Rebecca Todd Peters, professor of Religious Studies at Elon University who is also a Christian ethicist and women's right advocate, opens the door on a fraught subject – abortion in her new book, Trust Women (Beacon, April). It comes out while the #metoo movement is raging and an abortion case is under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the book was brewing in her mind for 25 years and was pushed forward by recent events “As women’s access to healthcare got more difficult, abortion and reproductive rights moved to the forefront of my research agenda,” says Peters.
Peters’ editor, Amy Caldwell, cited Beacon Press’s “long history of publishing books on abortion,” including that of Peters’ graduate school mentor, Beverly Harrison: Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. “We’re a publishing house that’s committed to social justice and gender equality,” says Caldwell. “And we would never back down from publishing books that we believe put social justice issues into clear perspective.”
In a conversation with PW, Peters talks about the perils of writing about such a hot-button topic, the inevitability of hate mail, and her hopes for the future of women’s reproductive health and public policy.
(The interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Was a book about abortion a risk for you—especially one so personal?
It’s not a risk at my institution — I’m a full professor with tenure. But it’s always a risk to disclose personal information. My abortions are not a secret, though. When I was getting ready to work on this book, I didn’t know if I was going to talk about [my own abortions]—it was a real open question. I’d thought, well, if telling my stories helps with the purpose of this book, then I’ll tell them.
Nobody has written a book about abortion in Christian ethics since (Beverly) Harrison’s in ’83. I think people on the pro-choice side thought she laid out everything that can be said from a Christian perspective. But so much has changed and I thought so much more needed to be said.
Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
We have this justification paradigm around abortion — that even though abortion is legal, we still expect women to justify their reasons for getting one. We think women have a moral obligation to give birth, and we assign a certain moral standing to (this). Getting an abortion is not the same as cutting your hair, for example.
The assumption is that women want to have babies and if women don’t want to, they have to give a reason for ending their pregnancy that is acceptable, that will justify their decision. As a Christian ethicist, I felt people didn’t have a good moral framework for thinking about reproductive questions, and that’s what I wanted to dig into for this book.
Who is your ideal audience?
I’ll never reach the hardcore pro-lifers and that’s fine — most aren’t interested in having a conversation. My ideal readers are those who are unsettled by the question of abortion and the way it’s playing out culturally and socially, people who are supporters of abortion rights but who want to shift the conversation on women’s reproductive healthcare beyond the spectrum of abortion.
You write a lot about “progressive Christians.” Who is included under that umbrella?
The way I use the term “progressive Christianity” comes from the history of the social gospel tradition, which is the social justice wing of Christianity that goes back to the 19th century. A lot of people embrace the term and Catholics and Protestants have been part of it since the beginning. Most people don’t know that the mainline traditions were pro-choice from very early on.
Progressive Christianity is not something you join, it’s a way of thinking about how the principals of Christianity call one to live and to be. It also sees that social problems are structural — and talks of sin as structural in this way.
What are your biggest hopes for this book?
To improve civic conversation related to women’s reproductive health, (to) expand our focus from women’s access to abortion to what it means to parent, and (to consider) how we shape society for supporting women who want to have and raise children. (I hope to see) more support and public policy oriented around the issues that women themselves report about why they choose to end a pregnancy.
Are you afraid of hate mail?
It’s already started. I’m a social ethicist, and I write about contemporary social problems all the time. The only hate mail I get, though, is when I write about race and abortion. I don’t read it. I just put it in a folder and make someone else read it to make sure nothing is violent or threatening.