Peering Into Windows and Wombs: Reflections on SB 8Roundup
tags: abortion, Texas, religious history, reproductive rights, history of sexuality
Gillian Frank co-hosts Sexing History, a podcast that explores how the history of sexuality shapes our present. His book, Making Choice Sacred: Liberal Religion and Reproductive Politics Before Roe v Wade, is forthcoming from UNC Press. He tweets from @1gillianfrank1.
I thought about Dr. Curtis Boyd when I heard that the Supreme Court greenlit Texas’s unprecedented abortion restrictions. In the 1960s, Dr. Boyd lived in a small town in southern Texas. There, he provided illegal abortions to thousands of women who traveled across the United States to see him. Some of the women who found their way to Boyd were destitute. All were desperate for competent medical care. And Boyd, driven by his religious convictions and his compassion, helped them. After Roe, Boyd opened abortion clinics in Texas and New Mexico. For over six decades now, Curtis Boyd has continued to help countless people across the Southwest access safe and dignified reproductive health care.
The Texas abortion restriction, known as SB 8, targets providers like Dr. Boyd and the people whom he serves. SB 8 prohibits abortion after six weeks, a timeline that ensures that it is too late for most to terminate pregnancies. This legislation, however, is not a return to the pre-Roe era where stigma, medical danger, and costly medical procedures were the norm. Instead, the Texas legislation is a break from the past, replacing uneven legal enforcement and quiet communal tolerance with a state-sponsored and citizen-enforced dragnet intent on catching abortion providers and any who aid abortion seekers. Now, anti-abortion activists from across the United States are empowered and rewarded to surveille and enforce abortion restrictions in Texas.
While it’s yet too early to predict the fate of Texas’s punitive law, Boyd’s history reminds all of us that coercive laws don’t stop abortion. Rather, such laws change the cost, meaning, and conditions under which abortions are provided. And even as abortion opponents loudly proclaim they are acting by divine mandate, people of faith like Boyd remain on the frontlines of this battle for reproductive healthcare.
I interviewed Boyd while researching my book Making Choice Sacred (forthcoming from UNC Press), which tells the story of liberal religious struggles for reproductive freedom since the 1930s. Dr. Boyd was a Unitarian Universalist, and his denomination took part in a wider religious conversation about the grim consequences of laws that restricted legal abortions to women whose lives were endangered by their pregnancies. For example, The Christian Century, the banner publication of mainline Protestantism, reported in January of 1961 that “archaic state and church laws, drive nearly a million American mothers each year to abortion mills where approximately 5,000 of them die at the hands of bungling quacks and filthy midwives.” This editorial was among many religious reports contributing to mounting concerns that millions of women were seeking out illegal abortions and countless numbers of these abortion-seekers were being injured.
By 1963, Unitarians condemned restrictive abortion laws as an “affront to human life and dignity.” And Boyd’s own minister enlisted him to help identify reliable abortion providers in the United States and Mexico to which clergy could refer abortion seekers. What Boyd found was that medically competent providers were few and far between and often prohibitively expensive. Soon, an interfaith group of Texas clergy convinced Boyd, who was a practicing physician, that he should provide abortions and vowed to stand by him should he be arrested.
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