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Abortion Policy as the Public Abuse of Women

By Rebecca Todd Peters

Stand up Fight Back Rally at the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda. Photo credit: Lorie Shaull
Stand up Fight Back Rally at the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda. Photo credit: Lorie Shaull

It’s like what Rebecca Todd Peters writes in her book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale continues to strike a chord because of the antiabortion bills we see passed in real life during our current administration. Georgia Senate recently approved a strict ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill. So have Kentucky and Mississippi, and other states like Ohio are considering similar bills. It’s polices like these, as Peters explains in the following passages from her book, that serve as ways to punish and police pregnant women and their bodies.


Imagine a society with widespread stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities linked to sabotage and accidents at nuclear facilities, chemical and biological toxins leaking into the water supply, and the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides and herbicides. Imagine now that in addition to dropping birth rates from this environmental apocalypse, a new strain of syphilis and rapidly increasing death rates from AIDS wipe out large segments of young, sexually active people from the reproductive pool. Could you imagine that in such a world, the fertility of the ruling class becomes so completely compromised by these disasters that many women can no longer conceive and bear children and the whole social order threatens to fall apart? This is the background of Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In the story, a coup by patriarchal, right-wing Christians leads to the suspension of women’s rights and the absolute control of the lives of fertile women.

Like all good dystopian literature, Atwood’s tale is chilling because the social problem she describes is so plausible. The absolute social control of women and their bodies is neither fictional nor solely historical. Rather than inventing new horrors for her society, Atwood adopts aspects of the reality of women’s lives around the world and incorporates them into her fictional society of Gilead. The shock value comes from seeing the US as a society where women are stripped of their legal and human rights and subject to the absolute authority of a fundamentalist Christian theocratic state. In this new society, sex is reduced to procreation and fertile women are forced to bear children for the elite members of society. The sexual servitude of the “handmaids” is justified by invoking the biblical practice of surrogacy, where matriarchs like Sarah, Rachel, and Leah “gave” their servants or handmaids to their patriarch husbands for the purpose of childbearing.

Though written more than thirty years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a cultural touchstone in the US. And no wonder: women’s access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion is under siege by conservative Christian politicians who have had increasing success in using public policy to promote a patriarchal and pronatalist agenda. In the five years between 2011 and 2016, there were 334 abortion restrictions enacted at the state level, far exceeding the 189 enacted in the previous ten years. The bulk of these recent regulations affect the most vulnerable women in our society, namely, poor, young, and minority women. In addition to restricting access to abortion services, the state has increasingly sought to legislate sexual morality through abstinence-only campaigns in public schools and by increasingly impeding women’s access to contraception. In a country where pregnant women are being detained, arrested, and prosecuted for “crimes” related to their pregnancies; where some female prisoners are shackled during childbirth; and where pregnant women can be compelled to undergo surgery and other medical procedures against their will, we have to recognize how state and federal laws, judicial decisions, and law enforcement agencies are sanctioning and engaging in the public abuse of women. And the government’s actions are often conducted at the behest of conservative Christian activists and politicians.

This abuse is possible because the justification framework has shaped a cultural atmosphere where the public tacitly accepts the idea of pregnancy as punishment for assumed immoral or irresponsible behavior. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment, because the idea is quite remarkable—pregnancy as punishment. Having a child as punishment. As a Christian, a woman, and a mother, I find the notion of childbearing as punishment abhorrent. Parenting should be willfully and joyfully entered into. But in an atmosphere that accepts the idea of pregnancy itself as punishment for women’s sexual activity, it is a short step to allowing, even encouraging the adoption of public policies that police, control, and punish women for their sexual activity and their reproductive decisions.


In June 2015, twenty-three-year-old Kenlissia Jones was arrested in Georgia on suspicion of murder after she took medication and self-induced an abortion to end her twenty-two-week pregnancy. The charges were dropped three days later (and Jones was released from jail) after authorities clarified that women could not be prosecuted for abortions involving their own pregnancies.32 In Indiana, Purvi Patel was not so lucky. Just weeks earlier, in April, Patel was sentenced to twenty years in prison for her self-induced abortion under that state’s feticide law. Then, six months later in December, Anna Yocca used a coat hanger to self-induce an abortion at twenty-four weeks in Tennessee. After her extensive blood loss, Yocca’s boyfriend took her to the hospital, where she delivered a 1.5-pound baby boy via C-section. In January 2017, after serving one year in jail and having two sets of charges dismissed without her release, Yocca agreed to plead guilty to a nineteenth-century law criminalizing any “attempted procurement of a miscarriage.”

These three cases represent high-profile public stories. They do not, however, represent the majority of women who have abortions or even most women who have second-trimester abortions. These women were clearly desperate and unable to access safe and comprehensive medical care, including legal abortion procedures. Despite claims by proponents of feticide laws that the laws are not intended for putting women in prison, the Patel and Yocca cases demonstrate the very real threat that feticide laws pose to pregnant women.

Women attempting to self-induce abortions are not the only ones who have been under scrutiny in recent years. In December 2013, Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who was eight months pregnant and living in Indiana, ate rat poison in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. A week later, she gave birth to a daughter. When the baby died three days later, prosecutors charged Shuai with murder and feticide. The case was eventually settled when Shuai pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of criminal recklessness after it was revealed that drugs she had received at the hospital might have played a factor in the baby’s death.

In 2010, Christine Taylor fell down a flight of stairs in her Iowa home while pregnant with her third child. After voluntarily going to the hospital to check on the health of her prenate, she confided in the nurse that she had been thinking about either abortion or adoption because of the stress of her separation from her spouse and the prospect of raising three children as a single parent. When the nurse promptly told a doctor that she suspected Taylor had thrown herself down the stairs, the doctor called the police, who arrested and jailed Taylor on charges of “attempted fetal homicide.”

Several states, including Virginia, Georgia, and Kansas, have proposed legislation that would require women to report and explain their miscarriages to police within twenty-four hours. While none of these bills have yet been enacted into laws, the bills, and the cases above, are a further indication of increased suspicion of pregnant women and increased public tolerance for monitoring and controlling the behavior of pregnant women. In some places the negative public-health implications of other laws that seek to punish women for problems like drug addiction are slowly being recognized, but only after serious damage has already occurred. In 2016, Tennessee legislators allowed a 2014 fetal-assault statute to expire after legislators recognized the profound damage the law inflicted on pregnant women and their newborn babies, as many women avoided prenatal care rather than risk incarceration.

If we accept that public policy ought to set broad moral guidelines for society, then the goal of that policy ought to be justice and the common good. While public policy sets the boundaries that shape our moral lives together as a society, public policy is not usually used to monitor or control individual citizens’ moral choices.

The US government is built on the principle of social contract theory as developed in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical tradition of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The idea of the “social contract” begins with a recognition that nature is a primitive state without any laws or morality. Human capacity for reason, cooperation, and organization has allowed us to create governmental systems that provide for a more orderly state of existence for humankind. The principle behind the social contract is that citizens agree to give up some measure of freedom or individual liberty to secure a more civil and safe social environment. Most of our contemporary political debates are about the nature of the social contract: First, how much individual liberty should we concede to the government in return for security? And what role do we collectively agree is acceptable for the state to play, particularly in issues that begin to encroach on personal liberty? US citizens have generally rejected perceived infringements of civil liberties, including actions like mass surveillance or attempts to curtail free speech or the right to bear arms. Despite this rejection, women’s ability to exercise their legal rights to abortion has increasingly fallen victim to the patriarchal desire for control of women’s sexuality and women’s bodies.

Public policy about controversial social issues is fraught with the difficulty of creating legislation that reflects the public’s best sense of moral good for society in the midst of differing perspectives. Since 2011, Americans United for Life (AUL) and its conservative allies in state legislatures across the country have had some success in pushing through various laws that ultimately restrict women’s access to abortion in the United States. However, the public also bears some responsibility for this shift, either for electing these politicians or for accepting the argument that these laws are reasonable and that they function to protect women. While the Whole Woman’s Health decision was a critical victory for women’s health, the public’s interest in the morality of abortion will not be resolved through the courts. As a nation, we must attend to deeper questions related to the morality of abortion—questions that go beyond the questions of legal access. Our public-policy struggles reflect an anxiety about the issue of abortion, and this anxiety confounds productive public debate and often allows us to accept restrictive policies that we would not tolerate under other circumstances.

The most important factor for many people in assessing the morality of abortion is the reason why a woman wants to end her pregnancy. This focus, in and of itself, is evidence that how we think about abortion is shaped by our judgment of women and their motivations. If a woman wants to end her pregnancy because her life is in danger or because she was raped, it is deemed tragic but acceptable and this woman is viewed as a victim in need of support. If a woman wants to end her pregnancy because she cannot afford a child or she wants to finish school or it’s not a good time for her professionally to have a child, she is viewed as selfish and is scorned by society. If she is addicted to drugs or didn’t use birth control, she is judged irresponsible and shamed for her careless attitude and behavior. But a woman who seeks an abortion for sex selection is condemned in the most hostile terms of all.

While some people may find the decision to have an abortion for sex selection repugnant or the decision to terminate a pregnancy in order to finish school selfish, the reality is that women are basing their decisions to terminate for countless social reasons. Women consider abortions within a complex set of social factors that include the individual woman’s life circumstances (including her health, mental state, financial situation, intimate relationship with the father, existing responsibilities, and the actual or potential health of the prenate) and the sociopolitical and cultural circumstances in which she lives. Denying individual women the ability to control their fertility and make decisions to positively affect their future is a punitive and harassing strategy that only succeeds in punishing women (and their existing or future children). It does not address the larger social problems that often prompt women to seek abortions.

Social attitudes that compel women to desire a child of a particular sex, so much that they are willing to terminate a pregnancy of the “wrong” sex, is a larger social problem that needs to be addressed. Likewise, if 73 percent of women obtaining abortions indicate that they cannot afford a child (or another one), we could enact social policies to assist women in having and caring for these children. However, as we know from public-policy debates about welfare, there is very little political will and public support of financial assistance for poor women and their children. If women are deciding to abort because of social pressures they face, those pressures need to be addressed rather than sanctioning women who are basing their personal decisions on the social climate that they inhabit.

If we are truly concerned about the health and well-being of pregnant women and their children, then we ought to be addressing through our public policy the social problems that women cite as contributing to their decisions to terminate a pregnancy. We have seen that these problems relate to many aspects of a woman’s life: affordable housing and daycare, free and dependable access to reliable birth control, a culture of racism that threatens the health and well-being of black and brown children, prejudice against people with disabilities, and social attitudes that cause families to prefer boy children over girl children. Whatever problems women are facing, we need to tackle the social problems themselves rather than punishing women for the responsible decisions they make within their social worlds. Although abortion is legal, the majority of public-policy decisions related to abortion since Roe v. Wade are rooted in a basic distrust of women. The patriarchal desire to control women prevents us from trusting women’s ability to assess their circumstances and make good and moral decisions about their families and their futures.


About the Author 

Rebecca Todd Peters is Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her work as a feminist social ethicist is focused on globalization, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. Her books include In Search of the Good Life and Solidarity Ethics. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she has been active denominationally and ecumenically for more than twenty-five years and currently represents the PC (USA) as a member of the Faith and Order Standing Commission of the World Council of Churches. Follow her on Twitter at @toddiepeters and visit her website.