Anti-Abortion Laws Justify Mass Incarceration

Texas legislators want to be able to execute women for getting an abortion. While that’s the most extreme piece of anti-abortion and anti-woman legislation being considered this week, it’s not the only one.

Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, Florida–these are just some of the states that have been considering or have passed extremely harsh anti-abortion policies, ones that criminalize the procedure and threaten to throw women in jail–or the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections.

Overwhelmingly, these are states with higher percentages of women of color.

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Above, a county-by-county map of the US’s black population as a percent of the local population.

The abortion rate among black women in the US is more than double that of white women.

And black women have emerged as powerful voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, they set a record for primary voting participation.

And look where they vote:

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Those brighter blue dots in the map above are areas where b lack women are a greater share of the voting population.

And they are in states where new laws against abortion would jail women for getting an abortion.

And if women are convicted of the crime of getting an abortion, they can lose their voting rights.

And that means fewer black women voting.


We already live in a nation where 6.1 million people have been disenfranchised because of criminal records. This disproportionately affects African Americans, especially men. 1 out of 13 African Americans–7.7% of possible black voters–has lost the right to vote, versus 1 out of 56 non-black Americans. Mass incarceration was an effort to remove black voters from their role as citizens. And it has worked, depriving them of the one important way to shape the nation’s politics. We don’t know what American law or politics today might look like if we didn’t have such a huge number of people of color unable to vote. And in states like Florida, state legislators are terrified of finding out, which is why they fight efforts to restore voting rights to people with convictions on their records.

The US has a long history of using the law to define the behaviors of black people as illegal, which allows the state to lock them up, disrupt their families and communities, and deprive them of the right to vote. Now, state legislatures are adding abortion criminalization to the list of ways they can keep power in the hands of white people.


What is the purpose of anti-abortion laws?

As a block of Southern states pass legislation criminalizing abortion, it’s worth asking what the likelihood of them taking effect is.

Not much–but that’s not the point.

If the point is to overturn Roe, these harsh measures might not work. Roe had in it the seeds of its own destruction. It was never a pro-choice law for women but instead framed abortion as a right of physicians. It allows for the possibility of revision based on new developments in fetal medicine. And in seeking to balance the right of the state to protect fetal life v. the right of women to bodily autonomy, it begins with the idea that the state has a duty to and the authority to restrict abortion. Those aren’t great starting grounds for a defense of abortion rights.

But Roe isn’t even our current abortion law. Still, it is shorthand for “the right, recognized at the federal level, to terminate a pregnancy.”

These state laws, I am betting, won’t make it to the Supreme Court, which gets to pick and choose its cases and will pick challenges to abortion rights that are less radical. They will die before they get to the Supreme Court. Three months ago, Kentucky passed a ban on abortion when the fetus at six weeks of development–a bill similar to Ohio, Mississippi, and Georgia’s and ones currently in process in eight other states, mostly in the South–and it was promptly struck down by a federal court. In 2013, North Dakota tried this law and it was successfully challenged in court, as is happening now to Illinois’ six-week ban.

And none of these bans are actually popular with regular people. Few Americans support total bans on abortion, which is what, in effect, these bans are.  At the same time, most Americans  support some kind of restrictions–but not like this.

So, if these laws aren’t likely to stand up in court or in the court of public opinion, why are legislature’s passing them?

One way to answer this question is to observe the effect they are actually having. Since these results were predictable, it’s fair to assume that they were intended.

These laws are energizing evangelical shock troops. After a midterm drubbing like none in recent history, with continued scandal coming out of the White House (including the threat of public disclosure of documents that show that Donald Trump is not very rich and not very good at business), a slowing global economy, an unnecessary trade war with China, and the threat of military action in the Middle East that will ask conservatives to again send their children off to war, Republicans have to deliver on something. Just like shock troops take heavy losses to break through a military line, these laws will be picked apart and shot down, but they’ll move the Trump re-election campaign forward.

Conventional wisdom is that conservatives held their nose and voted for Trump because they opposed abortion; research undermines that and indicates that it is racism, more than anything else, that drove people to vote for Trump. Abortion just gave them cover to do so. It’s racism with a side bonus of sexism and Christian supremacy.

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These laws are also, if my Facebook feed is to be trusted, making women really mad, angry, sad, frustrated, and terrified. Maybe worst of all is the feeling that they are not safe–not safe to have sex, not safe to pursue a wanted pregnancy, not safe talking to their physicians, not safe with their partners, not safe as citizens.

And that, I think, is the bigger, even more frightening point: These laws are the boldest move yet among political leaders–nearly all white men–to define who does and who doesn’t have power, who can rely on the state to protect them and who can, in an instant, it feels, find themselves in the crosshairs the state.

This is much bigger than abortion: it’s about the authority of the state to put half of its citizens on alert that they have no influence on laws that intimately effect them.

Less than a quarter of Americans are white male Christians. They can’t preserve their power through demographics; they have to do it by restricting who is protected by the Constitution.

In that way, these laws are working.




A Pro-Choice Argument that Isn’t

In response to all the anti-woman legislation disguised as anti-abortion legislation passing through statehouses this month, there has been ample anger out on the internet. Much of it seeks to draw attention to the ways that legislators seek to police the bodies of women while ignoring the role that a man plays in every single pregnancy–a role that he could choose not to play if he opposes abortion.

Here’s one example:

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I get why the argument is appealing. At the heart of the anti-abortion legislation passing in Ohio, Georgia, and Alabama isn’t a concern for ending abortion or for saving “fetal life.” If that were the motivation, lawmakers would do what works to end abortion, and pro-life activists would be picketing outside of fertility clinics, which destroy embryos as part of their businesses. Voters would be asked to swear off voting for any candidate who supported forms of artificial reproductive technology that fertilize eggs outside of the body, and Congress would be trying to prevent private insurers from covering fertility treatment plans that include such technologies.

But the argument also ignores what we know about reproduction.

In the analogy above (and other variations of it), sperm are being compared to fertilized eggs. But that’s a dishonest comparison. Pro-lifers don’t think that sperm are equivalent to fertilized eggs. They think that sperm is equivalent to unfertilized eggs.

While people who oppose all forms of artificial contraception think that’s it’s wrong to do anything except avoid sex in order to prevent pregnancy, the large majority of people, including those who oppose abortion, don’t think it’s problematic to prevent the fertilization of an egg.

Depending on their perspective, they think it’s either wrong to prevent the implantation of an egg and sperm that have been combined (the zygote) or the growth of an implanted zygote.

Anti-abortion laws have many sinister intentions, but their primary claim is primary claim is to prohibit technologies and procedures that prevent an implanted zygote from growing into a fetus or a fetus from being born.*

You can argue that such laws are wrong, for sure. But they have nothing to do with masturbation or Elle Wood’s speech in Legally Blonde.

Humor and anger both have their place in political commentary, for sure. But this comparison is sloppy, and I think that makes it dangerous. Human embryos are fascinating, and there is so, so much we don’t know about human reproduction. We’ve already discovered that embryonic stem cells turn into what look like human embryos pretty quickly–a discovery that prompted surprised researchers to start destroying them for fear that the “embryoids” would continue to diversify their cells.

For these reasons, it might not be wise for abortion rights advocates to root support for pro-choice policies in human biology. Roe explicitly states that, as medical technology advances, the state may have more authority to control abortion at an earlier stage in pregnancy. (This is just one reason why Roe isn’t the pro-choice decision many people think it is–and why Justice O’Connor said that the decision was “on a collision course with itself.”) Implied is that, as we learn more about zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, we may need to re-evaluate how our abortion laws balance the rights of women against the authority of the state to regulate the procedure. It could be that the more we know, the less value we give to these forms of life (a term I use neutrally–we can recognize that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are human (they’re not equine, bovine, porcine, etc.) and that they are made of living cells without advocating that they are legal persons)–or it could be that, the more we know, the more value we award them.

But, either way, arguments based on false comparisons don’t help achieve reproductive justice. Instead, they signal that the pro-choice side is willing to misrepresent the basic pro-life argument AND that they are willing to make faulty statements about reproduction, such as the implication that sperm is equivalent to a fertilized egg, even though there is a clear and obvious difference (sperm contains only genetic material from the father, while a fertilized egg contains genetic material from both parents) that matters deeply to many women–including pro-choice women. And that’s unwise, I think, because one of the distinctions that the pro-choice side has over the pro-life one is a greater commitment to scientific accuracy and intellectual honesty. 

I don’t think that abortion rights advocates have to listen to pro-lifers and try to understand them. I do think, though, that they have a duty to themselves to be honest and accurate.

Persuasion that is based on faulty comparisons is dishonest–and honesty is central to the concept of choice of all kinds. If we don’t know have accurate information about our choices, then they aren’t really consensual. That abortion rights advocates would circulate false information undermines the pro-choice cause.


*Some also take aim at birth control that they claim prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg. Birth control doesn’t work this way, and we need to stop treating such anti-contraception arguments as if they are valid science, because they are not.



Arguing with Church Signs

On May 1st I began a three month sabbatical from my job as the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University. I spent my first day of intentional rest taking a long ride on my bicycle. Some may not find riding for miles and miles to be very restful, but I find the pedal rotations, rolling hills, and winding journey, to be an incredibly soothing experience for my soul

Only a few miles into my ride I passed a church with a large roadside sign. You know the type – a bright white background with movable type so that the message can be changed depending on the season (or the local minister’s sense of church humor), illuminated day or night so that everyone takes notice as they pass by. This one said in all caps, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ARE NOT MULTIPLE CHOICE.”

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The pace of my bicycle gave me plenty of time to read it and have it sink in. I’m embarrassed to admit that my first reaction was an impulsive anger directed at that congregation. My work at Penn State revolves around faith-based peace and social justice, and the primary group of students I interact with are those who have been hurt by the rigidity of religious spaces. Statements like the one on that church sign reminded me of how damaging it can be when legalism becomes the center of our faith, and why a more nuanced interpretation of scripture is crucial if churches have any hope of remaining relevant for young adults. I thought about the students I know who have felt rejection from the church for the way they understand scripture, God, or themselves, and I wondered how many of them had experienced the Ten Commandments being used as a litmus test for whether they belong or not. I wondered if this congregation had any sense that their church sign may be objectionable – even to their fellow Christians. I considered the hypocrisy of well-intended church signs which rarely reflect the actual practice of the congregations they represent.

I also began to have an imaginary argument in my head with the pastor of that congregation. I wondered how that person would react if I challenged whether they were actually able to literally live up to the high standard set by those commands. I wondered if they would admit that even the most arduous rules and regulations may need to be broken if it means more fully and authentically living out our call to love God and love our neighbor. I wanted to ask them how someone who had been abused by their parents should show them “honor” (Commandment 4), how their enlisted congregants were dealing with killing on the battlefield (Commandment 5), or whether it was ever justified for someone to take back what had been taken from them (Commandment 7). I reasoned that while it is important to consider the history and tradition tied to this part of the Hebrew Bible, even my Jewish colleagues would argue that people of faith must wrestle with the text and with what it means to follow God. After all, wasn’t even Jesus guilty of breaking the Sabbath?

It took me several miles to realize how much of a hold that church sign had on my mental energy. I realized that five years of intense work trying to stand up for those who have been marginalized, rejected, or underappreciated, has made me into a cynical and critical person who is unable to take a church sign lightly. The fire that burns inside of me to create a better world also makes me unable to roll by a church sign without getting into a meaningless argument with no one in particular. While it is true that my commitment to faith-based peace and justice is an important part of who I am and those I serve, perhaps it is also something that is so tightly wound around who I am that I have become captured by its hold on how I move about the world.

My hope is that these three months of sabbatical time can be used to rest and reflect, and just a few days in I am wondering what parts of my vocational identity and calling may also need time to rest and disengage.

By the end of my bike ride I had started to make peace with the sign. I reminded myself that if I really cared about the statement the sign was making, a best practice would be to arrange for a meeting with the leaders of that congregation. I chuckled to myself about how unlikely that was during these three months of rest, and realized in that moment that I had found a sense of peace in that moment. For now, I am letting go of my own attachment and connection to that sign, and whatever theological rationale that may be tied to it. During my time of rest, I am more acutely aware of my own need to let go of things, and for the moment at least, pass them by.

My bike route passed by that same church on the way home, but by that time, just a few hours later, the church sign had already been changed to reflect some upcoming special services. Something that was of the utmost importance of my mental energy earlier in the day had been quietly replaced. Even though it has been removed from the visible landscape, the memory will live on through my sabbatical as a reminder for me to slow down and hold things a little lighter.


PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 3

From May 10-15, 606 contributor Ben Wideman is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue album has become an important piece of music for me for several reasons. I find her voice and songwriting skill to be incredible, and it doesn’t hurt that we share a homeland (Canada), but what I’m most drawn to is her ability to sing with a vulnerability and transparency that acknowledges the ups and downs of life.

Our ride today was mostly miserable due to chilly temperatures and a constant drizzle. This day of the trip is typically my favorite but the beautiful scenery was lost behind fog, and the thrilling downhill stretches were precarious due to the water on the road. The weather made us less conversational and more insistent on getting to the destination rather than enjoying the journey.

But the day was wonderful despite all of those things because of the very real and raw reminder it provided for me that bike trips, just like life, have days like this. These are the days that challenge and stretch. These are the days that add fatigue to life and challenge us in ways we don’t expect. These are the days that remind us that life is not all sunshine and wind at our backs.

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The frustrations we felt today also had this unintended side effect, in that we ended up appreciating the small things even more. The moments where the rain would stop were to be savored, the food at lunch time and dinner was spectacular simply by the inclusion of simple warm drinks, and the warm showers at the end of our ride have never felt better.

Our group also finished the day with a much greater sense of accomplishment than we had felt previously. We named simple things as the highlights of our day – hand dryers in the public restrooms, towels, dry socks, and hot chocolate. We felt admiration for our fellow cyclists for completing the journey, and we felt stronger having survived our most difficult day together.

Tomorrow’s journey will include surprises, no doubt, but we continue on, feeling the full range of emotion that life brings. Just like Joni Mitchell’s incredible music, we ride not because every day is easy, but because life is about both the ups as well as the downs.



PA-IPL Bike Trip Day 2

Ben1.jpg606 welcomes new contributor Ben Wideman, he Campus Minister for 3rd Way Collective, a unique campus ministry focusing on peace, justice, and faith at Penn State. Ben grew up in Canada, went to college in Virginia, and seminary in California, before finding a new home in Pennsylvania. When he’s not working with young adults, he spends his time enjoying his spouse and three incredible kids, and collects hobbies like homebrewing, gardening, playing disc golf, watching baseball, cycling, podcasting, and lots of other random things. You can follow his ministry at

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here. 

From May 10-15 Ben is riding on the annual PA-IPL bike trip. Learn more about this annual trip right here.

Our bike trip experience today grounded us to the earth in some special ways. After a pleasant night at Huntingdon Presbyterian Church we loaded up our bikes and rode just a short distance to a local park where we helped with invasive species removal and the planting of native trees and shrubs. We got to trade our bike gloves for work gloves, and got our hands connected to the earth and its plants. In the process of clearing away invasive species we uncovered some native species like Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Tulip Poplar, and Trout Lillies… plants that grow slowly and have been choked out by invasive species. The hope is that efforts like the small one we made are providing these plants with a better foothold to be more fully present again.

We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Standing Stone Coffee before climbing into the saddle again for a meandering ride down to Orbisonia. This stretch includes some beautiful scenery, but also some obnoxiously busy highway stretches with rumble strips. We also made the annual stop along this stretch at a Dairy Queen part way along the journey.

Orbisonia is a tiny town along a river that had its glory days during the late 1800s. It feels depressed, but the people we’ve met are full of a desire to be hospitable to our traveling group. We were fed well and after dinner crossed the river to visit an old rail yard, which still operates old trolley tours during the summer.

I found myself thinking today about what it means to be rooted – both in terms of the plant species we connected to, but also the people we interacted with. What does it mean to be connected to a region or place, and how do we find that connection when we are just passing through? Our conversations today also included an ongoing question about what humanity’s role is in solving some of the ecological issues – especially when humanity is the root problem of so many of these things.

Tomorrow’s journey will bring even more of the same, as we make our way down to Hagerstown, MD.

Kitchen Table Talk on Mother’s Day in Today’s America

Angela606 contributor Angela Muhuri is originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She now lives in Rhode Island with her husband, daughter, and mother. She is a graduate of Bethel College in Newton, Kansas. She attends church at First Baptist Church of America–the first Baptist church in the New World and a historic advocate of the separation of church and state. 

I came to America in late-summer of 1992 when Bill Clinton’s first presidential run was barely heating up. Though I don’t remember if I heard the phrase “kitchen table issue” at that time, I’ve heard it during every election season since.

I am no longer the lonely international student staring at carts to see what Americans shop for at their local groceries. I have my own kitchen table with my own American family.

Picture this: An ordinary day. A family is preparing food together. It’s “A Lebanese Dinner” on the menu tonight. As it happens frequently, we have a guest. Our Australian friend, Mark, is staying with us this week. He is the main chef for tonight’s meal, and my husband Steve and I are happily following his instructions.

In the corner table, safe from knives and can openers, is my six-year-old daughter coloring as she stares intently at a lemon. She’s into her “coloring things as I see them” phase. She has a beautiful lemon slowly forming on her page titled “lamin”. When I ask her about the spelling, she says she’s sounding it out and that’s how it should be spelled. She’s a rather confident child, so I choose to leave it alone and wonder out loud if I should look for a summer art camp for her. Steve comments on how realistic the lemon is looking.

My daughter talks to us the whole time she’s coloring as children her age are prone to do. The subjects vary wildly and stories skip around from here to there. We’re hm-humming along just enough to let her know we’re listening as we go get some parsley from the garden, stir the hummus, and pour olive oil on the pita.

“We did our first “safe lock down drill” today at school today, mommy!”, she suddenly exclaims.

I stop. Actually everyone but my mom stops. She can’t quite follow her American-born granddaughter’s English as quickly as she’d like. She looks at my face to check what’s happening and then stops what she’s doing and quickly looks at my daughter.

I try hard not to overreact. I decide repeating her phrase is the safest thing for me to do. So I ask, “What’s a ‘safe lock down drill’, mama?” But she’s my daughter; she catches the quiver in my voice.

“Are you going to cry, mommy?”

“No, mama, I won’t. You tell me what that means.”

“Oh, it’s when you stop what you’re doing in class because a stranger has come inside the school, the lights are all turned off, and you have to be quiet”.

“Oh, I see.”

“We have to stay together. And keep quiet. Even though it’s dark.”

(The dark part must be especially difficult for her. She’s always needed a bit of light.)

The hustle and bustle of five people in a small kitchen has stopped. I must say something or she’ll think she’s said something wrong. So I manage to mumble something about learning how to be safe is always a good thing. But the air in the kitchen has shifted and my daughter stares at me now. Her dad walks over and pats her on the head. I do the same but I don’t know how to comfort myself or her.

She doesn’t know that she needs comforting.

My mom starts to talk with me in rapid-fire Bangla. “Amrao kortam toh. Juddher shomoy.” (“We used to do that also. During the war.”)

I give her a stern look. In English I say, “Well, this is not during a war, ma. Steve and I have never lived through a war.”

Then I think to myself. Is that really true? Aren’t we at war? Aren’t our children at war? Haven’t we already started collecting heroes from students who lay down their lives to protect their classmates from bloodshed?  Doesn’t Columbine, or Newtown, or Parkland say we’re at war?

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We have been at war for the past twenty-five years in America. And now my daughter is having to sit down with a bunch of frightened six-year-olds pretending to be brave in the dark.

I look at our Australian friend, somewhat embarrassed. They figured this thing out a long time ago. They must pity us Americans. Their leaders chose love of country over winning elections.

I feel defensive about our national blindspot.

On a recent Facebook post, I read a mom’s comment about how her son chooses his seat when he enters any classroom. He sits in the seat that he judges will be the safest to get away from a shooter.

That must make for an interesting dinner conversation in their family, I thought I as I read.

When the politicians campaign to earn my vote in the next election cycle, will they consider the kitchen table issue in my family? Or the many parents’ whose children either faced a drill or so much worse, went through the real ordeal? Millions of families have to confront the issue of gun violence in America every single day. When does that start to matter to our politicians? So far other than having my kindergartener face lock-down drills, have they done anything significant to prevent this national epidemic?

I’ll tell you what: This, on Mother’s Day and every other day, is this mommy’s #1 kitchen table issue.

And I bet I’m not the only one.