But wasn’t Mary a pregnant, unmarried teenager? I remember putting these pieces together during a conversation with a few friends while we were leaving our freshman biology class. We had been talking about the only other pregnant teenager we knew – a junior whose bump had just started to show a few weeks early. She had just been unceremoniously kicked off of the cheerleading team of our conservative, Western Pennsylvania public high school
But Mary didn’t do anything wrong, our biology teacher piped up from behind her desk. She didn’t say “Yes” to sin. She said “Yes” to God.
I had so many more questions for her, but when I tried to continue the conversation, but she cut me off.
You all are good girls, so you don’t need to think any more about it, she said, shooing us out of the classroom. That is the most comprehensive sexual education I received while I was in high school. I imagine that was also true for the cheerleader.
I’ve been thinking about her these last few weeks. Because while the overturning of Roe v. Wade will negatively impact many, many different kinds of pregnant people and their friends, families, and communities, I know in my gut that it is this cheerleader, and other children like her, who is the target of the anti-reproductive rights activism that has led us to this point. Counter to the billboards I’ve seen lining the Pennsylvania State Highways, it’s never been about babies – otherwise, these anti-reproductive rights activists would also be fighting for free prenatal, delivery, and infant care. It’s not even about fetuses, otherwise, these activists would be petitioning fertility clinics to hand over surrendered embryos, so that ‘pro-life’ cisgender women could carry them to term. (I once brought this up to protestor standing outside of Planned Parenthood, and she replied, without irony, But I don’t want to be pregnant.)
Overturning Roe is about a number of different things. It is a punitive measure against anyone with a uterus who has ever engaged in consensual intercourse. It is a denial of the prevalence of rape, assault, and incest in our culture. And it is a repudiation of the truth that children who are pregnant should be protected like all other children. But most of all, it is rejection of the autonomy of more than fifty percent of people in this world – autonomy that, according to scripture, is God-given and divinely protected.
One Advent, a number of years after that conversation with my biology teacher, I was listening to a sermon on that story of Mary saying “Yes” to God (Luke 1: 26-38). I remember the priest going on and on about how crucial it is for women to say “Yes” to pregnancy. After all, he said, imagine if Mary had said “No”.
Ever open to theological instruction, I did imagine this possibility. I considered the idea that since God creates human beings with free will, God sends the Angel Gabriel not just to announce that news, but also to obtain honest and informed consent from the woman who would give birth to the Christ. And perhaps, in an unwritten part of the story, she does say “No”. Perhaps there are a number of women with whom Gabriel speaks ahead of Mary, and each of them says either, ‘Not yet’, ‘Not again’, or even simply ‘I don’t want to be pregnant.’ And I imagined that God respects the decisions of each of those women, because, like all people, God gave them the gift of life and the gift to choose what happens with their bodies.
A gift isn’t really a gift if it comes with strings attached, and we have insisted on attaching strings to what God gives freely. Certainly, in this moment, we can be angry at what anti-reproductive rights activists have done. And also, we, progressives included, have often attached strings to reproductive freedom. For far too long, we have participated in the ridiculous game of “In this case, abortion is okay”, or “In that case, it’s not okay”. We have given into the temptation of saying that abortion should be rare, without considering how such an opinion might impact the well being of someone who has had the procedure. And we have been arrogant; making hypothetical and self-righteous arguments out of the lived experiences of real people – some of whom are the most marginalized among us.
I am trying to resist doing that now. I am appalled by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But, if I wish to be morally coherent, I should be no more appalled by this than by what happened to the cheerleader at my high school. I am all but certain that she did not have a choice after she was pregnant. She did not have the opportunity to say “No”, and so, she could not truly have said, “Yes”. She was alienated by her classmates (and teachers!), and she did not return to school for her senior year. I am ashamed that I did not try to get to know her. I am ashamed that it took me so many years to understand that what happened to her was wrong.
While we certainly have reason to be angry about the recent Supreme Court decision, we cannot forget that, even under Roe, there were many people across the United States who were never able to access reproductive health services. And so it will not be enough simply to get back to where we were before. We need to commit ourselves to the long and difficult work of creating and passing stronger legislation. We need to support organizations that have been on the ground for years helping people in underserved areas access the procedures and medications that they require. And we need to keep talking about it, long after the media has moved on to the next moral crisis.
As people of faith, this is necessary, urgent, and moral work. It is how we say “Yes” to the gift of life and autonomy that God has granted to each of us.