So earlier this morning, this article showed up in my newsfeed, and it caught my eye: The American Taliban. Perhaps the author of this article, Michelle Krabill, shocks us on purpose, calling us to pay attention to control tactics used by our own government (and often times, our own churches). And I think she has a very valid point. There is one thing that jumps out at me, that I wanted to continue the dialogue on. Krabill asks a poignant question of why would Republicans withdraw funding of a program they know is working to reduce abortions?
I agree whole-heartedly with her, and ask the same question, and I always come back to the realization that it really isn’t about stopping abortions, it is about controlling women. But what jumps out at me in Krabill’s article is where she says that the Bible didn’t practice birth control – and this is a good place to talk about that. Because actually the Ancient Near East did practice birth control, but not in the medical sense that we think of today. Birth control was attained by socially controlling women, and while it wasn’t about abortion during that time, it was about retaining paternity and a pure bloodline (also known as eugenics, my friends).
I think it is important to know and recognize that medical knowledge in the ANE (Ancient Near East) was sparse. Particularly understandings about birth and women’s bodies were wrecked with superstitions and old wives’ tales, and a plethora of religious rites were created in order to combat those superstitions and to try to control women’s bodies and women’s fertility. In fact, Israelite faiths came about partially in response to the Canaanite practice of fertility worship – in order to set themselves apart from goddess worship and pagan rituals, Israelites created their own system of worship one god, a male god.
Eve’s story itself presents women’s bodies, and their ability to create life, from a view of extreme suspicion – she acquires her ability to reproduce through punishment by the divine (an act of domestic violence against her) and thus began an entire faith system based on the mistrust of women and women’s bodies. In an area of the world where goddesses were worshiped for fertility purposes, Israelite women were forbidden from worshiping goddesses and instructed only to worship a male god who punished them for their fertility.
This is worth knowing, because this establishes a pattern of thought that continues to hold women in suspicion for their ability to create life. Rather than view women as partners with the Divine in bringing life into the world, and rather than empower women as co-creators with the Divine, women continue to be controlled when it comes to their fertility and their sexuality.
While Eve is a fascinating study in the control of women from a Biblical perspective, there is one woman in the New Testament who is of particular interest in the discussions of abortion. That would be Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
One of my tremendous privileges in seminary was the ability to study and analyze some of the sacred texts that exist outside of the canonized Scripture. One of those texts is called The Protoevangelium of James. The link will take you to the full length of that text, and I encourage you to spend a little time especially on Mary’s story.
Yes, this text is not considered a part of the canon of Scripture, and so I realize that it is not considered a reliable source. But it offers a fascinating look at Mary’s story, and more importantly, it offers a narrative that perhaps represents what women went through during that time, when they became pregnant before they were married.
I will summarize this text a little bit, because there are certain important points to consider. James is telling the story of who Mary was and what happened to her. He tells it a bit different that the Matthew and Luke texts we are accustomed to, and he offers some fascinating details. Mary is presented as a young virgin dedicated to service in the Temple, and a scandal ensues when she turns up mysteriously pregnant. It’s important to note that in real life, something really awful happened to Mary that she became pregnant. She is brought to a Tribunal to testify, and she sounds like she doesn’t even know herself what happened. This would make sense – rape victims often cannot recall precisely what happened, and when children are raped they don’t know what happened because they don’t even know the words or actions yet.
Mary’s pregnancy created a scandal. She and Joseph were both brought before the Tribunal to figure out what was going to happen to her. She and Joseph are both forced to drink the bitter waters. In case you weren’t aware, the book of Numbers 5:24 lays out a ritual where a woman who is suspected to have committed adultery is brought before the priest and asked to drink bitter waters to prove whether she is guilty or innocent. The idea is that if she is guilty, the waters will cause her to miscarry and be infertile for the rest of her life. If she is not guilty, everything will be exonerated.
We don’t know exactly what these bitter waters were. But clearly it was believed if the baby she was carrying (or was she even pregnant? who knows?) was not her husband’s, those bitter waters would take quick care of it. This was considered an abortifacient.
We have to pause right there, and consider, what might have happened if Mary had miscarried, or if Mary had been given a forced abortion by the priests of the Temple themselves? I doubt that is something many of us have dared to consider. But there it is.
What is fascinating to me is how the text in Numbers, and even modern discourse about the IUD and whether it is an abortifacient or not, places the woman under suspicion of guilt without even knowing if she is pregnant or not. With Mary, I think it was clear that she was pregnant and when I read the Protoevangelium, I sense the panic it caused. I also see a giant cover-up for what really happened to Mary.
We can’t give answers on the behaviors of men over 2,000 years ago. But what of our behaviors and attitudes towards women now? What strikes me in the story of Mary, is that she had to go through this horribly embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning process just to get healthcare. And we still make women go through horribly humiliating and demeaning processes to get healthcare.
Oh, if you have privilege and health insurance, it’s fairly easy to go to the OB/GYN and get your script filled for birth control. And you never have to tell anyone about it. No one ever has to know what method of birth control I personally use. I speak from privilege when I say it is no one’s business what method I use. I have the privilege of my privacy because that is what health insurance buys women of means – the ability to use birth control and never have to tell anyone.
But for women who struggle with poverty and unemployment and an overburden of having too many children already, and women who live within the intersection of racism, classism, and sexism, this privilege is removed. Women who are dependent upon public healthcare systems have this privilege removed from them, and they must undergo the humiliating government and court processes to retain access to healthcare.
When that privilege is given by people in power who already have a sense of suspicion against women ingrained into their consciousness, then the discussions around women’s healthcare becomes centered around abortion. I get incredibly frustrated when we reduce women’s healthcare to simply one issue – abortion – as if that were the only medical procedure that women need in order to maintain their health. It belies the complexity of our bodies and our healthcare needs, as human beings who happen to have vaginas and uteri and Fallopian tubes and ovaries.
I think that many men feel anxiety around women’s bodies, and feel a sense of lack of control when it comes to female sexuality and female fertility. There’s a part of me that gets that, because I respect men’s rights to be active parts of their children’s lives. I also think that whenever we talk about women’s choices, we tend to forget that men have choices too. Men have the choice to walk out. Joseph himself wanted to walk out, and required intervention by the Holy Spirit to keep him in the picture. And when we read the stories of Jesus’ ministry, Joseph is missing, inactive in his son’s life (we don’t know why, it is possible that Joseph died). And what about women who do not have the Holy Spirit to intervene? What if the Holy Spirit hadn’t intervened to Joseph, on Mary’s behalf? Are men intervening on women’s behalf now, or are they persecuting women under suspicion? Is it fair to withhold healthcare under suspicion, to those we deem immoral or those we only view as sexual objects?
This lack of trust, this inherent fear, places every woman under suspicion that if given the ability, all women might choose abortion. If left to our own devices, we would all choose that medical procedure, as if we had no ability to make moral decisions for ourselves.
I’m not sure that we are truly honest about the Bible’s role in these dialogues. Biblical personalities have long placed women’s moral value within their sexual value, at the extreme cost to women themselves. These two have become so intertwined that women cannot even worship without someone sexualizing them. And usually these judgments are made, much like Mary’s judgment, without the woman’s full awareness or consent.
So why am I writing all this? What does any of this mean? I think we owe it to ourselves and to women around the world, to be aware of the horrific practices that have been instituted against women, in the name of religion or faith or Jesus. When we require women to be demeaned or humiliated in order to receive healthcare, to go through lengthy processes to be treated with human dignity, we perpetuate Mary’s story and continue to participate in systems that unfairly disadvantage women. Any and all women become fair game, and the cost is human life.
My apologies, to the author of the article linked in this post, Michelle Krabill. That is her correct name!