To no one’s great surprise, Gov. Sam Brownback signed a massive anti-choice bill on Friday. The bill declares that life begins “at fertilization” (even though sperm and eggs are—like all human cells—just as alive as a fertilized egg), bans sex-selective abortions (incorrectly implying that they are a widespread phenomenon in the U.S.), bans any tax breaks for abortion providers, and forces abortion providers to read anti-choice scripts full of false information to women seeking safe abortion care. It’s one of the most far-reaching anti-choice laws in the country, and defining “life” as beginning at fertilization is rightly feared to be a way to open the door to legal harassment of abortion providers.
To add another layer of shamelessness to the whole thing, Sam Brownback decided to give up the pretense that there’s a secular justification for laws like this. The AP photographer took a picture of Brownback’s notes, where he wrote “JESUS + Mary” in big letters at the top. Besides being the kind of doodle that uncomfortably implies that Jesus is a schoolgirl crushing on his own mother, the note lays bare what’s going on with this and all other anti-choice legislation across the country: It violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government establishing religion. At their core, anti-choice laws are about imposing on the population as a whole the belief that some religions prohibit abortion, whether they are members of that faith or not.
It’s easy enough to quibble with the religious rationalizations for hostility to abortion, from the bad logic of insisting no woman gets to say no to pregnancy because Mary had a baby once to holding up a woman who gave birth as a virgin as some kind of exemplar all other women must try to live up to, which is basically impossible. But really, none of this matters: Americans have a right to believe anything they want, no matter how irrational. What they don’t have the right to do, however, is push their religious beliefs on others through force of law.
The First Amendment couldn’t be clearer: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Telling the rest of us that our abortion rights will have to be restricted because “JESUS + Mary” is Brownback thumbing his nose at the establishment clause.
So why such flagrant disregard for basic religious liberties? Straight-up sexism is a big part of it. Anti-choicers can simply treat women like the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them and get away with it, because there’s still a lingering sense in this country that women’s right just don’t count. That’s why so many people think it’s somehow not a violation of a woman’s religious freedom to give her boss veto power over her insurance benefits package because his religion says so. You can bet that if a bunch of female employers started claiming they had a right to impose religious restrictions on how their male employees used their own compensation, people would not be as gullible to the argument that religious freedom for employers means the right to impose your beliefs on your employees. Women’s bodies continue to be seen as this place where the traditional protections of our Constitution don’t matter as much.
The other reason is the religious right has simply worn the public down with their incessant unwillingness to accept that the First Amendment really, truly means they can’t impose their religion on the rest of us by fiat. The Christian right tries to force schools to teach their religion in biology classes with euphemisms like “intelligent design.” They want our environmental policy, foreign policy, and of course our legal definition of marriage to be derived from their interpretation of their scriptures. Sure, they often come up with flimsy secular rationales for their agenda, but at the end of the day it boils down to “JESUS + Mary.” For people who are so prone to sentimental diatribes about the founding fathers, they sure have no respect for the amendment the founders put at the top of our Bill of Rights.
For these reasons, I imagine that most people will regard Brownback’s flagrant disregard for religious liberty as more of a side note than a reason to sound the alarm in every major media outlet. More’s the pity. We mostly, for good reasons, talk about reproductive rights in terms of health care, the right to privacy, and women’s right to equality, but we don’t talk much about how the right to choose is also a matter of religious freedom. But it very much is. The sheer fact that there’s so much diversity of religious opinion—and opinion of non-religious people!—on the subject of abortion and contraception tells you that much. Forcing a woman to give birth against her will to satisfy your religious belief is a massive violation of her rights, and leaders like Brownback are functionally theocrats.