The religious right is obsessed with the bodies of people who can get pregnant. Indeed, they are so obsessed that Gene Schaerr, a Mormon lawyer in Utah who quit his firm in order to defend “traditional marriage,” submitted an amicus brief before the Supreme Court heard arguments this week on marriage equality. The brief argues that the legalization of same-sex marriage will increase, of all things, abortions.
Schaerr’s brief was first reported by the Washington Post, where Dana Milbank remarked on the absurdity of such an argument. After all, if more cisgender people of the same sex are marrying, there’s little possibility of pregnancy happening within those marriages. But, to a certain kind of religious conservative, this connection makes some—if not perfect—sense.
The argument goes like this: The increase in same-sex marriage supposedly correlates to a decline in the overall marriage rate. Such declines mean an increase in the number of unmarried women. Unmarried women have more abortions than any other group—which is true, but not necessarily because they are unmarried. Therefore, marriage equality will result, in Schaerr’s estimation, nearly one million abortions—a number he seems to have invented out of thin air.
Schaerr’s argument predicates a specific view of sin that is common on the religious right—that all sins, while unique in their expression, are of the same evil. Of course marriage equality creates a decline in marriage rates because it exemplifies a devaluation of the holy and the divine. It is sin, and encouraging its acceptance is the encouragement of debauchery and the embrace of evil.
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Abortion, then, is part of the same sin structure that allows for the devaluation of marriage through women marrying women or men marrying men. The religious right sees the acts of individual sin—an abortion here, a same-sex marriage there—as symbolic of the downfall of society as a whole. Therefore the connection between abortion and same-sex marriage are cut from the same cloth—they’re all part of what’s leading society down a slippery slope into an orgiastic fervor of sin and inequity.
The connection between each of these alleged sins is also the way in which they empower a person’s agency over their own body. Reproductive rights, in the form of abortion care and birth control, scare the religious right because they allow people with uteruses control over their own bodily choices and functions. Same-sex marriage, likewise, is read as disobedience to God because, in conservative theology, God created man and woman as binary categories that exist to complement each other.
Having individual rights and individual agency is a position antithetical to the theology of the religious right. Conservative ethicist and theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, said as much in a 1991 essay on abortion: “We Christians do not believe we have inalienable rights. … Christians, to be more specific, do not believe that we have a right to do whatever we want with our bodies.”
To be a member of the religious political and theological right, then, is to commit to a communal understanding of one’s body; it is ultimately not our own to defend and make choices about. Rights language and the concept of individual agency simply don’t have a bearing on the communal religious community as defined by the right.
But such dismissal of rights results in a world in which women are jailed for miscarriages and people wanting to celebrate a lifelong commitment with their beloved are denied happiness. It keeps the status quo, which is exactly what conservatives want.
By invoking abortion—in the religious right’s mind, murder—in an argument about same-sex marriage, Schaerr is making a larger statement about the philosophical approach to rights and autonomy in larger society. That which threatens to tear apart the communal nature of bodies surrendered to God’s will is that which is evil. The reaction here is less about the “yuck factor” of what people of the same sex get up to in the bedroom; it is more about what that ownership of bodily autonomy and rights means for the community of God.
If people are able to marry and experience love with people of their same gender, and this love is considered a right, then, to the religious right, the uniqueness of “God’s design” for heterosexual marriage falls apart. Similarly, if people with uteruses are able to make decisions about when and how they become pregnant, then the specialness of God’s sovereignty over one’s children is threatened. Another person’s autonomy creates problems for the religious right because it highlights how members of the religious communities are persuaded to give up their own rights for the greater good.
And this terrifies the religious right. If people see that they don’t have to give up the rights to their own bodies, that women don’t necessarily have to submit to men to be holy, that equality can actually be a demonstration of God’s love, they might begin to explore those venues for themselves. They might begin to resist the power structure that is the center of the theologically and politically conservative movement.
This is true particularly within Mormonism, a conservative religion akin to the conservative Christian right (indeed, Mormons consider themselves Christians, though Protestant evangelicals do not agree). In conservative Mormonism, where women are still fighting to wear pants to Tabernacle on Sundays, a woman’s role is all the more precarious. Salvation for women, in Mormonism, depends specifically on handing over ownership of one’s faith journey to a husband and the service of family. It is a distinctly white, middle-class theology that demands heterosexual marriage and children to be saved.
In that way, the alliance of ideologies between the Christian and the Mormon right is not surprising. Both form a symbiotic relationship based around the denial of rights and agency to those marginalized by the patriarchy, including women who are sexual minorities. Abortion scaremongering is a natural extension of the denial of rights sought by those who want marriage to be between a man and a woman. It’s all part of a whole culture in which people do not have the right to make their own choices about who they love and what they do with their bodies.
And with the federal legalization of same-sex marriage all but inevitable, the religious right is reaching back into their Santa bag of absurdist theologies and sins to find some way to galvanize the base into action. The fear of those sins that will destroy society is the center of the entire absurdist response. The religious right is scared to let people make their own choices, from reproductive rights to who they marry. And that, ultimately, is their weakness, because fear is unsustainable in the long term. It will fail.