Growing up "saved"
I was one of those children who were lucky enough to not be aborted. Conceived before my parents were married, I was a mistake at best.
My parents were open about the fact that I was conceived out of wedlock. To their credit, they always expressed how blessed they felt to have me. I was a blessing that had come out of regrettable circumstances. I think that the message they wanted to pass on was that I was a blessing, but the reality was that I internalized a lot of self-loathing based on the circumstances of my conception.
First, I had this feeling that I shouldn’t exist. I wasn’t very clear on how exactly conception occurred as a very young child. I knew that my parents did something bad, and when they found out they were pregnant with me that meant everyone else knew they did something bad too. As the story went, the pregnancy brought them both to repentance and salvation. God used me to lead them to himself. What a blessing!
But also, what a burden. I was the “good thing” that God brought out of their sin. God used me to save them. I felt, therefore, like I always had to be a “good” child, because otherwise it would ruin the story they told people. If I wasn’t good, if I wasn’t a blessing, then I was messing up some cosmic lesson plan.
And the fact remained that if my parents had done the right thing (according to them), I would not have existed. And once I was older and understood more, I was bothered by the verses in the bible that prohibited bastard children from entering the temple and being in God’s presence. Sure, that was the Old Testament. But it still made me feel extra unworthy, and like my existence was something I needed to continually justify with my behavior.
The second thing was that I felt like I owed my parents my life. Literally. I spent my teenage and young adult years, right up until I was married at the age of 23, giving my time and energy to my parent’s demands. I raised their children. I cleaned their house. And if I ever felt a hint of discontent, if I ever dared to want my own life, I quickly tamped it down by reminding myself that I only existed because my parents decided not to abort me. They saved my life, so I owed it to them.
To be perfectly clear, I don’t think my parents believed that I owed them my life. They certainly didn’t explicitly say so.
But the message I received, the worldview that I put together based on the things I was told, was that I was special, different, and “apart” because of the circumstances of my conception. In the telling, my parents were both villains and heroes, and I was a mere accessory. Something God used, something that should never have existed but here we were, making the best of plan B.
I mention all of this because many of those who I see vehemently opposing women’s choice have also decided to keep a baby under circumstances where others might have aborted. If you care about your child (and I have no doubt that you do), then take care how you talk about these issues. Really think about the ideas and values you are passing on.
I was that kept child. And I promise you your kid knows if you resent them. Work on that on your own time.
I can tell you exactly what my mother gave up when she decided to keep me. She didn’t tell me all these things out of spite, but the underlying resentment seeped out in the telling. Instead of becoming a nurse or a forensic pathologist or a minister, she became a stay at home mom.
I understand now that this was her choice. Plenty of women have careers and children, and my mother chose to focus on her children. But the story she told was one where her life was going a certain way and then I came along and redirected it.
That is too much pressure to put on a child. Please, even if a pregnancy did change the course of your life, think about the story you are telling your child about their existence. You chose to have that baby. Your life was changed because of a choice you made, not because of the child who had no agency in the matter.
I felt like I “ruined” my mother’s life when I had the audacity to be conceived. Now, lest you think my mother was a horrible person for making me feel that way, let me say that I’m sure she never meant to.
But it was there in the way she told the story.
If you are so unsure of your own choice to keep a child that you have to tell the story of everything you gave up, over and over again, that child can read between the lines. If you are so insecure in your choice that you feel the need to make everyone else choose the same thing, your kid knows that too. It’s not sending the message you think it is.
The underlying assumptions
When talking about abortion, both sides of the discussion have some underlying assumptions that they base their arguments on. If you don’t understand what those assumptions are, it can be frustrating to try to talk about the issue.
People who are prolife start with the assumption that an unborn child is just as much a person as one who is born.
Prochoice folks start with the assumption that a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body.
Pro-Lifers often do not believe that women - or anyone, for that matter - have that right. I was raised to believe that my body was not my own. My life was not my own. It was partly because I was a woman, it’s true. But mostly because evangelical Christianity in the United States holds the view that since God made us, He is the only one with the right to decide what happens to us. (Often, of course, this is by proxy, which is why they believe that men can make decisions for their wives and spiritual leaders can tell their flocks what to do.)
Most of the time, people who are pro-choice believe that a person becomes a person with the rights of personhood at birth. They may also dither about viability. Basically, until a child can exist separate from its biological mother, it is not a child.
The pro-life position holds that God controls conception and the development of the child. Because God is all-knowing, he has plans for each person from even before the moment of conception. He controls which sperm reach which eggs, and he gives each person a soul. Because they believe that God is actively involved in conception, pregnancy and birth, and that He assigns a soul to a person as soon as they are conceived, they consider abortion a thwarting of God’s will.
In fact, I sometimes think that they aren’t nearly so concerned about murder as they are about thwarting God’s will. That’s why you will often see the same people who are against abortion also opposing birth control. No one believes that an egg or sperm is a person, but they do believe that God wills conception to take place to create a person, and it’s the defiance of God’s will that bothers them.
If you do not understand these underlying assumptions, you will spend a lot of time talking past each other and getting nowhere.
What changed my mind
I remember where I was when I decided I was pro-choice.
I was (I think) about seven months pregnant with my oldest. I was standing up from the couch, a huge endeavor at the time given my whale-like proportions. I had just finished reading a story about a woman who was forced to carry a pregnancy against her will.
And it just hit me that I had no right to force anyone else to go through pregnancy. It was not my place. There were exactly zero circumstances where it would be my place to tell a woman, “look, I know you don’t want to do this but you have to because God.”
If God wanted to tell them that, fine. I wasn’t sticking my nose in that business.
Pregnancy is incredibly invasive. You grow a whole other person inside you. Some other being is living inside your body, poking your bladder, kicking your ribs, tickling your cervix.
Pregnancy is uncomfortable at best. I was almost constantly nauseous for the first five months. I threw up for the only time in my adult life while pregnant. I needed to pee all the time. I lost my center of balance. My breasts grew into a separate zip code. I couldn’t sleep, between the back pain and the peeing.
I was never, ever alone, because I carried someone with me everywhere I went. My pubic bone separated; even now, if I roll over wrong in the middle of the night it feels like someone has slipped a knife in there. I had sciatica and restless legs and charley horses. My internal organs were displaced and shifted around. Suddenly, what I ate and drank was everyone else’s business. Strangers commented on my weight and tried to touch my belly.
And I had an easy pregnancy.
Pregnancy is permanent. You aren’t pregnant forever, but the pregnancy changes you and there’s no going back. I have stretch marks. My body has decided that my heaviest pregnant weight is the weight we are now. My breasts are at least two cup sizes bigger than they were before I had kids, and they were a very nice size back then. My abdominal muscles are still compromised a decade after my last pregnancy. As mentioned before, my pubic bone plays wonky games now. I pee when I sneeze.
Life-changing. That’s what pregnancy is. It changes the body permanently.
I have no right to force someone else to go through with that. That is what prompted me to become pro-choice.
Today, my position is complex and based on a lot of factors: my personal beliefs, the experiences of others that they have been willing to share, my understanding of science, and so on. But the foundational tenet for me remains that I have no business telling other women what to do with their bodies.
What do you actually want to see?
This is a good question to ask if you want to have conversations that go somewhere about any issue.
What do people on the pro-life side of the abortion discussion actually want to see?
Hint: it’s probably not less abortions. If people want to see less abortions, they will support measures that reduce abortions - things like easily-accessible birth control, comprehensive sex ed, and supports for pregnant women and young children.
What people who oppose abortion actually want to see, from my experience, is a little more ethereal. They would like to see no abortions. They would also like to see people only having sex within the boundaries of their strict mores - one man and one woman for life™.
What you have to understand is that within the evangelical worldview that most anti-abortion folks hold, there is a lot of magical thinking going on. Things like:
- if you give the first ten percent of your paycheck to God, you will have enough money to cover your expenses
- If you pray hard enough, maybe God will perform a miracle and you won’t have cancer anymore
- If you wait until marriage to have sex, then your sex life will be wonderful and magical and protected
- God will never give you more than what you can handle
- If you do the right thing, good things will happen to you
I cannot emphasize enough that these things are not true. Giving away a tenth of your income doesn’t make math work backwards. Waiting to have sex until marriage just means that you have your awkward first time with someone you have already promised to spend your life with.
Now, if you believe that you ought to tithe your income, or save yourself for marriage, then that is between you and your conscience and your God. But there are no magical universe-bending miracles that happen when you do so.
So, an antiabortion person will believe that if you save yourself for marriage and you are following God’s will, then nothing bad will happen to you. And if it does, it must be for a reason (either God or the devil is testing you, toss a coin). They actually believe that unwanted pregnancies and difficult situations won’t happen if you are on the right path, and that if they do happen it is to guide you to the right path.
You are allowed to make your own ethical decisions
This message is for those who, like me, were raised in a fundamentalist religion where the line between right and wrong was very stark and proscribed.
I don’t talk a lot about why I left evangelicalism and Christianity. I don’t want to deal with people trying to reconvert me, and I don’t feel the need to justify my choices. But this is relevant to the topic at hand, so here you go:
I didn’t leave because I found the rules restrictive. I didn’t leave because I wanted to do more fun things.
I left because Christianity, as it was practiced by nearly every church and denomination I visited, was incompatible with my own internal sense of right and wrong. I came up against issue after issue where I could not in good conscience keep my mouth shut, toe the line, follow the leaders and go with the flow.
I left Christianity because when it came down to it, I had to choose to honor my own conscience, the bedrock of morality that I found inside myself. And the Christianity of my childhood did not leave room for me to do so.
It’s possible that you are experiencing the discomfort of your internal sense of right and wrong clashing with what you are expected to do and believe and say and sit in the pew and listen to week after week.
To you I say: you are allowed to make your own decisions about what is right and wrong. You are allowed to trust your own moral compass. I know that goes against everything you have been taught, but it is the way to freedom.
It also gets rid of that pesky cognitive dissonance.
It is about religion, actually
I saw a discussion the other day where someone insisted that their pro-life stance had nothing to do with their religion. Respectfully, that is a load of cow dung.
There might be an argument for the pro-life position that does not rely on religion, but it’s not the one they use. When people say life starts at conception, that is a belief. It is not based on science, but rather on a bible verse. Or a specific interpretation of a bible verse, to be precise.
If your religion says life begins at conception, you have the right to believe that. But it is a religious argument, because not all religions believe that life begins at conception.
Some believe life begins when the baby first moves. Some believe it begins with the first breath.
The important thing to note is that these are religious positions. They are beliefs. You can’t make laws based on your religious beliefs.
What science says about pregnancy and its termination
I’m not a scientist. Other people have covered these issues more thoroughly and accurately than I could ever hope to. But here’s what I know and base my own ideas on.
First, abortion is natural and common. In the animal kingdom, females make decisions all the time about whether to conceive, whether to carry a pregnancy to term, and whether to care for the babies once they are born.
As humans, we don’t have a way to shut down conception except in the most extreme cases of starvation. We don’t have a way to terminate a pregnancy using only our body, unless there are severe problems with the embryo or the uterine environment. And we frown heavily on infanticide.
That’s ok, though! Humans also don’t grow our own houses or fur. For millennia, people have been using tools and manipulating the environment in order to live their best lives. For people with uteruses, that includes using tools and substances to manage the timing and completion of pregnancy.
If you scare a rabbit soon after it has given birth, it will decide this is no place to raise babies and it will eat them. Nature is metal, man. Abortion is a clever invention that allows a uterus owner to make decisions about if and when they will bear offspring, without having to make the considerable investment in time and energy, not to mention risk, that would be involved with carrying a pregnancy to term and then deciding it wasn’t a good time to raise a baby.
Bodily autonomy vs saving babies - we aren’t actually having a conversation here
If you’ve made it this far in my ramblings, you may have noticed that we aren’t actually having the same conversation on both sides of this debate. There is such a vast difference in beliefs and values between the pro-life and pro-choice positions that most arguments fall flat before they get anywhere near deaf ears.
It can feel very satisfying to take pot-shots at the other side, flinging zingers and imagining how clever they must think you are. But the reality is that if you aren’t addressing the actual issues in their mind, and if you are starting with assumptions they don’t share, you may as well be doing standup comedy at open mic night in a blizzard when no one else showed up.
We can only change our own minds
Something I’ve become convinced of over the years is that we cannot ever change someone else’s mind. Clever arguments, saucy insults, carefully-constructed apologetics - they can only go so far. In order for a mind to change, the owner of the mind must be an active participant in the process of said change.
I have a rule for myself that I don’t participate in arguments where I have no intention of changing my mind. It’s inauthentic to expect someone else to listen to me if I won’t extend them the same courtesy. I have stayed out of the abortion argument because I have no intention of changing my mind; I have already done so, and it was after careful consideration of all sides of the issue.
No matter how good you are at arguing your side, you are not likely to change anyone’s mind. Which brings me to my final point:
But we must change the conversation
Look, this is clearly an elephant in a room full of elephants and we definitely have to deal with the elephants before they trample our entire civilization. But before we can make any progress, we have to change the kind of conversation we are having.
If you are truly interested in resolving tough issues, I suggest these questions as a starting point.
- What do you want to see? What is your end goal with the policies you support?
- What steps can you take in your personal life today to support people with uteruses who do choose to have children?
- Do you know anyone who has made a reproductive decision you disagree with? Have you listened to their story? Do you believe them?
- If you kept a child and are now pro-life, what is the relationship between your choice and your current beliefs?
- How are you making sure that children who already exist are protected and provided for?
We might be able to find common ground if we can set aside our egos and our carefully constructed belief systems. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in abortion or not. What matters is the actions you take and the effect they have on the people around you. Please pay attention to that.