Jun 17, 2012

Rep. Lisa "Vagina" Brown on Religious Freedom

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Nearly lost in the uproar over Rep. Lisa Brown's right to talk about her vagina, has been the substance of her comments on the Michigan State House floor. Brown framed her argument against Michigan's draconian abortion bill in terms of religious freedom.

Yesterday we heard from, uh, the representative from Holland speak about religious freedom. I'm Jewish. I keep kosher in my home. I have two sets of dishes -- one for meat, one for dairy, and another two sets of dishes on top of that for Passover.

Judaism believes that therapeutic abortion, namely abortions performed in order to preserve the life of the mother, are not only permissible but mandatory. The stage of pregnancy does not matter. Wherever there is a question of the life of the mother or that of the unborn child, Jewish law rules in favor of preserving the life of the mother. The status of the fetus as human life does not equal that of the mother.

I have not asked you to adopt and adhere to my religious beliefs. Why are you asking me to adopt yours?

And finally, Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.

So, yeah, that last line is definitely the money quote. You can see why it eclipsed her central argument. It also, apparently, eclipsed her right to speak for her constituents on the House floor. In a time when it is so in vogue to talk about the role of religious freedom in the context of regulating women's bodies and sexuality, you'd think her point would have been well taken. It would seem that when a religion actually advocates protecting or expanding women's rights, it's not so popular.

It's hard to miss the irony. For months we've been subjected to arguments about how women choosing to use birth control, or in any way take charge of their own reproductive destinies, somehow erodes other people's religious freedom. Those arguments have come almost entirely from men, even to the deliberate exclusion of women from the debate. Women, apparently, are supposed to remain silent about our reproductive choices. And now, it would seem, we are also supposed to remain silent about our religious freedom.

The gentleman from Holland, of whom Rep. Davis speaks, looks to be Rep. Joe Haveman. The legislation in question pertains to the right of psych students to discriminate against gay clients.

A House committee today approved a bill introduced by Rep. Joe Haveman that stands up for the religious rights of students in specialized college studies.

The House Education Committee approved House Bill 5040, which prohibits discrimination against students who are studying counseling, social work and psychology for sincerely held religious beliefs.

The bill stems from the case of Eastern Michigan University student Julea Ward, who was removed from her graduate counseling program in 2009 after she requested to refer a client to another counselor because the client's file indicated past discussion of a gay relationship. Ward's religious convictions view homosexuality as morally wrong.

Honestly, in that context, I think such students should be able to refer away clients they find morally objectionable. Who wants to go to a therapist who's bigoted against them? Perhaps there should be legislation requiring therapists to disclose their religious and moral predispositions? The dynamics of a situation like that could be far more damaging to the patient than to the therapist.

Similar legislation, however, has granted wide latitude to the religious to inflict their beliefs on people who do not share them -- pharmacists being exempted from selling the morning after pill, for instance. So this brings me back to the central conundrum. Since when is freedom the right to control other people? This strikes me as stunningly irrational.

What Rep. Brown is describing does, in fact, constitute an assault on religious freedom and the enshrining in law of one religious viewpoint as preeminent over others. Which is to say, restriction of abortion rights violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Wikipedia actually provides a good overview of Jewish rules on abortion.

The Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards takes the view that an abortion is justifiable if a continuation of pregnancy might cause the woman severe physical or psychological harm, or when the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective. The fetus is a life in the process of development, and the decision to abort should never be taken lightly. Thus, the Conservative position is in line with some of the Acharonim who permit an abortion in case of acute potential emotional and psychological harm.

Before reaching her final decision, Conservative Judaism holds that the woman should consult with the biological father, other members of her family, her physician, her Rabbi and any other person who can help her in assessing the many grave legal and moral issues involved.

. . .

Reform Judaism permits abortion, not only when the woman's life is at stake, but also when a pregnancy is "a result of rape or incest; when through genetic testing, it is determined that the child to be born will have a disease that will cause death or severe disability, and the parents believe that the impending birth will be an impossible situation for them," and for several other reasons.[30] More generally, the "Reform perspective on abortion can be described as follows: Abortion is an extremely difficult choice faced by a woman. In all circumstances, it should be her decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, backed up by those whom she trusts (physician, therapist, partner, etc.). This decision should not be taken lightly (abortion should never be used for birth control purposes) and can have life-long ramifications. However, any decision should be left up to the woman within whose body the fetus is growing."[30]

Of course the fiercest irony regarding this whole debate stems from the fact that abortion isn't even prohibited in the Bible. In fact, slaying both the unborn and the young children of enemies features prominently.

11 As for Ephraim, their glory shall fly away like a bird, from the birth, and from the womb, and from the conception.
12 Though they bring up their children, yet will I bereave them, that there shall not be a man left: yea, woe also to them when I depart from them!
13 Ephraim, as I saw Tyrus, is planted in a pleasant place: but Ephraim shall bring forth his children to the murderer.
14 Give them, O Lord: what wilt thou give? give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.
15 All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters.
16 Ephraim is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit: yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb.

~ Hosea 9:11-16

There's also more than a little about murdering women who are -- or might be -- pregnant with the children of enemies.

15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

~ Numbers 31:15-17

And, of course, pregnant tramps. Kill 'em.

And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. ~ Genesis 38:24

I, for one, am way more pro-life than that. So I've always found Judeo-Christian arguments against abortion... rather strange. But everyone parses religious texts differently. That's one of many reasons that religious freedom is so important.

For instance, this Christian ObGyn places more importance on being a "good Samaritan" than on imposing the pro-life, religious views he grew up with on his patients.

I wrestled with the morality of it. I grew up in the South and in fundamentalist Protestantism, I was taught that abortion is wrong.

Yet as I pursued my career as an OB/GYN, I saw the dilemmas that women found themselves in. And I could no longer weigh the life of a pre-viable or lethally flawed fetus equally with the life of the woman sitting before me.

In listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, I came to a deeper understanding of my spirituality, which places a higher value on compassion. King said what made the good Samaritan “good” is that instead of focusing on would happen to him by stopping to help the traveler, he was more concerned about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop to help.

I became more concerned about what would happen to these women if I, as an obstetrician, did not help them.

What is religious freedom if it's not the right to act according our own beliefs and conscience?

Oh, and, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina, VAGINA!!!

Note: Rep. Brown will be performing The Vagina Monologues, along with eight other women legislators, on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol this Monday night. Playwright Eve Ensler will attend.

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