"Abortion from Exodus to Evangelicalism with Mako Nagasawa" Transcript
Season 2, Episode 1
[A guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]
Mako Nagasawa: I think there's something else emotionally that's happening, where evangelicals are trying to evoke disgust as an emotion, as a mobilizing force among their voter base. People don't want other people to think deeply, they just want you to feel something.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust: leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God. I am Jonathan Walton here with Suzie Lahoud and Sy Hoekstra. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Sy Hoekstra: Today, we are going to be talking about abortion, the theology and the politics around it. So a couple of notes before we get started on that. One is just the topic in and of itself, I think, is kind of its own content warning, but there are issues of domestic violence and potentially sexual assault that will come up around that conversation. In addition to that, I just wanted to particularly note for this episode, we are recording this on May 3rd. We recorded some of these before we got the season started. It's the day after we learned of the leaked Supreme Court opinion, which is kind of a wild idea in and of itself, but the leaked Supreme Court opinion that is likely going to overturn Roe v. Wade in the coming month and a half or so before the Supreme Court term is over. So I just wanted to acknowledge at the top, this is a heavy emotional topic to begin with, and it's going to be an extremely fraught topic in the next couple of months. There are implications beyond just the issue of abortion, but that is where we're going to be focusing today in an attempt to try and get a better handle on where the church can and should be on these issues.
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Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, our guest today is Mako Nagasawa, author of the book, Abortion Policy and Christian Social Ethics in the United States. Mako studied industrial engineering and public policy at Stanford with a focus on education. He worked at Intel Corp for six years while serving a Spanish speaking ministry to Mexican immigrants in East Palo Alto, California. He has also worked for two start-up companies trying to bring technology and jobs to inner city communities in Boston, Massachusetts. Since 2000, Mako and his family have lived in a Christian intentional community house, in a Black and brown neighborhood in Dorchester. Mako has done campus ministry since 2001 and founded the Anástasis Center in 2014. He has a master of theological studies from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary.
Mako, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Mako Nagasawa: Thank you. Thanks for having me, it’s great to be with you.
Suzie Lahoud: Well, we're just so grateful to have this, as I said difficult, but I think important conversation with you today, and your book certainly brings so much to this discussion. So just to start us off, your book, a lot of the work that it does is placing our current abortion debate in its historical context, a context that unfortunately many Christians I think know very little about. So just to start us off, could we do a lightning round of you giving some brief responses to some basic things people might believe about the history of abortion, politics and theology, just to give people a sense of how much more information there is to learn. Would you be up for doing that?
Mako Nagasawa: Sure, I’ll do my best.
Suzie Lahoud: All right. So first point: the Bible and church tradition clearly teach that life begins at conception.
Mako Nagasawa: Yeah. That is not true, and to distinguish the Bible from church tradition, first of all [laughs] that tells us that, okay, I am coming at this as a Protestant.
Suzie Lahoud: Great point.
Mako Nagasawa: There is one passage that is the single most important passage on this issue, because it talks about the moral weight of the unborn fetus, and that is Exodus 21:22 -25. It's a situation where a pregnant woman is struck and something happens from there. So the Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint translation of that passage do not agree with each other. Okay, so that's number one, fascinating and important, but not only that. Neither one can be interpreted to mean that legal human personhood begins at conception. So the Hebrew Masoretic text says it's birth and breath. And so the majority Jewish position on abortion says birth and breath constitute full legal personhood.
Then the Greek Septuagint says something about fetal formation, which is difficult to understand exactly what it has in mind. So, but in any case, the idea that the Bible teaches that full human personhood begins at conception is not true. Then you get into church tradition. So broadly speaking, the Greek East and the Latin West went in different directions on the fetus and abortion because they relied on science, the science of their day and different scientific influences. In a nutshell, Galen and Hippocrates were influences on the Greek East, and Aristotle was an influence in the Latin West. They had a difference of opinion and they were aware that they have this difference of opinion, and so church tradition does not agree on what to do.
Suzie Lahoud: So second point: historically, Christians have advocated for policies punishing abortions, regardless of the mother's circumstances.
Mako Nagasawa: No, that is not true. Not until 1980.
Sy Hoekstra: What 1980? What happened in 1980? What was the position before that?
Mako Nagasawa: First of all, I should say Catholics and Protestants went in different directions for quite some time. But in 1980, that's when the GOP and the Republican Party used the Southern strategy and abortion to bring in conservative Protestants into the GOP away from the democratic party. So that's when things started changing. Until then, the Southern Baptist Convention said that abortion should be legal for all the typical exceptions, rape, incest and fetal deformity, because of the likelihood of harm to the physical, mental, and emotional state of the mother. After that point, the logic of retribution started to be applied to abortion policy. So we moved abortion policy away from a social welfare primarily issue over to a criminal justice issue, and that changed.
Sy Hoekstra: Which makes so much sense for 1980 in the era of expanding mass incarceration and all.
Mako Nagasawa: It does.
Jonathan Walton: [singing] Jerry Falwell.
Sy Hoekstra: [laughs] And Jerry Falwell . Yes, right. Exactly. Go ahead Suzie, sorry.
Suzie Lahoud: Next one: conservative Protestants in the US have historically been anti-abortion.
Mako Nagasawa: So that is complicated, but in the sense that we typically think about it, no. It was not until 1980 when conservative Protestants and like the Moral Majority thought they should be anti-abortion. Before that they thought being anti-abortion was a Catholic thing.
Suzie Lahoud: The sanctity of life has been the primary justification for the anti-abortion movement in US history.
Mako Nagasawa: Well [laughs], in a formal sense, sometimes. So there may be well-meaning people who believe in the sanctity of life and say that that's the reason, but the leaders of policy shifts were not motivated by the sanctity of life. It was that, at different times in US history, anti-abortion laws were motivated by, for example, anti-poisoning of the mother. Because the doctors who formed the AMA in 1840, wanted to get rid of the quacks who were prescribing poisons for abortion. So abortion was kind of used as an issue for other reasons, and historically, it's pretty clear that that's how it's been used. So then meanwhile, the doctors practiced abortion in their clinics. So that's why we know that it was anti-poisoning, not anti-abortion.
Then later anti-abortion laws were motivated by WASP elites, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites who were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. So with all these Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, they came and had big families. So the leaders of Anglo-Saxon Protestant communities were afraid of being replaced by these people who were not white at the time. They were not considered white at the time, and so they started to push anti-abortion. But the South was different because they were more accepting of abortion because of anti-blackness and the prevalence of rape. Just to deal with that made it easier for white supremacy. So it was complicated.
Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, I have to say Mako, that's one of the most incredible things I think about your book, is how you remove the veil on how this debate has been utilized and almost weaponized at certain times throughout history. So again, thank you for taking us through that at such a rapid pace, but certainly so much to unpack there.
Then the final thing that we wanted to sort of throw at you: countries that have laws outlawing abortion have fewer abortions.
Mako Nagasawa: I think generally what we are interested in there is that it's the overall approach. So countries that outlaw abortion, because they take a criminal justice style approach to it like Uganda, actually have the highest rates of abortion. Because it also accompanies the belief that, look, this is your own choice, it’s your own failing, if you have sex before you're ready, if you have a child before you're ready. So the tendency for social welfare supports to be there also drives people to have abortions. As opposed to let's say Western Europe, where there are some anti-abortion laws like after the first trimester. But the rates of abortion are the lowest in the world because there's stronger social welfare programs and they take a social welfare approach.
Suzie Lahoud: Yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for going through that. I hope that gives people a sense of kind of A) your breadth of knowledge on the subject, and B) how much there is for everybody to learn here. And how important it is for us to learn those things before we jump into giving our opinions on the subject. You have a lot of historical context in your book as I'm sure people have now heard from what you've said. Could you give us kind of a broad overview of how the position among Protestants in the United States has changed over time in the US?
Mako Nagasawa: Sure. That's a, it's a fascinating story. So, at the time of the US Constitution when it was written, Catholics and Protestants alike believed in quickening. Quickening was the halfway point in the pregnancy where mom felt the baby kick. That was again, based on this idea from the Greek Septuagint translation, which said fetal formation happens at some time, some undefined time. And the Latin West, meaning Catholics and Protestants, just accepted that ensoulment was responsible for motion.
Sy Hoekstra: Ensoulment, meaning the literal moment that a soul enters a baby.
Mako Nagasawa: That’s right. That's right. So that's why it was important for mom to feel the baby kick. So somehow the physical formation of the fetus was ready enough for God to ensoul the fetus, and that meant the baby kicked. Obviously it was subjective and all that, but the practice of abortion was considered okay up until that point. So that started to change in the US in the 1800s, because doctors were concerned about the quacks. So the quacks were running around, these were the snake oil salesmen, and they would sell a lot of things and be very duplicitous and they would sell poison to women to cause abortions. So the doctors started to become anti-abortion in the sense that they were against poisoning. So this was also a way to get the public to believe that the AMA and licensed physicians, really was qualitatively different than buying poison from like the guy running around with a wagon.
Jonathan Walton: The American Medical Association, right?
Mako Nagasawa: Right, the American Medical Association. So that was another step. At the time of the Civil War though, what we would call evangelical Protestants accepted abortion. So, up to the point of quickening again, because the idea was, you want to have fewer kids because then you could raise them better. Now whether that's true or not, I'll leave that up to you, but that was what they thought. And those attitudes continued on, even when immigrants came from Catholic countries and they had big families. So in the North, it was Irish, Italian, German, and so on, and in the West it was Mexican Catholics. So the Protestant communities were getting quote-unquote “replaced,” or that was the fear.
So the leaders of those communities, both in the church and the doctors, because the doctors also tended to be Protestants, the elites started to try to persuade women not to get abortions. So Theodore Roosevelt who winds up also being a big racial replacement fearmonger, goes around asking WASP women not to get abortions. So that was happening in the North and the West. In the South though, because… gosh, there's no easy way to say this, but because biracial children or the offspring of a white man and a Black woman could no longer be enslaved, there was not an economic reason to keep those kids. So they actually, the Southern states actually held onto quickening for decades. I'm not sure exactly when each one changed, but well, until like I think 1910, Kentucky had quickening in their state laws as the marker, versus the folks in the North and the West became anti-abortion in policy, even though doctors continued to perform abortions. But in any case, the politics of reproduction has always been linked among Protestants to race, economics, professionalization and things like that.
Now in the 1950s, that's where, by that time the Catholics had changed their position in 1869, and the Catholic Democrats— Catholics were largely Democrats because they supported the New Deal and they were anti-poverty and pro-labor. And yes, they were anti-abortion because they saw that the Great Depression made people get abortions, because if you have no hope, why would you bring children into the world? So to them, economics was a, or poverty was a driver of the abortion rate. But in the fifties, sixties, and then later on, slowly white evangelicals started to tie the abortion rates to poverty in the opposite way. So they thought it's just your fault if you bring children into poverty. So in the 1950s, they were already mobilized against Brown v. Board. So this rhetoric of unelected judges making decisions for us and states' rights, that comes from the anti-civil rights movement, especially among white evangelicals.
Then that language became used and drawn into the convergence of the pro-life movement with the Republican Party. So in 1980, that came to kind of this point of convergence with the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich and others.
Jonathan Walton: Yes. I'm going to resist the urge to talk about Jerry Falwell, all of that, and take a little bit of a pivot to jump into the beginning of the book. You start to draw a thread from the anti-science sentiment that emerged in both the Protestant and the Catholic church in the mid 1800s, and a loss of nuance regarding abortion within the church. Can you unpack that a little bit?
Mako Nagasawa: Sure. So until 1869, the Roman Catholic church believed that abortion was okay until the point of quickening. Again, that was based on well, the Greek Septuagint translation. It was also based on Augustine's view, Thomas Aquinas, multiple popes during the medieval period had said that. I mean, it is striking. In 1869 they changed their position and they said, we believe now personhood begins at the moment of conception based on moral probability. And moral probability is not certainty, but it's basically, it's we don't want to take the risk that we're killing a person. So there's a moral probability that that's the case from the moment of conception, and so that's how they argued.
In 1870, and by the way, it's because we were learning more about the fetus from a scientific standpoint. So the Catholic church in many ways is responding to science and trying to make a good faith response. However, at the same time they're also afraid of science, and afraid that science is going to dethrone the church, the authority of the clergy. Especially when it comes to scripture, this is the deconstruction of scripture happening through what's called literary criticism. So the Catholics were mostly concerned about that. I mean, I think they had some reservations about Darwin and Darwinism being taught around this time. But in 1869, they shift on abortion, or I should say, they shift on personhood and the point at which they're saying it begins.
But it's also really intriguing that in 1870 in Vatican I, they shift on the authority of the pope. So they declare the doctrine of papal infallibility. You could tell this is motivated by fears of science, because they thought science is creating a structure of knowledge. And so as the church or as a Christian faith, how do we compete with that structure of knowledge? Well, it's to declare that our guy is never wrong when he sits on the chair, right? Ex cathedra. So that had never been said before, and it’s really hard to project that backwards because popes change their policies [laughs]. And I mean, at one point there were three popes.
So the idea that all of a sudden, like papal infallibility comes about at the same time you say that human personhood begins at conception in all probability, I think reveals something. I think it reveals a concern to respond to science and in some ways to maintain your relevance. So I would interpret that as, in 1869, that the church is saying, the Catholic church is saying, we're going to make an argument about human personhood and abortion that science just could never touch, could never prove, and we're going to locate it here, that will guarantee that we will always be relevant. In the meantime, keep in mind that the church is also arguing about contraception and saying, because there's all these new contraception techniques, right, like the condom had been developed recently. The idea of the condom had been around, but the condom itself had been developed fairly recently around that time.
Sy Hoekstra: Then if you add in industrialization and mass production, that's a really big new issue that you're dealing with.
Mako Nagasawa: That's right. So that is what the Catholic church is dealing with in the 1800s.
Sy Hoekstra: Can we jump to, this part I thought was really interesting, so that we're not just sort of Protestants talking about the Catholic church. You draw a parallel to basically the rise of the kind of uniquely 20th century idea of infallibility and inerrancy of scripture, which is the parallel Protestant move to what you just described. Could you explain that a little bit?
Mako Nagasawa: That’s right. Well, in 1902 fundamentalists, what we now call fundamentalist evangelicals published “The Fundamentals.” There was a brochure outlining kind of fundamentals of Protestant Christian faith. Basically saying, scripture in its original autographs, those are infallible. like those are absolutely trustworthy, totally authoritative and so on. And it was the Protestant version of the Catholic statement of papal infallibility. Like, well, we need to compete with science somehow.
So it's a little… well, it's interesting when you place it in context, because at that time there were evangelicals who still believed that chattel slavery was biblical. Who thought like if you support scripture, then you should support the return of chattel slavery. I mean, I think that was the position of Princeton Theological Seminary for some decades. So they felt attacked, the Protestants did. The conservative Protestants felt, oh, the country, they abolished slavery and now we have this progressive Protestant wing. So they were feeling like the minority and beleaguered and so on and so forth.
And then there was the 1925 Scopes Trial where creationism versus evolutionism was kind of on display in front of the nation. And of course fundamentalists were very concerned about that, and that was another kind of a blow to the fundamentalists who insisted on, in my view, the worst possible interpretation of Genesis one — that these were six 24-hour days and so on. So many doubled down, this became part of, this kind of approach to scripture became part of a resistance to science.
Sy Hoekstra: I think we should probably just note that, I think whenever you talk about like the infallibility or inerrancy of scripture, people don't necessarily realize that that's like a 20th century invention. That doesn't mean nobody before then was concerned about the authority of scripture [laughs]. Like whether anything that scripture says is true or anything like that. It's just there was this context and the characterization of the Bible having absolutely not one error in it, and everything being literally true, is a recent invention in one relatively small wing of the church.
Suzie Lahoud: Right, and that that's a separate discussion from say divine inspiration.
Mako Nagasawa: Right. So scripture could be authoritative because it's inspired and it points us to Jesus for instance. That's the traditional way of understanding scripture. Infallibility means without error in regards to a whole bunch of other things, like history, science, and so on.
Suzie Lahoud: Another thing that we wanted to dig into with you, is you also talk in your book about the social context in which debates around abortion need to be understood, particularly as it pertains to the rights and agency of women. So could you just sort of dig into that a little bit more? You begin sort of in the Greco-Roman world, but then you also bring it forward into the world today. Yeah, could you get into some of that from the book?
Mako Nagasawa: Absolutely. I think it's really important to recognize today, for example, that there are ways that policies complement one another, or they reflect a whole package of views. In the book, I talk about a North Carolina law about men being able to continue on with sex, even if a woman were to withdraw her consent. So while they were having sex. Apparently, this came about because some men took off their condom during sex, and then the woman said, “Wait a minute, I refuse to go on.” And essentially North Carolina said, no, the man has a right to continue. Now that I think is just absurd. Other states for example California, say that is rape. To continue on in the act of sex when one partner has withdrawn their consent, it is rape.
That's what I mean by, we have to look at the social context, and especially the rights and agency of women, because you would think that if you're against abortion, or if you want to keep the abortion rate low, then you would be against laws like the one in North Carolina. But somehow, different states seem to incorporate abortion and other aspects of reproductive politics into a larger package of policy views that are stripping rights from women, stripping agency from women. I look at what scripture says about the relative power of women to men, and I reach conclusions that are surprising to me sometimes.
I read the book again yesterday and I thought, wow, this is amazing [laughter]. So for example… not the book [laughter]… but the fact that for example, Jewish and Christian tradition recognize these things. For example, Jewish law recognizes that women are more, that wives are more vulnerable than husbands in marriage itself, which I mean in the ancient world, that is undeniably true. So in Exodus 21, there's this small place where it says, wives are entitled to food and shelter and conjugal rights, meaning sexual pleasure, and husbands are not entitled to sexual pleasure from their wives. And the Jewish tradition and rabbis are just uniformly recognizing this.
What that means is that Jewish law recognizes that marital rape can happen. It can happen, and they are against it. They interpret scripture as being against it. So, and that's different than let's say the UK or the US until the seventies and eighties. Our laws said marital rape is not even a thing legally. Because the presumption is when a woman says “yes” at the altar, she says “yes” to every other time after that. Even if her husband has been separated from her and returns and demands sex. Even if he acquires AIDS or a venereal disease, she cannot say “no,” because at the altar, she said “yes.” Jewish law goes completely opposite of that, and that is based on not just Exodus 21, but also the recognition in Jewish law that laws favor the vulnerable. That you want to protect the party that's more vulnerable.
That is also seen in the rape case in Deuteronomy 22, which is you need two to three witnesses to make an accusation against someone else. But in the case of rape, the woman's voice counts as the two to three. So you don't need others, and of course, there's not going to be witnesses to the crime. There may not even be character witnesses to the guy's character. Essentially, Jewish law or scripture on the whole advantages women over men in certain cases. That is really significant.
I think that the Christian Church recognized this early on when they said that prostitution is a form of slavery. So they said we don't want, we recognize prostitution is a problem, but what kind of problem is it? Is it a problem where the woman who is a prostitute is guilty of sin? Like, is she committing a sin? Now, many folks would say, “Yes, absolutely,” but the early church said no. So as early as the Council of Elvira in Spain in maybe 306, in the year 306, they said essentially, no, the woman is not guilty of personal sin. Prostitution is a social sin and, essentially, what they're doing is they're recognizing there are many reasons why a woman might be a prostitute. She could be being blackmailed. She could have been kidnapped. She could have been abandoned by her parents and then raised by a pimp. I mean, she could be in poverty and this might be her only way of making a living.
And the Council of Elvira said, we understand that, and we don't think it's a good situation for her to be in. So as much as possible, we want to provide a way out. But the personal sin is on the man. The man buying sex from a prostitute, what are his motivations? Well, really, there's only one motivation for that and it's always sinful. So they recognize that there are situations where women are more vulnerable than men in these situations and they continued on. In church tradition, Especially when you get to Pulcheria in the fourth century, who basically was like a Roman emperor for a time and then Theodora and Justinian in the five hundreds. They change a lot of laws out of Christian conviction about women's rights, women's rights to own property, women's access to their children and so on and so forth. So that's a, it's a big deal when we look at Christian tradition as a whole and how much they focused on the wellbeing of the woman.
Sy Hoekstra: Which is a little bit wild when you consider where we are today, in terms of how people think about abortion. Because I think in your book, you also talk about how they basically said the same thing about abortion. They made exceptions, or bans on abortion for women who were in like material need, which was a lot of people back then, right? Like that was a very large chunk of the women.
Mako Nagasawa: Yes. Technically, I think Basil of Caesarea in his Epistle Number 219, he’s talking about infanticide. And he is talking as a church leader about, but it would cover abortion. But a church leader about like, what kind of church discipline should we have? And that's a whole other topic, but essentially he said, yeah, infanticide is never desirable, and for most cases, we would say 10 years of going without communion or something like that. However, if the mother or the parents are in poverty, then it's understandable. It's understandable that they would commit infanticide because maybe they're having to choose between different children or something like that. So they look at infanticide and abortion within a social context and not just as an individual issue. And because they do that, they have a lot of I think compassion and sensitivity to social welfare.
Sy Hoekstra: I want to talk about the question of disability for a minute, because this is actually, where we just went with this conversation is where I start to get nervous. So I think listeners probably know I'm blind and it's the result of a genetic condition. I've been told by doctors before that, oh, we can get rid of this genetic condition now by detecting it in the womb and aborting fetuses. So I normally hate talking about abortion. I’ve appreciated this conversation because you're digging into nuance on a level that we don't normally. But I normally hate talking about it because basically, it's really hard to get like any real disability acknowledgement of the pain involved.
Because a lot of times the pro-lifers, the conservative movement want to talk about these issues of how the overwhelming number of children with Down Syndrome are aborted when it's detected in the womb, or whatever. And kind of use the disability rights movement to put forward their cause, but otherwise say nothing about disability. You know, you were saying, you're not talking about social welfare for disabled people that would actually prevent probably some abortions if you were supporting disabled people in real ways, that sort of thing.
Then a lot of times the pro-choice movement is just sort of, because they want to fight the pro-life narrative and make everything about just autonomy over your own body, it becomes an issue where, I'm not against any of that, I understand your political needs. I just, there needs to be some amount of recognition that the result, the impact of legal abortions is taking out entire populations of disabled people. Its like when you have any system like that, it's going to run along the lines of existing discrimination and existing prejudices that people have, and like that's what shows up in abortion. So I don't, I'm not someone who says let's ban it, let's criminalize it, let's whatever, but I just have a hard… Because I will also say, abortion is a disability rights issue to a certain degree abortion access, because there are plenty of people with medical conditions and disabilities where pregnancy is a death sentence. So abortion actually needs to be available in order to have the mother not die of the child who's being born and also potentially the child dying as well, right?
So anyways, I'm wondering where all of that, I just rambled for a bit, but this is a hard thing for me to process sometimes. I'm wondering where you think disability and eugenics and all those questions plays into this debate in any significant way, if you have thoughts on that.
Mako Nagasawa: Well, a few, Sy. As you said, it is kind of, the two issues or the two sets of issues are often brought together in ways that are not always coherent and not always consistent. So when we look at reasons for why women or married couples say that they procure abortions, I think we have to take that seriously. Now, it’s not that we always can agree. For instance, my personal view of Down Syndrome, when you have such a situation where the majority of parents and siblings of a Down Syndrome child and sibling say this person has made my life richer, like our family life is richer, who is it that calls the Downes Syndrome person a liability exactly?
So I think it is a tragedy that up to 92 percent of kids detected in the womb with Down Syndrome are aborted. In the book, I don't consider every single disability, whether it's genetic, epigenetic, environmentally caused and things like that. I felt like that goes really, really far and the book was already feeling really long. But I would say that it is really hard for me to believe the current pro-life movement when they say we are for life, when they also want to strip out funding from public education, for example.
Sy Hoekstra: Or Social Security Disability Income, yeah.
Mako Nagasawa: Exactly, because the first people affected are usually special needs folks. Again, I think the bigger issue is, are we treating abortion as part of a criminal justice paradigm or are we treating it as part of a social welfare public health paradigm? The reports from women who procure abortions indicate we should treat it as part of a social welfare public health issue. When over 14 percent of all abortions are procured by married women, that's really serious. Even married people, probably for economic reasons, are stressed and parenting is hard. So folks get abortions because they can't afford another child either economically or emotionally.
Or what do we do with the fact that women at the poverty line have three times the level in terms of the abortion rate of women who are not in poverty? That tells us a great deal about why it is that people have abortions. So if we believe that we should at a minimum try to bring down the abortion rate by bringing down the rate of unintended pregnancies, then I think we have to move abortion away from just a criminal justice issue over to part of our social welfare.
Suzie Lahoud: Going along with that, could you talk to us about policy responses to abortion that the pro-life movement has put forward in the US, and why you see them as inadequate or harmful? What are the factors that you think we should take into account when shaping abortion policy? Again, building off of this really helpful paradigm shift that you just shared with us?
Mako Nagasawa: Sure. Traditionally, the pro-life movement has, well, I would say in the past few decades, has tried to see abortion as an issue where the fetus is the victim, the mother is the secondary victim, and the doctor is the criminal. So the responses to that have been well, we should strip the doctor of a license or so on and so forth. So I think the inadequacy of that is, again, it is treating the doctor or the healthcare system as part of the criminal justice system. So those folks have to become mandated reporters. People like nurses, administrators, doctors in clinics where they suspect maybe abortion is being practiced by someone, one of their colleagues, they have to tell on that person, or at least that's the theory at times.
I go through a couple of examples where, a couple of states where that is actually being carried out. But essentially, we have decades worth of data prior to Roe v. Wade of how those kinds of anti-abortion laws did not actually stop abortions. They just made it really easy for wealthy white women and connected women to get abortions kind of in secret and women of color or poor women are forced to get back alley abortions and so on. Because it does not actually affect the abortion rate. What it winds up doing is, it winds up creating an atmosphere like Prohibition created for alcohol. Namely, police officers became totally corrupted by kickbacks or ways that they were even invested in it.
So when it came to abortion, there's just story after story of, for example there was one story of a doctor in coal country, in Pennsylvania, who, he was performing abortions. There was abortion tourism going on because people would travel to this town to get an abortion. So it actually fed the local economy in that sense. So one person tried to run against this or tried to run for district attorney or something and promised to throw this doctor in jail. But it never worked because the police, they and their families all benefited from the services this doctor provided. The doctors were brought to trial, the juries would just say, not guilty. There were some token people, usually doctors who were about 65 and ready to retire, and law enforcement would go after them as kind of a token gesture. But I mean, it’s just really weird.
So when you read Mark Graber’s book on abortion policy, it is stunning how anti-abortion laws in that sense warped law enforcement, the medical profession and so on. So treating it as part of a criminal justice paradigm, again, it is really dangerous. It puts people into, it puts doctors into the situation of, for example, having to turn down a suicidal, pregnant woman who says she's going to kill herself because she didn't expect to be pregnant. And then doctors are supposed to say no to that. It puts everyone in a really, really hard situation. Now granted, no one's in a good situation, but I think there are factors like that, that we should take into account.
Another policy that the pro-life movement tends to be against is meaningful contraception. So copper IUDs, for instance, are the single most effective way of — especially for poor women — of having reliable birth control. But conservative lawmakers will vote against programs giving out free copper IUDs, or other contraceptive care related to for example the Affordable Care Act, because they don't want to quote-unquote “fund abortion.” The problem with that, and I get into this in the book, is that the most conservative that you could be about when ensoulment happens, is probably at 23 days. Which is well out, and I could explain that later, but it's well outside the range in which a copper IUD might be able to cause an abortion if it allows a fertilization, but causes non-implantation in the uterus. Oh my gosh, it's so complicated. So conservative lawmakers are their own worst enemy in that case, because they are throwing out the single most effective tool that would prevent unintended pregnancies and abortions.
Sy Hoekstra: I think that really does highlight the degree to which preventing abortion is not necessarily about preventing abortion.
Jonathan Walton: Exactly.
Sy Hoekstra: Like you were saying before, it is about punishing people, women who have been promiscuous or whatever. It is about controlling people's sexual activity more than it is about the sanctity of life or whatever.
Mako Nagasawa: That's right. Another good example Sy, is sex education in public schools. In Texas for instance, and I think this is true in other school districts, they want to only have abstinence only sex education. Well, that is the single most ineffective approach to having sex education.
Jonathan Walton: Mako, I have a lot of thoughts. You're well aware of like the anti-intellectualism that's embedded itself into the white evangelical Moral Majority. Is it possible for you to help draw the line? Because you said it was a hundred years later and effectively white evangelicals were having the same argument, the same problem that the scholars a hundred years before in the Catholic church were having. They're afraid of losing influence, afraid of losing power, afraid of losing these things, and therefore you construct a narrative and an institution that then protects the institution and the individuals in it, and disadvantages the communities around it. So can you explain how they are not different. Like we're doing the same thing, if that makes sense?
Mako Nagasawa: Sure. I think there are different ways. Well, Jonathan, there may be different ways in which you mean that, but there are certainly ways that I hear your question and I think… So there's definitely similarities with the anti-science standpoint, with the anti-intellectual view. When you look at Paul Broun, who's a Republican Congressman and I talk about him in chapter one and the amount of being against evolution, against standard geology, and against embryology, which is crucial because that's also, the field of embryology is telling us something about how human personhood cannot possibly be traced back to the moment of conception. That's really important.
So if you say, oh, well, I'm just going to throw out that field of science and you claim to be a doctor and a lawmaker, then you can tell there's anti-intellectualism going on. I think there's something else emotionally that's happening where I think evangelicals are trying to evoke disgust as an emotion, as a mobilizing force among their voter base. So you think about how often it was that people say, well, the Democratic Party is filled with pedophiles, the QAnon conspiracy. Or turning human beings like migrants coming from the south to the US-Mexico border into germs. Like they're coming to infest our country. They have disease and things like that.
When language like that is used for outsiders or for issues, it is fascist and it is anti-intellectual, because people don't want other people to think deeply, they just want you to feel something. So abortion and pedophilia, I think are the big culture war issues along with critical race theory, and, oh my gosh, your children are being taught to hate themselves, which is not true. So all of these issues have something in common, which is the intended emotion is disgust.
Sy Hoekstra: And it’s also all around: they're coming for our families and your children.
Mako Nagasawa: Right. So there's a sense of, I need to protect my family or my community. Especially for men, I think there's a kind of a, it taps into some kind of potentially toxic idea that I'm the only one who can go out and protect my family against this, against ideas. So yeah, I think there's that, and I think then when it comes to scripture and science, it is very anti-intellectual. So I think every time I talk with folks who are about, like for example on abortion, I weigh in selectively on certain debates that are happening on Facebook. I'm one of those people who tries to insert polite, thoughtful comments here and there.
Sy Hoekstra: But then you’re a baby killer.
Mako Nagasawa: Well, there's that, but also, yeah, there's a whataboutism. But also in the most hopeful sense when I say, what about Exodus 21, and people take one or two steps down that path, they are just shocked. They didn't know these things. So they're not sure what to do anymore and they leave the discussion. That suggests to me that there's some hope for these discussions.
Jonathan Walton: Right. I think that the point that you make about disgust, that is a, it's a high motivator. Like it's an innate motivator. Then also the getting people to feel deeply as opposed to think deeply is helpful for fascism and social control. So I hope that your book inspires people to do and learn differently and admit that we are unconsciously incompetent when it comes to the majority of these things. We just don't know what we don’t know.
Sy Hoekstra: Unconsciously incompetent is a great phrase [laughs].
Mako Nagasawa: Yes. Yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: So we're going to wrap up here, even though we can talk about this for hours. And there's so much more in your book, we've touched on a lot of it, but not anywhere near all of it. So, but before we go, could you tell us where people can find you on the internet and anything you'd like to plug.
Mako Nagasawa: So I'm on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but I would love for people to take a look at my organization's website, and that is at www.anastasiscenter.org. That is spelled A-N-A-S-T-A-S-I-S, anástasis. It's the Greek word for resurrection. There's a beautiful piece of artwork called “The Anástasis” that I'm drawing from. So there's a lot of material there on Christian restorative justice or relational vision of justice, which I think abortion is certainly part of our, I think we need to be informed by relational visions of justice. Because even treating the mother and the fetus as one, but also two who are related is really vital. And then do you bring in the role of the father, that gets… and the role of other people. Like something as basic as this question, are we responsible for other people's children? Well, I mean, I think Senator Ron Johnson recently said, no, but, and I think that displays the retributive mindset of dare I say, white evangelicalism, because they believe in a highly retributive God. And I think to believe more and more in a relational and a restorative God who calls us into responsibility for other people's children, I think is really, really important.
Sy Hoekstra: So Mako has a lot to say on a lot of subjects and you should go listen to him if you couldn't tell [laughs]. It's just like, yeah, all your stuff on restorative justice is super interesting, and people should definitely check out that website. What are your handles on social media?
Mako Nagasawa: Oh, on Facebook, Mako Nagasawa. M-A-K-O, last name N-A-G-A-S-A-W-A. On Twitter it's @Mako_Nagasawa, and on Instagram I think it’s just Mako Nagasawa.
Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for being with us. Listeners, just as a quick reminder, please do, in addition to going to Anastasiscenter.org, go to KTFPress.com/freemonth, sign up for the free month of our subscription. Please do consider supporting us that way if you are at all benefiting from what we're doing. We would really, really appreciate the support. Please also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @KTFPress. Follow, subscribe, whatever your podcast player says to this show. Give us a rating and review. All of those things are extremely helpful to us, and we really appreciate you doing them.
As always, our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all in two weeks.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, Sy, I’ll say, the question that I have on here is about scripture and I think we've…
Sy Hoekstra: Jonathan
Jonathan Walton: Yeah?
Sy Hoekstra: Do whatever you want, man. Go off about Jerry Falwell, do whatever. Go for it.
Jonathan Walton: Mako, I have a lot of thoughts.