Picture this: A group of abortion opponents stand outside a women’s clinic holding pictures of fetal remains. As they stand there, calling and offering pamphlets to people entering the clinic, a trickle of pro-choice activists also arrive. Instead of lining up on the opposite side of the sidewalk, they position themselves beside the first group in silence, holding posters of their own.
The signs have words—not their own words but words from texts that inspire the anti-choice movement. Some quotes are from modern church leaders or ancient patriarchs. Others are from the Bible itself. They read:
- I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. –Saint Augustine
- In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee. –Genesis 3:16
- Women will be saved through childbearing. –1 Timothy 2:15
- The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. –Martin Luther
- If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her only die from bearing; she is there to do it. –Martin Luther
- If no proof of the bride’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. –Deuteronomy 22:20-21
- Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. –Saint Albertus Magnus
- When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen. –Senate candidate Richard Mourdock
- Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. –Pastor Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, Seattle
The anti-abortion protesters are confused—Are these new people on our team or not? They lean and shuffle so that they can read the signs more clearly. A couple even ask, “Who are you?” But the sign bearers just smile politely and decline to engage. Patients, staff, and passersby who read the words are offended. In fact, they are even more offended by the quotes than they are by the dead fetus pictures. And that is the point.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art that makes use of the attacker’s own momentum as a defensive strategy. Rather than trying to oppose force head-on, an Aikido practitioner
—who may be small and weak —leverages her opponent’s own strength and energy, nudging the attacker’s move in one direction or another, or exaggerating it slightly, rendering the assault harmless.
The above scenario describing a clinic protest is an Aikido move. The abortion opponents hold up signs of fetal remains in an attempt to elicit disgust; the counter-protesters simply take that disgust and in a non-confrontational, nonviolent way, amplify and redirect it.
Why do words from the Bible and Christian authorities have Aikido potential? Because they are the driving force behind the dead fetus signs that have plagued patients and providers for two generations, and they are morally repugnant. Abortion opponents may talk about babies and medical science; they may say falsely that abortion causes cancer or induces a psychological trauma syndrome, and that contraceptives render women infertile or that birth control pills turn your blood serum green.
They may fight in court using legalese or pose as medical caregivers themselves, but behind and beneath it all lies the relentless drive of Bible belief and powerful religious traditions that lend the weight of absolute divine authority to gendered scripts.
As futurist Sara Robinson has said, in a century that included both the first automobile and the first man on the moon, the pill may well have been the most disruptive technology of them all. Every prior cultural or religious system, including Judeo-Christianity was scripted around one immutable biological fact: Women had no control over their fertility. This was the defining reality around which whole civilizations structured roles and obligations. It is why early legal codes, like that in the Bible, treated women as chattel—literally, the property of men. In cultures obsessed with patriarchal inheritance and sacred bloodlines, the only way to get around “mama’s baby, papa’s maybe” was for men to control the sexual behavior of their daughters, wives, and slaves.
One of the functions of religion is to elevate the status of cultural scripts, making them more durable, less subject to question and revision. “Why?” asks the curious or frustrated child. “Because I said so!” answers her parent, as if that answered the question. Later in life, faced with contradictions, frustrations, suffering, or self-doubt, the child (now grown) calls upon an introjected parent of divine proportions, and the answer echoes, “Because God said so!”
Many abortion protesters, though
deeply religious, honestly believe that they are saving babies. They honestly believe that family planning hurts women. They have no idea they have been manipulated and are spending their days on the picket line in the service of an archaic script that served our Iron Age ancestors. Such is the power of rationalization.
Some do know that the secular arguments against abortion are philosophically tenuous or that family planning has tremendous power to lift families out of poverty. They know that the fight really is all about theology, but they would still prefer to make their case in universal terms. “Because my God said so” has less and less weight in modern society.
Globally, secularism is on the rise thanks in part to the Internet, and the United States is experiencing an unparalleled shift toward secularism. The New Scientist magazine recently took stock of the trend lines
A decade ago, more than three-quarters of the world’s population identified themselves as religious. Today, less than 60 per cent do, and in about a quarter of countries the nones are now a majority. … Even in the US – a deeply Christian country – the number of people expressing “no religious affiliation” has risen from 5 per cent in 1972 to 20 per cent today; among people under 30, that number is closer to a third.
In Christian-dominant cultures, the violent and inconsistent passages of the Bible are becoming more known, as are the roots of Abrahamic religion in the earlier cultures of the Ancient Near East. Exposed to sunlight, ancient idols crumble, both literally and metaphorically, especially when they are held aloft by religious fanatics who are seen as judgmental and out of touch. Each of these is a trend-line that provides reproductive rights advocates with an Aikido opportunity.
Recently deceased Baptist pastor Fred Phelps was master of what I now call “The Phelps Effect,” in which a person makes his own position so repugnant that he moves public opinion in the opposite direction. Caught in the tangle of biblical literalism, Phelps quoted chapter and verse to back up his conviction that “God hates fags.” He became the face of homophobia, and he helped to make it repulsive. In doing so, he also undermined the authority of the particularly noxious scriptures he claimed as his own.
Like Phelps, most abortion opponents perceive themselves to be on a divinely appointed mission. Unlike Phelps, they may seek to downplay the biblical imperative that drives them, to deflect the debate onto topics like when life begins or fetal pain. They may use prenatal photography selectively to activate our protective instinct toward anything that looks big-eyed or remotely human. They may labor to blur the distinction between a fertilized egg and a baby or child. What they try to avoid is exposing the deep seated misogyny of their worldview. This year, the Republican Party has held trainings for national candidates on how to talk about women. Their goal is to try and avoid a repeat of the “rape Tourette’s” phenomenon that plagued the party two years ago. You can think horrible things about women, but just don’t say them.
This is where Aikido comes in.
Abortion opponents, on their own, may not go far enough to trigger the Phelps Effect. But we can. The clinic scenario that opens this article is one hypothetical example, but the opportunity is broader. I recently wrote about five religious leaders who are prone to saying awful things about women and LGBTQ people. I could have written about 50, each of whom provides ample opportunity to expose the long legacy of misogyny behind the man.
When we spotlight what drives the anti-choice movement, we expose a set of archaic imperatives that demand female submission and that tell young women they will be saved though childbearing. And ordinary Americans don’t like what they see.