When viewed through a labor lens, the new Texas abortion law looks a lot like Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel, which was unacceptable to God. Righteous cries for liberation from layers of labor domination and exploitation must be heard and acted upon.
The same Texans who pushed for and support SB8 talk a lot about freedom. They have been especially upset at not being allowed to roam mask-free, unburdened by any responsibility to avoid spreading Covid to others, including small children. “My body, my choice,” they say, mocking and trivializing the concerns of those who advocate for reproductive freedom, while disregarding fundamental tenets of neighbor-love and care for the “least of these.”
This audaciously hypocritical approach to any actual ethic of freedom is, of course, common in many states, and abortion bans like SB8 are pending around the country. One way to push back hard starts with recognizing that these laws force those who have the female bodily capacity to gestate fetuses – especially those who are poor and non-white – to labor against their will, on several levels. Those who follow biblical traditions, therefore, must consider that a God of liberation would challenge the hypocrisy on freedom and oppose reproductive oppression. Indeed, it is time that the living Exodus narrative truly includes women and others who can become pregnant, as well as their children, alongside all who struggle for justice.
The American value and concept of “freedom” can be traced back to the adoption of the biblical story of Exodus as a core movement narrative by peasant revolutionaries and Protestant Reformers in 16th century Europe. Puritans, other colonists, American revolutionaries, slavery abolitionists, and Civil Rights activists did the same. Due to its own internal contradictions, the story can logically be used by one group to advance its own freedom, while excluding others. But those contradictions run counter to the primary ethical point of the story, which is that God finds it intolerable that the Israelites are crying out from under the “forced labor” imposed upon them by Pharaoh (Ex 1:11, 3:7-10). In other words, state forced labor is morally wrong in this bedrock story of Jewish and Christian faith, and this morality can and should be all-inclusive.
But what about the morality of abortion? Hebrew Bible scholars have made it clear that “pro-life” Christians are simply inaccurate in claiming that there is any biblical basis for a theology that “life begins at conception,” which would make abortion somehow murder. Conversely, there is clear evidence on the face of the text that the biblical writers understood that procreative gestation is a process over time and that it is material work – e.g. Gen 2:7 and 4:1 – which is consistent with the biological reality of gestation labor. As I have argued elsewhere, a “concept-ion” is not the same as procreation, the vast majority of which is accomplished over 9 months by the reproductively female member of the team. Further, avoiding unplanned pregnancy over ~35 years is simply a very difficult task, especially since the best birth control is expensive. Abortion bans are ethically unjustified, therefore, because they are doing nothing to protect “lives,” while they are forcing labor, especially upon those who cannot afford an escape, which is oppressive.
In addition, the same people whose gestation labor is forced are also then forced into parental labor and any labor that is urgently required to secure financial support for a baby, at the same time they are often derailed from pursuing more empowering education and economic opportunities. This is especially true for non-white mothers, given discrimination against darker-skinned infants in the adoption world. They are more likely to be saddled with unpaid care work, which keeps them sidelined from the job market, with health problems, and/or with debt and lower level, low-wage jobs. Their children, too, because of the disadvantages associated with family resources stretched too thin, are more likely to remain at lower socioeconomic levels.
Given that approximately 73% of abortions in TX are for non-white pregnant people, the material outcome of TX’s abortion ban is the effective increase of the near-term and long-term disempowered, non-white labor pool (or its reserve pool). We have to consider that that is one of the primary objectives. This law comes as the U.S. birthrate is dropping among all women, and especially among Hispanic women, and it was championed primarily by white, middle-aged, Republican male legislators, who are themselves, or represent, members of the TX “gentry.” This “gentry” class sits atop construction, meat-packing, industrial agriculture, resource extraction, fast-food chain, hospitality, and associated professional services businesses, which depend as a system, at root, on cheap labor within the region – the more disempowered and unequal the better. They are also part of an older generation and the next that, as things are currently organized, will require the care services and tax revenues of younger workers.
Forcing poor and non-white women to bear laborers for exploitive interests has occurred before at some of the ugliest moments in modern Western history – for instance, following Europe’s plague as mercantilism and early capitalism developed and following the end of the international slave trade as American slave plantations ramped up cotton production. At other times or places, dominant interests have determined that they prefer less fertile and even sterilized women, immediately available to work endless hours to maximize profits.
In any case, all labor – productive and reproductive – should be understood to belong only to the embodied person it is grounded in, and should be free from all unjust oppression, coercion, and exploitation. Hence, boldly ensuring abortion legality and its equal access is one of the ways people devoted to a God of liberation and justice can live into their faith.
Submitted by Dr. Elizabeth M. Freese
Elizabeth M. Freese, Ph.D. is a Research Associate with Auburn Seminary, serving the faith-based reproductive health, rights, and justice movement, and an Adjunct Professor in Religion and Society at Drew University Theological School. Her broader research examines the interactions of Christian narrative and ritual with societal systems.