July 21, 2003
The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America, edited by Kimberly Blaker, New Boston Books, Inc., Michigan, 2003 - ISBN 0-9725496-0-9 (Cloth) and ISBN 0-9725496-1-7 (Paper), 102-113. Published by courtesy of the author. Swans published a review of the book on July 7, 2003.
The fertility rates of fundamentalists and evangelicals, according to Christopher G. Ellison and Patricia Goodson, in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, are considerably higher than those of mainline Protestants. They are less likely to use contraception the first time they have intercourse, (1) regardless of marital status, because of their lack of knowledge regarding sex and reproduction and, just as often, because of their opposition to birth control. (2) Furthermore, to many fundamentalists, any sexual conduct not for the purpose of procreation is "perverted." So fundamentalists not only reject artificial contraceptives, but often, natural family planning as well. (3)
Such views create problems with fundamentalist women's emotional, physical, and sexual health, overpopulation, and poverty. But these views also can affect mainstream women as fundamentalists attempt to impose their beliefs on society. Contraceptive opponent Janet E. Smith, associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Dallas, postulates that using contraceptives creates a "barnyard morality." Millions of people, she complains, are having sex out of wedlock. "Our culture is so obsessed with sex and hostile to babies," she insists. According to Smith, birth control pills should not be allowed on the market, and natural family planning is the only appropriate form of birth control. This is because "contraception violates fertility and caters to the animal propensity for self-indulgence." (4)
Smith's characterization of sex for pleasure as animalistic is amusing, if not a complete contradiction. Animals, unlike humans, do not act on sexual impulses purely for pleasure, as do humans. Females of most species are unwilling partners when not fertile. And males less interested, if interested at all, in females when they are not in season. Therefore, while mammal behavior (or "barnyard morality") is not necessarily bad, which group tends toward "animalistic" behavior? Such exaggerations and comparisons by Christian fundamentalists could almost be seen as comical were it not for the Christian Right's power to meet such irrational objectives.
In 1998, Republican Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, an anti-abortion extremist, proposed to legally define a variety of birth control measures, including the IUD and oral contraceptives, as abortifacients. (5) This would prohibit insurance coverage of contraceptives through Federal Employees Health Benefit (FEHB) plans, since the FEHB plans ban abortion services. As the National Organization for Women points out, "Though the amendment failed, the Smith initiative is part of a larger effort to undermine acceptability of contraceptives and to eventually restrict-or perhaps even ban-their use." (6)
The greatest issue of the moment pertaining to reproductive freedom, however, is abortion and the Christian Right's desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. Almost immediately following the January 22, 1973, Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, the "right to life" movement began. Leading the crusade was the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1975 devised a full-scale right-to-life educational and political campaign. It was called the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. (7) The National Conference of Catholic Bishops' (NCCB) detailed, 4,000-word strategy set forth:
In fulfillment of our pastoral responsibilities, the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have repeatedly affirmed that human life is a precious gift from God; that each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, toward self, and toward others; and that society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and sustain human life at every stage of its existence. Recognition of the dignity of the human person, made in the image of God, lies at the very heart of our individual and social duty to respect human life. (8)The plan was clear. Not only must Catholics live in accordance with Catholic views on abortion, but so must everyone else. As the plan revealed, the NCCB would seek "to activate the pastoral resources of the Church in three major efforts." One would be "a public policy effort directed toward the legislative, judicial, and administrative areas so as to ensure effective legal protection for the right to life." The plan describes many objectives and ways to achieve these goals by involving Catholics, from national Catholic organizations all the way down to laypersons.
Furthermore, the plan imparts:
Dialogue is most important-and has already proven highly fruitful-among churches and religious groups. Efforts should continue at ecumenical consultation and dialogue with Judaism and other Christian bodies, and also with those who have no specific ecclesial allegiance. Dialogue among scholars in the field of ethics is a most important part of this interfaith effort. (9)The Pastoral Plan describes how different committees, from the diocese to the parish, work toward meeting its objectives. They will make "a continuing public information effort to persuade all elected officials and potential candidates that abortion must be legally restricted." This will be done by electing "members of their own group or active sympathizers to specific posts in all local party organizations." And they'll encourage "the development of 'grassroots' political action organizations," (10) for starters.
Regardless of pro-life action, abortions continued to increase, motivating some fundamentalists to mobilize their forces. Women in need of abortion were soon faced with crossing angry picket lines that sometimes grew violent. Many clinics were firebombed; others received threats, attempted bombings, and were vandalized. According to Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman of Holy Terror: The Fundamentalist War on America's Freedoms in Religion, Politics and Our Private Lives, "The pro-life movement pioneered the fundamentalist right's use of personal intimidation and gruesome scare tactics." (11) Promotional literature was distributed by mail and within the anti-abortion circle, often with photos of aborted fetuses, gorily detailing the abortion procedure. (12)
The Catholic Church, through its campaign, knew just what it was doing. And with the assistance of other conservative Christian denominations and sects, it had become a massive movement. By the end of the 1970s, a drive to overturn Roe v. Wade was well under way. A Human Life Amendment to the Constitution was proposed. If passed, it would have deemed life to begin at conception, granting the fetus full legal status. (13) Thus began fundamentalists' first efforts in terrorizing Congress through a "March for Life." Tens of thousands of antiabortion protestors marched on the capital with "banners, posters, black crosses, coffins and toy babies on sticks." (14) They were unsuccessful at overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision. But this was only the beginning of what would become an ongoing and undying attempt at overturning Roe v. Wade.
During the 1980 election, Christian fundamentalist preachers, along with special interest groups took on a new strategy. In addition to brochures and mailings, pro-lifers began using every form of media to spread its message. This included publishing articles and airing television commercials. (15) Reverend Jerry Falwell made the issue a priority in his Moral Majority platform. This led the Republican Party to give way to Falwell and the fundamentalists' pro-life cause, as the party adopted the platform and endorsed "pro-life judges and passage of the Human Life Amendment." Ronald Reagan became the first serious presidential candidate to favor the fundamentalists' extreme anti-abortion position. (16) Reagan, an actor, used his rhetorical skills to convince anti-abortionists he was their guy, and it worked like a charm to get their votes.
The following years saw continued attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade and to place restrictions on abortion. In 1989, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a Missouri law declaring life begins at conception. It placed burdensome restrictions on abortion such as "forbidding the use of public funds for the purpose of counseling a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life." It also forbid "the use of public facilities for abortions not necessary to save a woman's life." (17) Thirty-three pro-choice briefs were filed on behalf of "a broad range of groups, representing every major sect of American society" opposing the Missouri law. A narrow range of groups, consisting of Catholic fundamentalist and antiabortion organizations, filed forty-five briefs favoring the Missouri restrictions. (18) The conservative Court upheld the Missouri law, which opened the door to similar restrictions in other states.
While still unable to overturn Roe v. Wade, the movement has undoubtedly seen significant gains. The evangelical Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, an extreme antiabortion coalition, reveals social unrest in large numbers can cause politicians to give in to such groups in an effort to calm the nation. (19) In 1993, Operation Rescue formed the Institute of Mobilized Prophetic Activated Christian Training (IMPACT). Antiabortionists from around the country took part in the drills. They learned how to harass and expose anyone involved in abortion clinics and even those associated with the pro-choice movement. (20) At one IMPACT training session, Terry proclaimed, "Intolerance is a beautiful thing. We're going to make [abortionists'] lives a living hell." (21) Terry has been heavily influenced by Reconstructionism, one of the more extreme forms of Christian fundamentalism.
Another antiabortion group, Rescue America, began distributing "wanted posters" for doctors who perform abortions. This, however, was only the beginning of what would grow into a violent and deadly form of pro-life activism. (22) On March 10, 1993, a Rescue America participant, Michael Griffin, shot Dr. David Gunn, outside the doctor's abortion clinic. Radical groups such as Operation Rescue and Rescue America lost followers as a result of the violence. Nonetheless, the organizations reached out for new recruits. According to William Martin, "At a July  rally, [Terry] urged a group of Denver Christians to become 'intolerant zealots [of] baby killers, sodomites, condom-pushers and that pluralism nonsense.'" (23) Another Operation Rescue member, Reverend Keith Tucci had also declared, regarding the RU 486 (Mifeprex) abortion drug, "When they invent new ways to kill children, we will invent new ways to save them." (24)
In July 1994, former Presbyterian minister Paul Hill murdered Dr. John Bayard Britton and his driver, Jim Barrett outside a Pensacola abortion clinic. In November 1994, the saga continued as Operation Rescue attempted to justify the use of violence. Another activist added, "It isn't always wrong to kill." It was claimed, "Violence doesn't necessarily beget violence. Sometimes it solves violence." A month later, two female clinic workers, Lee Ann Nichols and Shanon Lowney, in Brookline, Massachusetts were shot to death by John Salvi, a Catholic anti-abortionist. (25)
The contradictory views of pro-lifers who are willing to murder are not surprising, since the dogmatic views held by fundamentalists are not allowed to be questioned. As Conway and Siegelman found through personal interviews with fundamentalists, the positions they hold on various issues are often contradictory and hypocritical. Those who claimed to be for life on the abortion issue most often favored the death penalty and America's nuclear weapons. They were generally unsympathetic to the needs of the poor and were against government health care for poor mothers or hot school lunches for needy children. (26)
Now, with the new millennium, the antiabortion crusade is, in many ways, as strong as ever. Fundamentalists have managed to have more restrictions placed on abortion. These include waiting periods, parental permission, and elimination of public funding. However, nothing short of a complete halt to abortion will satisfy the campaign, even when the lives of women are at stake.
The Catholic public information campaign, along with its Protestant fundamentalist anti-abortion allies, has gone so far as to misrepresent the reasons women often seek abortion. This has become evident in the so-called "partial-birth" debate-a term created by anti-abortionists to mislead the public about late-term abortions performed only to save the life and health of the mother.
Anti-abortionists misrepresent abortion as the birth control method of choice for most women who seek abortion. In actuality, failed contraceptives are the cause of nearly half of abortions. From 1979 to 1982 alone, there were 1.61 million pregnancies resulting from contraceptive failure. (27) All the studies found contraceptives to be the preferred method of birth control, and women choose abortion "as a last resort." Unwanted pregnancies occur frequently among women who have inadequate family planning materials or services. (28) Yet, anti-abortionists fail to acknowledge these common reasons women turn to abortion. They instead paint a picture that abortion is the birth control method of choice among most women seeking the procedure.
Such misrepresentations, along with the Catholic anti-abortion movement's considerable financial means for waging its media campaign, have led to public confusion and growing support of the antiabortion endeavor. According to a June 2000 Los Angeles Times poll, support for Roe v. Wade dropped from fifty-six percent in favor of choice in 1991 to only forty-three percent in 2000. (29) Regardless of the Church's stance, the abortion rate among Catholics is thirty percent higher than that of Protestants. (30)
More troubling, George W. Bush's selection of John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General was a significant blow to the safety of women's reproductive freedom. While serving as attorney general of Missouri, Ashcroft sought to overturn Roe v. Wade through U.S. Supreme Court cases. He also cosponsored a resolution, as U.S. senator, for a Constitutional amendment "to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest." (31) During Bush's administration, it is expected sixty-three federal bench vacancies, as well as Supreme Court vacancies, will occur. The danger Ashcroft poses by being a part in selecting candidates for these nominations is imminent. (32) To think otherwise would be a gross miscalculation on the part of the choice movement.
Of course, while antiabortionists' ultimate goal is very clear -- to overturn Roe v. Wade -- most of the anti-abortion cases that go to court stem from state laws. These are far easier to pass. Antiabortionists know that even if challenged, the amount of time that would lapse between implementing a law and opponents gaining a judgment against the law would be significant. Enough so as to impede at least a substantial number of girls and women's access to abortion. This makes passing laws in violation of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision a tempting option for the religious right. There seems no shortage of politicians willing to violate the law of the land. This is especially so at state and local levels. In the last legislative session of 2000 in Michigan alone, twenty-three bills were introduced to restrict abortion and reproductive rights. (33)
The anti-abortion campaign, as John Swomley, Professor emeritus of Social Ethics at St. Paul School of Theology points out, stems from the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church "that every sexual act must be open to procreation." (34) This is also the view held by fundamentalist Protestants who have been most publicly visible in the drive against choice -- just as I suspect the Catholic campaign intended. Regardless of the Catholic stance, as Swomley explains, the Vatican created the anti-abortion campaign in opposition to Biblical scripture. Not only is there no Biblical basis to support the anti-abortion sentiment, there are many passages in the Bible that support abortion. (35) In one such passage, Numbers 31:17, God orders: "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones." This hardly supports fundamentalists' pro-life stance.
It is Swomley's belief that the right to life movement not only wants women to be subordinate to men, but to their fetuses as well. In 1988, the Republican Party platform declared "that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed." Platform committee member Marjorie Bell Chambers "argued that in the conflict between saving the fetus or the life of the woman, the phrase, 'cannot be infringed' meant 'that men and fetuses have a right to life at all times, but women lose that right when they become pregnant.'" (36) Chambers moved to amend the platform to eliminate the last four words. However, those on the committee defeated Chamber's amendment that would have protected the life of the mother. This was by a fifty-five to thirty-three vote, with eleven abstentions. (37)
Despite the Christian Right's efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, a number of Christian denominations and other religious groups have taken a pro-choice stance, holding abortion is a personal choice. These denominations agree it is a decision individuals should make according to their own religious and personal beliefs. (38) The organization Catholics for a Free Choice believes similarly. It is fighting against Catholic fundamentalist attempts to impose their religiously based views on others.
On December 12, 2000, CBS's 60 Minutes featured a report by Morley Safer on Catholic-controlled hospitals in America. According to the report, four out of ten of America's largest health care systems are owned by or are under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. In almost half of the hospitals that have merged with or made alliances with the Catholic Church, services have been cut. Catholics for a Free Choice opposes Catholic doctrine being instituted in medical practices. According to the organization's president, Frances Kissling, when hospitals merge with Catholic institutions, many services are eliminated. Family planning, contraceptives, including condoms, sterilization, fertility treatment, and abortion are not available in these facilities. Moreover, they cannot even be discussed. Kissling pointed out, "Medical decisions about reproductive health care in Catholic hospitals or non-Catholic hospitals that merge with Catholic hospitals are made by religious authorities, not doctors." (39)
Catholic control of hospitals is not the only issue affecting women's reproductive health. Controversy over the procedure known as "partial-birth abortion" has drawn many unsuspecting proponents of choice into the Christian Right's bandwagon regarding the procedure. The medical term most closely resembling the description of the "partial-birth abortion" is properly termed "intact dilation and extraction." This method is sometimes used because prior to thirty-six weeks, the cervix is resistant to dilation. This resistance causes much physical pain during the two to four days it takes to dilate at this stage. Inductions done before this time also pose risk of uterine rupture. Therefore, continuous nursing supervision is required if drug induced labor is carried out rather than performing intact dilation and extraction. (40)
In the campaign against late-term abortions, pro-life activists have created the illusion women are deciding at the eleventh-hour that they suddenly do not want to have a baby and, with no concern for their pre-born, decide to abort. By creating this misperception and graphically depicting the procedure to appeal to the emotions of the public, even many pro-choice advocates argue the procedure must stop.
The reasons for the use of late-term abortion are not for women who have a last minute change of heart. The procedure is used for the sake of the woman's health and, in some cases, when there is "severe fetal abnormality," says obstetrician Dr. Allan Rosenfield, who is also the dean of New York's Columbia School of Public Health. Many complications can arise late in pregnancy threatening a woman's life. Tragically, it is also sometimes discovered a fetus would be unable to survive birth. In these instances, continuing the pregnancy could pose other serious health risks to the mother or result in the inability to conceive again. (41)
Furthermore, the reality is only 1.4 percent of all abortions are performed twenty-one weeks into pregnancy or beyond. (42) The estimated number of abortions performed beyond twenty-six weeks is fewer than five-hundredths of a percent. (43) Considering the number of babies born with severe defects and the number of health complications that women face during pregnancy or delivery, this number is exceptionally small. Still, anti-abortionists would have us believe pregnancy and childbirth are completely without risk. It matters not that the World Health Organization reports "585,000 women die each year during childbirth and pregnancy." And "for every maternal death," it is reported "as many as thirty women sustain often times crippling and lifelong health problems related to pregnancy." (44)
Maureen Mary Britell of Sandwich, Massachusetts learned from a sonogram her fetus was not developing a brain. Medical experts confirmed the baby would not survive, so the couple, with the support of their priest, chose to terminate the pregnancy by inducing labor. Unfortunately, complications arose during the delivery, which required cutting the umbilical cord to abort the fetus to prevent health risks to Britell. (45)
In another case, Coreen Costello of Agoura, California desperately wanted her daughter. But she discovered the fetus had lethal neuromuscular disease and would be unable to survive. Even after it was discovered dangerous levels of amniotic fluid had built up, the Christian couple struggled with the decision to terminate the pregnancy for more than two weeks. Finally, it became absolutely necessary for Costello to abort for the sake of her health. (46)
Regardless of the health risks it would pose to expecting mothers, anti-abortionists propose legislation to ban the use of the procedure under all conditions and in spite of the recommendations of major medical associations. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists argues, "The physician, in consultation with the patient, must choose the most appropriate method based upon the patient's individual circumstances." (47) The American Nurses Association agrees: "It is inappropriate for the law to mandate a clinical course of action for a woman who is already faced with an intensely personal and difficult decision." (48) Nonetheless, anti-abortionists place the life of the unborn, non-breathing fetus ahead of the life of the mother.
The antiabortion movement poses another health risk to women as well. According to Flora Davis, in Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America since 1960, abortion was legal in the country until around 1900. (49) By that time, male physicians desiring to increase business by taking on child birthing, had gained the support of churches and the clergy in condemning the practice. (50) Previously, women saw midwives and others for their reproductive health. Churches had originally not opposed abortion, until the business-cause of the male physicians took hold. (51) Regardless of the illegalization of abortion, by the 1960s, more than a million abortions were performed annually in the United States "by moonlighting clerks, salesmen, and barbers, and, less often, by doctors willing to risk imprisonment." (52)
Bernard Nathanson, M.D., a recently converted anti-abortion activist describes in his 1996 autobiography, The Hand of God, the horrors women faced before Roe v. Wade:
At least two-thirds of the clinic females ambulanced to our emergency room in the middle of the night, bleeding profusely and in severe pain, were the victims of botched illegal abortions, not spontaneous miscarriages. . . . Those of us practicing gynecology no longer see the results of illegal induced abortion: the raging fevers, the torn and obstructed intestines; the shredded uterus requiring immediate hysterectomy; the raging infections leaving many women sterile, exhausted, in chronic pain. . . . Illegal abortion was in 1967 the number one killer of pregnant women. (53)"Every year," according to Davis, "more than 350,000 women who had an illegal abortion suffered complications serious enough to be hospitalized; 500 to 1,000 of them died." (54) Today, approximately 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions each year, 69,000 of them from less developed countries. A significantly larger number of women suffer complications from the estimated 20 million unsafe abortions undergone annually around the world. (55)
Should Roe v. Wade be reversed, the situation in the United States would be no different today than it was decades ago or than current conditions in less-developed countries across the globe. Since the legalization of abortion, a survey administered by Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis has been given to patients at their three-week medical check-up after abortion. It found every woman would have sought an illegal and unsafe way to end her pregnancy if legalized abortion were not available or else they would have considered suicide. (56)
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole right-to-life effort is that fundamentalists and the religious right refuse to take part in the prevention of pregnancy. This could easily be done by advocating for appropriate sex education and contraceptive use or by improving the economic conditions for low-income women to support a baby. (57) Yet, they have gone to great lengths to prevent appropriate and adequate sex and family planning education. And they have worked to make birth control difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. This has been especially so with the most effective contraceptives, and not only for youth, but for many adults, especially the poor.
While fundamentalists insist on abstinence-only or celibacy as an answer to pregnancy prevention, it has proven an unrealistic method of birth control for a majority of the population. As a result, girls and women become pregnant. Abortion then becomes the only suitable solution for the many who are unable, at the time, to take on the responsibility of having a baby and who are emotionally unable to give up a baby for adoption. In turn, the fundamentalists who prevented these women from obtaining and, therefore using contraceptives, accuse these women of using abortion as their method of choice for birth control. Then, in contrast, when unmarried women choose not to have an abortion, they're accused of having many children to take advantage of the welfare system. In reality, having more children was the last thing they wanted. Either way, pregnant women are punished.
Immense suffering takes place for women around the world. This is a result of lack of knowledge pertaining to and access to contraceptives and in many parts of the world, where safe abortion is inaccessible. Regardless, on May 28, 1992, The New York Times reported that Vatican diplomats were preparing for the upcoming Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The diplomats were campaigning to ensure any decisions on the population issue would not be "in conflict with Roman Catholic teaching on birth control," points out Swomley. (58) The Vatican has standing as a member nation of the United Nations and has been criticized by Catholics for a Free Choice for holding this special status. (59) But in the end, it had its way. It succeeded in gaining enough right-wing support, as Swomley reveals:
to block the United States from paying its debt to the United Nations by attaching an amendment to ban the use of federal funds by any private or government organization that supports abortion overseas or counsels women on where to get an abortion. (60)Most alarming, almost immediately upon taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush placed a ban on U.S. aid to overseas organizations that, according to the ACLU, "use their own money to counsel women and girls on their reproductive choices." (61) Such decisions do not affect just women. In the May 1991 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Paul K. B. Dagg found that women who are denied abortions are not the only ones to suffer serious psychological and social problems. Their children, who otherwise would have been aborted, suffer immensely, as well. (62) These children lack a secure childhood, require more psychiatric care, and have an increased rate of juvenile delinquency, among other problems.
Furthermore, 14 million American children go to bed hungry every night. And in the United States, the infant mortality rate ranks twentieth among industrialized nations. (63) In 1984, according to The New York Times, the United States had more than 50,000 children available for adoption. (64) Many have multiple handicaps, requiring lifetime medical care. So how will our nation care for more unwanted children should Roe v. Wade be overturned? It is clear that concern for the unborn is not the issue at hand. The anti-abortion campaign is, largely, just one more way for patriarchs to keep women under their control.
The Fundamentals of Extremism: the Christian Right in America, edited by Kimberly Blaker, New Boston Books, Inc., Michigan, 2003 - ISBN 0-9725496-0-9 (Cloth) and ISBN 0-9725496-1-7 (Paper).
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Notes and Resources
Due to the length of this essay and the large number of references, we have created a dedicated footnotes page. Each reference is hyperlinked so that the reader can go back and forth between the article and the notes.
Kimberly Blaker's "The Fundamentals of Extremism," - Book Review by Gilles d'Aymery
A Supreme Being Supreme Court Appeal - Jan Baughman
Pledge And Prayer Amendment Threatens Religious Freedom - Kimberly Blaker
Support Christ and Your Local Library - Matthew J. Barry (Dec. 2001)
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Kimberly Blaker is a syndicated columnist, a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, and editor/co-author of the book. Her national book tour begins summer/fall 2003.
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