Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

The Virgin Mary’s Reproductive Choice

Some groups insist that Mary's story is the "pro-choice root of Christianity." And they're right—though not in the way that they intend.

“Faith Choice Ohio,” the new name for the Ohio chapter of the “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,” is one of those groups that uses the trappings of the sacred to promote the legalized killing of unborn human beings. This time, they’re using Jesus’ Incarnation to try to argue for abortion:

Mary had a baby — by choice, not by force.

In her story is the pro-choice root of all Christianity:

– the freedom to decide
– the power to freely say “No.”
– the agency to fully say “Yes!”

Other similar groups have latched on to this argument. “Catholics for Choice” (a similar group, but targeting Catholics) used the feast of the Immaculate Conception to say, “Mary’s ‘yes’ embodies the power of reproductive choice. We work for the same freedom for all women, trans, and nonbinary people.”

It’s easy to simply get mad about this kind of thing. Understandably: taking the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and turning them into poster children for an action Pope St. John Paul II rightly denounced as “a crime which cannot be morally justified by any circumstance, purpose or law,” is quite literally blasphemy. As the Catechism points out, it is “blasphemous to make use of God’s name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death,” and Faith Choice Ohio and Catholics for Choice are defending the killing of babies in the name of the child Jesus.

But I think it’s worth addressing this argument on its merits, partially because the people making the claim insist that they’re arguing in good faith. Faith Choice Ohio’s Kelley Fox defends the “Mary had a baby (by choice)” slogan by saying:

For some people, this shirt is offensive and goes against their theology. But for me, thinking about the story behind this shirt makes me see the absolute beauty in consent.

In the very first chapter of Luke, Mary is told about the future God has planned for her and is able to say YES for herself: “Let it be with me just as you have said.” (Luke 1: 38)

When thinking about consent and how Mary was able to decide whether she wanted to serve as the mother of Christ, I find that this moment makes the birth of Jesus even more special. Consider the contrary, what if she had said NO and God used her anyway? Or what if God didn’t ask at all? Doesn’t that kind of sully the whole story?

So what can we say about this idea? Strange as it may sound, there are two important points being made here that are worth highlighting.

First, many falsehoods contain a half-truth that make them sound plausible, and this one qualifies. The truth is, Fox and others are right to see in the story of the Annunciation a beautiful witness of Mary’s free cooperation in the plan of God. Through the New Testament witness, God thinks it’s important that we know that Mary freely participated in the plan of salvation.

I’ve heard certain Protestants say bizarre things like “Mary was just a vessel, chosen to house the Lord our God.” From a religious perspective, this is ridiculous, like saying that the Ark of the Covenant was “just a box,” or that the Holy of Holies was “just a room.” But it’s absurd even from a merely human perspective: try telling your mom next Mother’s Day that she was “just a vessel” to house you until you were born.

Motherhood is so much more than that, whether we mean Mary’s or any mother’s. St. Luke tells us that Jesus “was obedient to” Mary and Joseph and that as a child, he “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51-52). Mary and Joseph weren’t just stand-ins; they actually had to parent the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. And Mary has this unique role, in that she offers her own body for the Incarnation. In John 6:51, Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” That flesh, through which he saved the world, is the body that he received from his mother’s free yes to God’s plan.

Mary’s yes tells us something beautiful about Mary, and also something beautiful about God. As St. Augustine points out, God will save us only with our consent:

But God made you without you. You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you. How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist? So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you. So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it.

So consent really is of great importance, both in terms of our salvation and in all other areas. This is particularly true in the realm of human sexuality. The Catechism points this out in the context of marriage: “The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage.’ If consent is lacking there is no marriage.” Marriage—which is intimately tied up with sexuality—requires consent, or there’s no marriage. That says something about how important consent is. And on the other hand, to forcibly engage in any kind of sexual intimacy with someone without consent is rape, a sin (and crime) that the Catechism decries in strong language.

Certainly, there’s more to Christian sexual ethics than just consent. But there’s not less. If we don’t take the trouble to stress what might seem obvious to us—that consent matters, and that God shows us a model of taking consent seriously in how he deals with his people—then we’ll have ourselves to blame if we’re mischaracterized as viewing all women as simply “vessels.”

But “Catholics for Choice” gives the game away in saying that “Mary’s ‘yes’ embodies the power of reproductive choice.” Because when does Mary’s “yes” come? At the Annunciation . . . before she’s pregnant.

Another way of saying that is that true reproductive choice means saying yes to reproduction. And what is reproduction? Biologically, “the term reproduction is used to signify the production of a new individual organism.” That’s from the textbook Molecular Biology. Other biology texts say something similar. For instance, in The Biology of Reproduction, Fusco and Minelli explain that “in biology, reproduction is often defined as the process by which new individuals are produced from pre-existing individuals.”

Once you’ve got a unique organism, reproduction has occurred. This is true of any living thing, whether we’re talking about a single-celled organism or a human being. The major difference is how that reproduction takes place. Unlike lower organisms, humans and animals reproduce sexually. All of this is simply another way of saying that when you, as a creature who reproduces sexually, consent to sexual intercourse, you’re consenting to the possibility of reproduction.

To say that you consent to sex without consenting to pregnancy is like saying you consent to eating a cinnamon roll without consenting to the calories. It doesn’t work like that. Biologically, eating exists to provide the body with calories and nutrients, and sex exists to allow for reproduction. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have other motives for eating, or for having sex. But it does mean that we’re deluding ourselves if we imagine that we can cut these activities off from their biological realities.

This distinction—between potential motherhood before conception, and motherhood after—is clear from Scripture as well as from science. The angel Gabriel had foretold that John the Baptist would “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15), and this prophecy is fulfilled in the Visitation. When “Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb” (v. 41), and she cries out, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy” (vv. 43-44).

Fox, Faith Choice Ohio, and Catholics for Choice claim to be motivated by religious faith. If that’s true, they should be chastened to read this account: the unborn John the Baptist is in the early part of the third trimester, and he is (a) alive, (b) considered a person by Scripture, (c) filled with the Holy Spirit, and (d) leaping for joy to be in the presence of . . . the unborn Jesus Christ, who has been in his mother’s womb for less than a month. There’s no way to read this and say “unborn babies aren’t people,” since the New Testament treats them as such in both the first and third trimester of pregnancy.

At the Annunciation, Mary is not yet a mother: she’s free to say yes or no to motherhood. But at the Visitation, she already is a mother, because she’s pregnant—hence Elizabeth’s description of her as “the mother of my Lord,” not “the potential mother of my Lord.” At this point, she can no more say “no” to motherhood than she could say “no” to motherhood once Jesus is five years old.

I don’t just mean that morally, although that’s certainly true. I also mean logically: nothing that happens now—even the death of her Son—will change her status as a mother, the Mother of God. The same is true with abortion. It doesn’t make you not a mother; it makes you the mother of a dead child.

So by all means, we can agree with Faith Choice Ohio that the story of Christ’s conception and birth is a story of God respecting “reproductive choice.” God wants his people to have the free ability to say “no” to the decision to reproduce, and indeed, in same cases, we’re morally required to say no (for instance, when we’re unmarried). But the Christmas story isn’t a story that justifies “reproductive choice” as a euphemism for killing a child who has already been conceived. And it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s blasphemous to pretend it is.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!