The overturning of Roe is impacting reproductive health in the United States. What might not come immediately to mind is how digital technology is playing a significant role in these changes. In fact, faith communities rarely pay attention to the role of digital technology beyond fights over what to do about online worship now that COVID restrictions are gone! Yet, the omnipresence of digital technology raises a host of pressing ethical issues, including the ways that technology has been reshaping our sexuality and reproductive lives for many years.
Sex, Tech, & Faith focuses on ethical questions related to digital pornography, online dating, digital sexual violence, virtual reality, and sex robots. It does not directly address reproductive health issues. Rather, it invites the reader to consider how digital technology reshapes sexuality and gender in ways that have far outpaced Christian sexual ethics. It’s time faith communities invested in learning more about digital technology, sexuality, and reproductive health education so that, as Christians, we can bring our faith values to critical decisions about sexual practices and behaviors.
Some might immediately jump to the conclusion that the faith values I reference should support a zero tolerance approach to anything related to abortion. However, there is nothing in the bible to support modern claims about abortion. And Christians have a wide range of theological views on abortion, sexuality, and reproductive health from religious leaders to everyday Christians. Given this diversity of views and a majority of Christians who do not believe in the highly restrictive laws that many states are enacting, our love of neighbor requires we care about the health and legal ramifications for pregnant people in our families, churches, and communities.
In order to do this, we need to understand the ethical issues involved in digital technology and reproductive health.
Some state laws put pregnant people at risk for routine reproductive health issues, including those that may create life-threatening conditions. For example, a variety of obstetricians and gynecologists are already speaking out about the concerns that at-risk and high-risk pregnancy patients face when all or most abortions are restricted. Recently doctors across the country have shared stories of how their medical counseling will change. One high-risk pregnancy patient in Texas had to travel to Denver for an abortion following a diagnosis at 19 weeks of preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM), which can cause infection, sepsis, and death in a patient. Doctors now report being restricted from providing a range of medical information and advice in cases like this or after a miscarriage because they could be digitally recorded on a patient’s or partner’s phone, who can later accuse them of “aiding or abetting” in an abortion, related to the Texas SB 8 law and those in other states modeled after it. The ubiquity of digital devices and data trails has long been a concern of medical privacy advocates. Should this also be a concern for a pastoral care or chaplaincy visit with a patient or congregant? Yes!
Surveillance through data tracking is a significant issue when it comes to all aspects of our digital lives, raising issues around forgiveness and accountability for Christians, but it may have particularly dire consequences in a post-Roe America. It might not only be a physician who is recorded, but a colleague, friend, or clergy member helping a pregnant person cross a state line will likely have their license plate photographed via routine traffic cameras. Data privacy experts warn that anything from search histories to apps can potentially be used against a pregnant person, their support system, or healthcare provider in many states. These could include data from health apps like a period tracker, gps from location services on your phone, online medication purchases, or your telehealth video call. There are ways to protect your digital privacy specific to these issues. Are we talking about them in faith communities? Are we talking about any digital health issues related to privacy and care as ethical concerns that affect all our congregants?
In addition to digital surveillance and privacy issues, the Roe decision accelerated an already slow shift related to sexuality, behaviors, and relationships. They are moving online, where there is a reduced risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases as well as greater access to partners. Whether it is the use of online pornography, virtual reality sexual behaviors, or the use of AI and robotic sex tech, digital technology is part of how we need to understand and talk about sexuality. This is one of the main educational purposes of Sex, Tech, & Faith, as is the importance of asking what Christian values we bring to these changes. Some young people identify as digi-sexual, meaning their “sexuality is oriented toward and fulfilled through digital technologies” (90). The majority of young people have on and offline relationships as well as use technologies to enhance in-person relationships. These technologies raise similar privacy questions. They also raise the question of whether or not a generation without access to the full range of reproductive healthcare will opt for digital sex rather than risking pregnancy.
Virtual reality technologies are revolutionizing all kinds of first-person experiences, including sexual behaviors.
Digital technologies shape us. We should be concerned about issues of privacy and surveillance right along with our love of connecting across time and distance. Faith communities have historically been the place where Christians discuss and discern how to put their values into practice in a rapidly-changing world. We can no longer ignore the implications of digital technology on our lives, whether it is immediate reproductive healthcare concerns given the overturning of Roe or longer-term shifts in how we form relationships and engage in sexual behaviors. I hope you will join me in starting these vital Christian conversations.
Sex, Tech, and Faith by Kate Ott is a values-based, shame-free, pleasure-positive discussion of Christian ethics in response to a range of pressing issues in the digital age. It is now available to order from Eerdmans, Christian Book, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more!
Adapted from an original post by Dr. Kate Ott for Eerdword (B. WM. Eerdmans Publishing) on July 25, 2022.