On the 40th Anniversary of Hyde, A Theological Defense of Reproductive Justice

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Melkisethian via Creative Commons

In my senior year of high school, two of my classmates became pregnant. One of them, from a conservative, but upper-middle-class family, was quietly spirited away to a clinic a few towns over, her biggest bother having to make up a chemistry exam. The other one, for whom scrambling the several hundred needed out-of-pocket was unfeasible, carried her child to term, giving birth a few weeks before prom. Their futures would only continue to diverge.

For the past four decades, the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion, has made it nearly impossible for low-income women—predominantly women of color—to obtain a legal abortion. It’s the only procedure ever banned from Medicaid, a federal program many impoverished women rely on for healthcare. So despite the right to an abortion being enshrined in Roe v. Wade since 1973, not all women have equal access.

As Hyde approaches its 40th anniversary on September 30th, many reproductive justice organizations have mobilized to bring increased attention to the unfair policy, one of them being SisterReach, a Memphis-based nonprofit that fights for the reproductive autonomy of underserved women and girls.

I spoke to Rev. Faye London, who rallies clergy and people of faith around reproductive justice as SisterReach’s interfaith outreach coordinator.

Anita Little: Can you start by telling me a little bit about your work with SisterReach and the role you play?

Rev. Faye London: SisterReach is a reproductive justice organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls of color, poor women, and rural women across the state of Tennessee by fighting for access to full healthcare and scientifically accurate reproductive health information. My role is to educate and organize people of faith around these different issues.

Reproductive justice as a framework is not all about abortion, it’s about how all the other things in a person’s life impact them in such a way that they end up in that moment of having to make a decision about an abortion. We want people to realize what those moments look like and how we can address them. That’s the conversation I’m always having with clergy.

Religion is usually cited as a reason for opposing abortion rights, but your passion for reproductive justice seems to be informed by your Christianity. How does your work challenge the narrative of Christians as anti-choice?

I am a Christian, but more importantly I am a follower of Jesus. The same Bible out of which my conservative brothers and sisters pull these cheap one-liners to control the conversation about reproductive health also shows us the life and ministry of Jesus—whom we all claim to follow. The Jesus of the Gospel always treated poor people and people in crisis with compassion, never judgement. I don’t understand how you can claim to model yourself on Jesus while seeking to constantly judge and shame and limit people.

This has led to the restriction of things that could make some women’s lives easier. The Hyde Amendment basically says that if you are poor, you can’t use federal funding for abortion. Hyde targets poor women, young women who are on Medicaid. These people already tend to live on the margins and have less access to resources. The bottom line is it doesn’t really matter how you feel about abortion, no one should be excluded from the right everybody is supposed to have.

Your ministry is primarily with low-income people of color in the South. Can you tell us more about the first-hand negative effects you’ve witnessed due to anti-choice legislation like the Hyde Amendment?

The most devastating impact I have personally seen was on a low-income family that already had children and was struggling to make ends meet, but had an unexpected pregnancy. Due to lack of funding and strange barriers to access in Tennessee—like mandatory waiting periods and the like—they were unable to obtain an abortion. They were already living right there on the line, barely making it, but having another child plunged them into abject poverty.

It’s not that they don’t love their children, but they needed to not have another child in order to provide for the children they already had. It becomes a matter of pitting this nebulous notion of “life” against people’s actual lives.

From your experience, what is the response of right-wing leaders to stories like the one you just shared? Is it one of compassion or one of blame?

We exist in this space where this kind of neoliberalism has seeped into our churches and suggests that poor people are poor because they’re irresponsible. So the response of politicians is: “If you couldn’t afford another child, what were you doing having sex?”—as though people don’t have the same drives regardless of being rich or poor, as though people who do not have resources don’t deserve joy.

That’s how we end up with the stereotype of the “welfare queen” or the hypersexualized black woman who just can’t stop having sex for her own good. Those narratives have now become so pervasive that even in spaces where it’s mostly black folks or mostly poor folks, you’ll still hear that as a response.

You’ve mentioned earlier that many politicians—even those that tout themselves as progressive—will support the legal right to an abortion, while denying poor women access to the procedure. How do you feel this hypocrisy represents the intersection of sexism, racism and classism?

The Hyde Amendment and similar legislation gives people a space to stand in where they don’t have to identify with “the untouchables,” but can still claim to support abortion rights. It creates a barrier where people can easily cop out.

The expectation is that a progressive politician or progressive faith leader would stand with people who are in need, but that is not the reality.

You have talked about the “prosperity gospel” playing a role in the shaming of the poor. Could you explain the flawed theologies these politicians rely on to justify their position?

The prosperity gospeland I might get in trouble with some of my friends for this, but it’s the truth spreads the idea of the “ATM Jesus.”

If you just do the things they tell you to do in church, trust in God and give sacrificially to the church, you will be blessed with financial prosperity. It is rooted in the idea that if you aren’t financially prosperous, there is something wrong with your faith or something wrong with your gift.

Let’s say I’m sitting in church and they go, “If you have $500, come lay it on the altar—if you have $200, come lay it on the altar,” and they get all the way down to one dollar. If I literally do not have one dollar to my name, what has been communicated to me? That I don’t really matter to God, and so God is not going to bless me.

It all ties into the same neoliberal ideologythat if you really want it, you would have it. If you don’t have it, it’s because you’re not doing what you need to do to get it. That ignores all the different systems of oppression in place that keep people from prospering in the way that they should. If you are preaching sacrificial giving but you aren’t paying attention to the needs of the people in your pews, you are not following the Jesus that I know.

How does the denial of reproductive justice to low-income black women represent the two-fold oppression they often face not just from white politicians, but also from black male clergy?

To answer that question, we first must acknowledge the history surrounding the bodies of women of color. Particularly, for black women, our bodies have never been our own. After we left enslavement, it became very important for us to counteract those stereotypes of us as lascivious and sexually predatory.

One of the ways we did that was through this hyper-surveillance of black women’s bodies and this idea of heightened purity that became ingrained in the way we did church. Patriarchy is patriarchy, and sometimes we forget it operates within cultures of color in the same way it operates everywhere else.

In terms of white politicians, it’s the same mentality that existed in slavery: your body does not belong to you, and we get to tell you what you can and cannot do with it. They can’t do it directly now because they don’t own people anymore, but they can do it by singling us out with legislation like the Hyde Amendment that disproportionately affects women of color.

Recent polling data shows that the majority of voters in battleground states—millennials especially—support abortion being covered by Medicaid and proposed legislation like the EACH Woman Act that would eliminate Hyde. Why has Hyde persisted for four decades despite the lack of public support for it? Why has the religious right been so successful in their attempts to curtail abortion rights?

The religious right has been so successful because they managed to create a very simple messaging strategy that made it seem like you had no other choice but to be with them or against them. The entire “pro-life” and “pro-choice” paradigm makes it seem like if you aren’t on their side then you are for death and against God. That’s a winning strategy. People have been silenced by that strategy.

What I’ve learned from my faith organizing is that it’s only when you ask people individually that you find out there are way more people who support a woman’s right to make decisions about her body and her family. You don’t hear those voices speaking loudly.

Do you feel abortion access for low-income women has been getting more attention this election cycle? How might the likely election of someone like Hillary Clinton affect the future of reproductive justice?

The conversation has been getting a lot more attention for several reasons, one of them being that we have an openly pro-choice candidate. While this isn’t an endorsement, what I find hopeful about Clinton is that she has said in no uncertain terms that she will push to have Hyde repealed.

We know that the Hyde Amendment is really dangerous, and that it harms groups that certain people think are okay to harm. Having someone with a platform that high say that this is unacceptable? That’s an amazing opportunity for those of us who fight every day for the rights every woman should have to completely flourish in the way God intended.