Since the Supreme Court effectively legalized abortion in 1973, anti-choice activists and lawmakers across the country have spent decades waging a single-minded war on the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. In the past few years, the push to restrict women's access to abortion has taken on a sort of fervid urgency, and state by state, clinic by clinic, lawmakers have put the right to safe and legal abortion further out of women's reach.
In the crackdown on abortion access in the U.S., Missouri is something of a pioneer. Since becoming the first state to impose strict regulations on abortion clinics in 1986 (inspiring other states to follow suit), conservative Missouri politicians have continued to suppress reproductive rights. By 2015, there was only one clinic in the entire state that provided abortion procedures, a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. NARAL spokesperson Alison Dreith tells Bustle that Missouri is "one of the most restrictive states for abortion access in the country."
Pro-choice activists have pushed back tirelessly against the torrent of abortion restrictions from the Missouri legislature. And in the crowded field of advocacy for reproductive rights, an unlikely organization has risen from the flames to become one of the fiercest champions of abortion access in the state: The Satanic Temple.
While organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL certainly remain some of the most vocal advocates for abortion access, The Satanic Temple has emerged as unconventional defender of reproductive rights in Missouri.
"It’s no surprise that a woman may feel distress or shame or guilt if the state is forcing her for three days to review — to think about the state’s opinion that she is about to commit murder."
In 2015, the temple filed state and federal lawsuits against Missouri on behalf of a pregnant woman, Mary Doe, alleging that its abortion law violated her beliefs as a Satanist.
The Satanic Temple argued in its federal lawsuit that Missouri's abortion regulations go against the First Amendment clause that prohibits the government from establishing an official religion. Missouri's law requires women seeking an abortion to be handed an informed consent booklet, which explicitly states: "The law requires the women to be informed that 'The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.'"
The federal lawsuit claimed that by exposing Doe to the booklet, the state is promoting one religious belief over another, since Satanists do not believe that human life begins at conception and that abortion will terminate the life of a human being. "Missouri is using its power to regulate abortion to promote some, but not all, religious beliefs that Human Tissue is, from conception, a separate and unique human being whose destruction is morally wrong," the temple's federal lawsuit read.
The temple's state lawsuit, on the other hand, leverages Missouri's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to argue that the informed consent booklet, the mandatory 72-hour wait period, and offering her the opportunity to view an active ultrasound and hear the fetus' heartbeat, if audible, encroach on Doe's Satanic beliefs in bodily autonomy and science.
The temple argues that Missouri's abortion law goes against these two tenets of The Satanic Temple that Doe abides by:
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
Since filing the lawsuits in 2015, The Satanic Temple and the state of Missouri have been embroiled in a contentious legal battle, one that could potentially transform the fight against anti-choice legislation across the country.
Satan V. Missouri?
If it's startling that Satanists are fighting for abortion rights, it's perhaps even more striking that they're using religious liberty legislation to argue against laws shaped by Christian values. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby did not have to provide its employees' birth control coverage, as it violated its religious beliefs as a Christian organization under the RFRA. What The Satanic Temple is arguing is essentially the same thing: that Missouri's abortion law violates Mary Doe's religious beliefs as a Satanist to obtain an abortion without being subjected to Bible-based propaganda.
According to its national spokesperson, Jex Blackmore, The Satanic Temple's claim of religious liberty violation is even stronger than Hobby Lobby's. Under the RFRA, the state is allowed to burden a person's religious freedom if it can show it has a "compelling interest" to do so, and is using the least restrictive means to burden that person's religious exercise. (Like when a police department argues the state has a compelling interest in burdening a Muslim woman's religious exercise by requiring her to remove her headscarf to take a booking photo.)
The Satanic Temple argues that Missouri's abortion law does not have a compelling interest in mandating the 72-hour wait period that burdens Doe's religious freedoms. Blackmore says the wait period places an undue burden upon Satanic Temple members seeking an abortion by requiring them to spend time, money, and emotional facility to wait out the period.
"There’s been an increase in financial burden," Blackmore says. "There is the stress of the physical wellbeing of our member who’s forced to wait longer to obtain her abortion procedure. So Mary, our member, had to put her religious beliefs aside, incur shame and guilt and financial cost in order to receive this procedure." That, Blackmore says, is much more of a "tangible" burden than Hobby Lobby being required to provide their employees with birth control coverage.
The temple takes issue with the passage in Missouri's informed consent booklet that states women seeking an abortion must be informed that human life begins at conception, and abortion terminates the life of a separate, living human being.
"What that means, if you accept that claim, is that abortion is murder," Blackmore says. "That when you undergo abortion, it will terminate the life of a separate human being, and by that definition, it is murder. It’s no surprise that a woman may feel distress or shame or guilt if the state is forcing her for three days to review — to think about the state’s opinion that she is about to commit murder. I think that is a very strong case to demonstrate the amount of burden that is placed upon her by the state that’s unlawful."
The temple's attorney James Mac Naughton told HuffPost in an interview that Doe was basically "preached to by the state of Missouri" in violation of the establishment clause. "Not everyone believes human life begins at conception," Mac Naughton added.
Missouri successfully filed motions to dismiss both lawsuits. In their motion to dismiss the state lawsuit, Missouri argued neither the informed consent booklet nor the "ultrasound opportunity" prohibited Doe from "performing any act substantially motivated by religious belief." A federal court dismissed the temple's lawsuit on the grounds that Doe was no longer pregnant (she obtained an abortion days after the lawsuits were filed.) "Plaintiff Doe is not now pregnant, there is no guaranty that she will become pregnant in the future, and that if she does, she will seek an abortion," the motion stated, adding that the temple's claim that pregnant members will "endure delay, doubt, guilt and shame when they exercise their religious beliefs" to obtain an abortion "was not sufficiently concrete" for the court to allow them to be exempt from Missouri's abortion restrictions.
The temple has appealed both motions to dismiss. This Monday, the Missouri State Court Western Appellate District heard oral arguments in the temple's appeal in regards to the state lawsuit, and next week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit will hear oral arguments in the temple's appeal against the dismissal of the federal suit in 2016.
If both courts rule that The Satanic Temple has a valid claim, what that amounts to is an acknowledgment that there is a "valid constitutional challenge to informed consent laws," Blackmore says, which would open up the opportunity for other legal challenges against this kind of abortion laws — and perhaps make it more difficult to pass them in the first place.
The Satanic Temple's efforts to overturn Missouri's abortion laws are gaining national attention. This week, Planned Parenthood announced that it would be providing abortion procedures in three more Missouri clinics, and a Slate report noted that it "may have to do with intervention from the fiery underworld," referencing the temple's lawsuits against the state. ThinkProgress called the temple an "unexpected new ally" for advocates fighting against Missouri's abortion law (though "new" isn't quite an accurate term, given how long it has been involved). Even Breitbart took notice of it — its provocative headline read: "Planned Parenthood Teams Up With Satanists To Promote Abortion In Missouri."
What Would Satan Do?
Although the concept of Lucifer and the fiery pits of hell have been around since Christianity was established as an organized religion, The Satanic Temple is relatively new. Founded in 2014 by two men who go by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, the temple's mission is, according to its website:
To encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.
In recent years, members of The Satanic Temple have made news for their outrageous public stunts, including ones advocating for the separation of church and state — or at least the religious liberty equal to what the state affords Christian organizations. For example, when a Florida school district allowed a Christian group to hand out Bibles in schools, the temple responded by submitting a request to distribute The Satanic Children's Big Book of Activities to students, a coloring book complete with Hades' hell dog Ceberus and a "connect the dots" exercise for inverted pentagrams.
"If a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students — as is the case in Orange County, Florida — we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth," Greaves said in a statement.
"I think that protest can be seen as Satanic worship in that we are challenging injustices that have gone unchecked."
Trolling aside, the Satanic Temple appears to find its core values rooted in political activism, with the fight for reproductive rights being one of its most significant issues. Outside of the lawsuits against Missouri's abortion law, The Satanic Temple also opposes Texas' fetal burial rule, which requires women to bury or cremate the fetal tissue remains after they've had an abortion, because "burial rites are a well-established component of religious practice" and it would "inhibit adherence to our religious practices."
Blackmore acknowledges that The Satanic Temple is a "controversial" organization, but suggests that it's mostly misunderstood, thanks to its historical and cultural lore. The form of Satanism the temple practices, Blackmore says, is non-theistic, so there's no Satan worshipping or any Rosemary's Baby-type supernatural activities, but it does has other elements of the religion, like shared community, ritual practice, and a set of tenets that inform their beliefs.
"To us, Satan represents this rebel against arbitrary authority and a representative of the light-bringer," Blackmore adds. "You see that concept of Satan throughout history. Even in the Bible Satan offers man free will and provides them with the opportunity to learn the full breadth of human experience. ... To us, being politically active is part of Satanic practice. I think that protest can be seen as Satanic worship in that we are challenging injustices that have gone unchecked."
What in the hell does abortion access have to do with this? Although the temple talks about reproductive access "a lot," Blackmore says that at its heart, reproductive rights is a religious liberty issue. And if it wins this step in the suits against Missouri's abortion laws, the temple hopes that it would "demonstrate that these laws are religiously motivated," and open up the opportunity for similar lawsuits against abortion laws in the future.
"In truth," Blackmore says, "we do not want somebody who professes a specific worldview — particularly a Biblical one — to have any say or any jurisdiction over our body or our future or the future of our family."