First Thoughts on the End of Roe v. Wade: State Rules, Gender Norms, and the Fragile (or Conditional) Personhood of Women

[1] This is a period piece, a snapshot of one Gen X theologian’s first reactions, landing on some observations and questions to hold open in the life of faith.

[2] At some point on June 24, 2022, I realized I had entered the same kind of space I found myself in on September 11, 2001 and on January 6, 2021: an interruptive day of national tragedy. This sensibility was then swiftly shot through with a keen awareness that for others, the overturning of Roe v. Wade was a day of national celebration. I couldn’t recall another time in my adulthood when I had myself felt this level of national cognitive dissonance. Even when protesting the first and second Gulf Wars, I didn’t have the sense that those who supported those wars were celebrating them. And while I knew that many felt the ground shaking when same-sex marriage was legalized, I had identified with this cultural and legal shift in norms, and so didn’t feel like my country had betrayed me. The momentum since my birth had seemed to be arcing toward ever-increasing gender justice in the United States. Add to that the ordination of Lutheran women, and even as a child I felt born into that momentum. To be sure, while young, I knew very few women without children; and I would feel unnerved when told things like, “When you’re a mother, you’ll understand” (as if that were of course the aim and purpose of my life). All the same, I grasped enough of the spirit of the national changes in what women were allowed to do to realize that a woman’s life did not have to be defined around motherhood—whether or not parenting was part of her path.

[3] Those broader fair-play rules about gender meant a great deal to me as a child. My country and my church gave me and other girls space to listen to the call of the Spirit in our lives, speaking through our particular gifts and pulls and possibilities. I didn’t associate all this consciously with the right to an abortion per se; but I knew that one of women’s newfound rights was that we would not be coerced to carry an unplanned pregnancy to completion. My country trusted me to be a full moral agent about my reproductive choices—and much else besides. Even if the neighborhood women still expected motherhood of us all, even if the picture on the ground was, and is, full of conflicting gender-related messages and challenges of many sorts, it mattered that two of my childhood’s rule-setting earthly authorities—the Supreme Court and church policy—supported a larger landscape that said, “You go, girl! The world is wide open to you, as it has been to men.”

[4] Several observations are settling into view as I take in the fact of this particular Supreme Court ruling, and think about the significance of broader judicial and/or legislative rules for setting up the scope of permitted gender norms, regardless of what cultural attitudes are in circulation.

[5] The first observation is about how Roe v. Wade enabled individual moral discernment but not literacy in defending the very policies that enable such private discernment. The Baby Boomer feminists I have known were right: the forces working to undermine Roe v. Wade could very well succeed. Those of us Gen X and younger had been taking for granted access to safe, legal abortions (even as more women had to travel across their state to find an abortion-providing clinic). This safe space meant that we could deliberate about the morality of abortion knowing that actual pregnant women were legally permitted to discern and decide what to do, free of the coercive power of the law to criminalize one possible choice.

[6] But because we took this safe legal space for granted, most in my generation and the ones to follow did not learn to speak in systematic or public ways. We did not learn to think or talk theologically, with sophistication, about why we should support reproductive rights, because we did not have to. Certainly few in mainline Protestant congregations seemed habituated to talk theologically together about reproductive justice—quite unlike those raised in churches with vocal teachings against a woman’s moral and legal right to an abortion.

[7] The second observation is related, but subtler. Despite the ELCA’s 1991 social statement in defense of abortion’s legality, Roe v. Wade’s presence generally allowed the loudest voice in ELCA spaces to be silence. That silence allowed Lutherans who opposed abortion to sit alongside those who supported its legality, because abortion opponents were not often confronted with open ecclesial conversation about a decision made, after all, by the judiciary, not the church. That silence also permitted women with unwanted pregnancies to make a decision sacred for them without their church condemning or publicly shaming them. The right to an abortion was an assumed right that sat in the corner of the church like dusty old hymnals no one touched unless they needed to be used for a particular occasion.

[8] Perhaps most progressive-tending Protestant seminaries have not cultivated familiarity and skill in speaking about abortion access in theological language. (Nor have those of us who are white and sufficiently resourced always invested much thought and energy into broader reproductive justice concerns.) One sign of this appeared when Jennifer Hockenbery emailed some of the theologically-trained women in the ELCA a few years ago, as she began to notice signs that Roe v. Wade could be reversed, asking if we might speak about it. Christine Helmer and I responded, both of us working at non-ELCA universities. Rumor had it that those who worked for the ELCA were encouraged to be mum about abortion, so as not to offend Lutherans who opposed it. And hadn’t everything necessary already been said?[1] Rumor or not, Christine and I rallied to the challenge, neither of us having been drawn before then to write theologically about abortion.

[9] Our piece, “Claiming Christian Freedom to Discuss Abortion Together,[2] was published in a 2019 issue of the pan-Lutheran journal, Lutheran Forum. In response, David Scaer gave it a scathing critique in the LCMS journal Concordia Theological Quarterly,[3] where he connected the ELCA acceptance of abortion to its acceptance of women’s ordination, caricatured our argument (while acknowledging it was a Lutheran one), and assumed that the theological law on the matter—“abortion is murder”—is settled and unquestionable. Others asked the LF editor why he would have ever published a piece in LF that made any space for accepting abortion as a moral and legal right. There were not ELCA clergy readers who openly defended our piece (to my knowledge) in the pages of the Lutheran Forum, although some who responded received our piece in a spirit of thoughtful dialogue while countering our claim that Christian freedom includes a pregnant neighbor’s freedom to discern what she most needs in the context of her (or her family’s) life and circumstances—as well as freedom to open rather than shut down debate about the nature of the moral law itself on questions like reproductive justice.

[10] If I am right—that out of ambivalence, avoidance of conflict, and a lack of necessity on the legal front, our denomination has largely ceded active discussion of abortion to Christians who fine-tune their arguments against it—then one obvious question to hold open is this: how can pastors, ethicists, theologians, and those with medical and social work training lead congregations in talking together about reproductive justice, and abortion in particular? How can we encourage Lutheran contributions in broader public and political debates?

[11] Answering this question depends in part on how and how much those leading a conversation have already exercised their muscles for discussing controversial issues in their congregations. Certainly it would behoove more Christians to read Rebecca Todd Peters’ Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice and Margaret Kamitsuka’s Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic[4] as richly informative conversation starters. (How I wish those who oppose abortion in principle would voice their arguments in real dialogue with them!) To this conversation, I will offer a final set of uneasy observations and questions that have taken form for me as Christine Helmer and I have continued to write about a topic we never thought we would.

[12] As a half century of women’s reproductive rights—partial and faulty though they have been—fall away for many in the United States, two points have come into focus for me that have likely been obvious to many others all along.

[13] On one hand, misogyny will always be a human temptation precisely because each human life has depended utterly on a woman’s ability and willingness to carry to term a particular pregnancy. That particular pure truth is the seed crystal around which many build horror at any abortion. From this angle of vision, because of women’s capacity to give birth, women are capable of a grave sin that no man without a womb can commit. That is, if aborting a fetus is regarded as a sin, a woman can commit a sin within her very body—a sin that a man without a womb can never commit within his own body. Moreover, agreement about when personhood begins is irrelevant for those who focus on the sheer fact that a particular human life develops from conception, given no spontaneous death of a fetus or other barrier to its movement towards birth. For these reasons, because women can choose to either continue or end a pregnancy, women[5] can become morally impure in a way no one but an abortion-providing doctor of any gender can be. Therefore women can be distrusted as uniquely morally culpable, for a woman can sin in a specific way a man generally cannot.

[14] Misogynistic fear of misbehaving women and patriarchal control of women’s bodies and lives take their bearings from this perception that women are ontologically “other” than men, who utterly depend on women—at least their birth mothers—for their very existence. Women are thus trusted insofar as they conform to maternal expectations, if not to a maternal archetype itself. The holiness and goodness of motherhood is conjoined with its fear-inducing flipside: a pregnant woman’s power to snuff out a potential human life within her very body. This need and fear of a woman’s particular power over life and death combine to create an expectation that women also affirm and center men and other human beings. Misogyny arises as fear and hatred of women on whom one depends for existence and sustained affirmation.

[15] To be sure, whether latently or openly, misogyny circulates alongside more egalitarian and many-sided cultural and moral sensibilities about women as persons. But one question to carry is: how do we recognize the sacred gift of giving birth and parenting, alongside the lurking potential for misogyny that manipulates—with fear and loathing—the fact of every person’s dependence on that gift?

[16] On the other hand, through another lens, the matter-of-fact way that women have always sought to control their fertility points to another moral dimension of pregnancy: the moral considerations every pregnant woman weighs about whether or not they perceive carrying and bearing a child (or an additional child) as a viable or sought possibility at this particular time. Some welcome and make room for every pregnancy, and cannot conceive of doing otherwise, whatever the costs. For others, it is clear as day that carrying this pregnancy to term at this time would be the wrong decision, for reasons relevant to the flourishing of that woman and, often, her current family. Those reasons have ethical weight within her moral judgment. The motif of “trusting women” presupposes this sort of moral agency by women in making a decision about whether or not to continue an unplanned pregnancy. No matter the climate of shame or guilt about the choice to abort, and whether or not they have personally felt distressed about their decision, there have always been pregnant women who claim this agency.

[17] Even among those who oppose abortion’s legality, we find a tension between a fierce unapologetic misogyny on one hand, and on the other, an underlying moral queasiness about denying pregnant women the right to discern for themselves. The full personhood of female-gendered humans is itself at play in this tension. For if abortion is really murder, then ought not one out of four women[6] in the US—those who have had abortions—be prosecuted and jailed? If not, doesn’t this imply that women lack full moral agency—as implied by laws mandating pre-abortion ultrasounds, waiting periods, and other paternalistic protection of women who on their own must simply be “confused” about what an abortion really means? Alternatively, to be reluctant to prosecute women who have abortions suggests that despite distress about the idea of ending a particular potential human life, there is a simultaneous intuition that indeed there is a morally relevant difference between an abortion and killing a born human. And regardless of one’s perception of when personhood itself begins, that relevant moral difference includes the range of morally relevant considerations a pregnant woman ponders when she is deciding whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

[18] There is a lot to hold in our hearts, our heads, and our reasoning in faith about abortion and about the consequences of denying pregnant persons access to it. It is tempting to simplify things for the sake of a clear moral conscience: to say abortion is (or is not) murder. To seek our own moral purity—our own righteousness—by declaring our allegiance to an abstract moral principle is one expression of what Luther (and a long line of monastics) called the sin of presumption.[7] Certainly one ought not stand before God and declare they are just because they support the ideal principle that all lives matter, especially those of the yet-to-be-born, and then refuse to own all the harmful consequences that follow: women who die because they cannot access a safe abortion but need or seek to end a pregnancy; the higher rates of poverty women fall into when they are forced to bear a child and then choose to raise it; prosecutions for miscarriages as well as abortions; women shamed for exercising their moral agency in a way that they themselves judge best; doctors who are not themselves ethically free to use their best medical judgment; and many more. When we are unable to embrace moral nuance and complexity within the folds and textures of a living faith in the God who redeems us through Christ’s own living and dying and rising, it can seem we are forced to choose between a moral callousness about a prenatal existence and a moral callousness about the lives and full humanity of actual women. Are we?

[19] May the conversation truly begin among us, more fully than it has for most of us Lutherans in the US in the past 50 years. We need to exercise our ability to talk with our neighbors in Christ about these things that so trouble the waters of our lives, whether or not we dwell within that particular safe space for women of states in which abortion remains a legal option to choose or reject.




[1] Editor’s Note: It is true that a presiding bishop of the ELCA did not speak publicly about the church’s teaching on abortion or about the legal threats to access to abortion services until 2018. However, the Justice for Women/Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment has Tweeted for years about it and the social statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice declared opposition to any roll-back of access and legality of abortion.  Furthermore, Bishop Eaton has issued two public pastoral messages on abortion and reproductive justice in her tenure as bishop. 

[2] Amy Carr and Christine Helmer,” Claiming Christian Freedom to Discuss Abortion Together,Lutheran Forum 53.2 (Summer 2019): 48-51.

[3] David P. Scaer, “Theological Observer: ‘Claiming Christian Freedom to Discuss Abortion Together,’” Concordia Theological Quarterly 84:1-2 (January/April 2020): 175-176.

[4] Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018); Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019).

[5] I have been focusing on pregnant women; transgender and non-binary persons who can become pregnant bump up against additional internalized attitudes about gender-related moral impurity.

[6] Rebecca Todd Peters (Peters, 2) cites the following study that suggests one of three women in the US have an abortion by the age of 45: Rachel K. Jones and Megan L. Kavanaugh, “Changes in Abortion Rates Between 2000 and 2008 and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 177, no. 6 (June 2011): 1358-66. Since this study, the rates seem to have dropped to about one in four women, according to a Guttmacher Institute analysis. See “Abortion Is a Common Experience for U.S. Women, Despite Dramatic Declines in Rates,” Guttmacher Institute, October 19, 2017 news release,

[7] References to twin dangers of presumption and despair abound in Luther’s writings. One example: “What, then, prompts the papists to rely on works and merits rather than on the promise and grace? The first reason is this, that they do not believe that God is the Creator of heaven and earth. If they believed that they are God’s creatures and that God is their Creator, they would never confront Him with their merits or works; nor would they be presumptuous about anything. For how can one compare the Creator to the creature?” Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 4: Lectures on Genesis Chapters 21-25 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1986), 60-61.

Amy Carr

Amy Carr is Professor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University.