Trigger Warning: This article includes Rape and Abuse of Women
I am obsessed with life, let’s start there.
There’s nothing more precious than the experience of our existence: this incredibly frail and mysteriously resilient reality through which we get to make connections that shape our souls toward love, God, ourselves, and each other.
I’m also obsessed with birth.
And since that sentence was typed by someone who is currently in an all-consuming struggle with secondary infertility, you can trust that I mean it deeply.
Children bring such hard and good richness. Labor is miraculous. Motherhood cracked open my heart and allowed even my enemies to fall into it. I learned what mercy meant through the identity of “mama.”
A couple of other things to note: (1) Sex feels important to me. I don’t know why I feel like I need to say that, only that I think it might be helpful to know.
Is it the most important?
Is it what toxic purity culture said that it was?
Is it worthy of the damaging fixation we have caused by making it so taboo and shame-laced within western Christianity?
But I do think it matters, and when I consider how I will talk to my son about it, that’s as far as I’ve gotten. (2) I think redemptive violence is a myth, and this informs my ethic about life.
And (3) I will probably sound too progressive to some of you in this email list and too conservative to others. This is okay.
I don’t consider myself a centrist and others probably wouldn’t either, but I think the reality is that a slim majority of folks fall into the camps they feel they must choose; and most are peppered along a spectrum. I’m on a journey. You probably are too. Mine has looked like this . . .
I grew up with an inherited and decided view about abortion that I was happy to propagate. A resident of the clean bible belt in the dirty south, the right to life for the innocent felt inarguably obvious and of top priority to me. Who would kill a baby?
The alternative belief was so baffling and impossible to comprehend that it was widely upheld that a politician or societal leader who would allow or encourage such a thing warranted moral skepticism.
As you read this, you may hold a similar opinion. It was not that we were one-issue voters, it’s that this one issue was so clear that anyone who disagreed with the conviction could not be trusted with the wellbeing of our communities.
My college shared an intersection with one of three women’s clinics (that provide abortion access, among other care) in our state. I remember viewing it for all four years of my education as sinister and dark, the death bed of goodness and the repercussions of someone’s bad choices and liberal agendas.
And though I never agreed that the hostile and eccentric demonstrations of pro-life protestors was an effective way to change minds (mama always said you attract more flies with honey than vinegar, in fact), I still embraced a spiritual responsibility of praying away the evil that was guiding the right to choose.
What I knew about abortion was limited. Who I knew who’d had an abortion was imaginary. Yet, though not informed, I was resolved. And with the manner in which I understood the topic, it was reasonable to be so.
But then—and this was the first level of deconstruction for me—I began to read the words of writers and pastors who didn’t quite fit into the boxes of conservative or liberal; and because of that, they served as a bridge for me.
They loved God, they knew the bible (I’ve always been an old, religious soul), they’d had similar upbringings to mine, and yet they had some questions.
These days, I try to have my understanding of abortion shaped primarily by the experiences and opinions of women.
The thinkers I was finding, were asking why communities of American Evangelicalism, like mine (among other religious sects), were so vehemently dedicated to the ethic of life for the unborn but not to seeing that ethic play out for the whole life after labor.
Why did we oppose abortion but not the death penalty, they asked?
Why did we oppose abortion but not deadly racial and gender oppression?
Why did we oppose abortion but not reckless war or reckless gun laws or reckless raising of children who would go on to normalize the abuse of women’s bodies?
(Before I lose some of you, note that I said wreckless gun laws.) Why was life only important to preserve if a human had never made a decision on their own?
You may have already rationalized in your own mind that the concept of innocence has informed much of the abortion conversation. It is a particularly potent piece of the puzzle for pro-life dedicates, I think. It’s the potential that’s so fixedly protected.
We look at our own existences and the erasure that happens when we consider that someone at some point could have made that decision for us as well. We think of the best and most loved among us and consider how they could have simply not been. But I started to wonder why this “potential” didn’t matter for those who were breathing?
Were those on death row irredeemable (assuming they’re all guilty, which we’re told is unlikely). Why did a fetus matter more than a child dying at the border, or a homeless trans teenager, or an innocent family in the crossfires of our bombs overseas?
And let me drain that last question of its either/or-ness: I know that there are people who care about fetal-persons and innocent Iraqi bystanders. But I’m not referencing the personal capacity of compassion in as much as I’m referencing the time and resources that are poured into anti-abortion efforts by church and political leaders in comparison to other real and pressing issues that lead to death.
The reality for me was this: I felt utterly convicted that my ethic for life was not an ethic for life unless it was an ethic for all of life. I couldn’t unsee it. This was the beginning of my social justice journey—one that remained relatively apolitical until I felt it no longer could. (To be sure, my social justice world is not anchored by politics, but by my faith. However, it’s no longer avoidant of politics either.)
Next, came the years of experiencing and realizing the absolutely appalling and unjust control and exploitation of women and their bodies that was happening all around me, which I hadn’t before been able to see. I used to say that I had never experienced sexism or misogyny; but the truth was, I just didn’t know what I was looking for.
Now, when I hear a woman say that she has never experienced sexism, I feel a knot in my stomach, as I know it is likely because she has normalized something she should have never had to normalize. But until someone shows you that things don’t have to be a certain way, you not only make do with them, you defend them.
Let me give three examples of things that were uncomfortable for me, but didn’t initially register as wrong because of the ways I had accepted sexism as a casual character in my world.
I was once told by a boss, on more than one occasion, that if he was “two feet taller and twenty years younger” he’d be “coming after me.”
I have also watched as the salary of a male coworker was increased past their female superior’s on account of them being “a husband and father.”
Once, while getting gas, a man approached me and said sternly “let me f*ck that p&ssy, girl,” and though it rattled me, I didn’t think it was allowed to be traumatizing.
Yet, here I am remembering it vividly in my body ten years later. And I am lucky compared to many women I know and love who have experienced much more horrific harm in a world that so normalizes sexism.
My friends and travels added to this consciousness: stories of rape for women whose trauma would shape the nightmares of their next decades, thirteen year olds raising babies placed inside of them by father figures, diagnoses of certain death should another pregnancy occur (for mom, or baby, or both), sexual abuse by religious leaders, migrants beginning birth control before seeking asylum in anticipation of assault, etc.
I began to recognize the world in which a woman’s body could be objectified from infanthood, subjected to abuse, and then controlled by lawmakers all for the sake of life.
And largely making the decisions? Men—many benefiting from a culture of sexism, many with histories of exploitation, all lacking the actual lived experience of a woman.
I lived and worked in an under-resourced neighborhood’s community house at the time. There, I’d met and gotten to know a fourteen-year-old that we’ll call Raven.
At fifteen, with very little sex education or contraception risk awareness, she became pregnant while on the depo shot. Her family had so few resources, and through them I learned a great deal about the fear and reality of racism that can be found inside of adoption.
She wanted an abortion. And though I was praying fiercely at the time that she was too far along to be eligible for one, I knew that it had to be her choice because I did not have to live out her next seventy years with the decision.
I went with her to the appointment where she learned she was over halfway through the pregnancy that she would end up seeing to term. I thought I would be ecstatic, and I guess on some level I was relieved. But I knew her life would be hard, much harder than mine would ever be, going forward.
Things were shifting inside of me. And while these stories didn’t cause me to fully warm to the term “pro-choice,” they did illuminate for me that choice has long been stripped from women and their bodies (especially BIPOC) in a myriad of ways that do not look like life.
What came next were the confounding statistics like those (long known by pro-choice advocates) that surfaced in the 2018 Guttmacher Institute study, evidencing that “nations with robust women’s rights protections, liberal abortion laws and easily accessible birth control (especially long-acting birth control) have some of the lowest abortion rates in the world” (Jill Filipovic).
To be fair, the CDC does not “credit a single driver” for declines like those that we’ve seen most recently in the US, and as this article states, it’s messy. But the science shows that criminalizing abortion and blocking contraception access and education does not lessen abortion as much as it simply makes it more dangerous.
Most effective in preventing abortions? Comprehensive sexuality education that includes medically accurate information about contraception and abstinance, insurance coverage, affordable and accessible contraception, greater access to emergency contraception (which prevents pregnancy but does not cause abortion), legally induced abortion, timely care for complications, and programs that curb domestic violence and sexual abuse.(Important to note: Planned Parenthood provides many of these services).
I think about this every time I pass the clinic near my alma mater at whose corner pro-life advocates still stand shouting, fingers and bibles wagging. Do they know that the means don’t lead to the end they say that want? Maybe I’m missing something—it’s happened before.
Or maybe they don’t know, like I didn’t know. Maybe they don’t believe it. Maybe our news sources and social media have become so sensationalized, untrustworthy, and dictated by the dollar of entertainment and outrage that even science feels like manipulation.
Maybe, for some, abortion as an issue is the Trojan horse in which people ride to protect their own power whether they realize it or not (its urgency was in fact ushered in largely by a 1950s opportunist who was originally indifferent to the issue).
I’m certain the explanation varies. Regardless, the cognitive dissonance between stated goal and manifested outcome accentuated the very real question for me: is pro-choice more pro-life than pro-life?
What I’m not even covering here is an in-depth discussion of how various people, cultures, and religions uphold that the beginning of life occurs at differing points—i.e. Is life the separate egg and sperm? The fertilized ovum before implantation? After? The fetus before it can exist outside of the womb? The fetus once it can?
I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for this, and if I did, it would contrast against countless other answers represented in our pluralistic society.
But I’m learning from and listening to people like my friend, co-worker, and self-identified “faithfully pro-choice follower of Christ” Elaina, who writes here:
“As . . . Pete Buttigieg puts it, ‘If we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line.’ While some may think it’s acceptable for religious institutions or the government to draw that line, I argue that women and pregnant people have the God-given moral agency and capacity to draw that line for themselves.”
This makes sense to me. I’m also not touching on the actual testimonies of women who have had abortions. Those aren’t my stories, and there are many resources (like this one) that can offer those to you.
But I am sharing where I’ve been and what has influenced where I am. To that end, I’ll say that I currently hold the conviction that abortion should be a woman’s choice, accessible, safe, legal, and rare (though I hesitate to make a sweeping statement, purposefully devoid of recognizing the abortions of healthy, resourced, and consenting adults, since I feel like I am constantly learning).
Still, I recognize my present place in the journey to demonstrate that I linger in the sticky middle, committed to continually opening myself up to the lived stories of people, history, my faith, and varying cultural interpretations of such things.
For today, I love life and Jesus; I trust women’s experiences with their own bodies and denounce injustice that leads to more and more death. And I will vote for pro-choice advocates come November, not in spite of those things, but because of them.