Religion and Abortion Part 1: Patriarchy

The leak of a Supreme Court draft decision indicates that there are five votes to overturn Roe v. Wade. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the issue is not going away, but will become more intense, heated, and acerbic. An already polarized nation will become more polarized. Religion lies at the heart of this debate.

Up front I need to acknowledge my perspective. I was raised Roman Catholic, and until I went to graduate school, received a Catholic education. For sixteen years I taught in a Roman Catholic Benedictine Seminary. I consider myself Catholic, just no longer Roman. This life experience has had a powerful influence on how I view this issue, an influence of which at times that I am sure I am unaware.

A second influence is of equal importance. For more than twenty-five years I taught at Phillips Theological Seminary, a Disciples of Christ seminary. From my female students I learned that men should not be so foolish as to speak for women. Therefore, I take up the topic of abortion with hesitancy. I have never before written or spoken in public on this topic.

I will deal with the topic of religion and abortion in three blog posts. This first blog deals with the anthropological context for abortion: patriarchy. A second blog will examine the biblical and historical evidence, and a final blog will turn to religion and abortion in the modern context.


Abortion operates within the system of patriarchy. Until recently a woman was the property of her father, husband, or master in the case of a slave. He had control over her body, not the woman. A first century BCE letter from a husband to his wife makes the assumptions of patriarchy evident.

I urge and entreat you, be concerned about the child and if I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you. If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out. You have said to Aphrodisias, “Do not forget me.” How can I forget you? Therefore, I urge you not to worry. (POxy IV 742, John White, Light from Ancient Letters, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, pages 109–10)

In the ancient world, exposing a newborn was more common than abortion because of the danger abortion posed to the life of the mother. This little slice of life indicates a husband’s power over life and death; and the female’s lack of value. If the child is a female, she is to be discarded, tossed onto the garbage heap.

Aristotle’s chain of being explicitly lays out patriarchy. At the top are the gods, then males, then females, children, slaves, animals, and plants. In this model, the gods have more “being” than humans, and a male has more being than a female, and on and on in scale of diminishing being. Humans have more being than animals. This is not only a hierarchical, but also an ontological and moral model. Men are spiritual, women material. Men are logical, women are emotional. In Aristotle’s argument that some men were naturally slaves, he compares the master to the soul and the slave to the body.

The chain of being not only organizes the relation between men and women hierarchically, but also the universe itself. The traditional three-story universe represents the great chain of being: God in heaven, men on earth, Satan in hell. Patriarchy is the human representation of the hierarchy of the universe. All is interlocked.

While often overlooked, this interlocking is important in understanding the Letter to the Ephesians, a pseudo-Paul composition.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20–3 NRSV)

This model arranges God, then Christ, then the church, then everything else. This patriarchal hierarchy is then replicated in the relation between husbands and wives.

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. (Ephesians 5:22–4 NRSV)

At the conclusion of this elaborated model of patriarchy, the author commands the husband to love his wife as he would love himself, but the wife is to respect, or literally in Greek to “fear” her husband. Why the difference? Because love is between equals. That is why the author stresses that loving one’s wife is loving oneself, an odd notion to us. Fear is the proper relation of a subject to one in authority: the wife is subject to the husband. Ephesians represents a thoroughly patriarchal system, no different from the letter from Oxyrhynchus quoted above.

This system of patriarchy is firmly in place in most places today. For many people this is the way the world is and should be. Those who think abortion should be illegal do so within the system of patriarchy, regardless of their explicit arguments. Patriarchy undergirds and requires making abortion illegal. It explicitly denies a woman’s role in the matter and implicitly leaves males in control.

The Enlightenment

That a woman has a right to control her own body is a modern idea. It ultimately traces to the Enlightenment when the modern notion of rights originated. John Locke (1631–1704), an important influence on the understanding of rights, argued that all humans were equal.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 2:6)

While Locke based equality on religious grounds, namely, that all were created by God, the notion of inherent rights quickly emerged. One can see Locke’s influence in the American Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s famous words, “all men are created equal.” This understanding of rights is also apparent in the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights (1791).

The understanding of what universal rights entail or imply does not happen all at once. It did not, so to speak, spring like Athena full blown from the mind of Zeus. The power of patriarchy and its related notions, like the chain of being, is too strong and inhibits understanding what is implied in a right. Thus, understanding of rights are emergent, progressive (i.e., ongoing), and expansive.

This progressive and expansive nature of rights indicates why the reactionary legal program of originalism is so misconceived. Originalism insists that rights when first announced be explicitly enumerated. But a document like the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights, both based fundamentally on the Enlightenment notion of rights, demands ongoing expansion and interpretation. Originalism is a hermeneutically naïve form of legal fundamentalism. Its real project is to keep patriarchy firmly in place and rights in a cage.

Rights are also a corrosive idea—they eat away at the existing structure, only finding meaning and expansion by experience, thought, and often revolution. Rights are radical because they are corrosive to the traditional. With the fight for the abolition of slavery came the quest of women for equal rights. Many of the early abolitionists were also feminists. The two were closely entwined. Why? Because as we have seen, patriarchy is part and parcel of an interlocking system.

The Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 followed on the heels of the landmark 1964 civil rights bill. Both were part of the turmoil from the 1960s when the boundaries of patriarchy were attacked by civil rights demonstrations, resistance to the Vietnam War, youth culture, and rock and roll.

But in 1973 the backlash was already underway. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) passed by Congress in 1972 drew immediate attack from conservatives. Phyllis Schlafly came to prominence attacking the amendment because she argued it would undermine the rights of housewives to be supported by their husbands and women were already equal in the ways that counted. Schlafly’s arguments were a direct defense of patriarchy. Even though it was pointed out that Schlafly was hardly a stay-at-home mom, such criticism had no effect because she was operating firmly from within the system of patriarchy.

A woman’s right to choose whether to carry a fetus term is not an isolated moral or legal issue, although it is often treated that way. For a woman to assert such a right is a direct challenge to the very foundations of patriarchy. It proclaims that she is an independent agent, something fundamentally denied by patriarchy. A woman’s right to choose and patriarchy cannot both stand.

Today a woman’s right to control her own body seems obvious, but in the US women did not get the right to vote until 1920 and could not get a credit card or open a bank account until 1974. But because we have come to accept a woman’s right to be an independent agent, the debate contesting that right has been reframed around the morality of abortion. That issue hides what is being denied. It ought not to be ignored that the morality of abortion is framed in the context of patriarchy. There is no other way to frame it.

Patriarchy has been in place since at the least the invention of farming. Something that has been around that long is deeply imbedded in human experience and will not go away without a long, long fight.

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