Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this second installment, we discuss her religious beliefs and their influence on her work, which came up often in our conversation.
Religion was a strong influence during Faye Wattleton’s childhood and remains so in her adult life. She grew up in a fundamentalist family, and that religion, along with her experiences as a nurse, brought her to a belief in individual freedom that was absolute, including the conviction that every woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices.
When I asked about her work for reproductive rights, she said, “My view about that is perhaps most reflective of my religious upbringing, with respect to who shall judge. Judge not that you be not judged.”
“Our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.”
That religious upbringing was shaped by the fact that her mother was an ordained minister in the Church of God, and her calling determined the course of Wattleton family life. While Faye was still little, this calling took her and her parents away from St. Louis and the safety of extended family. When she reached school age, her parents left her with families within the church, each year in a different place. During this time, she learned to rely on herself and think independently, perhaps preparing her to be a leader while keeping her within the protective bubble of the greater Church of God community.
The Church of God is Christian, Protestant, foundational, evangelical, and charismatic. Members believe in prayer, the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible, personal salvation, and the unique, individual revelation of the Holy Spirit.* Ms. Wattleton often heard her mother preach and witnessed the emotional responses of her listeners in churches and revival meetings.
While her mother evangelized, bringing others to what she saw as the only way to God, Ms. Wattleton’s sense of mission came from the conviction that each person acts within unique life circumstances that must be respected. When I asked about this difference between her mother and herself, she replied that it “probably was due to my early training as a nurse. I went to college as a 16-year-old, graduated at 20. And so I was really deeply influenced by my professional training and exposure [to other people’s lives and problems]. It’s possible that, had I chosen a different profession, I may have seen life differently, but this is the profession that I chose.”
She continued, “One of the fundamental principles of health care is that judgment should not be imposed upon the patients. So, you really can’t have it both ways. Right? Either you’re making a judgment, or you’re accepting that this is a choice for that person and they should be left alone. The core is: Do they fully understand the choices? Are they well informed and educated about the consequences of the choices, and can they be trusted and respected with the dignity human beings ought to be given to make the best choice for them[selves] that they see fit?”
The freedom to make our own choices, whether over our fertility or otherwise, includes the freedom to make choices that we might later feel were wrong. Nevertheless, I expressed my belief that making our own decisions is vitally important.
Ms. Wattleton answered thoughtfully. “Like I said, it’s not a matter of whether it’s a mistake or whether it’s the right thing. Who am I to judge whether it’s a mistake or not? It’s for them to make that choice. Maybe they will later say, You know what, that was a mistake. Well, but they still had the right to make that mistake.”
“I don’t believe there is a superior body writing a script as to what that choice can be and the limits of the choice,” Ms. Wattleton continued. “Particularly when it is with respect to our personal lives and more fundamentally our personal bodies. There is no other area of life in which the government has so totally invaded the personhood of human beings than on this issue.”
In her autobiography, Ms. Wattleton describes herself as a teenager “thinking her own thoughts” as she watched her mother’s revival meetings and lived with the church’s repression of sexuality in general. Her growing independence grew into a firm belief that women should be in control of their bodies and their sexuality, including their fertility.
When I asked about the way her work in the women’s movement grew out of her core beliefs, which were so different from her mother’s, she replied, “I would say that my philosophical view of this whole debate gradually evolved to the conclusion that this is still really about the fundamental right and values that women are held to. That our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.”
I recalled when the medical world was suggesting that women with a significant family history of breast cancer get double mastectomies for prevention, and how many women wondered what men would say if something similar were suggested to them.
She answered, “Right. Well there you have it. Or if someone made a law that [said], Listen, we have to do this to contain health care costs.”
We both laughed, and she continued, “It’s laughable, but should be no more laughable than saying with a straight face that we should force you to make a choice about your reproduction.”
Ms. Wattleton’s childhood also gave her a deep appreciation of religious faith and how it is expressed in people’s lives. Her commitment to personal choice may come from the Church of God’s belief in unique, personal experiences of God. This came out strongly in discussion of protesters at clinics and of crisis pregnancy centers.
“Now the New York Times ran a front page article about the clinics that are proliferating to help women to continue their pregnancy,” she said. “Birthright Services have been around for more than 35 years. Does anyone remember Florence Crittenton Homes? Such services are not new. In fact, it is appropriate for a woman, who chooses to continue her pregnancy and give birth, to receive the encouragement and support which meet her needs, without manipulation and intimidation. We should not fear losing the battle as though the right impinges on the number of women who make informed decisions to continue pregnancy. To make it clear, this is a long, long struggle in defense of women, from the force of imposing laws regulating our internal bodies. Such is fundamental to life and liberty.”
She elaborated, “It cuts both ways. If a woman doesn’t want to terminate a pregnancy the government, likewise, should not hold the powers to force her to terminate it. This is not a fanciful notion. There are examples of governments enforcing pregnancy termination under certain conditions. I think we have to be very mindful of the unintended consequences of a moral or religious based ideology, imposed to continue to oppress the dignity of women, but to be trusted to exercise our birthright capability — reasoned decisions about our personal lives.”
I agreed, and said pro-choice advocates have sometimes been too willing to see states chipping away at Roe v. Wade with certain restrictions that seem to be reasonable, such as parental consent, without realizing that by giving ground, they are giving away the store.
“Well, it’s very interesting that you use the word ground, because some judge as compelling, the call to search for gentle sounding ‘common ground,’” Ms. Wattleton replied. “If each of us is a unique individual, our personal circumstances likewise, I’ve never been able to figure out whose ground I needed to be forced to stand on for common purpose, without giving up my right of self-determination. It seems to me that, in Roe, the Supreme Court laid out the ground upon which all should be able to stand, based on the ideals of tolerance for differing beliefs and circumstances. Frankly, it ought not be, must not be, the business of politicians and other uninvited and unwelcomed interlopers. That is, unless we’re willing to accept the notion that every woman’s pregnancy is a communal affair. Which would be exceptional to any other obligation to society. The slippery slope, in that direction, leads back to the days of my midwifery training, at Harlem Hospital in New York City, where I cared for women injured and killed by illegally performed and dangerous pregnancy terminations.”
She continued, “When Roe v. Wade was handed down by the [Supreme] Court, we were worried that the decision was so conservative it would give rise to significant restrictions and women would be harassed and exploited as it happened after New York’s state law was reformed, shortly before Roe v. Wade. For those who shout the ‘abortion on demand’ attack, I suggest a more careful reading. [That] simply was not the case. As it has turned out, the High Court’s Solomonic construction has weathered four decades of battering, not intact, but not overturned, either. It recognized the interest the state might have in the potential of fetal life, but not to the point of superseding preservation of the woman’s health and life. Sadly, we have allowed laws to be passed trumping a woman’s health, upheld by a reconstructed, regressive court … It’s preposterous, frankly, that any of us should be so arrogant as to interject ourselves into another person’s life in such a fundamental way.”
Ms. Wattleton’s religious upbringing, joined to her unusual childhood and nursing experience, left her with the conviction that no two women experience anything the same way, including pregnancy, and that therefore we have no place judging anyone’s decision to terminate or continue a pregnancy. “Judge not that you be not judged” has been a guiding principle of her life, including her years at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Click here to see all four installments of our wonderful interview with Faye Wattleton, which we ran on Mondays in February 2013 in observance of Black History Month.
* This post was edited to clarify that the Church of God did not include speaking in tongues.