The Satanic Temple Sought to Upend Missouri Abortion Law. Their Plans Went to Hell

May 8, 2019 at 6:00 am
The Satanic Temple Sought to Upend Missouri Abortion Law. Their Plans Went to Hell

When you are pregnant in Missouri, choice is a tricky thing. The billboards tell you "Choose Life," but what other options are there? The state's sole abortion provider, the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, might be hundreds of miles away.

Where to turn? The phone numbers on the billboards lead to "pregnancy resource centers." Missouri funds these centers on the condition that they never mention abortion.

What about just traveling to Planned Parenthood in St. Louis? It's not only distance standing in the way. Since 2014, state law has required a three-day waiting period between initial consultation and procedure. During that consultation, the state requires your doctor to present an "informed consent" pamphlet, which asserts, "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."

In 2015, one Missouri woman made a different choice. She turned to Satan.

That year, "Mary Doe" became the pseudonymous plaintiff at the heart of an audacious legal campaign that was part satire and part earnest fight for civil rights. Her story was the linchpin of a lawsuit aimed at arguing that bodily autonomy is a core religious belief for secularists within the Satanic Temple, as important as protecting a fetus would be for a devout Christian.

But as the Temple's lawsuits taking on abortion restrictions twisted through state and federal courts for nearly four years, behind the scenes, Mary Doe grew disillusioned. Even as the Satanic Temple fought on behalf of her right to autonomy, she claims its leaders disregarded her perspective and silenced her. She's particularly angry at the Temple's chief spokesman, Lucien Greaves.

"I told [Greaves], 'You need to be more open and listen to me," Doe recalls in a recent interview. Thanks to a gag clause with the Satanic Temple's attorney, it's the first time she's spoken to the media about the case in more than three years.

She blames Greaves for what happened next.

"I wrote to him and the attorney both, saying, 'I want out of the case.'"

On April 29, 2015, Mary Doe was 22 and already a single mom. She worked part time for an auto mechanic in central Missouri, she said, with a salary that barely covered her living expenses, let alone a three-day trip to St. Louis. She was almost twelve weeks pregnant.

At that time, the Satanic Temple was sprouting branches across the country. Its biggest splash involved the stone Ten Commandments installed at the Oklahoma state capitol. The Satanists crowdsourced their own statue, "Baphomet," an eight-foot-tall, angel-winged, goat-headed figure seated on a throne beneath a pentagram, flanked by two young children gazing up adoringly at its horizontal pupils. Then they offered to donate it to Oklahoma. The state, predictably, said no — but ultimately were forced to remove the Ten Commandments as a result. That accomplished, the Temple turned to a less jokey stunt— a lawsuit focused on abortion rights.

Legally, an organization can't just argue a law is unconstitutional. It has to demonstrate standing, by suing on behalf of an individual who can show their rights are personally being violated. In Roe vs. Wade, that was Norma McCorvey — the "Jane Roe" who wanted an abortion in Texas, where it was a crime.

For the Satanic Temple, Mary Doe — pregnant, wanting an abortion and badly inconvenienced by Missouri's laws — seemed an ideal plaintiff to make the case that its members deserve the legal privileges of any mainstream religion.

"I'm not brand new to the Satanic Temple or atheistic Satanism," Mary Doe told the Riverfront Times in April 2015. "This is something that I've always really wanted to do, to argue with the laws that make things so difficult for women.

"Of course," she added, "I've not been in the situation I currently am right now where it's affected me directly."

If not for those laws, Doe said, she would have gotten an abortion "as soon as possible." The state's only clinic being in St. Louis necessitated transportation, lodging, childcare and time off from her job.

"If you're right on the edge of the state," she noted, "you've got to go 500 miles just to get up there."

Complicating matters further was the state law requiring that 72 hours pass between first consultation and abortion. With it, Missouri tied Utah and South Dakota for the longest abortion waiting period in the country.

It was just the sort of law the Satanic Temple was looking for. In 2014, the same year Missouri mandated the 72-hour waiting period, the Temple had announced its intent to use the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case — a decision that allowed employers to exempt themselves from laws infringing on religious belief — as the basis for its own challenge.

Central to the Temple's argument was that it, too, is a religion. Since its members hold beliefs about the life of a fetus, shouldn't they get a religious exemption of their own? According to the Temple's third tenet, "One's body is inviolable, subject to one's own will alone." Arguing that Missouri's abortion restrictions violate that tenet was both an interesting legal theory and high-level trolling.

The pseudonym the Temple suggested for its plaintiff, "Mary Doe," was chosen as a reference to the mother of Jesus, who was told her unplanned parenthood would one day be a blessing. Doe "liked the cleverness of it," she said.

If Doe prevailed, the state could be obligated to treat a Satanist's belief in bodily autonomy as equal to, for instance, a Catholic's opposition to birth control. Members of the Satanic Temple could seek religious exemptions to the state's 72-hour waiting period.

The irony was immediate and deliciously, well, Satanic. It just needed to hold up in court.

St. Louis' Temple chapter easily raised $800 in a GoFundMe to assist with Doe's transportation and lodging in St. Louis. (The procedure itself was paid for by the local nonprofit Gateway Women's Access Fund.)

And the story of pro-abortion Satanists turning to the courts quickly went national. After the RFT published an interview with Doe, her quotes were republished in Jezebel and the Washington Post. Pro-life outlets picked up the story as well, reveling in clear evidence that abortionists were in bed with the devil.

On May 8, Doe took a Greyhound bus to St. Louis with her toddler, who squirmed in the seat next to her as hundreds of miles of countryside rumbled by. Then, at the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city's Central West End, Doe presented the staff with a letter.

The letter declared Doe "an adherent to the principles of the Satanic Temple." It also listed her sincerely held religious beliefs: Her body is inviolable and subject only to her will. Her body includes any fetus or embryo that cannot yet survive on its own.

"I and I alone decide whether my inviolable body remains pregnant," the letter continues. "I may, in good conscience, disregard the current or future condition of any fetal or embryonic tissue I carry in making that decision." The letter demanded that Planned Parenthood "not abide" by the state's waiting period.

In response, Planned Parenthood staffers — who were definitely not on board for the Satanist's previously announced stunt — gave Doe the pamphlet carrying the required disclosure that life begins at conception. They told her to come back in 72 hours.

Three days later, Doe had her abortion. A few hours later, she settled in for a long bus ride back home, her toddler bouncing on her lap because she'd been unable to book a second seat.

The Satanic Temple had its first plaintiff.