I was raised to be a pro-life activist. My life experiences and decision to educate myself led me to become pro-choice.
My mother plopped me down on a backless bench in the living room of a suburban house somewhere on the west side of Portland, Oregon. It was 1989 and the room was full of white women with pastel blouses and poofy bangs bustling around, as well as our church’s head pastor, Mike. It was a strange seating arrangement but I was used to being taken to different homes and plopped down while adults did their Bible study and I quietly did my own thing.
After a few moments, someone dimmed the lights and turned on the television. If I recall, my mom asked me if I could see. I could.
Dramatic music started and some words that I couldn’t read came on the screen.
On the car ride over, my mom had told me we were going to the home of someone in our church to see a movie about abortion. I had no idea what abortion was, and my mom didn’t have the abaility to explain it to me in terms that I could understand. There was something about a baby but I didn’t know I had a vagina, never mind a uterus.
The screen showed a grey image with what looked like bubbles moving around, and a very serious voice talking.
At some point, the texture of some of the gray changed. Saline, I realized decades later. The bubbles on the screen began to move upward, away from the advancing texture change, slowly at first, and then frantically.
I was supposed to understand that the bubbles were a baby, and the saline was meant to kill it. I knew babies lived in women. That day, I was told very gravely, some women - liberals, they were called - murdered their own babies and it would be my job to stop them.
I was five years old.
As a deeply empathic child, I hated seeing my siblings suffer. In an authoritarian home where punishment was always physical, there was a lot of suffering about which to empathize. I still remember where I was when my mother telling me about the sinking of the Titanic. There was a distinctly sick feeling in my stomach that morning as I stood next to the kitchen table and imagined myself as one of those poor children locked in the bottom of a boat as freezing water rose up around me. Because of this inclination, it was very easy to convince me that a fetus could feel everything, and to imagine the extreme suffering a fetus would experience.
My mother helped organize anti-choice demonstrations with Eagle Forum, and pushed for legislation that would ban all abortion in our home state of Oregon. I felt her work was noble. Holy, even. I believed God hated the suffering of the unborn in the womb and was taught that one day abortion would be compared to the Holocaust in terms of harm caused.
When I was about seven, there was a national conversation about abortions happening after 24 weeks, wrongly labeled “partial-birth” abortion. The local newspaper published a series of drawings, illustrating the procedure, which my mom made me read while she talked about evil Democrats killing viable babies. I didn’t know what viable meant but I knew that killing babies was wrong.
Part of the reason I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school graduation was to ensure that I never became pro-choice. By the time I hit high school, I had been thoroughly convinced that there was never a justifiable reason for an abortion. I was informed that the right thing to do if I were raped, would be carry the pregnancy to term and then give the baby to a loving, Christian family to raise it. This to me seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and, with no functional knowledge of how difficult pregnancy is, I saw pregnancy resulting from rape as something of a blessing. I knew if that’s what God had in store for me, I would rise to the occasion FOR LIFE.
As a young adult, I was convinced that no matter what changed about my beliefs I would always be pro-life. I couldn’t bring myself to a morally justifiable reason why it would be acceptable for a mother to murder a baby. My pastors, church leaders, and parents taught me that since a human is a human, capable of experiencing the full range of feelings, emotions, and sensations regardless of how small it is or where it is located, logic dictated to me that abortion was morally wrong no matter what.
There was no real nuance in my views. I had black and white answers for everything. Pregnancy from rape and incest were undercover blessings from God. Congenital birth defects, disease, and fatal deformities, I had been informed, were often lies that doctors told patients in order to get them to abort and usually the baby was perfectly healthy. (That one STILL gets me. WHY would doctors love abortions so much?)
I did one thing very wrong as an young evangelical Christian: I had non-Christian friends. Part of this was because I was poor, homeschooled, and brown, and we attended a church where my white middle class public school peers wanted nothing to do with me. Anyone who wanted to be my friend jeopardized their social status. But as an extrovert who had very few friends (individuals who were closer to siblings than friends, truthfully) I was eager to spend time with anyone who wasn’t a member of my immediate family.
My friends and I would gather at coffee shops and bars and restaurants around Portland and talk about everything. Then we would get on Facebook and talk more. Everything was up for debate. I had friends who gently challenged my views, and I kept an open mind in my discussions with them.
The groundwork was being laid for my conversion to being pro-choice. First was a friend Michaela, a scientist who always graciously answered my questions. I was deeply concerned about the way a fetus felt and understood pain, and she patiently explained that brain structures were not connected in such a way as to transmit pain signals from stimuli. She pointed out that non-viable fetuses move around because of electrical signals controlling reflexes, they are not consciously aware of their own movements.
The second was a quote, shared by my friend Jon, by Sister Joan Chittister, which you’ve likely read all over the internet by now. "I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is."
Because empathy is my default, this quote haunted me. I was a standard issue conservative, opposed to “big government” and high taxes, arguing for the necessity of guns, and turning on Obama, who I had supported in 2008. I was a voracious reader who absorbed Dennis Prager, Thomas Sowell, Victor Davis Hanson, and Niall Ferguson like a sponge soaking up water.
Despite my commitment to pro-life arguments and conservative ideals, the term pro-birth made me feel deeply uncomfortable as a wrestled with the truth of it. I felt called out for my blatant moral inconsistency on the issue. I remembered my parents towering over me, fighting over how to pay for groceries. I remembered standing next to the couch while my mom tried to figure out if she could afford to take my brother, who was struggling to breathe, to the ER. I knew that no matter how I sliced it, bringing children into the world to suffer was not the intention of the pro-life movement but it would be the direct result of its success.
Still, I wrestled.
Early on a dark and dreary December morning, I very groggily climbed out of bed to drag myself to work. I stumbled into the bathroom and situated myself on the toilet and realized my period still had not started! While still peeing I managed to snag a pregnancy test, peel off the wrapper and stick it between my legs and hoping the last few drops of urine would be enough to get a reading one way or the other.
I turned it upside down at first, not wanting to imagine a double pink line where there was none but I couldn’t wait even the whole five minutes and flipped it over.
Test in one hand, iPhone in the other, I sent a photo message to my friend Nancy before sneaking into the bedroom to wake up my husband. “I’m pregnant!” I whispered, a huge grin on my face, and then I left to head to work.
As I drove to work I thought to myself, first try. How insanely lucky was I? I had gotten pregnant, no trouble, and now I had something to distract me from my miserable finances and mean, ineffectual bosses. Also my gynecologist had told me I had a bifurcated, tilted uterus, which, she explained to me, meant staying pregnant would be difficult. I figured it might take us a couple of tries to actually have a baby and I had made peace with that.
Within several days of the positive test my energy level started to drop, then free fall. It became a fraction of what it normally was. Usually a night owl, I would return home from work at 6 pm and fall into bed by 7.
Then came the nausea.
Morning sickness, I had been told, was a good sign. All day sickness was maybe a better sign, but it did not rest. I was sick from week 5 to week 14, which I can say with confidence were some of the most trying weeks of my life. On top of no energy and nausea, the woman training me for my new position at work was a chain smoker. Every minute felt like an eternity as I held my breath and tried to breathe as far away from her as possible.
I cried myself to sleep at night because I was so tired of being sick. Between the short, gray Seattle days and the nausea, I was more depressed than I had ever been in my life. Still, I wanted to be pregnant. I had a supportive partner. We were broke but I had enough to eat and enough money to buy prenatal vitamins and maternity clothes. My best friend Audrey lived across Lake Washington in Bellevue. She arrived at my door with homemade chicken soup and pre-made berries for smoothies, the only things that sounded good to me.
In an exhausted stupor from the couch during week nine or ten, I sent Audrey a text message.
I get why people get abortions now.
It was still several years before I could proudly and unashamedly call myself pro-choice, but the realization of the amount of labor -- actual work and energy -- necessary to create a whole new human was not lost on me.
I did the math and pregnancy is the equivalent of working a full time, 40 hour a week job for three years.
If I demanded another person to do three years of free labor for me, I would be put in prison. My motivation would be irrelevant. I have no right to require another person do free labor for me, or for society as a whole, even if it greatly benefied society and myself.
People DESERVE agency. Yes, even pregnant people. For the law to demand that one person use their body to keep another person alive is immoral and erodes the foundation of human dignity and autonomy which are essential to freedom and democracy. This absolutely applies to pregnant people as well.
What can you do?
I can’t make any guarantees that anyone you know will change their minds on the issue of anti-abortion legislation. Most of us don’t hold beliefs because they are logical, but because we feel, deep down, that those beliefs are beneficial to us or morally right.
Here’s what I suggest when dealing with anti-choice people who are acting in good faith. Many people just want to scream at you, and generally those people are not worth your time and energy. You’re better off doing something productive and donating to a pro-choice organization than going into a depressive spiral because your aunt chose to verbally abuse you on Facebook for three straight days.
Keep the doors of communication open
If someone you know is anti-abortion and they are willing to discuss their beliefs with you, keep the door of communication open. Those are the people you are most likely able to reach.
Understand the process
When you dig up the soil, and place a seed in the ground, you don’t come back the next day to harvest. Tending is such an underrated concept in our society. People don’t change their minds over night. Perhaps someone else has sown the seed of pro-choice thinking in your friend’s mind. What can you do to water or tend to it?
Stand up for women and pregnant people
One of the most common tactics used by anti-choicers is shame. Another is lying. Name calling and slurs are a big part of this effort. Don’t fall for it. Defend the dignity and autonomy of pregnant people. Defend the humanity of abortion providers. Remind people that we are capable of making the choices that are best for us and our families. Pregnant people are not getting abortions on a whim while full term, and obstetricians are not performing full term abortions on a whim.
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