I don’t expect to hear anything in church about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade during the month of January, the month marking 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to legalize abortion in this country. This is for a number of reasons: 1) it’s January, and at my church the pastor always starts off the year with a series of sermons that illustrate the church’s mission statement, and women’s choice may be off the subject; 2) Martin Luther King Jr. Day is this month, and if a black church is going to honor something or someone besides Jesus in the month of January, it should probably be MLK; and 3) I haven’t heard anything about abortion from the pulpit in a long time.
A local pro-choice movement leader asked me recently about how black churchgoers feel about abortion. I didn’t know what to say. The last time I heard it mentioned was in a Sunday School class in which a woman said that she almost aborted her daughter. It wasn’t a big confessional moment, just part of a longer testimony as to why she was happy her daughter was around, and it wasn’t received with any shock or fanfare. I can remember hearing once from the pulpit of my current church that while abortion might be wrong, the law shouldn’t interfere with what a woman chooses to do with her own body. Many years before that, in the church I grew up in, a preacher said that we would never find a cure for AIDS because the person who would have grown up to discover the cure was aborted. (What made him so sure of that? Who knows.)
Obviously, black churchgoers’ “our” when it comes to feelings about abortion, choice, and anything else, does not exist. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of black Protestants do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, but 58 percent of them believe abortion is morally wrong. As a live-in observer, I see those numbers as a reflection of a collective cultural memory of African women kidnapped, raped, and left with no choice but to carry and birth children that legally didn’t belong to them. The battle cry of the pro-choice movement, that a woman has the right and capacity to control her own body, is one black people can embrace. We value freedom.
Except that by some conventional standards, a Christian woman’s body is never her own. It belongs to God until it belongs to her husband (1 Cor 7:4). Every Christian, the apostle Paul tells us, is bought with a price, so we must honor God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). Add to this the Bible’s view regarding the sanctity of human life (though when it begins is open to interpretation), questions of morality regarding women and sex, and the alleged immorality of African Americans under racism’s gaze—and, if you’re not too busy, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s support of eugenics, and the Black Power Movement’s effort to create a strong black nation—and you have yourself a bundle of complications. That’s probably why, writing this, I found myself feeling glad I don’t hear much of anything about abortion at church very often.
But as I continued gathering my thoughts for this post, I started thinking about the ways in which black churchgoers and Christians could embrace a woman’s right to choose more fervently. A recent article in Time magazine pointed out that black feminists coined the term “reproductive justice” in the 1990s. Sister Song, a reproductive justice organization based out of Atlanta, explains that this newer movement shifts the discussion of a woman’s right to control whether and when she has children “from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.” It is about civil, human, economic, and political rights, movements African American churches are known for leading, organizing, mobilizing and sustaining.
Will adopting a reproductive justice framework and seeing pro-choice advocates as allies, require the traditional black church to progress on its views of women’s sexuality (by, at minimum, being willing to provide comprehensive sex education rather than abstinence ceremonies to its youth)? Yes, and I won’t act like it won’t be a major hurdle for some churches. But alleged deviation from scripture cannot overshadow biblical calls for economic and political justice, for service to others, or for equality. It can’t silence the outcry from marginalized communities suffering from a capitalistic and racist society that preys on the poor and abandons plans for economic development in their neighborhoods, actively directs black and Latino men to prison, and then wonders why early motherhood is still an appealing option to a teenage girl who lives in that reality .
Mariam Williams is an award-winning writer and feminist in Louisville, Kentucky. She contributes op-eds to the Courier-Journal and blogs about family, faith, food, femininity, and feminism at RedboneAfropuff.com. Mariam is currenlty working on a book about her experience as a single black female feminist Christian. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.