Trust Women

A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice

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Rebecca Todd Peters
  • Boston, MA: 
    Beacon Press
    , April
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Trust women!” is the central message and demand of Rebecca Todd Peters latest publication. She points to the crucial question underlying the abortion debate: whether women are trusted as moral agents. In the beginning Peters offers some impressive facts:

“Every year in the United States, 6.4 million women get pregnant, and half of these pregnancies are unplanned.… 50 to 60 percent of the women who have abortions were using birth control during the month they got pregnant.… Forty percent of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, meaning that roughly one-third of US women will have an abortion by age 45” (2).

Peters wants to overcome what she calls the “justification paradigm” that dominates the public discourse about abortion in the US. This paradigm sets a clear expectation: when you get pregnant, you are expected to have the baby. Abortion “disrupts the narrative” (4). In consequence, women have to justify their decision to end a pregnancy by offering socially accepted reasons. The debate itself is permeated by the necessity of justification: pro-choice arguments seek to justify the right for abortion, and pro-life arguments seek to limit or even eliminate acceptable justifications.

In order to supersede this framework, Peters establishes a framework of reproductive justice that aims to shift “how we think about, talk about, and legislate women´s reproductive health and well-being” (7). The whole context of women’s lives and their reproductive needs have to be considered, not only their abortions. Here, Peters’s reproductive justice successfully takes into account the individual and her choices in her life situation as well as the larger social context in which the individual woman makes her decisions. Thus, facing an unplanned or a planned but medically-compromised pregnancy, the question of whether to terminate the pregnancy arises within the personal context that is strongly shaped by the social world in which women live: “poverty, healthcare, safety, daycare, employment, and many other factors” (193) play an important role in decision making.

Moreover, women should be accepted and respected as moral agents who critically reflect on their decisions within their personal circumstances. The category of wanted or unwanted pregnancies—a difference profoundly analyzed in chapter 2—results in a differentiated perception of the given situation and takes the life circumstances as well as the emotional disposition of women seriously. 

Peters holds that the present discourse about reproduction is rooted in a misogynistic and patriarchal history. To prove this, a detailed account of female sexuality and abortion throughout history describes how misogyny colored theological arguments and how patriarchal structures led to social control. Theological teachings and convictions have to be reconsidered with special regard to female sexuality, the beginning of life, parenting, and abortion: “To honor women’s wisdom to discern God’s calling, we must view a woman’s moral obligation to a prenate as a covenant commitment that requires her assent” (175).

The term “prenate”is introduced to refer to “the developing entity as long as it resides inside the pregnant woman” (5) because current language does not offer an adequate expression that coincides with women’s perceptions during pregnancy (164). This term seems able to leave behind medical and sterile expressions like fetus or embryo.

Subsequently, in part 3, Peters argues that it is only through the experience of birth that the prenate reaches the status of a member of the human community. Before this threshold into life, the prenate is neither a person nor just a bunch of cells—it represents “nascent life” (160) and carries the possibility of personhood but in the fragile status of “not-yet” (161). 

Accordingly, pregnancy, gestation, and birth can be described as special states that fit into the concept of liminality as a becoming and a crossing (157). 

According to Peters, the currently existing and predominant moral categories don’t consider this unique state of both the prenate and the pregnant woman. Therefore, she argues that prenate should not only be a descriptive category but also a moral category of nascent life. The prenate has a moral value as a potential person and as a potential member of the human community: “Because prenates represent the potential for human life and personhood, the decision to end a pregnancy is not trivial. At the same time, any value that might be afforded to prenatal life is not equivalent to the value of existing life; a prenate does not possess the same value that a person holds after he or she is born” (165). Consequently, Peters argues that women’s capacity to control their fertility isa moral good and that abortion can be a moral good and a responsible decision (205).

The introduction of the book opens with a personal account of the author’s experience with her first abortion. Peters is serious about her methodological claim and courageous in her application: “Stories matter, and abortion cannot be understood—culturally, theologically, socially, or politically—outside the lives of women who have abortions” (15). Moreover, her approach is rooted in the reproductive justice movement which also highlights the personal experiences and concrete realities of all women.

Altogether, Peters’s study is well balanced and profound; the concept of the prenate with its ethical implications is especially convincing. The study combines a solid theoretical framework with illuminating examples taken from interviews. However, some further theoretical background on the concept of liminality would have been useful to locate it in the academic discussion. Far beyond the political debate in the US, this book is a must-read and fundamentally furthers the understanding of the ethical issues surrounding reproduction.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Friederike Hoffmann is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rebecca Todd Peters is Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her work as a feminist social ethicist is focused on globalization, economic, environmental, and reproductive justice. Her books include In Search of the Good Life and Solidarity Ethics. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she has been active denominationally and ecumenically for more than twenty-five years and currently represents the PC (USA) as a member of the Faith and Order Standing Commission of the World Council of Churches.


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