BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — There are ordinary pastors, and then there are pastors like Stephanie Arnold.
Last week, Arnold, the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, created a TikTok video along with her colleague Katie Gilbert in protest of a new, unprecedented Texas law that effectively bans abortion after the first six weeks of pregnancy. The two church leaders donned the iconic red clothing and large bonnets of handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The video, which has been viewed nearly 10,000 times across First Church’s social media platforms, ends with Arnold and Gilbert forcefully shedding their head coverings.
“Texas is leading us to become more and more like Gilead every day,” the text in the video says. “Unjust, patriarchal laws strip women of their agency and rights. As people of faith, we believe in reproductive rights. We won’t take this anymore.”
The Texas law in question prohibits doctors from performing abortions once a “fetal heartbeat” is detected, which is typically around six weeks of pregnancy. Doctors have noted, however, that “fetal heartbeat” is not an medical term but a misleading one defined by the bill. The “flutter” than can be heard around six weeks into a pregnancy on an ultrasound is simply electrical activity, doctors say, as heart valves do not form until later on.
The law also prohibits individuals from “engag[ing] in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise.”
Laws that aim to ban abortion, even in its early stages, are not new, but Texas’ law has a novel enforcement mechanism. In a seeming attempt to limit judicial review of the restriction, the law says that any individual in the state, and not the state itself, will enforce the bill’s provisions. More specifically, every individual in the state is given standing to sue a doctor for performing, or any other person for aiding or abetting, an abortion that violates the statute. If the suit is successful, the defendant will be required to pay $10,000 in damages per abortion plus court costs.
In the past, such restrictions on abortion, particularly in the first trimester, have been ruled unconstitutional by courts in light of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have enshrined into federal law the right for women to access such reproductive services without any “undue burden” from the government.
Last week, though, in a sign of its shift to the right, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to delay implementation of the Texas statute in a 5-4 vote. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s three Democratic appointees — Justices Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor — in dissenting from the decision not to intervene. While Roberts, Breyer and the majority did not explicitly comment on the law’s constitutionality, two of the court’s three women did.
Justice Kagan said the law is “patently unconstitutional.” Justice Sotomayor called it “flagrantly unconstitutional,” saying that Texas “has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.” To allow the state’s law to be enforced, she said, is “untenable.” The Court’s conservative majority disagreed.
While Stephanie Arnold is not an expert on the constitutionality of Texas’ restriction, she does have both professional and personal experience dealing with reproductive health issues.
In her role as pastor, Arnold said she has counseled women dealing with difficult situations that would be worsened by laws like Texas’.
“I know teenage girls who got pregnant in high school and felt like they had to choose between their future and their family,” she said. “I know college students who had traumatic events that led to them being pregnant. I know young women who are out exploring the world who were drugged and raped and luckily found their way back to a safe place but needed an option so that they didn’t carry that trauma in that way for the rest of their lives.”
While Texas’ law prevents rapists from suing their victims over an abortion, any other citizen can still do so. In simple terms, there is no exception for rape or incest to the law’s ban on abortions after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected.
Many of the women who confided in Arnold about their traumatic experiences did so after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in Congress that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her and would have raped her had she not been able to escape. Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, was confirmed to the Court in spite of Ford’s testimony.
“When that happened, there were a number of women who reached out who told me for the first time — they’d not told anyone else their story — that they’ve lived with for 40-something years,” Arnold said. “And they’re telling that to me. And, you know, and to this day, I don’t know if they’ve told anybody else.”
Arnold said that she believes it’s unfortunate that the issue is simplified to “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps because the reality is much more complex.
“I would hope nobody would ever find themselves in need of an abortion,” she said. “But that is not the world we live in. And I will listen to the pain and the struggle and the hopes of those women. And I will prioritize that.”
Arnold’s views are shaped by her own experience, too.
“My first pregnancy was an ectopic pregnancy,” she said, “and it ended in an emergency surgery where that pregnancy had to be extracted from my fallopian tube because I was bleeding internally. I’ve got other women on our staff who have that same story. And there are people who will go to the far extreme to say that even that is ending a life: that is an abortion procedure. And I completely disagree. Had I not done that, I wouldn’t be here.”
Arnold said that while she believes that opposition to Texas’ law falls in line with the United Methodists’ social principles, First Church is, in many ways, different from other Methodist churches, particularly in the South.
First, there’s the fact that she’s the pastor at all. As of 2019, only 27% of United Methodist clergy are female despite being nearly 60% of the church’s membership. That rate is even lower in the South. At First Church, though, which bills itself as “an open place for all,” women in leadership is the norm. Nearly 60% of the church’s staff, including two of the three senior pastors, are women.
That’s a reality that Arnold said can have an impact on how, and which, decisions are made.
When First Church made the choice to speak out so openly and bluntly about the Lone Star state’s restriction on abortion, Arnold said there were four or five women in the room.
“It was a really healthy conversation, and there were people in that room who have had children and people who are cis-gendered and who aren’t. And, you know, it could have happened with men in that room,” she said. “But I just don’t find that happening as much as it should. I think being a female-dominated staff, we all showed up at work that day and were all like, ‘Can you believe this? We’ve got to say something.’”
She said that while she believes many, if not all, of the men at the church would support their stance on reproductive rights, she’s unsure if, given a different dynamic, things would have evolved the same way.
“I have a hard time imagining that if we had been a male-dominated staff, that you could have had that same conversation in that same way, because you just don’t have the working experience,” she said.
For its part, though, First Church as a whole hasn’t hesitated to speak out on issues important to it, even if those views haven’t fallen perfectly in line with United Methodist doctrine.
First Church voted after the United Methodist Church’s 2019 general conference to label itself a “reconciling congregation,” one that, among other things, supports a more inclusive approach to ordinations and marriages.
This is the one issue, Arnold said, where First Church is in clear conflict with United Methodist doctrine.
“The Book of Discipline right now says that all people are created with sacred worth,” Arnold said, referencing the United Methodist Church’s primary source of official doctrine. “But then it also says the ‘practice’ of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. I deeply believe all people are created with sacred worth. I do not believe that the practice of sexuality, period, whatever form that takes for an individual, is incompatible with Christian teaching when it is mutual and something that both persons want to share.”
First Church is not alone in its fight for changes to the Book of Discipline, although some Methodist conferences are on the opposite end of the reform spectrum. More traditionalist conferences, Arnold said, are also dissatisfied with the status quo.
What that means for First Church and its role in the Methodist community is not entirely clear, but Arnold said the church is steadfast in its commitment to justice, equality and inclusion.
Sometimes, that commitment may take the form of a controversial TikTok, but it has other forms, too.
Arnold said there are times — when she’s preaching in robes, standing in a 130-year-old sanctuary, with light pouring through historic stained glass, saying that, for example, maybe we shouldn’t take the Bible literally or that we shouldn’t always follow what it says — that it takes her breath away.
“But it’s also life-giving,” she said.
And no matter what happens with the future of the United Methodist Church, with the future of the Supreme Court, or with the future of Texas and laws like the one it’s just passed, Arnold emphasized that one thing is certain.
“First Church knows who it is,” she said. “And First Church has decided to be who it is and to practice its theology as it understands it. All are welcome here.”