Culture & Conversation Human Rights

In ‘Trust Women,’ A Christian Ethicist Talks Abortion—And She’s Not Shaming

Latishia James-Portis

This book by Rebecca Todd Peters will pave the way for more accounts that connect faith and reproductive justice, but it also shows how hard it is to escape the access focus of reproductive rights.

Rebecca Todd Peters has had two abortions. One was a wanted pregnancy; the other was not.

She’s also a self-described “cradle Christian” raised to be a person of faith, ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and working as a Christian ethicist.

Woman who has had abortions, believer, wife, mother, religion scholar: These identities mean that Peters understands the many reasons women end pregnancies and has unique insight into the shaming messages some Christians direct toward those who have abortions. Her recently released book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, combines personal storytelling, theology, and history to illustrate Christianity’s complex relationship to abortion and women’s sexual and reproductive decision-making.

As a faith leader and reproductive justice (RJ) advocate, I view Peters’ book as an opening for other important contributions to come. It arrives at a critical time, given the increase in religion-based attacks on reproductive freedom. It also contributes to a growing movement of progressive clergy seeking to disrupt the narrative that faith leaders, and particularly Christian ones, are inherently anti-abortion and anti-reproductive freedom.

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But Trust Women also raised questions, some difficult, for me: Can a book that focuses primarily on abortion claim to argue for reproductive justice, a framework and movement for which abortion access is not the only or ultimate concern? And where are the voices of Black women thinkers—the backbone of reproductive justice—throughout this account? Who are the book’s intended audiences: progressive faith leaders who are silent on abortion, conservatives who automatically judge abortion as wrong, the reproductive rights movement, or the reproductive justice movement itself?

I will start with this final concern because intent and audience matter. To be fair, the author asserts that Trust Women is a progressive Christian argument for reproductive justice. But if Trust Women is meant to galvanize progressive Christians to approach their faith with a reproductive justice lens, I believe the call to action is missing. However, if the hope is that it could potentially also draw in a more conservative Christianity audience, I fear it comes on too strong. And if it is meant to create a bridge between Christianity and reproductive justice, it fails to underscore that the reproductive justice framework is already informed by some of its founders’ desire to bridge the imposed divide between their religious convictions and bodily autonomy.

The book aims to shift the conversation on women’s health from what Peters identifies as a justification framework to a reproductive justice framework. A justification framework requires women to provide morally and socially acceptable reasons for why they would even consider terminating a pregnancy, and even then they are expected to feel some shame for it. In contrast, reproductive justice situates abortion within a larger context of oppression, social justice, and human rights. It does not classify the decision to terminate a pregnancy as one of individual morality. Rather, it questions the morality of a society that creates conditions by which women are unable to get care or care for their families with dignity.

As one might expect from an ethicist, Peters spends a significant portion of the book debunking the popular idea that Christianity has always viewed abortion as immoral—something that can’t be challenged enough. Many scholars have noted the diversity of religious thought about abortion’s permissibility and the relative late arrival of virulent anti-abortion sentiment in U.S. society and contemporary churches. In a conservative Christian perspective that views Eve and all women as responsible for the “fall” and therefore in need of male authority, it’s not a small jump of logic to assume that women shouldn’t wield power or control their bodies.

As Peters points out, “when theologians and church leaders use scripture and Christian tradition to argue that women’s subordination is not only divinely inspired but also divinely ordained—meaning that God intended for women to be subservient to men—the core Christian value of justice is distorted and Christianity itself is damaged.” Patriarchy gives men the right to control women. Misogyny justifies that right. This collusion between Christianity and the patriarchy du jour feeds the justification framework that Peters seeks to deconstruct. By connecting ancient Christian patriarchal attitudes and misogyny with modern treatment of women, Peters ably illustrates how culture, religion, and the state conspire to diminish women’s moral agency and create false bases for infringing on their rights.

Peters does an excellent job of contextualizing ideas and attitudes about abortion and Christianity over time, using historical and individual stories to sketch the big picture. She shares her own stories, explaining her socioeconomic status, emotional health, and other factors at the time of her abortions. Her own experiences are supplemented by those of women from different backgrounds with different reasons for their abortions, all of whom were affected by unfair and sometimes dangerous policies that limit reproductive decision-making and child rearing. This context is a mandate of reproductive justice, which asks that we look at the holistic lives of women and not just treat their reproductive decisions in isolation.

But while reproductive justice is inherently intersectional, an intersectional approach to abortion is not the only requirement to deploy the reproductive justice framework. That is to say, Peters falls short of truly describing how our society and laws creates moral loopholes and fosters opportunities for reproductive oppression to fester. A rigorous discussion of reproductive justice and abortion must take into account the forces that leave women in desperate situations, not only regarding abortion, but regarding child care, work, food security, and education access. While Peters does write about why poor people’s reproduction tends to be policed, her analysis continually loops back to abortion access. That’s a sign of a focused author, but also an indication of how difficult it is to escape the access-centric reproductive rights frame.

That brings me to a structural fault, which I think is telling. The final chapter of the book lifts up the decades-long thought leadership of some of the “founding mothers” of reproductive justice, including Toni Bond Leonard and Loretta Ross (only two of the dozen women who, in 1994, developed the framework). This may seem like a fitting conclusion and tribute, but it’s also a missed opportunity. Many RJ activists—both founders and the next generations—do their work due to deeply held religious convictions or steadfast faith while (sometimes simultaneously) holding critiques of the hurt that Bible-justified patriarchy has inflicted.

A deeper dive into this facet of reproductive justice—perhaps in the form of interviews or more active engagement with these living legends and theorists—could remind many progressives that religion is not the enemy nor is it the province of their political opponents. Furthermore, it would have been a chance to demonstrate that RJ activists and leaders are not ignorant of the deep need for a reproductive justice-informed theology that could lead culture shift regarding Christianity and reproductive decision-making. But without an explicit and consistent thread invoking these thinkers in the book’s earlier chapters, their contributions seem an afterthought rather than a through-line undergirding the author’s promise to present that much-needed progressive Christian argument for reproductive justice.

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