In the fall 2009 issue of Christian Ethics Today, Mennonite theologian Tripp York published an article titled “The Subtle Atheism of Being Pro-Life.” A provocative title indeed.
York’s thesis is that when some in the pro-life movement resort to the coercion of laws they are exhibiting a subtle atheism because they assume that the power of the state must be used to compel people to behave. Instead, York writes, the proper response is to do the hard work of “constructing alternative communities” that are appealing to others. Such communities would witness to a way of life, rather than trying to impose it on others who disagree.
York’s essay came as Oklahoma was responding to House Bill 1595, “The Statistical Reporting of Abortion Act,” which passed the Legislature last year and was blocked from going into effect by court order. The bill mandates that a questionnaire be filled out and posted online when a woman terminates her pregnancy. Many opponents have claimed that the bill violates a family’s privacy, and that the information could be used to shame or target women and their families. Versions of the bill are likely again in this legislative session.
Last November, the University of Oklahoma Women’s and Gender Studies Student Association held a series of events related to the law. These included lectures on the history of such legislative efforts, panels on the current state of the law and the lawsuit challenging it, and, finally, a protest rally at the state Capitol.
Carol Mason, director of Gender and Women’s Studies at Oklahoma State University, called HB 1595 “guerilla legislation,” which is defined in her book “Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics” as legislation intended to “sabotage and harass, on an irregular and arbitrary basis, those seeking or providing abortions.” She identifies it as a trend away from protest and toward retribution.
Our Legislature seems bent on this retributive type of legislation that refuses the sort of persuasion that is standard in a pluralistic democracy and, according to York’s critique, in Christian witness.
In Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court did not take a position on the difficult ethical issue faced by women and families. Instead, it took a position on the question of who should decide this issue ” individuals or the state. Its position, in the tradition of American conservatism, was that this difficult ethical question was for the individual, not the state.
State power should not be used to coerce behavior on this particular issue, around which there is so much disagreement based on core ethical, philosophical and theological beliefs.
If you really believe that all women should choose to continue and not terminate their pregnancies, then you should be able to make a persuasive, not a coercive, argument for your position.
Those that resort to harassment via guerrilla legislation demonstrate the inherent weakness of their position.
Jones, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma, is pastor of the Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.