How I Moved From Being A Pro-life Evangelical to Become a Pro-choice Feminist
Content Warning: Murder, rape, abortion, infanticide references.
Disclaimer 1: I am aware than not all woman have a uterus. And I am mindful of the amazing men in my life who do have a uterus. And I’m afraid that anyone who is really in a crossroads related to abortion would find my linguistic acknowledgement of that very distracting. I’m not very confident this is the right choice.
Disclaimer 2: I came to this place in response to the wisdom of dozens of women, usually feminists of color. Their articles, speeches, Facebook posts, books, and kind words color all of my thinking.
I Grew Up as a Single Issue Voter
As a conservative Christian, I was invested in values that made for a life well-lived. The values and practices that would lead to integrity, wholeness, and peace in my life and in the lives of the community around me. Abstaining from mind-altering drugs and alcohol, or health-damaging tobacco, short-term pleasures that would erode my long-term happiness. Extra-marital sex, homosexuality, and killing unborn babies were clear forms of evil that damaged lives emotionally, physically, and in the case of abortion, totally and permanently.
Not killing babies, in particular, was pretty straight forward. There’s really wasn’t a lot to negotiate with there.
Not killing babies, in particular, was pretty straight forward. There’s really wasn’t a lot to negotiate with there. And it felt like the other issues paled in comparison. I remember talks late at night with church friends in high school where I offered that I’d much rather live in a totalitarian society with all human rights taken away if it allowed that all children would be guaranteed safe birth and the right to live. What other political advance would be worth voting for if it was coupled with killing babies?
My flavor of religious community was more interested in social change through prayer, personal growth, and inviting others to join in those practices. So we didn’t usually boycott things, protest things, or blow things up. But I was close to Christians from other traditions who were more into the boycotting and protesting, and I sympathized.
I remember sitting through my church’s presentation of the play Tilly, a story of a heaven full of aborted children running around and playing while wondering sadly why their parents had chopped them up before they could be born. I was into Rock for Life’s stable of pro-life musicians. I’d rock out to P.O.D.’s nuanced social commentary in the song “Abortion is Murder.”
And I faithfully voted for Republicans. I voted for George W both times. For every election I ran down my ballot checking at each (R) I found.
But as my values began to shift some and my world view matured a bit into adulthood, I became increasingly uncomfortable with Republican values about blowing up people in foreign countries, slashing funding to programs that fed poor children, and tax breaks for billionaires. So I cautiously began to venture out some.
I became increasingly uncomfortable with Republican values about blowing up people in foreign countries, slashing funding to programs that fed poor children, and tax breaks for billionaires. So I cautiously began to venture out some.
I still remember the first time I ever voted for a Democrat. It wasn’t that he was a pro-life Democrat, per se. But he was running for Grand Overlord of Washington’s Forests or some such position. And I figured that burning down our planet wasn’t going so well, and he probably wouldn’t be able to insert his hatred of unborn babies into many decisions in his pursuits in tree husbandry. It felt like a safe bet.
In the next few years I would reach a tipping point with almost every facet of my worldview. I still loved Jesus, but could find nothing of his radical grace present in the teachings of my church, let alone the Republican Party. So I systematically adopted positions that were congruent with my newer understanding of the world. It turned out that gay people weren’t sick or broken, and were just as happy and healthy as us straight folks, and were even as likely to love Jesus as we were (if we’d let them). It turned out that waiting for marriage didn’t ensure (or even seem to aid) closeness, intimacy, or marriage length. It turned out that lots of straight, white, Jesus-loving men were assholes who perpetrated domestic violence, encouraged toxic, racist cultural conditions, disfigured their children emotionally, and celebrated gleefully at the bombing of any nation who had a beef with the US of A. The map I had been given about what values and decisions would lead to wholeness or peace was not holding up to any scrutiny of an adult life.
And eventually I was left holding on to the last of my born again assumptions awkwardly. While only allowing men to lead, blaming the poor for their suffering, and driving poisonous SUVs had been a fail, certainly not killing babies would pass anyone’s test of how to live with goodness and kindness in this life, right?
Connecting Some Dots
But the people who agreed with me about not aborting babies disagreed with me about every other moral issue related to the value of life. They were actively making it harder to raise a family or care well for the small children in my community. Not to mention killing a million Iraqis (surely some of them children) as punishment for Saudi Osama Bin Laden launching an attack that killed 3,000 US citizens (and others) from Afghanistan. They were stockpiling nuclear weapons and burning oil for profit and pouring guns by the millions into my community. They loved the death penalty. They hated health insurance for the poor. It was hard to take their “pro-life” talk sincerely.
And the people that were so certain about the great goodness of killing babies agreed with me on all these other issues. They were passionate about the weak, the vulnerable, the least of these. They sincerely believed in the value of human life over profit or revenge or “homeland security”.
The people that were so certain about the great goodness of killing babies agreed with me on all these other issues.
I pondered for a while that perhaps I was the only person on the planet who had successfully pieced together the inconsistency between these two groups, the ones passionate about not killing babies, and the ones passionate about killing babies on demand, without apology. Fortunately my entitlement, privilege, and narcissism had been confronted enough by feminists in my life by this point for me to gently set that idea down rather quickly.
Rather, there was something I was missing. There was something I didn’t understand.
And then I did what I was taught to never, ever do. And I did it consciously, and intentionally. I decided that I was pro-choice and i decided not because I understood why, but because I trusted the people who were most radically pro-choice, and I knew there was something awful going on with the people who were passionately “pro-life”.
We like to think that our world views are cohesive. That they’re logical and rational. We like to imagine that our higher minds weigh the evidence, come to a conclusion, and then march off in that direction. But it turns out that while that’s a pleasant, reassuring idea, it isn’t how the world actually works. It isn’t how humans actually work. It isn’t how I actually work. We reach our conclusions first, and then we search for explanations and justifications.
We reach our conclusions first, and then we search for explanations and justifications.
Psychologists call it confirmation bias: when we find logic and argument that agrees with our conclusion, we accept it and welcome it in. When we find logic and argument that disagrees with our conclusion, we reject it and demonize it. It turns out that believing deeply in our world view is way more important to us than having a world view that actually correlates with reality. And our worldviews shift in slow ways. Some of us are able to tolerate more shifting than others. Some less. And the unsettling realization that what we currently believe, or recently believed, isn’t actually lining up with reality, it’s really scary. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance. And usually we respond to cognitive dissonance with denial. We ignore it until it goes away.
I don’t know why my world view shifted. I don’t know how I came to believe that feminists, especially feminists of color, especially black feminists, were the most trustworthy, good, and honest people in my landscape. I have logic to back it all up now. I’ve back filled what I believe with lots of evidence and explanation.
But it was hard sitting in the tension as a pro-choice position on abortion has been the slowest belief of mine (yet?) for the whys to come after the its true part came. I’ve been holding it loosely and delicately for almost a decade now. I’ve been curious. I’ve been open. I’ve really wanted to make “sense” out of it. And the recent attacks on women’s health (yes, I really believe that is what is actually happening, as best as I can evaluate and judge reality) have been really helpful in some of the why part coming together for me.
Let me try to explain.
Brain Development: Suffering and World Views
I wouldn’t say I’m an animal lover. I didn’t grow up with dogs and cats. For years I was incredulous about the irony of animal rights activists valuing whales over human babies (but again, why are the people most passionate about animal suffering so likely to be pro-choice?). But as I learned to examine my life through the lens of my impact on others, I was able to begin to make some choices about my impact on animals. If pigs and cows are as “smart” as dogs (or even smarter), then I begrudgingly admitted that I owed them something. Not the same kind of obligation I have to a fellow human, but something. People who intentionally torture dogs or cats didn’t pass my gut check in regard to ways to live that were peaceful and healthy, and torturing them by inaction on my part didn’t feel great.
I also realized that it wasn’t “smart” I was concerned about. It was the ability to feel pleasure, safety, joy, or terror. It was the ability to suffer that I was considering. If the animal rights activists were right, the average meat that came across my plate was the result of a tremendous amount of suffering. Not just death. All living things die. But suffering.
Which wasn’t to say I wasn’t thoughtful about the loss of life. Because the animal losing its life is a certain kind of suffering. It’s the loss of what future pleasure and satisfaction it could have had, but now will not have access to. But then again, without the advent of modern agriculture, most of these animals would never even have a life to start with… they would never reproduce so effectively in the wild. So if an animal is raised, has a life, and then has that life cut short, there is a tradeoff for the pleasure it had of being alive for the loss of potential pleasure when it dies.
That tradeoff seemed fuzzy to me. So I focussed on the actual pleasure or suffering. If we are actually bringing thinking, feeling brains into existence, causing them tremendous pain and suffering, offering them very little pleasure or satisfaction, and then killing them, all for our own pleasure (eating plants is much more efficient, healthy, and affordable), that seemed problematic. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of that. So I started eating meat that was “humanely” raised. Animals that had access to grass, sunshine, rain, flirting, sex, nesting, and raising their young. This seemed reasonable when contrasted with animals living in dark metal boxes with no contact with others, unable to turn around or move, sick for most of their lives.
But then I started to have other questions. Was it more important to me that pigs were treated kindly than chickens? Or that chickens were treated kindly than shrimp? Or that shrimp were treated kindly than wheat? So I had to learn about different types of animal brains. Larger brains that could contain rich and complicated pleasure and suffering, small brains that could contain only cold and hot, yes and no. Plants with no known ways to feel pleasure or pain like we do. And I learned that people had studied these questions, and were able to compare animal brains to human brains, and to show that no animal directly compared with our ability to feel satisfaction or suffering, but that many mammals had similar abilities, and this gradually decreased as you moved towards the smaller brains of birds and fish.
While I have no concern about the pleasure or suffering of any shrimp that I eat, I end up avoiding them often because I know too much about the child slavery involved in their harvest, and too much about the ways the pollution of shrimp ponds harms the health of poor people in villages, creating physical sickness, pain, and shortening life spans, especially fortheir toddlers.
And so, of course, none of this was as important to me as the question of suffering or pleasure in humans. Because we have a remarkably exceptional ability to have all of these experiences (and, of course, I could most easily relate to our experience). So while I have no concern about the pleasure or suffering of any shrimp that I eat, I end up avoiding them often because I know too much about the child slavery involved in their harvest, and too much about the ways the pollution of shrimp ponds harms the health of poor people in villages, creating physical sickness, pain, and shortening life spans, especially for their toddlers.
A Golden Rule
All of this exploration hinged around Jesus’ Golden Rule: how did I want to impact those around me when I honestly thought about their experience and valued it similarly to how I value mine? I wouldn’t want to be enslaved as a child, I wouldn’t want to die from contaminated water, I wouldn’t want to live my whole life in a metal box, even if I was only as aware as a pig is.
And then I had children of my own.
And I had to risk a death (miscarriage) on behalf of my desire to participate in expanding life. And when I weighed the partially formed human embryo being lost in order to bring a fully human life into being, I knew that I couldn’t value both equally. I had to value the eventual children I would have more than that potential loss. I watched even more deeply reverent friends continue to try to get pregnant, even with the knowledge that it would as likely end in miscarriage as it would in life. More likely actually… over half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually before the woman even knows she’s pregnant. These were miscarriages that could be avoided if only they would use birth control or (even more effectively) practice abstinence. Not murder one, to be sure, but certainly negligent homicide, by pro-life standards.
These were miscarriages that could be avoided if only they would use birth control or (even more effectively) practice abstinence.
And then there was the more fuzzy question, the one I’d had about animals. What about potential life? What about all of the years that a pig missed out on so I could enjoy a little bacon? How do we weigh or account for missed years of life?
And then another thought, something I hadn’t considered with the pig, what about the suffering to others in their death? What about the other pigs that would certainly miss the companionship, warmth, and snuggles of the lost pig (if they were lucky enough to be raised in a situation that allowed animal contact)? What about their grief in the loss of another animal who was known and enjoyed (loved?) by them. We tear up at stories of dogs waiting for their dead master’s trains, or lying on their dead master’s graves… animals grieving.
We tear up at stories of dogs waiting for their dead master’s trains, or lying on their dead master’s graves… animals grieving.
And I realized that when friends experience the tragedy of miscarriage, I didn’t feel too much grief (although some) at the suffering or death of that specific tiny human embryo. But I felt much grief on behalf of the fully formed adult human parents who had already fallen in love the the potential of who that child might be. Was that fair?
Then I watched friends’ entire lives come to a grinding halt at the unthinkable grief of a stillborn infant. A child so close to an infant life outside the womb that it could be held and dressed and buried in a small coffin.
And then a horror that was beyond my ability to process: parents loosing a young child to cancer. A child old enough to snuggle, talk, sob, and laugh. And I watched more than a change in someone. More than a drastic change in their character. I saw entire adult human lives shrivel into a shell of what they had once been, only to recover partially and slowly over a decade or more. This was more suffering and grief than I could guess at or begin to taste.
And for me to pretend that all of the suffering I could see was somehow equal was not honoring the reality of those involved. The grief grew in the same exponential way that the human brain’s ability to experience pleasure or suffering did.
And for me to pretend that all of the suffering I could see was somehow equal was not honoring the reality of those involved. The grief grew in the same exponential way that the human brain’s ability to experience pleasure or suffering did. An infant days from being born isn’t able to fear it’s death or the loss of relationships. But a four-year-old experiences suffering when facing her death that is, perhaps, equal to an adult. Once our brains are able to process language, they can process incredibly sophisticated ideas. Once we have a mature, emotionally complex relationship with our parents (formed over the first three years), we are able to experience relational loss and suffering as fully as any adult.
For me to approach a friend who has had a miscarriage and say, “I know how you feel. I once had several 8-cell embryos that were frozen in a lab discarded,” would be offensive beyond processing. Let alone those who buried their stillborn child. Let alone those given four years to fall in love and get to know the contours of the soul of their child. To pretend that all human life is uniformly valuable wasn’t only inaccurate, it was grotesquely offensive to lived human suffering.
And so it became clear to me that I was thinking about three kinds of suffering:
1. The suffering of the pig while alive (or during it’s death).
2. The suffering of the other pigs at the loss of their friend.
3. And the suffering of the loss of potential life, unlived pleasure.
And its begun to seem to me that questions about abortion are primarily about question #3.
As to Question #1
Abortion questions don’t usually address the satisfaction or suffering that the embryo has faced up until that point in utero. Questions of pain or suffering at death are difficult. Most abortions occur when the embryo is grape size or smaller. Some nervous system growth has happened, some brain development.
When I was born (1980) I didn’t receive any anesthetic for my circumcision. None of us did. Doctors and parents weren’t worried about infant brains and nervous systems and pain or suffering. At that age my nervous system was still only a fraction of an adult pig or cow.
But we’re learning to take these things more seriously. Infants do get local, temporary anesthetic for the elective cosmetic procedure today. And third trimester abortions absolutely result in some form of pain and suffering for the fetus. Which is one of the reasons they’re only performed when the mother’s safety is at stake (less than 1,000 occur in the US each year).
Apart from pro-life / anti-choice activists and their general imagination, abortion doesn’t seem to be deeply connected to problem #2. Some women do have grief around the termination of their pregnancy (although far less than anti-choice activists would have us believe, according to more objective studies). And that suffering (at least in countries where abortion is elective) is almost always a choice of a lesser of two griefs.
Which leads us to question #3, which is the fuzzy one in some ways. I don’t want to die today. I don’t want to get hit by a bus, or be killed by a doctor. But this is largely the result of all of that brain development. Contemplating my death is a kind of suffering I can only experience because of brain development that happened while I was a toddler.
If I do die today, I may suffer during it, but by definition my suffering ends at my death.
And contemplating having never existed is tricky. I’m glad I wasn’t aborted. But I’m only glad because I wasn’t. There’s a circular logic trouble here.
What if we abort the next Einstein, the next Harriet Tubman, the next Joan of Arc?
Which bumps us into a more abstract argument: what if we abort the next Einstein, the next Harriet Tubman, the next Joan of Arc? How can humanity face those risks? How unfair is it to not give the unaware embryo (unaware of this existential question, not entirely unaware to be sure) a shot at life? But we face that exact same moral question whenever we choose to be sexually abstinent (or use birth control).
Every child I fail to have is a lost potential life. The next Bernie Sanders or next Marie Curie. Which is, of course, why some religions encourage endless pregnancies until a woman in infertile. But even they don’t go far enough. Once their daughter is fertile, she needs to be immediately impregnated if we’re serious about the potential human life missed out on. Or any fertile woman who’s not pregnant, for any reason. By this logic a rape would be less evil than the loss of a potential human life.
No one is able to live up to this kind of thinking. We all callously disregard potential human life daily. Which is probably the right choice at so many levels, including overpopulation of the planet.
This all helps elucidate why a state can charge a person for double homicide if they murder a pregnant woman while still allowing legal abortion. Because the primary harm, the primary suffering in the small human embryo’s death in a double homicide is the loss of that life to the family and friends that were hoping and dreaming and praying for their arrival. The small human life is completely unable to experience the horror of the murder itself, while the mother was likely able to (assuming it wasn’t an instant and unexpected kind of death). The loss of potential life only causes as much suffering as there is relationship (or hope and expectation) with others.
Where Do We Draw the Line?
So we, sincerely and deeply, don’t want people to go around killing others. And even if we can agree that there is a great deal of difference in human life at different stages, none of us has anything to gain by a slippery slope. Human sperm and human eggs are alive. They are cells with complex chemical reactions happening, alive in every sense. And once combined properly, they are on a trajectory to become a fully developed human. But the suffering of our dogs is certainly much more pressing than the suffering on an 8-cell embryo, in and of itself. But those 8-cell embryos are on track to become the creature most capable of experiencing satisfaction or suffering of all creatures we know of, so how do we weigh that?
Where do we draw the line? Every sperm is sacred, masturbation is infanticide? Or should we draw the line at 2 cells? What about once the little human has a brain, a heartbeat, or eyes? But the shrimp we eat have brains, heartbeats, and eyes. But they are never going to become human, right? Do we draw the line at when an embryo is “viable,” when it can live outside the womb? Or when it’s born? Ancient cultures felt good about exposing infants to the elements to weed out week ones. Clearly that must be too far?
What if the embryo has a medical condition that will only allow it to live in extreme pain for a short time? What if the mother might die by carrying the embryo to term? What if the mother will certainly die by carrying it to term? I personally don’t know anyone so conservative (although they are certainly out there) that they would deny a mother an abortion that would keep her alive.
I personally don’t know anyone so conservative (although they are certainly out there) that they would deny a mother an abortion that would keep her alive.
Which is to say that the vast majority of us, even enthusiastically pro-life folks, have made peace with abortion having some healthy role in our lives. Have made some peace with an adult woman’s life being more important than an unknown embryo years away from self-awareness.
And even the most pro-choice among us have made with peace with it being better to place a newborn child for adoption rather than discard them in a dumpster (although child abandonment does happen for complex reasons).
This is Complicated
So abortion is actually complicated. And we don’t actually have anything near universal agreement about what is right or wrong. And we’re going to have to make some decision as a culture about when it is a choice, and when it’s homicide (And through our legal system, we have). And we all want it to become homicide at some point. And we all agree it’s a choice at some point (whether or not to have sex. Whether or not to terminate a pregnancy that is 77% likely to kill the mother), and we all make different choices about where those things begin and end.
So I think the question for a lot of us becomes, why not be super careful here? Why not call it back at 2-cells? Or at least at a heartbeat? Or at least at brain waves? Even if we recognize that these tiny embryos are less capable of suffering or self-awareness than the pigs we eat, obviously their eventual growth into adult humans warrants serious protection, right?
Which pointed me to a whole host of other issues.
You see, I could deeply relate with the desire to have sex outside of marriage at 16. Even though I chose not to, I could understand why someone would want to. Homosexuality was a little trickier for me as a very female-attracted teen. But I could extrapolate. If having sex with a dude sounded as good to me as having sex with a girl actually sounds, then I can understand why someone would want to do that.
But I could never, for a moment, fathom why someone would chose to have an abortion. Why not just place the child for adoption? I accepted the answers to that question that conservative talk radio provided (Even though if I stopped and thought about it, it didn’t really make sense).
These must be women so selfish they’d rather kill a baby than be pregnant for nine months. These must be women so selfish they’d rather kill a baby than close their legs and pass on sex. Or at least use a condom.
But really? Did I actually know anyone that selfish? Perhaps the mythical ghetto queens— Homo Reagonous — these animalistic black women in the inner city, who had no shame in living off of welfare, lounging about all day using their food stamps for steak, perhaps they had really deadened their humanity so much they just mated like animals and chopped up whatever babies inconvenienced them as the result?
Or maybe the teenage mother? Maybe she was so ashamed of her sexual indulgence that she would rather cut up her baby than let anyone know she was no longer a virgin (and where could that kind of extreme sexual policing and shaming come from I wonder?).
These were thin threads. And in retrospect, my complete inability to imagine why anyone would have an abortion was one of my big clues that I didn’t actually understand what was happening.
Middle Class Pregnancy and Childbirth
I had grown up, largely, in the upper middle class, in a Western nation. I had an imagination around pregnancy and childbirth than I naively extrapolated globally.
Throughout most of human history a pregnant woman had about a 2% chance of dying for every infant she gave birth to. In some places in our world, that’s still about the average. But the chances for half of the women, by definition of averages, were higher than that. For example, a young mother is much more likely to die in childbirth than a mother who’s hips have fully developed. But even at the average of 2%, if you went on to have 10 births (given no birth control), or 19 (like Michelle Dugger), then you had a lifetime chance of 20% or 38% of dying in childbirth. So the hypothetical news by your doctor that your pregnancy could likely end in your death was just a lived reality. And in those conditions, pitting the mother’s health against the babies was a serious choice.
But we live in a modern, advanced society, right? Well, yes and no. The United States is 48th in the world in maternal mortality.
Let that sink in. 48th.
You’re safer giving birth in: Iran, Turkey, Croatia, Kuwait, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, or Singapore. You are 10 times as likely to die giving birth in the United States as you are in Estonia.
This is the tip of the iceberg on why I trust feminists who describe what is happening in America as a war on women’s health. How do you create a climate in which the wealthiest empire in the history of earth has women dying in childbirth at 10 times the rate of other, much poorer countries? You strip away access to stable employment, insurance, doctors, and prenatal care. And then non-profits who are committed to women’s health have to step in in an attempt to bridge the gap (Non-profits like Planned Parenthood).
But still, all things considered, is maternal death rate really a good enough reason to avoid a pregnancy with a procedure as drastic as abortion?
It turns out there are more issues. Many more. My upper middle class parents could afford to take several months off of work for pregnancy complications, and many more to stay home and care for a baby. And then they could afford the childcare costs associated with returning to work. And there were two of them.
Which gets to my next awareness.
The Actual People on the Ground
Most middle class people can’t wrap their minds around the plain and simple economics of much of America. It’s not that it’s too expensive to have a baby. It’s that there’s no way to pay for it at all. You see, the challenges facing a single mother with children when facing an unexpected pregnancy are primarily about being able to feed her current child or children.
And when a mother has to chose between her current child that she is attached to, and a potential child growing inside her, she’ll choose her current child.
This is first and main thing anti-choice activists misunderstand about who gets abortions. The majority aren’t looking to avoid having children. Because the majority of women who get abortions in the United States are already mothers. And the decisions that they are making are about being able to feed and house current children.
Middle class Americans don’t have much imagination about choosing between food, shelter, medicine, and more children. Because to be a single mother of multiple kids in a minimum wage job who’s unexpectedly pregnant is to face precisely that choice.
And when conservatives then get smug about the poor choices of single women who get pregnant, consider that 41% of children born in 2010 in the United States were born to single mothers. And that number is rising.
41% of children born in 2010 in the United States were born to single mothers. 95% of Americans reported having sex before they ever got married.
And when conservatives get smug about “premarital sex”, consider that as of 2006 95% of Americans reported having sex before they ever got married. And those numbers don’t vary based on religious devotion or secular hedonism.
And when conservatives get smug about being responsible enough to use contraception, consider that the largest provider of contraception to low income women in this country is: Planned Parenthood (see facepalm below).
And when conservatives start pointing to welfare, subsidized housing, Medicare, and food stamps, as ways to bring a baby into the world, I facepalm. Because we’re back to square one. These are the things conservatives fight so hard to eliminate. These are the very things that would make it bearable to welcome a child into the world. Food. Shelter. A doctor. And we keep slashing them. Because the political system is neither concerned with women or children, if we’re honest. American politics is concerned about corporate profits. And raising the minimum wage limits profits. And requiring women to get paid the same rate as men limits profits. And funding housing, medical services, food, and education for our most vulnerable, limits profits (If you still assume American taxpayers pay for these services, I encourage you to learn about corporate welfare).
But what about middle class women? What about women with no current children?
This took me longer to wrap my head around. The reality is that most women throughout most of history have had their lives diminished greatly by their lack of power over men’s sexual access to them, their lack of power over being sold into marriage, their lack of power over being bonded to house work and child care while men pursued emotionally pleasurable hunting and intellectual activity. The ways these dynamics play out in our contemporary society and extract great human suffering is complex and subtle but so very, very real (And warrant their own conversation).
Another group on the ground that turned out to be so different that my church described them is the activists, the clinic workers, and the doctors that keep abortion access hanging by a thread in this country. The image of murderous doctors gleefully funding their sports cars by tricking naive women into abortions so they could sell the body parts to radical feminists who stuff them like big game trophies to hang over their fireplaces turned out to be a bit… off.
Rather the people on the front line of providing abortions tend to be passionate, financially sacrificial, down-to-earth, and deeply committed to serving poor women who have the least access to the education and contraceptives that would have allowed them to avoid an abortion. And like George Tiller, the doctor (who provided abortions) who was shot to death at his church, it turns out they can be religious. Devout even.
Unlike the church of my youth, which fantasized about being in a deeply sacrificial battle on behalf of their neighbors, I’ve continually experienced abortion providers as willing to sacrifice lucrative medical careers, risk incredible social ostracization, and literally risk their lives (in a way Evangelical Christians can only pretend that they are) in order to make the world a better place. And rather than being smug or condescending about the deep complexities of abortion, they seem to be more aware of the terrible balancing act that the women they serve must navigate than their critics.
This is Another Place Where Brain Development Comes In
The play (book, movie) Tilly, about the aborted children in heaven, was written by a Christian-market author who’s supernatural fantasies are written at a juvenile fiction or young adult level. It’s current forward is by Michael W. Smith, a Christian-market musician who’s musical and lyrical nuance is best suited to a middle school audience. Christian-market movies. Evangelical sermons. I don’t mean any of the following as dismissive, or as rhetorical harshness. I mean it as objectively and literally as I can: Evangelical Christianity is built for early adolescents.
The kind of problem solving, the kind of truth claims made, the kind of emotional appeals made are meant to engage a certain stage in human development. And plenty of us adults never move out of that stage of development. Paternalistic and simplistic, with clear black and white explanations for a gray or rainbow hued world. And I don’t mean to demonize that at all. All stages in human development are necessary. I don’t mean to enshrine more mature, sophisticated, or complex human thinking as innately better or more valuable than simpler expressions.
But at one point algebra was beyond me, and there was intellectual growth necessary before I could process the type of thinking that solved those types of problems. And without a doubt there is much math that I will never be able to make any sense out of in my life. Good, true, sound math that wrestles with the nature of time and space and the fabric of reality. It’s all a continuum, its not like I’ve arrived.
And it’s true that it’s a pathetic and condescending argument that tells people they’re just too stupid or too shallow to keep up with the orator’s brilliance and cleverness. But one of the stages in brain development is to get to a point where we can trust those more intelligent, wise, gifted, or creative than we are, if they are honest, sincere, and care for us well.
So abortion might be the most intellectually complex and emotionally charged issue I’ll ever reflect on. But one thing I’m certain of, at 37, is that it’s complex. And when people push a world view that’s about black and white baby murder, I know that they’re engaging a complex issue with immature simplicity. And they’re confusing their sureness and certainty with moral heft and authority to soothe their own anxiety.
They’re confusing their sureness and certainty with moral heft and authority to soothe their own anxiety.
The truth is that I have great reverence for people who disagree with me in their evaluation of when human life becomes how significant. What I can no longer entertain is people who pretend that this is simple topic with easy answers.
When we’re able to reach consensus about important community values, we draft laws and enforce those boundaries. What the majority of people in this country have done is conclude that the complex evaluation of the importance of human life at different stages of development is best left to a woman and her doctor. That is not a conclusion that abortion, however early or late term, is acceptable. But it is a conclusion that believes that no one is better able to evaluate these issues than the woman who’s body the embryo is developing in. And no one (who can weigh in) has more stake in the answer to these questions than her. It’s a choice to hold on to the moral, ethical, and legal complexity that is actually present in the issue. And simplistic arguments that want to reduce the complex in order to help the opinion holder feel safer in a mysterious universe may help those who believe them, but they don’t help the actual women facing the actual decisions on the ground.
Simplistic arguments that want to reduce the complex in order to help the opinion holder feel safer in a mysterious universe may help those who believe them, but they don’t help the actual women facing the actual decisions on the ground.
The Ironic Afterward
And the tremendous irony (due to gaps between world-view and reality) is that defunding Planned Parenthood will drastically drive up the number of abortions in this country, because Planned Parenthood provides contraception for millions of sex acts. And that tripling the funding of Planned Parenthood would drastically drive down the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions that happen in our country.
Because rather than being a signifier of moral or intellectual failings of the women who obtain them, abortion is always a signifier of our collective failure to educate, support, and care well for women and their reproductive decisions. With the small exception of abortions that result from unforeseen medical complications or drastic changes of fate after an intentional pregnancy (employment, health, etc), abortions are always the last tool that is reached for in women’s attempt to control their fertility. Flooding the country with quality sex education (not moralizing, misleading nonsense about abstinence) and free, accessible birth control would be the only realistic way forward for anyone who wanted to reduce abortions.
But that’s the catch. While the flock may be sincerely interested in preserving human life, the actual driving force behind anti-abortion legislation is a deep outrage that women would dare be sexual for their own pleasure, dare escape from the confines of marriage, dare choose their own life over childcare. And driving down both sex education / contraception and abortion is the only way to punish women for those choices.
Driving down both sex education / contraception and abortion is the only way to punish women for those choices.
Because the conservative religious vision is, in the end, not of a world with no dead babies. But rather a world with women bound to men for life, sexually available but lacking any personal sexual desire (which could lead them away from their husband), at home and in the kitchen, raising children and tending to their husbands.
It is not a pro-life world. It is a world full of death at the hands of men shooting suspicious black teens in the neighborhood, men killing brown terrorists day in and day out, drone strikes taking out entire wedding parties of adults and children. It’s a world where the poor choke to death on the toxic pesticides, smog, and global superstorms that allowed the wealthiest men to grow their power and wealth beyond the wealth and power of any million of us mere mortals combined.
And I’m no longer going to allow those voices to color my understanding of abortion.