The VICE Channels

Why Satanists Are Fighting America's Restrictive Abortion Laws

Jul 22 2015 2:00 PM
Why Satanists Are Fighting America's Restrictive Abortion Laws

Image courtesy Satanic Temple

​The concept of "pro-abortion Satanists" sounds like the deranged fantasy of a particularly unimaginative conservative politician. They do exist, though, and they have a political agenda.

Two weeks ago members of the Satanic Temple filed a federal suit against Missouri's harsh abortion restrictions, claiming such laws violate their First Amendment right to religious expression.

The rhetoric around abortion in America is incredibly polarized, to put it mildly; anyone now trying to draw a parallel between "murdering unborn babies" and sacrificing innocent children to the Dark Overlord of Hell is far from the first. But the Satanic Temple's motivation is far less nefarious than the Satan association may make it seem: First of all, the group doesn't actually worship the devil. They bill their belief system as "non-supernatural," a cultural narrative centered on the literary figure of Satan , whom they see as a rebel angel in defiance of autocracy in all forms.

This is hardly news to any liberal-minded, relatively media-savvy person: Over the past few years, the Satanic Temple has grown notorious for making bold provocations that straddle the border between performance art and protest, many of them focused on exposing the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion. Each new stunt garners a lot of attention and provokes fairly predictable responses (typically: praise from the left and headshaking and performative non-surprise from conservatives). It helps that the Temple's previous opponents have tended to be obviously risible or absurd-most famously, the group protested a six-foot-tall statue of the Ten Commandments constructed on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds by proposing a religious icon of their own, an eight-and-a-half-foot tall bronze sculpture of goat-headed deity Baphomet flanked by two adoring children. (Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the Ten Commandments statute would have to be removed ; the Oklahoma state constitution prohibits using public funds or property to promote religion. With Baphomet no longer necessary or permitted there, the Temple will unveil the statue in Detroit later this month.)

Anti-abortion legislation is perhaps a less obvious target than a looming physical testament to the collusion of Church and State, but Satanic Temple spokesperson and co-founder Lucien Greaves told Broadly that the group has planned for this fight since its inception. "People would be surprised how much of this we had in mind at the very outset," he said.

According to Greaves, he and a friend, who goes by Malcolm Jarry, founded the Satanic Temple in 2013. Later that year, they barreled into public view after performing a "Pink Mass" at the gravesite of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps's mother. The ceremony was understated yet effective: Gay couples kissed over the late Mrs. Phelps's tombstone, with the intention of changing her sexual orientation in the afterlife. Even before that, Greaves said he and Jarry gave a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "We laid out this plan [for the Satanic Temple], and I'm pretty sure we said we'd do exemption against abortion regulations," he recalled.

The seemingly unusual alliance between Satanism and abortion rights activism becomes far more plausible when you consider the Temple's central tenets: The first is that one's own body is inviolable, subject to one's will alone; another states that members' beliefs should conform to the best scientific understanding of the world and that no one should ever distort scientific facts to fit her own way of thinking. "It's very clear for us. When it's a question of bodily autonomy, don't encroach on the will of another person," said Greaves. "We think that a nonviable fetus is tissue that belongs to the woman, and it's her decision what becomes of that."

This, of course, directly contradicts the logic of the pro-life movement-which maintains that all life begins at conception and that terminating a pregnancy is equivalent to snuffing out the life of a child who has yet to be born. In the past five years alone, pro-life politicians have passed a startling 282 abortion restrictions , some of which dictate what kind of information doctors should provide their patients. Thirty-five states now require women to receive counseling before terminating an unwanted pregnancy; 28 of those stipulate that women must then undergo a waiting period-most often 24 hours-before going ahead with the procedure. And although legislation that defines life as starting at conception has consistently failed to pass, five states legally require abortion providers to tell their patients that a fetus is a separate, living human being.

Pro-life and pro-choice are typically framed as opposing political ideologies; as the Satanic Temple sees it, though, the pro-life movement is motivated by religious dogma. "The pro-choice movement seeks liberation from the religious underpinnings of the reproductive rights debate, as do we," said Jex Blackmore, the director of the Satanic Temple's Detroit chapter. "Our beliefs conform to the best scientific understanding of the world rather than the theological opinions of some."

"The argument that's presented to us [by pro-life groups] is that the fetus is another body," elaborated Greaves. "That is a religious opinion. The focus of our fight is that the state has no right to proselytize to a woman in any circumstance."

Because of the Satanic Temple's focus on individual autonomy and scientific understanding, members of the Satanic Temple hold that such state-sponsored proselytizing constitutes a violation of their religious liberty. In July 2014, the Satanic Temple launched a campaign in the hopes of helping women bypass state-mandated counseling, posting a waiver of exemption on the organization's website. The basic idea behind the waiver is that women can present it to abortion providers; it reads, in part, "I regard Political Information as a state sanctioned attempt to discourage abortion... The communication of Political Information to me imposes an unwanted and substantial burden on my religious beliefs."

Roughly one year after Greaves first posted the waiver on his organization's website, an anonymous member of the Satanic Temple from Missouri-referred to in the media as "Mary Doe"-became the first woman to present it at an abortion provider .

Missouri is one of the states to require pre-abortion counseling, plus a mandatory waiting period. And Missouri's legislation is particularly harsh: It's one of three states to require that a woman wait a full 72 hours between receiving "counseling" and returning for her abortion procedure. It's also one of the five states to demand that providers tell their patients life begins at conception. Plus, there's just one abortion clinic left in the entire state-a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. Under Missouri law, any Planned Parenthood worker who refuses to tell a woman that a fetus is "a separate, unique, living human being" and then send her away to reflect on that for three days can be charged with a Class B felony.

When Doe presented the letter of exception to a doctor at the St. Louis Planned Parenthood, they complied with the state law and denied her request. Later that month, the Satanic Temple and Doe filed a lawsuit against Jay Nixon, the governor of Missouri, and Chris Koster, the state's attorney general, alleging that the waiting period law constitutes a violation of Doe's religious liberty. On June 22, Nixon and Koster filed a motion to dismiss the injunction, claiming there's no compelling evidence that Doe's religious beliefs had been violated.

But Greaves firmly maintains that getting an abortion can count as exercising one's religious beliefs under the central tenets of Satanism. On June 29, the Satanic Temple filed an opposition to Missouri's motion to dismiss, which was obtained by Broadly. In it, Satanic Temple lawyer W. James MacNaughton reaffirms that the act of getting an abortion, in Mary Doe's case, was motivated by her religious belief-meaning it constitutes "exercise of religion." MacNaughton further claims that forcing Doe to participate in counseling and the subsequent 72-hour waiting period is "no different than if Plaintiff had gone to attend a meeting of The Satanic Temple in St. Louis so she could meditate on its Tenets, only to find the state police had locked the Temple's doors and would not open them until three days after she acknowledged receipt of the State of Missouri's official written repudiation of the Tenets."

Claiming that abortion can constitute an expression of religious beliefs is hardly the most uncontroversial move, something Greaves is aware of. "Of course, we're not advocating for abortion in preference of live birth-it's the autonomy of the woman, her freedom to choose, that we hold sacred," he said. "Her choice, when informed by her adherence to our tenets, is legitimately construed as a religious activity."

A day after Missouri first filed the motion to dismiss the Satanic Temple's claim, the Temple and Mary Doe filed a federal lawsuit as well. Greaves is hopeful that he'll see a positive outcome, and he describes their case as strong. "I am very optimistic that we have constructed a solid, winnable case," he said. "For now, it's all we can do to demonstrate that religious exemption and privilege aren't the sole property of the Christian Right." If either court rules in the Satanic Temple's favor, Greaves said he hopes that other women will follow Mary Doe's lead in circumventing religiously motivated abortion restrictions. "No one in a secular position should have to suffer this religious material," he stated.

According to Blackmore, the Missouri case is "a huge step toward ensuring that... personal health care decisions are free from outrageous theocratic, state-mandated burdens." Hopefully, it will be the first of many. "We will challenge any abortion restriction that attempts to restrict our access to medical information and care," she said.

More from VICE

The Latest