Akin, RNC Comments and Policies Remind Us: Abortion is a Gay Issue
by Wayne Self
Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s claim last week that women were unlikely to get pregnant from “legitimate rape” prompted a whirlwind of online commentary on abortion, most of it from straight men.
Many attempted to decry or distance themselves from Akin’s statement, which is often used to justify a ban on abortion without exceptions for rape or incest, but just such a ban found a home this week in the Republican Party Platform, thanks to the male-dominated RNC platform committee.
I’ve found it suitable, then, to put women’s voices forward where I could (in fact, if you have only five minutes to read about this issue, read this amazing response or this one from women instead of my own).
Gay men’s tendency toward close friendships with single young women is so well-known that it’s the stuff of TV cliche’. Many of us love our straight-girl friends and often turn to them when we have no one else. Even when we disagree politically or socially, we’re often bound together by common enemies, since the Todd Akins of the world hold us in equal disdain:
“Anybody who knows something about the history of the human race knows that there is no civilization which has condoned homosexual marriage widely and openly that has long survived.” – Todd Akin
Ah, the old “downfall of civilization” angle. It’s too bad that Akin and his allies don’t spend much effort opposing the real threats to civilization–environmental destruction, worldwide sex slavery, rampant poverty–all of which have more Biblical basis for their opposition than LGBT equality.
Since we have a common enemy, and since gays enjoy having friends who see us as equals, we sometimes make a deal with our single sisters: you try not to think of us as an existential threat to civilization, and we’ll keep our opinions about abortion to ourselves.
We usually get the better end of the deal. We don’t get pregnant and rarely impregnate anyone, so it’s easy for us to declare “that whole thing” to be none of our business and offer our friends the gift of our silence, for a change.
But what happens when one of our friends calls on us for more?
“Kelsie is pregnant. She wants to get an abortion. She’s not telling her parents. She wants to talk to you.”
The call was from our mutual friend, Deidre, whom I suspect had volunteered my aid (I’ve changed both of their names to protect their privacy). Kelsie was a 22-year-old woman I’d met through our theatre work; talented, friendly, and intelligent (if a bit disjointed from so much partying), with a certain nervous energy. She’s was bit of a smart-aleck, but unfailingly polite to the people she liked, and I’d been lucky to count myself among them.
But why did she want to talk to me? We were friendly, but not particularly close, since I was nearly old enough to be her dad. She knew me to be involved in church life and other matters of faith. Did she want a prayer? A blessing? Did she want me to talk her out of it? Into it? Did she want permission? Should I give it?
“All right, then,” I replied, after too long a pause. “Let’s have lunch.”
I nervously prepared myself for what may come, instinctively turning (for better or worse) to my religious education, which wasn’t much help.
See, despite all the fury from certain “Bible-believing Christians,” there’s simply nothing in the Bible about abortion. Yes, there are a few verses that get stretched beyond credibility to make abortion seem sinful, but ignored at every other possible application. Those same verses, consistently applied, would drastically alter the moral lives of even the most devout so-called “literalists” in mainstream society today.
That’s why, instead of pointing to specific scriptures, the Christian objection to abortion rests on the idea that the immortal soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception.
The problem is that this idea isn’t Biblical, either.
In the Bible, even the idea of an immortal, individuated soul is confused, at best, since the ancient Hebrews had no such concept. Instead, they had ruah, the “breath” of God, which gave life to flesh. This concept would suggest that life might enter the body at the moment of first breath, not conception.
In fact, it was the presence of ruah in the newborn that explained the Hebrew’s valuation of newborn over unborn. In Exodus, the penalty for killing a baby was death, but the penalty for killing the unborn was this:
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.” – Exodus 21:22
The concept we have of the soul today–immortal, imbued with a sense of self, and separate from the body–came from the Greeks, not from the Old Testament. This may explain why the Greek-influenced Jews who wrote the New Testament gave us a diversified and perhaps confused view of the soul, and why there are many Christian traditions today that deny the existence of the immortal, individuated soul.
Even where the immortal soul was mentioned, the concept invited an indifference to the body (or zygote), not a special effort to preserve it:
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
So, no, my trepidations were not specifically Biblical; they were worse: they were familial.
My mom was unmarried at Kelsie’s age when she first got pregnant. Raised poor in her close-knit, devoutly Catholic, ancestral community in rural Louisiana, Mama was educated by nuns to be ignorant of birth control or even the consequences of sex.
Despite the pregnancy, Mama’s parents despised the man she’d fallen for and wouldn’t allow a marriage. Marriage without the family’s blessing was unthinkable, and so was abortion, but neither did the family wish to ruin Mamas’s marriage prospects by saddling her with a child. The family raised the baby.
Mama endured such shame and economic hardship from her pregnancy that, when the same man got her pregnant again, she went away for a year to have the second baby in secret.
She put the second baby up for adoption and kept this secret nearly all her life, until the child grew to adulthood and made contact with the family.
Had abortion been an option for Mama, and had she opted for it, she would have been spared a great deal of hardship and shame, including shunning from some community members that continues to this day.
But the family–and the world–would have been denied my older brother and sister, whom we all cherish. In that sense, I’m glad of my mom’s upbringing. Without it, my older siblings would not exist.
But would anything in this experience be of use to Kelsie, a white, educated, middle-class, California woman? Should I even mention it? What could Kelsie possibly have in common with my mom; or, for that matter, with me?
Quite a lot, it would turn out, but I didn’t know that yet.
Lunch with Deidre and Kelsie was all rather breezy, if self-consciously so. When Kelsie finally introduced her plans, she discussed them only in medical terms.
The nearby clinic had botched something. The pill they gave her didn’t work and made her sick. She needed a surgical procedure that was only available across the Bay and would I come with her? Please?
Would I? Well, first, I had questions. What had she done? Did the guy know? Would she ever tell her parents? Was this a date rape kind of situation? Had her birth control failed, or had she used it at all? What had happened at Planned Parenthood?
Before I got involved, I wanted assurances that she had been responsible, or, failing those, that she would be responsible in the future.
But those led to other, more difficult questions. What were my questions really about? Did I feel the need to approve before I could help? Why did I need to know? What’s going on here, really?
I thought of what that State Representative in South Dakota had said a few years prior, explaining his view of the rape exemption for abortion:
“A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.” – Bill Napoli
If Napoli had his way, previous sexual history, or even desire to have sex before marriage, would be a disqualification for the rape exemption, as would a rape experience that wasn’t sufficiently brutal.
I imagined what I’d do if a straight, male friend asked me to accompany him to the clinic to for a vasectomy, and I knew my response would be “sure,” no questions asked.
Bill Napoli thinks that abortion is only for “good” girls. Did something in me apparently agree? Rather than give credence to this frightening idea, I decided not to ask my questions. After all, what answers could she give that would make me unwilling to help her? Conditional support is not a Christian value.
Of course I would go, if for no other reason than that she had asked.
The clinic was a testament to today’s economy: a shopping mall converted into a series of mostly-abandoned government offices. We’d arrived as early as possible to avoid traffic. The panhandlers in the morning cold were friendly if pushy, but the clerk in the medical office was rude, her attitude punitive.
They brought Kelsie into the back room, where we couldn’t go. The procedure was performed without a fuss. They gave her some pills for the pain.
The ride back from the clinic was long and quiet. Kelsie seemed tense. The pain? Regret. The moment I had dreaded came as we approached the bridge.
“So, Wayne, what do you think of all of this?” she asked.
What did I think? Did she really want to know?
A school in near my hometown recently introduced a policy mandating pregnancy tests for students, then banning those students whose tests turn up positive. This invasion of privacy and subsequent shunning are designed to make it plain to a girl that there is no place in civil society for her if she gets pregnant.
This was the world my Mama had known. In fact, abortion was the least of the options denied to her. No sex education. No birth control. No schooling, even though every single one of these things is proven to reduce the the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy or subsequent abortion.
For groups who push these measures, the goal is to eliminate all options–even the option of claiming rape–so that the potential consequences of losing her virginity are so frightening to a girl that she wouldn’t dream of doing it.
No, it’s not abortion that’s the enemy and it never was. The enemy is girls having sex.
When the girl becomes an adult and direct control is no longer feasible, coercion will have to do, through the naming and shaming we do to sexually active women, through indoctrination into a certain form of Christianity, complete with “purity balls” that have men exchanging rings with their daughters in a promise not to have sex until she’s given away at a white wedding to be taken by her husband.
That’s the theory, only it didn’t work for my mom. In fact, the system of prohibitions and coercions only contributed to her poverty, her lack of education, her lack of options, her despair, and for what? Simply to protect us from the fearful possibility of women having sex.
And what’s the source of this fear? It’s the same source that drove my officiously protective, meddlesome attitude toward Kelsie. Remember that verse from Exodus?
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.”
Like it or not, the Bible is one of the founding documents of our culture. And, though it’s written toward liberation and equality, it’s written from a time and place of subjugation and inequality. In this passage (as in nearly all of them) the agency belongs to the men. Men own the baby. Men decide what happens to mother and baby alike. Men have the ownership. Men have the dominion.
In the ancient world, manhood meant dominion and, since dominion was always under threat–from rapacious, physically dominant invading armies, from cuckolding wives or wayward daughters or embarrassing sons, men built protective mechanisms into society. Many of those failsafes have disappeared in this era, but men today can still be threatened by unattached women.
My protectiveness toward Kelsie, kind as it may have seemed, came from my habit of viewing her, a younger woman, not as a peer to assist, but as a child for me to protect. But simply by being a woman who asserts dominion over her own body, Kelsie challenges my ways of thinking about the place of men and women in society.
And I challenge hers.
To many people who think same-gender love is a “sin,” their objection is this:
“The marriage between a man and a woman is supposed to represent the relationship between Christ and His Church. The man represents Christ who represents the head; while the woman represents the Church who represent the body. By two men marrying, you have two heads and no body to head over. Instead you have two heads fighting to head over the other one. When two women marry you get two bodies with no head to lead them.” – Sanctus Vesania
The blogger who said this believes that I’ve debased myself by willingly renouncing my place in the sexual hierarchy. To his mind, making this renunciation as desirable as the norm would hasten the destruction of the hierarchy itself. We’re back to the downfall of civilization, but this time I have company.
Together, Kelsie and I challenge the idea that manhood means sex with women, and that women must participate in the ancient social system we created–the demand that men own their progeny and, through that ownership, control the (until recently) unknowable: lineage, parentage, inheritance, the mystery of who a woman slept with and how the baby in her belly came to be.
Kelsie and I put the potential for emasculation into the atmosphere. We tempt the order of things. By having sex with whom we choose, when we choose, we shake the unstable ground on which they stand.
Poor Kelsie, a young single girl looking out at the traffic and awaiting my reply. Vulnerable, shaken, and finding her own way. My peer.
She didn’t much look the downfall of civilization. But then, neither do I. Neither did my mom.
But we are a threat to an ancient and oppressive view of civilization that certain powerful groups are dedicated to protecting and preserving–a view that creates powerful men while robbing everyone else of health, happiness, and freedom.
So if I want permanent dominion over my own body, her dominion over hers is my cause, too.
“What do I think?” I finally replied. “I think you’re an amazing young woman who has handled herself with good humor, courage, and class. You didn’t need my approval or permission to make the decisions that were best for you, and you don’t need them now. But just know: when it comes to your control over your own body, I will always defend you. I’m honored that you let me be here for you.”
We turned onto the bridge and, in silence, we drove across the bay.
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Wayne Self is a playwright and composer whose current project is a musical tribute to the 32 LGBT and allied victims of the 1973 arson fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, LA. Considered by many to be the largest hate crime against LGBT people in U.S. history, the fire is sometimes seen as a lesson in the perils of silence. ”Upstairs” will give voice to the victims of the fire–many of whom self-identified as Christian–and is scheduled to premier next year, in time for the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. For more information about the Upstairs fire, please visit http://tinyurl.com/8g6lr8j. For booking or production information, contact ewayneself via email at owldolatrous.com.