rights do in this ever increasing climate of legislative control of our bodies? How do those of us who self-identify with a religious tradition bring the argument back within a religious context as Elise has argued? Imagine if women within theological circles, who have had an abortion “outed” themselves as a prophetic voice in defense of our bodies? What would that look like and what would be the consequences that follow?

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    • Cynthie, I don’t think the questions you ask can be answered, nor women achieve any kind of respect for themselves, within ‘traditional’ religion; and what I mean by ‘traditional religion’ in this context are the Religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These are the faiths which have shaped Europe, the Middle East, and America, and it is out of these patriachal, monotheistic religions that the control over women in law and in society has grown in our own countries.

      I know that many women long to remain within their childhood faith, and hope and believe that they can effect reform from within: but time and again the justification for total contempt for women at all levels is fostered and justified by these Religions of the Book.
      At root is the idea of monotheism itself, where one male god means one law which upholds men’s insistence on womens’s subservience and obedience.

      These masculine laws are all about protecting succession (I’ll make sure its my kid even if I have to chain her up to do so), male supremacy, and property rights. They are not and never can be about aknowledging a woman’s inalianable right over her own reproductive system.
      Patriachal religion is sytemically hostile to women, and I don’t believe it can be reformed from within.

      Let any woman who disagrees with me (and I know there are many) take up the challenge and raise these issues within her own faith community.
      Blessings.

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    • June, I fully respect your point about patriarchal religion. As I mentioned above, although may not have said explicitly, I think part of the problem is that particular religious motivations have led some lawmakers to believe that they have the authority (given by a male-imaged god to male legislators) to enforce their morality through coercive practices. The lawmakers who opposed legalized abortion and introduced this bill to curtail it felt that “state rape” is an appropriate means of enforcing their moral code.

      Although I do identify with one of the religions of the book (Christianity), I’m grateful to have undertaken critical study of it as an adult. I think there is a role for feminists to reach out to other women and men within those circles. I am TERRIFIED of the effect patriachal religions in this patriarchal society could have if they were left even more un-checked than they are now. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen criticism from female and male ministers and theologians criticizing the control male legislators have tried to claim over women’s reproductive choices. Cynthie, in response to your question, I think this type of outcry within religious communities is needed. I think it is important for us to be vigilant and vocal legislatively, theologically, and liturgically. Delores Williams’ use of a familiar biblical story struck me as so subversive because it exposed the domination within the narrative and called us to oppose it and believe that the divine was on the mistreated woman’s side! More of us need to be able to make those interpretations, vocalize them, and make them the inspiration for spiritual practices and religiously-inspired activism.

      Yet, I recognize that requires a tremendous amount of courage and risk. By posting this blog and publicizing it through my social networks, I know I will provoke disapproval and concern from people whom I respect and love. And this is just a blog post about commitments I have held for a very long time! For women who have had abortions or even those who have considered it to “out” themselves could be transformative for their communities but also damaging to them personally. Yet I believe that the exercise of asserting one’s own moral agency could be empowering despite negative reactions from others. This agency is both a right and responsibilty to make moral choices for ourselves (although perhaps not by ourselves) about the governance, protection of, and access to our bodies, minds, and spirits.

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      • Elsie, I understand and totally respect your loyalty to your faith.( If you have a moment, perhaps you might care to read the responses I made relating to Christianity in the discussion on women, childbirth and the ‘sin of Eve’ on this site.)
        And I much admire the courage and energy you show in trying to work for change within your own tradition.
        However, there is also a place for those of us who strike out in a new direction, exploring other and different possibilities. For me, this means the Goddess.
        As I see it, the most important thing is what connects us – our respect for ourselves as women, and our perception of ourselves as women of faith.
        It seems to me that both your work to change things from within, and my faith which offers a radical critique from outside, established religion have equal weight and importance as we inch forward.
        Blessings and Strength Like the Lion for you !

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  5. Thank you for this post Elise,
    The lengths that our society goes to to maintain control over women’s bodies is truly sad… I tried recently to have a conversation with my conservative father about why expanding women’s health care is so important. In explaining that “men” are the norm (or standard ‘human’ so to speak) in so much of our health care laws, I used the example of heart attacks. How we understand heart attacks as severe pain in the chest, up the arm, etc… but the problem is, more common for women, is the experience of an upset stomach, pain in the back, etc…. I think he got that… but he, like many people, still can’t see how failing to grant reproductive rights can give women a ‘less than human,’ type of categorization or label…
    I also found the FBI definition of rape (that Cynthie writes about) very interesting. I agree, Cynthie, that state mandated consent is no consent at all. The definitions emphasis on “penetration” alone, however, does give me pause, as it seems to neglect a whole lot of other types of rape.
    Thank you again,
    Sara

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    • Sara, I think the conversations you are having are so important and I encourage you to continue them. In my response to Cynthie and June, I suggested that denying women the right and responsibility to make choices about their bodies categorizes them as ‘less than’ their male legislators. In other words, moral agency is a part of what makes humans human. If we usurp it, assume it, or gradually strip it away instead of helping build it up through critical engagement, we disrespect their humanity. When this is done by a predominantly male group to a group of women, I think it is a fair charge to accuse them of treating women as ‘less than human.”

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  6. I remember Betty Farians saying at the first meeting of the Women’s Caucus — AAR and SBL:
    “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

    Some Goddess feminists have created rituals for abortion, mourning the loss or the difficult choice (if appropriate–one of my friends told me the choice was not difficult for her) and celebrating the woman who did what she thought was best in the situation.

    Cynthie, maybe Christian women could work on that.

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  7. “If I wanted the government in my womb,” the sign said in painted blue letters, “I’d fuck a Senator.”

    too good not to share!

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  8. Elsie: the issue seems to me to be this: the problem isn’t men but women !!! I mean all those women in the traditional faiths who intenalise the nonsense they are taught about themselves.
    Women make up more than 50pc of the population; and they are frequently over-represented in traditional faiths, especially Christianity.Yet these communities continue to be almost exclusively run by and for men.
    My experience within a faith community was that the reformers were trying to change the men. Very few of the men will ever change. Why should they ? It suits them just fine the way things are. So it seems to me that it is among women that we have to work for change.
    And the question which we still have to answer is how and why women allow themselves to be used, duped and manipulated for the benefit of overwhelmingly male institutions.

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  9. june courage—“how and why women allow themselves to be used, duped and manipulated for the benefit of overwhelmingly male institutions.” Yes, this is a central question. Anyone care to answer this? Yeah, isn’t collaboration with the enemy grand!

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  10. Hey, how about boycotting sex with men, until they stop this nonsense. Just stop having sex with the oppressors, make it nationwide… want freedom? Just how badly do you want it women! This has been going on for 40 some years, clearly some new and more dramatic tactics are in order.

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  11. I really enjoyed reading your post. I feel like asking why are we still fighting for this?, because abortion rights have been a common women’s rights topic for such a long time! The passing of the Ultrasound Bill scares me for every woman who decides to get an abortion, since the new bill is designed to steer women away from getting an abortion. The thought of the government trying to control women even more than before is scary. Being 21 years old, I am starting to experience my sexuality and if one day I decide to get an abortion what if my options have disappeared? We are hitting a point where back alley abortions might be more common than the ones performed at Planned Parenthood. We are all arguing about human life, “Pro-choice advocates and anti-abortion advocates share the ethical principle of respect for human life, which is probably why the debate is so acrimonious” (Harrison, Feminist Theological Ethics). I feel as though the woman’s choice for her own body is the most important. Forcing a woman to have an ultrasound before an abortion is complete control of our government. Like you said, get your laws off my body!

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Trackbacks

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