By Rev. Dr. Christophe D. Ringer
In early voting and on Nov. 4, Tennesseans will go to the polls to vote whether or not to amend the state constitution to give legislators unlimited authority to ban abortions, even in cases of incest and rape. In cases of rape and incest, you would think those who value faith and freedom could find common moral ground on reproductive rights. You would be wrong.
People of faith on both sides of this controversial issue quickly arm themselves with Bible passages. Amendment 1 supporters will offer Psalm 139:13, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” followed quickly by Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” Those in support of reproductive freedom may counter with Numbers 5:11-31, where a husband who suspects his wife has committed adultery consults a priest. The priest administers a mixture of holy water and dust to make her “womb discharge” and “uterus drop.”
Unfortunately, these passages give little guidance to the difficult decisions at the busy intersection of faith, health and politics. The Bible does clearly depict, however, women making decisions about reproduction guided by their personal faith rather than by political interference.
The story of Exodus is worth considering. Pharaoh, fearful of the political consequences of the increasing Hebrew population, seeks to control their births by monitoring the birthing stool. Pharaoh orders the midwives to kill the boys and let the girls live. The midwives were faithful to God and disobeyed the order. In anger, Pharaoh ordered any boy born to a Hebrew woman be thrown into the river. When a Hebrew woman named Jochebed realized she could no longer hide her son, she hid him in a basket and cast it down the river.
Pharaoh’s daughter rescued the child and named him Moses. Clearly, women have long made reproductive decisions with God and community, in spite of politics rooted in fear. In this ancient drama of God’s deliverance, political freedom and reproductive freedom found in each other indispensable allies.
Like the Hebrew women, many African-American women have long understood reproductive freedom beyond the narrow options of “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown, a woman of faith, knew this all too well.
Brown was the first African-American woman to practice general surgery in the South. A Meharry Medical College graduate, she served as chief surgeon at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital from 1957 until 1983. Brown knew the echoes of slavery are heard in America’s history of forced sterilizations and the criminalization of black motherhood.
Brown’s life experience and expertise in medicine made history in Tennessee politics. In 1966, Brown became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Tennessee legislature. In 1967, she introduced a bill to legalize abortion for women in cases of incest or rape. This legislation was the first of its kind in the nation — six years ahead of Roe vs. Wade. It failed by two votes. Fortunately, not everything in life that counts can be counted.
Tennessee has come a long way. We currently have some of the strongest privacy rights in the nation. Amendment 1 could eliminate even the moral baseline that Brown hoped and fought for: legal and safe abortions in the instance of incest and rape. This November, vote to keep these decisions between a woman’s faith, her family and physician. In 2014, let us not roll back the clock to 1968.
The Rev. Dr. Christophe D. Ringer serves as the pastor of Howard Congregational UCC in Nashville and is a New Leaders Council Fellow and member of the Tennessee Reproductive Justice Network.
This op-ed appeared in the The Tennessean on January 25th, 2014