“There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks,” said Stacey Abrams, who is running a campaign centered on abortion access to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R). “It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body away from her.” According to obstetrics and gynecology experts, Abrams is correct in saying there is no heartbeat at six weeks. At that stage of the embryo’s development, the chambers and valves of the heart ― the opening and closing of which create the heartbeat sound ― don’t exist yet. Abrams was arguing against the use of “fetal heartbeat” rhetoric in anti-abortion legislation. The term is used to contest abortion rights in Georgia and elsewhere. But doctors say that at six weeks, there is an embryo, not [yet] a fetus, and [the zygote, a grouping of cells, is emitting] electrical pulses not a heartbeat. (Stacey Abrams Enrages Republicans By Citing Science On 'Fetal Heartbeats' by Josephine Harvey, Huffington Post, Sep 22, 2022, 10:10 PM EDT)
I do not identify as female. Being a white heterosexual male, our culture here in the United States consistently and constantly affirms that I own my own body. In fact, most of the medical science that has been done has been for the benefit of white male bodies. There’s rarely been a question about whether white males own their bodies, just as there has rarely been questioning about whether white hetero-males can own land, open a checking account, buy a house, or any of a number of rights. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the Dobbs decision that the Constitution does not confer a right to an abortion. Thus, my friends, the implication is that the Constitution doesn’t give women rights over their own bodies. And the further implication is that women won’t have bodily rights legally protected unless laws specific to their protection have been passed. In effect he’s saying that women don’t inherently own their bodies, legislatures do.
In the July 4, 2022 Issue of the New Yorker, staff writer Jia Tolentino wrote in her article “We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe. We’re Going Somewhere Worse”: “We have entered an era not of unsafe abortion but of widespread state surveillance and criminalization—of pregnant women […] In the states where abortion has been or will soon be banned, any pregnancy loss past an early cutoff can now potentially be investigated as a crime. Search histories, browsing histories, text messages, location data, payment data, information from period-tracking apps—prosecutors can examine all of it if they believe that the loss of a pregnancy may have been deliberate. Even if prosecutors fail to prove that an abortion took place, those who are investigated will be punished by the process, liable for whatever might be found”. Jia goes on to tell of Latice Fisher [a resident of Mississippi]. “There was no evidence that Latice Fisher took an abortion pill. She maintained that she had experienced a stillbirth—an occurrence in one out of every hundred and sixty pregnancies in the U.S. Nonetheless, she was charged with second-degree murder and held for several weeks on a hundred-thousand-dollar bond. The district attorney, Scott Colom, had campaigned as a progressive reformer; advocates pushed him to drop the murder charge, and to provide a new grand jury with information about an antiquated, unreliable “float test” [If the woman’s egg sinks, it never had a chance. If it floats high in the water, it is mainly air and not viable. If it floats low, its viable] that had been used as a basis for the allegation that Fisher’s baby was born alive. The grand jury declined to indict Fisher again; the ordeal took more than three years.” This might remind you of the medieval test to determine if a woman was a witch—that is, if she floated she was and if she drowned she wasn’t. And that should chill you to the bone.
I have publicly stated and will continue to state that as a religious leader, I believe that women have bodily autonomy. Women deserve every single legal right over their bodies from the moment they are born, until they die. Period. I feel so strongly about this that I am involved as a plaintiff with 4 other religious leaders in Florida to fight HB 5, the law that the Florida legislature and governor DeSantis passed to restrict abortion access. In my brief, it says “HB 5, entitled the Infant and Fetal Abnormality Act, establishes as the law of the State of Florida, a pernicious elevation of the legal rights of fetuses while at the same time it devalues the quality of life and the health of the woman or girl who is pregnant. It is in direct conflict with Plaintiff’s clerical obligations and faith and imposes severe barriers and substantial burdens to his religious belief, speech, and conduct…HB 5 violates the sacred trust between a clergy member and his or her congregants, and tramples [the] Plaintiff’s First Amendment and Florida constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, and his rights under FRFRA. It also violates the separation of church and state under the federal and state constitutions. A violation of the Act constitutes a third-degree felony; “any person” who “willfully performs” or “actively participates” in an abortion in violation of the law is subject to criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and monetary penalties up to $5,000 for a first offense.”
I have been a Unitarian Universalist since 1979, and I am fully aware of the Unitarian Universalist position on Reproductive Justice. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has put out statements that support Reproductive Justice as far back as 1987. At that year’s General Assembly, the General Resolution stated: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the right of individual conscience, and respect for human life are inalienable rights due every person; and that the personal right to choose in regard to contraception and abortion is an important aspect of these rights.” (Unitarian Universalist Association, Right to Choose: 1987 General Resolution, https://www.uua.org/action/statements/right-choose.) The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations affirmed those rights again in statements of conscience at our denominational meetings in 2015 and 2022. (Unitarian Universalist Association, Reproductive Justice: 2015 Statement of Conscience, https://www.uua.org/action/statements/reproductive-justice
(UUs Remain Committed to Supporting Reproductive 18 Justice, Will Continue to Fight for Abortion Access, May 3, 2022, https://www.uua.org/pressroom/press‐releases/fight‐abortion‐access.)
And when the Texas Abortion law was passed in 2021, the Unitarian Universalist Association put out this statement: “We believe that all bodies are sacred. Every person has the right to determine what happens to their own body at all phases of life—including if, when, and how they want to have children. As people of faith, this commitment is part of our deepest religious values: Unitarian Universalism proclaims that all individuals and communities have the right to self-determination, safety, and the resources that are necessary for health and sustainability.” (“Outraged By Texas Abortion Law, UUs Remain Committed to Reproductive Justice” September 10, 2021, https://www.uua.org/pressroom/press-.)
And Unitarian Universalists like myself are not the only ones fighting this pernicious law on religious grounds. Clergy from the Jewish, Episcopalian, UCC, and Buddhist faiths are also plaintiffs in this lawsuit against HB 5. We, these clergy and I, decided to fight this law on religious grounds because an attempt to fight this law on individual liberty grounds was dismissed by the Supreme Court. It seems the separation of church and state is not as well-defined as it used to be. It seems religious grounds hold more standing in the conservative Supreme Court.
I invite you to listen to what my Buddhist friend wrote in their legal brief.
“A core tenet of Buddhism is the sanctity of individual choices while on the path of Buddha. When [the] Plaintiff counsels disciples who can bear children, [the] Plaintiff believes that their life and spiritual evolution is paramount. Pregnancy, childbirth, family planning, and abortion are extremely integral decisions in life. As a Lama, [the] Plaintiff must consider the individual circumstances of each disciple, including their karmic effect and their place on the path to enlightenment. An inability to counsel and support a disciple’s choices regarding abortion services and birth control prevents [the] Plaintiff from being an effective spiritual guide and is an anathema to the Buddhist path. [The] Plaintiff believes that all Buddhists should be able to use self-determination to make choices to access abortion services and birth control with no restriction on movement, autonomy, type, or timing. [The] Plaintiff also believes that all Lamas, including [the] Plaintiff, should be able to counsel their disciples accordingly.”
And my Jewish friend wrote in her brief: “Jewish law, practice and core tenets are unequivocal that all human life is sacred. As such, the decision to bring new life into the world is a deeply religious one. While Judaism cherishes both actual and potential life, the physical and mental well-being of the mother always takes precedence over an unborn fetus. (See e.g. Rabbi Jacob Emden, Responsa She’elat Ya”vetz 1:43, 1739-1759, Germany).” Interpretations vary across Judaism, but this Rabbi along with many practicing religious Jews believe that a fetus is part of the parent's body and that a baby is only considered a person once it takes its first breath
Unitarian Universalist Reverend Scotty Mclennan who is not only a UU clergy member and lawyer, but also was the Dean of Religious Life at Stanford University (UU World, Breath is life: Defending abortion from a liberal Christian perspective. Scotty McLennan Winter 2009 12/7/2009) wrote: “There’s nothing explicitly said in the Bible about induced abortion. Zero. [Only in] Exodus 21:22 [does it say]: “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.” So, only a fine; no punishment for homicide.” Scotty goes on to write: “For most of the history of the Catholic Church, one did not become a human being or a person until well after conception. Saint Augustine in the fourth century adopted the Aristotelian belief that the human soul didn’t enter the fetus until forty to ninety days after conception…The great reversal came with Pope Pius IX in 1869. He assumed ensoulment at conception, and by 1917 church canon law had been revised, dropping the prior distinction it had upheld between “animated” and “inanimated” fetuses. Pius’s position has been maintained by the Roman Catholic Church ever since.”
From a scientific and medical perspective “Fetal life is a magnificent continuum of development from the zygote at the time of conception, to the manifestation of the embryo at about fourteen days, to the formation of what we call the fetus at about three months. Of course, for those first two weeks it’s not at all clear that the zygote will become a singular embryo, much less a human being. Two-thirds of the time, the zygote doesn’t develop into anything at all. Sometimes it develops into a tumor. Or it could become an embryo or more than one if it splits into twins. Once it’s an embryo, it’ll be a long time—another twenty-two weeks or so—before it reaches viability or the stage of development when it might survive outside the womb.”
My friends, what we are dealing with right now is a far-right wing Evangelical and Catholic theological concept of fetal personhood—the idea that, from the moment of conception, an embryo or fetus is a full human being, deserving of equal (or, more accurately, superior) rights. (A Brief Guide to Fetal Personhood, the Next Frontier In Anti-Choice Politics. Law & Politics By Lisa Needham, May 25, 2022) “This is a foundational doctrine of the anti-abortion movement. The legal ramifications of this idea—including the possible classification of I.V.F., IUDs, and the morning-after pill as instruments of murder—are unhinged, and much harsher than what even the average anti-abortion American is currently willing to embrace. Nonetheless, the anti-abortion movement is now openly pushing for fetal personhood to become the foundation of U.S. abortion law… [And yet] Pregnancy is more than thirty times more dangerous than abortion. One study estimates that a nationwide ban would lead to a twenty-one-per-cent rise in pregnancy-related deaths. Some of the women who will die from abortion bans are pregnant right now. And most miscarriages are caused by factors beyond a pregnant person’s control: illnesses, placental or uterine irregularities, genetic abnormalities. But the treatment of pregnant people in this country already makes many of them feel directly and solely responsible for the survival of their fetus. They are told to absolutely avoid alcohol, coffee, retinol, deli turkey, unpasteurized cheese, hot baths, vigorous exercise, drugs that are not prescribed to them, drugs that they have been prescribed for years—often without any explanation of the frequently shoddy reasoning behind these prohibitions. Structural factors that clearly increase the likelihood of miscarriage—poverty, environmental-chemical exposure, working night shifts—are less likely to come up. As fetal personhood becomes law in more of the land, pregnant people, as Lynn Paltrow, the director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, has pointed out, “could be sued, or prevented from engaging in travel, work, or any activity that is believed to create a risk to the life of the unborn.” (UU World, Breath is life: Defending abortion from a liberal Christian perspective, Scotty McLennan Winter 2009 12/7/2009)
I know this is a lot to take in. And I am aware that even within our congregations, there are differences in beliefs about when a group of cells becomes a person. But what is different both here and in many progressive religious communities is that we understand and affirm that women have bodily autonomy. We accept and believe the findings of science and medicine. We don’t believe it is right or just or equitable to create laws that limit a human being’s right to personal bodily autonomy. We understand and empathize with women who have to make the difficult decisions around pregnancy and childbirth.
you support personal bodily autonomy for everyone? What does that mean to you? If you affirm personal bodily autonomy for
everyone, how do you live that affirmation in the world? Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose
whether to have a child? Perhaps that
questions raises other questions, and perhaps some of those questions don’t
have easy, one-size-fits-all answers. If
you support a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child are you doing
anything to express that support? I am not here to tell you what you must
believe or what actions to take. That’s
for you to figure out. None of us can
sit on the sidelines on bodily
autonomy and reproductive justice. Examine
your heart, talk with others you trust, decide what you will do. I charge you to live that decision every