Book Review: Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice by Rebecca Todd Peters

Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice by Rebecca Todd Peters is, unfortunately, another one of those dime-a-dozen pro-choice books that adds nothing of value to the conversation. Peters is a self-proclaimed feminist social ethicist, but her understanding of the abortion issue is shallow, at best, and she doesn’t understand the arguments that pro-life people actually make. On top of that, she outright lies about the agenda of pro-life people. She talks a lot about the role of women in the abortion issue and doesn’t give any good reasons to believe the unborn should not be considered in the abortion issue. She uses the word “moral” a lot, but every time she does, the immortal words of Inigo Montoya just echo through my head: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I also doubt she’s ever actually read any books written by pro-life people. I have at least two points of evidence for this claim:

1) She actually claims that “[t]here is an unexamined pronatalist bias in this country.” She can only make this statement if she’s never read any books or articles by pro-life thinkers. She may disagree, but to claim that our bias is unexamined, or that it really even is a bias, is ignorance of the highest degree. 2) Not only does she consistently misrepresent pro-life arguments and lie about pro-life activists, whenever she quotes a pro-life activist it’s either from a news source, such as New York Times, or a staunchly pro-abortion website like Mother Jones. She also consistently shows a lack of knowledge of the abortion debate, in general. This is not acceptable behavior for someone who wants to be known as an ethicist.

I hate having to be so harsh. I was pretty blunt when I reviewed Willie Parker’s book because it was so awful (and dishonest), and unfortunately Peters’ book is just more of the same feminist complaints about misogyny and how pro-life people just want to control the bodies of women. It really does just get old because so many pro-choice advocates are willing to fight dirty in their advocacy for abortion. I am willing to recommend pro-choice books that make meaningful contributions to the abortion debate, as I did with Kate Greasley’s recent book. This is a book that will go unrecommended from me as a good contribution to the abortion debate.

Unfortunately, the book reads as if it was written by someone who is uneducated in logic, has never read Scripture, and has not read many books by people who aren’t feminists. I’ll just give three examples from chapter eight of the book, then I’ll stop harping on her lack of qualifications as an ethicist and just respond to a couple of her arguments which are germane to her overall thesis.

1. On page 170 of her book, she claims that in today’s society, sex is not just for procreative purposes. People just tend to want to have sex for pleasure rather than to create a child. This doesn’t mean that many people aren’t willing to accept pregnancy resulting from sex, but “it challenges the long-held Christian narrative that the purpose of sex is procreation.”

But this is completely false. She acts as if no one in Christian history has ever had sex simply because they enjoy it. But one read through Song of Solomon will show that to those who take Scripture seriously, sex is also something that is immensely enjoyable. In fact, the Apostle Paul told fellow believers it is better to marry than to burn with lust and have sex in a sinful way (1 Corinthians 7:9). Christians have long held that sex is enjoyable and there is nothing wrong with having sex because you enjoy it. But none of this lends any sort of evidence for Peters’ claim that sex is not for reproduction. The final end of the sexual organs is reproduction — that’s why we call them reproductive organs and not recreational organs. Sex is enjoyable, but it is not the purpose of sex. Just as eating is enjoyable but the purpose of eating is to nourish the body, not simply for enjoyment. A couple can have sex because they enjoy it, but all sex they have must be open to creation of new life to be ethical.

2. On pages 170-171, she talks about cryogenically frozen embryos. Considering how many pro-life people in minority groups believe in adopting these embryos, she makes the following argument:

“[C]oncern over the fate of these embryos pales in comparison to the outsized public interest in preventing pregnant woman from securing safe, legal abortions. This is further evidence that abortion politics are not about abortion, the status of prenatal life, or women’s health, as much as they are about the social control of women.”

Her argument here doesn’t even make any sense. Pro-life people, by definition, do not believe in “safe, legal abortions” because they kill innocent human beings. It’s not very clear what she’s arguing. Is she arguing that pro-life people care more about saving frozen embryos than in helping the women that can’t abort because of pro-life laws? That, of course, would take some defense (which is not forthcoming), especially since there are numerous pro-life pregnancy care centers and churches who are able and willing to help. This is just a nonsensical argument.

3. Finally, on pages 174ff., she quotes a theologian named Kendra Hotz who describes parenthood as “a calling that not everyone is called to fulfill.” She continues, “the choice for parenthood is bigger than what pleases me; it is also about God’s reconciliation of all things.” She argues that parenthood is a sacred trust, a covenant relationship entered into in which parents care for and nurture their children.

Of course, this is a mistaken view about parenthood; or at least, very simplistic. No one can be forced into a covenant — covenants are agreements made between two or more parties. While parents could certainly enter into a covenant (and they do when they get married), having children cannot be considered a covenant because no one has a choice to be conceived. No child has a choice to be part of this covenant relationship. In fact, it’s this natural neediness and the fact that they didn’t choose to be conceived which is part of what grounds the parents’ obligation to care for their children.

The idea that not everyone is called to be a parent is simply absurd. If God didn’t call all people, in general, to be parents, he wouldn’t have made sex the way to conceive children and then give all people a sex drive. We have a sex drive, and reproduction happens through sex, because God wants us to populate the world and wants us to have families. Families are good things. People are made for community, which is why Paul exhorts us not to forsake assembling together with other believers. Friends come and go, but families give us a community of people who will always be there for each other when we need it most. In fact, I don’t find anywhere in Scripture that only certain people are called to be parents. What I do find in Scripture is that certain people are called to be single. In fact, because our sex drive is so strong, it takes a special gift and a special calling to remain single and celibate. It is not for everyone. Again, this idea that one must be specially called into parenthood is absurd.

The main argument of Peters’ book is to shift the discussion away from what she calls “the justification framework” (i.e. the idea that women have to give reasons to justify their abortions) toward a framework of reproductive justice. She writes, “[Reproductive Justice] has three primary principles: the right not to have a child, the right to have a child, and the right to parent in safe and healthy environments” (p. 7, emphases hers). Trying to shift the conversation away from the nature of the unborn isn’t exactly a new tactic — many pro-choice people do that in their conversations, and occasionally a pro-choice author will try to do that in one of her books (e.g. Eileen McDonagh trying to shift the conversation from one of choice to one of consent). In fact, Judith Thomson’s famous essay with the violinist tried to shift the conversation away from the nature of the unborn. Peters’ new tactic is to frame the conversation away from what the unborn are and more toward the lives of women. She believes that the complex lives of women is the foundation that we must start from in the conversation on abortion.

Peters is very much pro-abortion, believing that any restrictions on abortion are immoral and oppressive. How does she justify her pro-choice stance? She believes that the “prenate” (her term for the human embryo/fetus) only crosses the threshold of life by the physical experience of birth, becoming part of the human community (p. 5). She then claims that beginning with the premise that women should continue their pregnancies misidentifies the act of “terminating a pregnancy” as the starting point for our ethical conversation. She writes, “It reduces the conversation to an abstract question of whether abortion is right or wrong, creating a binary framework woefully inadequate for the complexity of the moral questions surrounding abortion. Abortion, however, is never an abstract ethical question. It is, rather, a particular answer to a prior ethical question: ‘What should I do when faced with an unplanned, unwanted, or medically compromised pregnancy?’ This question can only be addressed within the life of a particular woman at a given moment in time” (p. 6). Thus, by attempting to reframe the discussion of abortion, she can completely dismiss the question of whether or not the unborn are human beings with a wave of the hand and resort to telling stories about the difficult situations women find themselves in and justifying their decision to abort based on their considerations regarding that difficult decision (of course, she ignores the fact that abortion is only a difficult decision because there is a human child at stake in the decision). Plus, she doesn’t really give us any reason for believing that we should reframe the discussion in such a way. One could just as easily support infanticide or toddlercide by arguing that we should reframe the discussion away from one of are infants and toddlers human persons and toward one of the complex lives of parents. However, if the unborn are persons, as pro-life advocates argue, then we can’t just take them out of the equation. No matter how complex a woman’s life is, it doesn’t justify murder of an innocent human being. So unless she can make a compelling case that the unborn are not persons, then we are free to reject her suggestion that we move the conversation in a different direction.

What are her arguments that the unborn aren’t persons? She has a small section in chapter five dedicated to that question. Needless to say, she does not engage with the argument of pro-life thinkers but primarily repeats talking points you hear from lay level pro-choice advocates:

1. Several times she declares that the belief that personhood is established at fertilization is a “theological belief”. Of course this is plainly false (again lending credibility to my claim that she likely has never read any books or articles from pro-life thinkers).

2. While “prenates” are human, they are not fully developed. They don’t have a heart in the same sense that we do, even though it beats, because the prenate body is still in development. This argument always strikes me as bizarre. Do pro-choice people not understand how development works? Do they not realize that even infants and toddlers are not fully developed? She claims that birth is when we become persons, but if she is going to deny personhood rights to the unborn on the grounds that they are not fully developed, she is being inconsistent by not denying infants or toddlers personhood rights.

3. Prenates cannot survive outside the womb before viability and are dependent on the woman’s body. But of course, these things do not justify denying personhood rights to the unborn. After all, people in reversible comas cannot survive outside the hospital environment without their respirator. Diabetics cannot survive without insulin. Being dependent on someone or something else for your survival does not mean you have less rights. In fact, we often tend to think it grounds more of an obligation to help someone, if we can. Not less of an obligation.

Those are the main arguments she gives, and needless to say they are not persuasive in the least. There are many problems with Peters’ book, and I’d have to write a book myself to address all of them.

One major issue is that she cites studies in support of many of her statements. The problem, though, is that almost always she quotes just one study that supports her position. However, one study is not evidence of your claim. The thing about studies is that they are easy to fudge the results of (and, in fact, it has been shown that many studies are unreliable because the sociologists were more interested in appeasing their donors than in getting to the truth — and she even talks about one such study on p. 88, in which the sociologist was unaware of biases that tainted his studies). Results must be replicatable to be reliable, so pointing to one study does not support her position. And despite the fact she dismisses pro-life organizations as unreliable, she constantly relies on pro-abortion organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who are also unreliable as organizations for the same reason (just reversed). In fact, I’ve written an article taking ACOG to task for being dishonest when asked a question about when human life begins.

She also makes several dishonest claims about pro-life people. One of the most egregious is on p. 42, in which she references the Center for Medical Progress’ videos showing Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parts for profit. She repeats the common claim that these videos were “heavily edited”. Of course they were heavily edited. That’s what you do when you want to shorten them for public consumption. What she probably means is that they were “deceptively edited”, despite the fact that the full videos are available on-line for viewing

It would take a book or several lengthy articles to pick out every error in reasoning or false claim made by Peters. But this should suffice to show that Peters’ book, unfortunately, is not one that adds meaningfully to the discussion on abortion. Your time will be better spent reading something else.