Talking about abortion in the religious South

First: You don't avoid religion, you embrace it head on. Oh, and you don't say the word "abortion"

By Katie McDonough
Published January 23, 2013 10:52PM (EST)
             (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
(AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi is the nation's most religious state. And Jackson is a quintessentially Baptist town. So how do you talk about abortion in a place where faith runs deep, touching nearly all aspects of city life?

You don't avoid religion, you embrace it head on.

Oh, and you don't say the word "abortion."

Or so says James Bowley, Ph.D., a professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, and a strong advocate for women's reproductive rights.

"Change the language," Bowley told Robin Marty of RH Reality Check. "Talk about it as women's reproductive rights. Don't talk about it as abortion rights. It is a much larger picture than that. This is about women -- who owns their bodies, who gets to decide these things for them. The terminology matters a great deal in framing the debate and winning the debate. Positive demonstrations like this where people aren't yelling and screaming. Where people are being civil and engaging each other in civil ways. That can be appreciated in society."

The shift toward a more holistic approach to women's reproductive rights is a sentiment echoed by many, including Planned Parenthood.

Bowley believes that traditional, top-down religious leadership is on the decline, creating an opportunity for people of faith to discuss -- and challenge -- ideas that were previously handed down as absolutes. "In the last 20 years we have seen in all segments of society people being willing to go against their religious leaders. As that trend continues then religion will be less powerful, but in the United States and particularly in the South, religion continues to be a powerful force," he said.

Marty goes on to explain:

Bowley believes that what appears to be a growing hostility among some religious leaders toward both abortion and birth control hasn't been growing at all, but is the result of a previously unengaged Evangelical movement that was called into politics and policy by influential leaders of the Religious Right, first in the 80s as part of the Moral Majority, then later in the 90's as religious conservative movement rose into power. "Before that, Evangelicals and fundamentalists more or less eschewed participation in politics, and instead were content to be spiritual in their churches and spread the gospel rather than work in politics. I don't think there has been a major shift in people's positions from liberal to less liberal when it comes to protecting women's reproductive rights. The people who were against women's reproductive rights and reproductive health were always there. They just weren't active before."

Active, indeed. Lawmakers and antiabortion groups in the state have succeeded in cutting off virtually all access to comprehensive reproductive care, and there is only one abortion provider left in all of Mississippi.

Still, Bowley says, it is the dogma of the religious leadership shaping the legislation, not the "people in the pew."

He points to the growing acceptance of gay marriage as a sign of a new wave of Evangelicals who may break from the rigid beliefs of their church hierarchy. "That shift didn't happen because religious leaders changed their minds. Instead, people started thinking about it differently," Bowley said. "They have neighbors who are gay or lesbian and think, 'You know, they are not that bad.' I think something like that could happen here [with abortion] as well."

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Planned Parenthood Roe V. Wade Women's Rights