The Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has effectively ended the constitutional right to an abortion—returning the issue to states. African American women, particularly the poor, will be disproportionately impacted by the lack of access to reproductive choices. As Black Christians, we are yet again confronted with the religious mandates and reading of scripture that undermines our humanity. Bodily autonomy, privacy, states’ rights, religion and the never-ending struggle against white supremacy in the United States are at the heart of the SCOTUS ruling. These issues are not new but historic in nature. The end of Roe v. Wade as the law of the land is part and parcel of a broader conservative agenda.
During chattel slavery, Black folks were property who could not control their body at any level. Black women had no rights to their bodies or babies. The Dobbs ruling states that there is no right to an abortion in the constitution—meaning bodily autonomy is a non-starter for women—reaffirming the enduring idea that Black women are property of the state. The freedom of choice over the Black body is central to all of our freedoms.
Roe. v. Wade upheld a constitutional right to privacy. The state could not impede upon personal choices of marriage, access to pro-birth control and forms of intimacy. Roe set the stage for other landmark legislation. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) married couples had a right to contraception; Lawrence v. Texas (2003) made same-sex sexual activity legal across the country and protects the private sexual activity of consenting adults; Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) gave gay couples the right to marry. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas takes aim at these decisions strongly suggesting that the Supreme Court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” Black folks should always be suspicious of the many laws that regulate our private lives.
At the heart, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case was a Mississippi state law effectively banning abortion. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito posited, “the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” meaning governors and state legislators. States’ rights have long been a strategy of the right wing. The United States Civil War was in precepted by southern slave holdings states claiming their right to own slaves. Historically, the federal government has served as somewhat of a check on the most egregious activities of state legislatures. States’ rights arguments are inherently racist.
As Black folks, we know the Bible has been used to justify our oppression. From the Story of Ham in the Book of Genesis to Scriptures such as “Slaves be obedient to your masters” (Ephesians 6:5) and “women be silent in the church” (1 Corinthians 14: 33-35), the powerful have justified Black subjection by saying it was God-ordained. Black people have read the Bible with a hermeneutic of suspicion. We rejected text that denied our humanity. For instance, 66% of Black Protestants believe that abortion should be legal. Secondly, there is no prohibition of abortion in the Bible. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and The Rev. Katey Zeh make an argument about a mistranslation of the text that has been used to support anti-abortion theology. The Bible should not be the standard for making public policy. No religion should dominate public life by imposing its will on the bodies of others.
Of the 26 states that will have or likely will ban abortion—post-Roe—18 have anti-trans laws; 19 passed greater voter restrictions laws; and they all have disproportionate amounts of infant mortality, especially for Black women. The states pushing abortion bans are the poorest in the union with the highest child poverty rates, with all 26 having passed or are considering state-wide bans on critical race theory. All 26 states have a Republican supermajority (13) or simple majority (13), which gives the power to pass or veto any legislation. Eleven of the states did not expand Medicaid, most in the South where 56% of Black people live. Seven of the 13 states with trigger laws upon the overturning of Roe are from the Confederacy. Eleven of the states have anti-sanctuary laws against undocumented immigrants. All 26 states have anti-protest legislation. Most of the anti-abortion states rank in the 50 percentile for pre-K-12 education. An average of 70% of people in the 26 states go to church at least once a month. White Christian nationalism drives the spate of legislation that seeks to return the United States to a pre-civil rights movement era.
Moreover, a flurry of Supreme Court rulings made by a conservative majority signals to a continued restriction of democracy. The eroding of Miranda Rights, restriction on a state’s rights to regulate firearms, erosion of the separating of church and state combined with expansive gerrymandering and hostile school board meetings, and a fever-pitched political discourse solidifies an unrelenting power grab by the most conservative (racist, sexist, classist, and queerphobic) elements. Without over half of the United States legislatures enacting anti-abortion laws in some of the poorest, least resourced, least democratic states (many with ties to the Confederacy), these states constitute a national voting bloc to seek to advance a hard-right political agenda that is not less than fascist.
To be sure, the founding of the United States pre-dates the fascism of the 20th century that culminated in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, from the outset the United States, policies and politics were forbears of fascist tendencies (electoral disenfranchisement, demonizing of other, the raise in nationalism, violent scapegoating) in the midst of economic decline.
The SCOTUS ruling on Roe is one part of a broader conservative strategy that seeks to return the United States to the pre-modern civil rights movement. The desire to Make America Great Again is based on the notion that progressive developments, more equal access, and social movements have undermined the United States’ values. The history of Black people and the Black church is to consider all of these factors and articulate a theology that transcends the limitations of American democracy in theory and practice. Black Christians should fully understand that the politics at work in the broader conservative agenda is both anti-Black and anti-Christian. What shall we render?
Rev. Deneen Robinson is the Religious and Spiritual Policy Director at the National Birth Equity Collaborative and Pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff located in Dallas.
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Pastor, Valley and Mountain Fellowship based in Seattle.