The Religious War Against Women by Annie Laurie Gaylor (April 1998)

April 1998

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

This speech was given on March 14, 1998, from the pulpit of the historic Sixteenth Avenue Baptist church in Birmingham Alabama. The occasion was the “week of remembrance and renewal” hosted by the Emergency Coalition for Choice, responding to the January 29 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic that killed guard Robert Sanderson and maimed nurse Emily Lyons.

The group I represent, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, came into existence in part because of the abortion movement, because of the organized religious opposition to abortion rights. My mother Anne Gaylor in working for the repeal of antiabortion laws in Wisconsin in the late sixties soon realized that the true enemy of abortion rights and all women’s rights was organized religion.

Virtually every vocal opponent of contraception and abortion for the past 30 years argues against these rights on the basis of God and the bible. There were many fine organizations working for women’s rights, but none–we felt–getting at the root cause of women’s oppression–patriarchal religion and its incursions upon our secular laws. So that’s why I’m here today.

The primary organized opposition to reproductive rights in this country always has been religion. In fact, we are in the midst of a religious war not just against abortion rights, but women’s rights in general, not just in our country, but worldwide.

In this country, the religious terrorism is directed at birth control and abortion clinics, their patients, medical providers and staff. In Alabama, it is the Army of God bombing abortion clinics. In Algeria, it is terrorists from similarly named groups who are shooting schoolgirls on the streets for not wearing veils.

In America, the foot soldiers of the Religious Right are engaged in their campaigns of terrorism, harassment, stalking, arsons, bombing, murder, trying to close down legal abortion clinics by force. They do all these things in the name of God. In Afghanistan, the radical Islamic Taliban that has taken over that country is literally halting all medical care for women–the hospitals in the capital city are already closed to women. They’ve done this, and worse, in the name of Allah.

Islamic fundamentalist theocrats openly talk of jihad, a holy war. So does Patrick Buchanan, who has called for a Christian jihad in this country.

Whether declared or undeclared, there is nothing new in this religious war against women. After the organized women’s movement was officially launched 150 years ago this year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said the “bible was hurled at us on every side.” Every freedom won for women in this country, small or large–from wearing bloomers to riding bicycles to not wearing bonnets in church, to being permitted to speak in public, to attend universities, to enter professions, to vote and own property–was opposed by the churches. In the nineteen seventies and eighties, it was the churches–Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant and Mormon–which marshalled political forces to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.

And the most important right women have strived to obtain is the right to decide if and when to become a mother. Foes of women’s freedom know that controlling women’s reproduction is the ultimate way to control women. That is why when it comes to abortion, religious opponents are not just hurling bibles. They are hurtling bombs.

This is a religious war against women because it relies on threats, force, violence, harassment, terrorism. Pascal said: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And Voltaire said people who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities.

What happened on January 29 was an atrocity. It painfully reopens wounds of all the other atrocities here in Birmingham and elsewhere, also directed against civil rights, especially what happened to four young girls bombed in this church 35 years ago. Violent extremists who oppose equality such as the Army of God and the KKK, are always convinced they are acting in the name of God.

Let me acknowledge the great historic work of the SCLC, that was headquartered here, and to say a grateful word for the work of RCAR, Fran Kissling, and any one of any belief who does not let dogma get in the way of humanity. It is vital in the abortion debate that the mainstreamers and liberal religionists do not yield the moral high ground or let the crazies and fanatics speak for them.

But neither should we let the political debate deteriorate into a contest between believers who say God supports a woman’s right, versus the implacable orthodox who scream that abortion is a sin.

Because that’s a battle that has no place in our capitol buildings, should not be fought, and can never be won. No two denominations, no two clergy, no two biblical interpretations, seemingly can agree. Where there is one religious authority, there will always be a contrary religious authority. In our secular country, we are all free to believe what we like, but our government must remain above the religious fray.

And that’s women’s salvation–our precious, uniquely American principle of the separation of church and state.

Our constitution says you cannot legislate your religion. Belief that a “human being exists at conception” is a matter of faith, not fact.

You cannot shut down an abortion clinic because your church or your pastor or your holy book opposes abortion.

Our government cannot issue a divine fiat saying when a soul exists, or that a soul exists.

Despite what the Ten Commandments and Judge Moore and Gov. James and Attorney General Pryor and the Christian Coalition and the Christian Family Alliance say, in America, we can have as many Gods as we like, or none at all.

Women and the men who support women’s rights must make it our business to protect our First Amendment, because it protects us. We must fortify the wall of separation between church and state, because it is the only barrier, it is the only barrier, standing between women’s rights and this holy war.

Let’s take a cue from the great civil rights movement of the sixties, and keep our eyes on the prize–freedom. As Margaret Sanger said: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

As we renew our support, we pay homage to the remarkable courage and commitment of Emily Lyons. We renew our support in memory of Robert Sanderson, in memory of Dr. Gunn of Pensacola, in memory of all the women who have died from illegal abortions, the 200,000 women who die every year worldwide because abortion remains illegal or inaccessible. We renew our support in defense of women’s lives.

Adlai Stevenson once wrote:

“It is a common heresy and its graves are to be found all over the earth. It is the heresy that says you can kill an idea by killing a man, defeat a principle by defeating a person, bury truth by burying its vehicle.

“Man may burn his brother at the stake, but he cannot reduce truth to ashes; he may murder his fellow man with a shot in the back, but he does not murder justice.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.

Freedom From Religion Foundation