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