Newswise — (St. Mary’s City, MD) —What are women’s rights with respect to reproduction and sexuality? This question is controversial, but Katharina von Kellenbach, professor of religious studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, takes a clear stand: “Women have a right, and a responsibility, to be able to say ‘no’… to childbearing and sex.”

In her new essay, “The Paradox of Freedom: Mary, the Manhattan Declaration and Women’s Submission to Childbearing,” von Kellenbach questions biblical interpretations of freedom that are used to restrict women’s moral agency in the United States. She wants to “challenge discourses that ground freedom in submission and obedience to God’s will, particularly as that relates to women.”

Von Kellenbach points out that the Christian “paradox of freedom” describes true freedom as a condition that is found in “unconditional submission to God’s will” and in service to one’s neighbor. This paradox, argues von Kellenbach, is applied differently to men and to women: “Submission to service as the primary or exclusive path towards Christian freedom is a problematic theological prescription in light of women’s bondage to male authority and family control.” Von Kellenbach argues that this paradox often means empowerment for men but disempowerment for women.

Gender inequality with respect to freedom can be traced back to Mary’s language in the New Testament, which von Kellenbach defines as “language of unconditional obedience.” Von Kellenbach examines what she defines as Mary’s “response-ability” in the text, a matter of genuine choice. Mary accepts her pregnancy and says to God, “do unto me according to thy will.” According to von Kellenbach, Mary’s choice to accept pregnancy can only be meaningful if she could have also said “No.”

Traditionally, Mary’s response has been interpreted to mean that she, and, in effect, all women, ought to submit unquestioningly to the will of God and, by extension, men. Von Kellenbach challenges this notion, explaining that “such a reduction of faith to obedience is problematic for both gendered and general political reasons.” Instead, she argues that Mary’s “obedience” to God is reflective of her power to respond and say “no.” She suggests that Mary may even have negotiated “for protection,” in order to reach “informed consent.”

Von Kellenbach’s essay is a response to the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, a document originally signed by 168 prominent members of the Christian community, calling on Christians to rise in “civil disobedience” against current laws on abortion, reproductive health, and marriage equality.

For further reading, refer to von Kellenbach’s more recent essay, “Notes on the Christian Battle to End the ‘Abortion Holocaust.’” In this essay, von Kellenbach challenges the language that compares abortion to the Holocaust and that claims abortion can and must be stopped by nonviolent, and sometimes, violent means.

Katharina von Kellenbach is a religious studies professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who specializes in Jewish-Christian relations, feminist theology, and the Holocaust. She is the recipient of St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s Norton T. Dodge Award for Scholarly and Creative Achievement. To get in touch, please contact her at [email protected].

St. Mary's College of Maryland, designated the Maryland state honors college in 1992, is ranked one of the best public liberal arts schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. More than 1,800 students attend the college, nestled on the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland.