The anti-abortion movement has truly become a cult: the Cult of Fetus Worship. This fetus-fetish faith asserts that having one’s body commandeered by a venerated fetus — and now by the Supreme Court and male-dominated state legislatures — is God’s will.
Under Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court determined in 1973 that personhood does not start before viability, the turning point in development when a fetus might presumably survive outside the uterus. “The word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn,” Justice Harry Blackmun explicitly wrote in his landmark opinion.
But now, since the 2022 Dobbs decision overturned Roe, the announced anti-abortion goal is to adopt nationwide legislation that confers all the due process protections guaranteed under the 14th Amendment, including a right to life, upon conceptuses, embryos and fetuses. Never mind that pregnant women — who are clearly persons — would be denied equal justice under the law, and potentially prosecuted as murderers should they seek to end unwanted pregnancies.
Voting blocs of weepy-eyed evangelicals and observant Catholics are being manipulated to equate abortion with murder and a fertilized egg with a gurgling Gerber baby. It’s time for a reality check. A theopolitical cult has been built on a carefully crafted argument that a fetus has personhood.
Whether a pregnancy is greeted with delight or with despair makes all the difference in personal valuation of a pregnancy. Expectant parents with a wanted pregnancy who are emotionally invested in the outcome of that pregnancy naturally think and talk of “the baby”-to-be and plan excitedly for its arrival. If that wanted pregnancy is lost, with all the attendant hopes and dreams for the future of what might have been, they grieve. But it does not follow that such feelings attend the ending of an unwanted pregnancy. In fact, study after study has shown that the primary feeling after an abortion is one of relief.
Fetus fetishism, which distorts the science and reality of pregnancy and fetal development, needs to be challenged in a nation where the anti-abortion movement is demanding that our laws now grant personhood to prenatal life at its earliest inception. In a free nation it should be axiomatic that no one — most especially not the church and the state — should be able to dictate if or when another person does or does not become a parent. As the Supreme Court ruled so correctly in Roe v. Wade: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”
Yet those in the Cult of Fetus Worship are determined to force their beliefs on others and control their bodies and fates. Interfering with “God’s will” by seeking to end a pregnancy is therefore sacrilegiously “playing God.” In the eyes of the devoutly religious who venerate the Fetus, pregnancies can’t even be unwanted because they are all “a gift from God.” After all, “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply.”
But in the real world, while a wanted pregnancy can be the best — even blissful — news, an unwanted pregnancy, to state the obvious, can be utterly devastating: the very worst news. The “blessed” pregnancy — and this is no contradiction — can at the same time serve as divine punishment. The credo that sex is for procreation not pleasure still dominates in the Roman Catholic Church and many fundamentalist Protestant sects, as their one-track opposition to the existence and sexuality of LGBTQ-plus individuals reveals. Genesis 3:16 sums up the underlying dogma: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
In other words, women’s “god-given” purpose is to breed. It would therefore be against “natural law” — transgressive — to reject motherhood, or a particular pregnancy or otherwise control one’s body, fertility and, ultimately, one’s destiny. Control of reproduction is the biggest battle raging in the ongoing war against women by religious orthodoxy.
In the pre-Roe era I grew up in, the ’60s, there were plenty of “bad girls” who “should have put an aspirin between their knees instead of going out and getting themselves pregnant.” (Yes, this was what I as a 13- and 14-year-old heard from men while I was tabling for abortion rights as my mother campaigned to legalize abortion.) Such unfortunates were labeled “sluts” (actually, “tarts” was the more common word of that era), who deserved society’s censure. If they were students, they most often withdrew from high school or even junior high school. A law was passed only in 1972, a year before Roe, making it illegal for schools receiving federal funds to expel pregnant students or discriminate against them. Pregnant, unwed college students in the 1950s and 1960s would be expelled and might disappear for months to hide the pregnancy — if they didn’t commit suicide, that is — and were more or less forced to give up their babies for adoption, at least in white, middle-class America. Nineteenth century and early 20th century literature was premised on the tragic fall of a young woman or the weight of an unwed pregnancy, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Edith Wharton’s Summer to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Quebec had its horrifying La Grande Noirceur (“Great Darkness”) and Ireland its cruel Magdalene Sisters. It was the duty of that disgraced girl or woman to continue the pregnancy, even if it had to be covered up. Minimally, she would serve as brood mare so someone more worthy could adopt — or at least that was the fiction of the era when the United States had a surplus of “orphans.” The book Before Roe v. Wade, by Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel, captures some of the desperation of the era.
Pregnant teens and unmarried mothers were damaged goods. They figuratively wore a scarlet letter — while the impregnator, naturally, except for the shotgun wedding, got off scot-free. Newspapers regularly reported cases of desperate girls and even older women (often religious) who denied or camouflaged pregnancies, then, after giving birth terrified, alone and without medical care, tragically abandoned the babies or, in seeking to cover up newborn cries, killed them. Infanticide was the most common method of birth control until Margaret Sanger came along, and ending the tragedy of infanticide was one of Sanger’s most ardent goals.
In the United States, only after Roe was handed down did pregnant girls and women become high-stakes desirables to court. The anti-abortionists had to change their tune, stop calling them sluts and induce them to continue pregnancies with promises of financial support and help. (That help usually turned out to be a few diapers and referrals to government social agencies, as remains largely true today.) Many “homes for unwed mothers” were lucrative endeavors for religious institutions, because they were essentially engaged in human trafficking of babies, as the Magdalene Sisters Laundries scandals demonstrated in Ireland.
Pregnant high school students generally became more accepted only after Roe. Unmarried women having and keeping their babies slowly became more socially acceptable in American culture after Roe. Some of us are old enough to remember when babies were routinely referred to as “illegitimate.” “Unwed mother” is a term that also has fortunately been largely dropped from the lexicon. It was only because Roe and increasing access to contraceptives provided a choice, an alternative to compulsory pregnancy, that society’s opprobrium lessened against girls and women having what it viewed as “illegitimate,” shameful pregnancies. If the Cult of Fetus Worship succeeds in its “Handmaid’s Tale” quest to ban all legal abortion care in the United States, society may well revert to those bad-old-days mores. Already we see the bygone mentality reasserting itself. According to the self-deluded Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, that smug pronatalist, a beleaguered teenager whose immature body is not nearly developed can, in the benevolent state of Indiana, just nonchalantly deliver a child and leave it in a “baby box.”
Religious definitions of ‘life’
It’s no coincidence that five of the six justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last year are conservative Catholics (and the sixth, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic). The official Catholic belief is that a fertilized egg or zygote is a person at the “moment of conception,” when so-called “ensoulment” takes place. In fact, the Vatican is sorely wrong that there is a “moment of conception” because it is not a moment but a process. The National Institutes of Health reports: “Pregnancy actually begins with implantation, which begins six–seven days after fertilization and ends 10–14 days later. Completion of fertilization and implantation occurs as much as 28 days after the first day of the last menstrual period.”
The Catholic view on ensoulment was not even always Church orthodoxy. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, based on Augustine and Aristotle, pronounced that a “rational soul” came into being at about 40 days’ conception for a male, and (with preposterous sexism) 80 days for a female. Aquinas’ view of quickening was Catholic doctrine until the mid-19th century. (In fact, quickening, when fetal movement is first felt, actually occurs at four or five months.) In 1869, Pope Pius IX changed “infallible” Catholic doctrine by declaring that ensoulment took place at conception. He made the punishment excommunication, according to Lawrence Lader’s groundbreaking 1962 book, Abortion. In 1930, another pious pope, Pius XI, decreed: “The life of each (mother and fetus) is equally sacred, and no one has the power, not even the public authority, to destroy it.” As Lader noted, “Morally, the Church contends that the natural death of mother and child is a lesser evil than the death of fetal life through abortion.” (Fascinatingly, the New York Times, in a recent piece on “When does life begin?” reported that Pope Francis recently said something quite contradictory: that although a one-month-old embryo “is a living human being … I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.”)
While the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are dedicated to stamping out legal abortions worldwide, the fundamentalist and many evangelical branches of Protestantism have become equally zealous in their anti-abortion teachings. Protestant denominations that oppose abortion with few or no exceptions include the Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Assemblies of God, African Methodist Church and an assortment of independent churches. Add to that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Methodist Church support abortion rights with some limits. The American Baptists and similar more liberal sects generally support abortion rights. Those denominations that support abortion rights with few or no limits (aside from Unitarian Universalism) include United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism. The traditional (and sensible) Jewish definition of life is that it begins with breath. Some would suggest it begins with consciousness.
The religiously motivated groups, almost exclusively Christian nationalist in ideology, which belong most firmly in the cult of fetus fetishists include Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Association, Army of God, Eagle Forum, First Liberty, Focus on the Family, Susan B. Anthony List, American Life League, Liberty Counsel, Faith and Freedom Coalition, National Right to Life, Priests for Life, March for Life, Missionaries to the Preborn, and all-too-many others.
Most of these anti-abortionists preach that the bible says abortion is murder, when, in fact, the bible is silent on the question, except to indicate to the contrary that causing a miscarriage is not equivalent to killing a person. Notably, the genocidal biblical deity (who drowned thousands of pregnant women in Noah’s Flood just for starters), is explicitly aborticidal: “You shall acknowledge no God but me . . . Their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:4,16) While the bible is neither anti-abortion nor pro-life, it certainly does provide a biblical basis for the real motivation behind the anti-abortion religious crusade: its control and subordination of women.
The ‘murder’ libel
The inflamed diatribe of anti-abortionists is a major component of the Cult of Fetus Worship liturgy.
We should go back to the basics in countering this rhetoric. In her 1975 book, Abortion is a Blessing, my mother Anne Nicol Gaylor, an early abortion rights activist, included a chapter on coping with “anti” rhetoric:
While we recognize that there is everything in a human embryo to produce a person, we know that substantial growth and development are necessary before any person exists. In reality everyone does distinguish between potential and actual existence. You do not insist, for example, that an acorn is an oak tree. If someone drives over an acorn in your yard, you do not rush out and exclaim, “Why did you destroy my oak tree?” Yet there is everything in an acorn to produce an oak tree except growth and development. You do not insist that the egg you ate for breakfast was a chicken, yet a fertilized egg has everything in it to produce a chicken except growth and development. If you go to the store to buy apples and are given a handful of seeds, you will not pay for apples, even though the storekeeper might argue correctly that indeed apple seeds do produce apples. Just as blueprints are not a completed building, so a human fertilized egg is not a person. A conceptus, an embryo or fetus is potential life. Birth makes babies and a great deal of growth and development must go on before a fetus can sustain life, other than parasitically.
The average woman loses 400–500 eggs to menstruation in her lifetime, not to mention that the 4 million she was born with gradually decrease by about 10,000 a month until puberty. No one could possibly make good on all that potential! Yet we don’t hold funerals every time someone has their period — even though a menstrual period is proof positive of the “death” of what was a live ovum, which had the potential to become what the “antis” ludicrously call a “pre-born” baby.
The average ejaculate “kills” from 200 to 500 million sperm — or more! Only one sperm, usually, is successful in fertilization; the rest — hundreds of millions — are utterly wasted. Even though all-too-many sects still create neuroses over masturbation, we don’t seriously contemplate throwing teenagers in jail for desecration of sacred life for having wet dreams. Monty Python has satirized the religious mentality with its memorable song, “Every Sperm Is Sacred,” warning: “If a sperm is wasted/God gets quite irate.”
But “God” needs to get “quite irate” at himself. At least 10 percent to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage — with many sources speculating almost half — which would make “God” the greatest mass abortionist in all history. Possibly up to two-thirds of zygotes — what the Catholic Church considers one-cell “persons” — do not result in a live birth. “God” does not seem to be very “pro-life.”
Part II will get real about the facts of pregnancy and fetal development, and explain why we need to “abort the Cult of Fetus Worship” and its campaign for fetal personhood.