In its Battle for ‘Life’ the Antiabortion Movement is Willing to Expose its Enemies to Death — And There’s an Old Christian Theology that Supports Them

Taking a very different tack than the antiabortion movement, Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen) becomes acquainted with Her Death (Naomi Battrick) in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." Image: HBO

The recent Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the FDA’s approval of mifepristone presents itself—in the typical pattern of antiabortion politics—as a form of protection. The suit alleges that the FDA failed to properly assess the safety risks of the drug, as if the point of the suit were to protect the pregnant people who take the drug. But as politicians like Mike Pence have made clear, the health of people who take the drug isn’t really the concern at all. Antiabortion politicians just want the drug off the market.

If you believe the typical accounts that antiabortion activists give us, the political movement to block abortion is all about life. Birth is a force of life, so this story goes, and abortion is a force of death. National Right to Life, for instance, describes its central mission as “lifesaving.” But this account is, simply put, wrong. Birth is not now—nor has it ever been—purely life-giving, or a source of pure life. 

Rather, life and death are deeply entangled in the process of birth. Birth carries both possibilities within it. Acknowledging this isn’t a problem. Rather, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge this as a fact. If we acknowledge that birth often leads to (or causes) death, we’re in a position to protect the living. It’s when we start to deny these links between birth and death—or pretend as if things can be otherwise—that we run into trouble.

The idea that birth is a phenomenon of pure life is bound to a theology that pits life and death against one another in a battle. This war between life and death weaponizes life against mortals who live and die, and it’s this militant theology that animates reproductive politics in America. 

For years, it’s been clear that giving birth in America is life-threatening. Maternal mortality rates here are shockingly high, especially for a nation with this much wealth. This is especially true for Black women, whose maternal mortality rates have historically been twice as high as those of White women, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the maternal mortality rate in the United States is only getting higher. 

And while antiabortion activism threatens to make the situation even worse, reproductive rights advocates are highlighting the death-dealing dimensions of these “lifesaving” politics. A new lawsuit, filed by five women against the state of Texas, illuminates the violence at the heart of abortion bans by asserting that the denial of abortion puts their lives in danger. Similarly, a recent piece from ProPublica clarifies how physicians in Tennessee have been forced to treat mothers as if they’re martyrs—potentially dying in order to birth their children—as a result of that state’s recent abortion ban. 

But it would seem that antiabortion activists are keen to prove that their commitment to life is, at best, inconsistent. A proposed bill in South Carolina highlights just how disposable the lives of people who have abortions are to antiabortion activists. The bill, HB 3549, seeks to amend the state’s law code so that an abortion would be treated as a homicide by the state’s judicial system, which could make the death penalty a potential consequence. It would be difficult to interpret this as anything other than an embrace of the death-dealing dimensions of forced birth politics. 

What’s going on? Why would a movement that seeks to “preserve life” be so ready to embrace death? As I argue in my new book Sister Death: Political Theologies for Living and Dying, this brand of reproductive politics is built on a theological foundation that turns life and death into enemies. Life is on the side of God; death is of, and for, the enemy. 

Following this logic, those who claim to be on the side of God are warriors for life, engaged in a fierce battle against the friends of death. These friends of death are considered disposable because they’re enemies of God (ineligible for God’s eternal life). That is to say, the enemies of these “warriors for life” are already destined for death anyhow.

A ‘champion Christology’

There’s no singular way of interpreting what death is (why it happens, what purpose it serves) within the Christian tradition, a tradition to which the overwhelming majority of antiabortion organizations and individuals belong. But one of the most dominant and enduring interpretations of death takes its cue from the apostle Paul’s message to the church in Corinth: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Paul seems to clearly indicate that death is an enemy of God, and those who follow God. But Paul doesn’t get into great detail about what this really means. His declaration has spawned centuries of speculation from Christians, however, with many concluding that this sentiment calls them to become one of God’s warriors for life bound to fight against the evil forces of death (including any people that Christians associate with death, rather than life.)

Paul’s language is pretty militant, and it’s often interpreted militantly. For R.C. Sproul (1939-2017), the American Reformed theologian and founder of Ligonier Ministries who argued for the heroism of taking a stand against abortion, Paul was encouraging Christians to become “hyper-conquerors.” Sproul finds, in Paul’s words, what he calls a “champion Christology”—one to remind Christians that Jesus was victorious over death, and one that suggests Christians might become such victors themselves. “Dominion over death is sealed, for those who are beloved of Christ,” Sproul promises. In other words, to be loved by the victor over death means that you will also have power over death.

It’s easy to read this as a simple statement about the ultimate fate of Christians—a statement about what Christians can (or should) believe about life after death. It’s easy to assume that a theologian like Sproul is simply promising Christians that death is not the end for them. This can look like a simple promise to Christians that they have an eternal life with God to look forward to after death. 

These are, however, also statements that offer Christians a way to think about how to live, how to be alive, and how to think about their relationship to life here on earth. These are statements that can feed Christians the sense that they are—like Jesus Christ—destined to be victorious over death and the forces of death. They’re warriors on behalf of a pure form of life, and their enemies are friends of death who must be defeated. Many Christians today are willing to expose their enemies to death in order to fight this battle for life. And there’s an old theology of death in the Christian tradition that supports them.

There is no force of pure life

This theology that splits life from death and pits them against one another (placing Christians on the side of life) is not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. Indeed, there are many dimensions of Christian thought that articulate a different sort of relationship between life and death, including the figure of Sister Death—the namesake of my book—which is attributed to Francis of Assisi. Rather than present death as an enemy, Francis presents her as a sister—part of a dynamic kinship network (alongside wind and water) that structures the lives of creatures. 

I think this is a view capacious enough to recognize that death is part of the fabric of life itself—which means that in life we cannot purify anything of death, not even birth.

On some level, perhaps, the idea that birth and death are opposing forces is intuitive. People die, inevitably, but then new people are born; reproduction seems to work against death. Even philosophers have contributed to the idea that birth and death are oppositional forces. Hannah Arendt, for example, famously made the argument that natality (the condition of having been born) offers a radically different way of thinking about who we are than focusing on our mortality (the condition of being destined to die). 

Philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir, however, saw birth and death as more integrally connected. In The Second Sex Beauvoir argued that one of the root causes of misogyny was the fact that men have blamed women (who give birth) for the fact that we die. Women are resented for both our natality and our mortality, since it’s our natality that makes us mortal. 

Much as it might be nice to ideologically separate the two phenomena—birth and death—all we need to do is look at the actual process of reproduction to see how deeply connected they inevitably are. As many as twenty percent of pregnancies may end in miscarriage. And many pregnant people are justifiably concerned that giving birth might kill them. It has killed many people, and continues to do so. Birth itself poses a real threat to life. That is to say, life itself poses a real threat to the survival of life, especially when it’s weaponized against living people, as the five plaintiffs in the Texas lawsuit can attest.  

But here’s where one major disconnect arises. None of this implies that life isn’t sacred. Protecting each other against death is perhaps the most crucial thing we can do for one another, in community. And this is precisely why it’s so important that we’re honest with one another about the fact of death. There is no force of pure life. None of us (no movement, community, or individual) can claim to be on the side of life rather than death.  

Protecting one another from death means acknowledging that life itself—surviving, staying alive, helping the living thrive—is a constant negotiation of complex and confusing life-death tensions. It means acknowledging that the choices we make—including the choice to give birth—carries the risk of death. And, in many instances, protecting and caring for life will mean we ensure that a birth does not happen

To think about life and death as sisters, rather than enemies, doesn’t mean that we assume their relationship is harmonious or even good. But it does call for us to recognize that they are very close to one another, and it’s not always easy to discern where one begins and the other ends. They are connected.

While those who oppose reproductive freedom are overwhelmingly Christian, many of us have naturalized a version of this theology—this view that life and death are enemies—in what is otherwise a secular frame of reference. Perhaps part of what it takes, to demilitarize reproductive politics in America today, includes the ability to raise questions about what seem like basic assumptions about the nature of life and death. And the ability to struggle against the logics (including the theologics) that seek to naturalize these assumptions.