Fetal Personhood: Another Big Lie From the Christian Right

Make no mistake, the idea of fetal personhood was invented to strengthen and consolidate political and social power.

By Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters, Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, Dr. Elizabeth Freese | 28 January 2022
Common Dreams

The pro-life movement has been successful in passing abortion restrictions. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

As we mark the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the country awaits word from the US Supreme Court regarding whether abortion will remain legal. Despite Roe’s clear statement that, “The religious view that the product of every conception is sacred may not validly be urged by the States as a justification for limiting the exercise of constitutional liberties,” because it would constitute an establishment of religion – conservative Christian theology lies at the heart of the debate about abortion in this country. Though plural faith-based views should be welcome in the public square to inform cultural consensus around good policy, patriarchal theology constructed in bad faith to justify oppression of women is just another big lie.

After Roe was decided, patriarchal Christian leaders who disagreed with the ruling developed a strategy of fighting abortion that built upon the theological belief that a prenate is a “person.” On this premise, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and evangelical Christians have waged a relentless campaign to shape a public narrative that abortion is immoral. As roughly 60% of Americans support abortion availability, but only 20% can affirm that abortion is morally acceptable, it appears that this campaign has been somewhat successful.

But the idea that fertilization creates “a life” with equal moral standing to a pregnant person is a relatively recent notion and lacks grounding in Christian theological or biblical tradition. It was crafted to serve the agenda of contemporary conservative Christian power and male authority. The theological nature of this assertion has been given a secular veneer as arguments about abortion in state legislatures and the courts hinge on the sole factor of establishing not simply that the prenate is human but that it is a human life, a human being. Establishing this legal status is essential for granting developing human life the same legal standing as a pregnant woman. But two equal, autonomous persons cannot occupy the same body. Women’s real personhood is diminished, or even erased, as fictive prenatal persons are proclaimed to exist and given utmost concern.

A prenate is in development, it is contingent and not yet a person. Conversely, we affirm the unequivocal moral and legal standing of pregnant people and recognize that women’s right to bodily autonomy is a Christian theological norm that reflects the justice and respect for moral agency due to women as fully existing, not potential, human beings.

Prenate as new moral category

The question of the moral and ontological status of the prenate is ultimately the linchpin of the abortion debate. This question is theological and philosophical, not biological, but the latter informs the former. The fact that we have such inadequate language and theology about pregnancy and the development of prenatal life is not an accident. It is a direct reflection of millennia of patriarchy and the fact that our historical records, our theology, and our legal codes express the beliefs, ideas, and imaginations of male scholars, theologians, and jurists, who cannot get pregnant, do not gestate, and do not give birth. Male distance from the embodied knowledge of pregnancy, gestation, and childbirth means that we are only now beginning to develop the kind of embodied theology that reflects the deep wisdom and consciousness that women’s bodies and experiences of pregnancy and childbirth bring to our thinking about the ontological status of the prenate.

Using the term “prenate” can create a space for a more complex and productive conversation about abortion. It helps us recognize that prenatal life is nascent life – it is life in the process of developing, of becoming something new and real and capable of living independently from the body and blood of a pregnant person. Prenatal life is fragile, contingent, potential – not-yet. The prenate is a human becoming, but it is not-yet a human being, not to be confused amdist the genuine excitement expectant mothers feel about a “baby” on the way. While our legal debate has revolved around the idea of “personhood,” emphasis on “personhood” is a deficient, male-oriented notion that fails to recognize that what is happening during gestation is different and distinct from any other human activity—existing moral, legal, and theological categories do not apply. We need new language and a new moral category that reflects what and how we think about the moral status of developing life.

Pregnancy can be a sacred phenomenon, but not every pregnancy is sacred nor destined toward the birth of a baby. Gestation is the biological process through which human life develops and babies are brought into the world. It is not an abstract phenomenon, but a material act of labor, risk, and sacrifice that happens inside women’s bodies for a considerable duration. While women with wanted pregnancies gladly accept this labor, the idea of forced pregnancy violates any sense of sacrality.

The Bible belies the lie

Christian conservatives ignore gestational and contingent prenatal realities by claiming that “a human life” exists at conception, just as, they say, creation came to be at the utterance of God in Genesis 1-3. Abortion, therefore, amounts to a blasphemous negation of creation writ large. Yet, a close look at Genesis 1-3 reveals that neither creation nor the procreation of humans came about quickly or at God’s word alone. Rather, God engages in a process of co-creation over time in which the material labor, the work of creating new life is largely done by “the deep,” “the earth,” “the seas,” and, of course, Eve.

God issues commands in Genesis, but it is “the face of the deep” and “the waters” from which the heavens and earth initially spring (Gen 1:1-2), the seas that “bring forth” many “swarms of living creatures,” and the earth that “puts forth vegetation” and “brings forth” the “living creatures of every kind” (Gen 1:11 and 1:20-24). Then God looked upon the creation and “saw that it was good” (Gen 1:25). When Eve bears her first child, she is clear about who does the work when she asserts, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1). Thus, the story illustrates that multiple contributors, with various capacities, work together to create and procreate, and nothing comes to full existence without all of the contributions.

The one time when God does do most of the work is in the creation of adam (Hebrew meaning the earth-creature), from the material provided by the adamah (Hebrew word meaning earth). But it is only after his bodily creation and once God breathes the “breath of life” into his nostrils that Adam comes into existence as a “living being.” (Gen 2:7). The creation and procreation of living beings is a material process that occurs over significant time, according to this biblical view, which means that Genesis 1-3 actually flatly refutes the notion that “life begins at conception.”

It is only through the lens of a highly male-centric theology that the actions of “God the Father” in Genesis 1-3 can be construed as the only actions that matter. Similarly, those asserting that a life exists prior to the procreative process of gestation are grossly distorting the story and denying the autonomy, moral agency, and humanity of Eve and all women after her.

The personhood of pregnant women is absolute  

The Christian Right invented the idea of fetal personhood to strengthen and consolidate political and social power. The construction of a perfect innocent in need of protection plays on our emotions. It seduces us into equating unwanted or problem pregnancies with wanted pregnancies. It invites us to judge and shame women and to pass laws that will result in forced pregnancies.

Instead of merely accepting the theologically framed arguments presented by religious conservatives about abortion, it is important to recognize that factions of Christians have often weaponized theology to acquire and wield hierarchical social control in the course of human history. Such power plays, despite the theological framing, erase all regard for the quality of individuals’ lives.

Two of the worst examples are the European witch hunts targeting mostly women and the American institution of chattel slavery. In the latter, just as in the case of abortion bans, some Christian religious leaders used the Bible to support slavery as a moral good, claiming that slavery introduced Blacks to a higher morality than they were otherwise capable. This theology was devoid of any impulse to respect the actual personhood of enslaved peoples, nor did it hold any meaningful regard for the quality of their lives.

It is recorded in Christian scripture that Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And followers of Jesus are supposed to be known by their love for others (John 13:34-35). What kind of life are women with unwanted pregnancies in Texas living right now because too many Christians cannot, or will not, distinguish between a theology of male power and dominance that oppresses and exploits lives versus a theology of love that nourishes them?

To ban access to legal, medically-safe, and financially-affordable abortions is to deny pregnant individuals the opportunity to make the best decisions for their own lives and the well-being of their families. These bans constitute robbery and can lead to death and destruction.

When women are denied access to terminate a pregnancy, they and their children are:

  • Four times more likely to live below the Federal Poverty Level More likely to remain living in domestic violence

  • More likely to experience serious complications from the end of pregnancy including eclampsia and death

  • More likely to suffer anxiety and loss of self-esteem

  • Less likely to have or achieve aspirational life plans

Social policies that impede wholeness, liberation, and equality and those that address the issues of life, but are designed to ignore what constitutes life, are inherently unjust and flawed. Policies and systems that disregard the factors impacting quality of life are irresponsible, senseless, and inhumane.

When pregnant people are supported, or at least unimpeded, to make pro-creative decisions that impact the quality of their own lives, based on their own values, their lives and the lives of their children and families are made better, and this society as a whole is made better.

When we recognize that fetal personhood is a fiction, we can see more clearly the pregnant women whose lives are on the line and to whom we owe as much freedom, justice, and abundance as are due to all persons. We must refute the power-motivated fiction of fetal personhood, even when it is theologized, because it matters in people’s lives for generations.

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