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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

To Address the Climate Catastrophe, Americans Need to Break Abortion's Stranglehold on Politics.

It's dropped off the headlines, but I would still maintain that the central fault line in US politics is over abortion. With the climate catastrophe raging, people literally dying from lack of health insurance, and the next generation suffering under crushing debt, you'd think that the issue would be way down on folks' list of priorities, but no, it persists.

This post is an attempt to convey my understanding of why abortion is such a hot-button issue. Let's examine a fundamental tenet in the anti-abortion canon: embryos/fetuses have a soul, so abortion is murder.

Where did that belief come from?

The place to start is the Bible, specifically, Exodus 21: 22-23. Interestingly, Jews and Christians agree that this is the key text concerning abortion. Unfortunately, there are different versions.

A literal translation of the original Hebrew version is as follows: "When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life."

When first translated into Greek, the translators made an error: instead of harm, the Hebrew word was translated into Greek as form. Here's a literal translation from the Greek: "And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman's husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life."

For Orthodox Jews, the fetus is seen as a potential life. Beating a woman until she spontaneously aborts is a bad thing, and a fine must be paid. However, if the woman is killed, then the punishment for the attackers is death. Okay, I wouldn't exactly call that progressive. Still, it is clear that the fetus is not considered a full human life, just a potential life, because the punishment for murder is death.

The Talmud goes on to reason that regardless of what you call the fetus, there are times when killing even an adult is permissible, for example, when one is threatening your life. The fetus is considered a "pursuer" (threatening the woman's life) if carrying the pregnancy to term involves a significant risk of death or serious negative consequences for the woman's health. Under those conditions, abortion is mandatory. Some rabbis will extend that to threats to mental health. This is not exactly a pro-choice position, but it's quite different from current evangelical Christian anti-abortion thought.

Now, on the other hand, if this is really an issue of whether or not the embryo/fetus has a human "form," then it's murder as soon as that form is achieved. It's clear from the Justinian Code (Roman law) that Christians accepted this definition at least as early as the sixth century. It cannot be a coincidence that the time of assuming this form (ensoulment) was taken as forty days post-conception for a boy and eighty for a girl both in ancient Greek thought and in early Christian thought as embodied in Roman law. The exact timing has been argued back and forth among Christian theologians since that time. For Roman Catholics, the time of ensoulment was established by the 19th century as at "quickening," when a woman first detected the presence of the fetus. However, by then, science had established this date as arbitrary. In 1869, on this basis, Pope Pius IX declared that since it was impossible to determine exactly when ensoulment occurs (hard to argue with that), and even a good possibility of killing a human life is bad (logic is still sound), then all abortion from the moment of conception is murder. This ruling has stood since that time, and it is current Catholic teaching.

As for evangelical Protestants? This answer stunned me—up until quite recently, they were rather moderate, with a policy similar to that of Orthodox Jews. Here is the unabridged text of the Resolution on Abortion adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1971:

WHEREAS, Christians in the American society today are faced with difficult decisions about abortion; and WHEREAS, Some advocate that there be no abortion legislation, thus making the decision a purely private matter between a woman and her doctor; and WHEREAS, Others advocate no legal abortion, or would permit abortion only if the life of the mother is threatened; Therefore, be it RESOLVED, that this Convention express the belief that society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves; and Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.

So, what changed? I found a very interesting piece of journalism done by NPR's Throughline program. The argument made was that what changed was not theological but political. To summarize their argument, at the advent of desegregation in the South, many white Southern evangelical Christians put their children in tax-exempt religious schools called "segregation academies" that would not allow Black children to attend. Then came the Supreme Court decision Green v. Connally. These segregation academies lost their tax-exempt status because they discriminated.

Evangelical leaders, in particular, Jerry Falwell, who ran his own segregation academy, were incensed. But segregation was waning as a basis for political organizing. At this time, a Republican political strategist named Paul Weyrich decided to mobilize Christian evangelicals, and he figured that the best issue to rally them around would be a ban on abortion. Falwell and Weyrich formed the Moral Majority, which helped elect Ronald Reagan in order to enact this agenda.

So, the basis for the current political quagmire in the US, the hardline opposition to abortion by evangelical Protestants, is rooted in racism and political opportunism. Guess what? No evangelical, even if presented with this line of reasoning, is going to care. They are raised with the idea that abortion is akin to the Holocaust (even using that word): mass murder. It's futile to try to convince them otherwise. If their pastors say that abortion is murder, it's murder for them.

I would argue that the only line of reasoning that stands any chance in breaking through this deadlock that threatens to doom the planet by inaction on the climate catastrophe is the following: okay, if abortion is murder, you're in favor of policies that do the best job of eliminating as many abortions as possible, right?

Okay, imagined traditional Catholic and evangelical Protestant audience, do I hear an amen on that one?

Assuming I just heard one—hey, if I didn't hear voices in my head, I wouldn't be able to call myself a writer—the key is looking at what policies are effective in reducing the number of abortions. Certainly, a policy that rendered women as property of the patriarchy—à la A Handmaid's Tale—would work, but odds are that isn't in the cards. Barring that, in a country where 1/3 of women will have an abortion at some point in their life, if middle-class women want one, they will get one, by flying to Canada or Cuba if need be. So, the key issue becomes convincing middle-class women that they don't want one.

Well, it turns out that with a plurality of abortions in the US, the patient is a married woman in her twenties. Presumably, many of those would have wanted a child if they could afford one.

So, which party's policies are best for the economic well-being of middle-class and poor women? Which party advocates high-quality, affordable daycare? Which party wants to reduce the burden on families by providing affordable, comprehensive health insurance?

This party is the one with the commitment to eliminating most abortions. And doing so in a non-coercive fashion. That will work.

Or is abortion still just an organizing tool for those who really want to violate international law on admission of refugees, empower cops to shoot people of color with abandon, and march through the streets bearing racist flags and semiautomatic weapons? If you really believe American politics has devolved to "come for the religious coercion, stay for the racism," then anti-racist work becomes the key objective in order to overcome deadlock.

Alternatively, the clamor for guillotines for the rich and powerful becomes louder daily. To those who argue to hasten it, I ask to what sort of leaders you think Americans—politically naïve and prone to fascist tendencies—would turn when the killings ramp up? Please recall that Robespierre, the revolutionary leader, was the last victim of the guillotine in the French Revolution. And then they restored the monarchy, post-Napoleon.

We almost had our own "little dictator." (I'm citing Stormy Daniels on the little part of that epithet.) His rabble threatened the lives of our legislators and smeared their own feces on the walls of the Capitol Building. Not exactly the type of people with whom I'd like to link arms and sing "Le Marseillaise."

To mitigate the climate crisis, the US needs to move beyond deadlock without expecting any sort of revolution to fundamentally change our political institutions. (At least in the next couple decades when climate action will do the most—I won't discount the possibility of anarchist revolution beyond that time period.) We won't get there if Americans are choosing their political party on the abortion issue.

If you've got any better ideas for political organizing, please share them as comments on my social media pages where I post this. I'd like to hear them

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