I wrote most of this post in September of 2021 during legislation of the Texas abortion ban. Today it feels heavier and even more critical as the Supreme court weighs the validity of Roe V. Wade. I hope that sharing the narratives I’ve held around this topic brings some comfort and validation in a messy and heartbreaking time.
I’ve spent the last several days ruminating on the complexity of what so many folks try to boil down to a black and white issue. The ruling in Texas is heartbreaking - both that women are being denied medical care, and that we live in a world where the medical care that’s so hotly debated is necessary. I’ve avoided talking directly about abortion care for years, because it’s volatile and people have drawn and defended hard lines. It’s a tough topic to bring nuance to since emotions run so high on all sides, but also because it feels very high stakes. Abortion may be one of the most politicized topics ever. But maybe that’s exactly why we need to have more discussions about it.
I grew up very traditionally pro-life. I heard the conspiracy theories and scary stories about evil Planned Parenthood. The religious communities my family were part of questioned whether even certain types of birth control were “abortative” and the Most Holy People let “God plan their family” which meant not using any contraceptives at all, even natural family planning. Here’s some irony - I was actually born because my parents decided to let God plan their family a decade after they had my older sister and 13 years after they had my older brother. (I’m of course the one that challenges all the status quos, I feel like God really has a sense of humor.) I still consider myself pro-life, but in a much deeper and more comprehensive way. I also believe all manner of reproductive care for women is a fundamental matter of freedom and autonomy.
When I was 19 I moved 6 hours away from my parents to start my adult life on my own. I started working all the jobs I could, but of course working 3 jobs at just over minimum wage doesn’t provide health insurance. When I found a lump in my breast I was terrified. Turns out, the only sliding scale self pay care available was at Planned Parenthood. I felt like I was entering the gates of hell the first time I went there. But to my surprise there were also a lot of pregnant folks there - getting prenatal care. My little 19 year old mind was blown. Not only did a lovely APRN at Planned Parenthood diagnose my fibroadenoma, they had access to a fund for early detection procedures which paid for both an ultrasound and a biopsy which would have been impossible costs for me to cover at that point in my life. This taught me the valuable lesson that while Planned Parenthood gets vilified for providing abortions, they also provide a bevy of preventative options, education, and serve communities who often can’t afford to go elsewhere.
If it was really God’s will for everyone to have as many babies as possible, it seems like Planned Parenthood had a vital role in enabling lower income families living out the supposed initial mandate of humanity (be fruitful and multiply!) However it was also confusing, because my family and childhood community was also very against what they termed “welfare” which would support some of these same families in following God’s plan. I mean technically in this case shouldn’t we be happy to support services that enable more people to have more babies?
Of course there was a massive caveat. While motherhood was upheld as the greatest thing you could ever do with your life as a woman, you better sure as H E double L not get pregnant out of wedlock. God wants you to have all the babies but only if you’re married to a dude (even though none of the verses in the Bible that talk about children being a blessing list qualifiers.) I spent most of my life being absolutely terrified of getting pregnant. I grew up in the most “pro-life” community you could find, and had recurring nightmares about getting pregnant without having sex. I was also terrified because my inner empath saw how exhausted and overwhelmed the moms of these huge families were. I saw the life planned out for me and wanted none of it. I was 21 when I saw my nephew born, and was even more traumatized. Over the last decade of marriage, getting to know myself, and uncovering and claiming my various identities, I went from being terrified of getting pregnant, to being ambivalent about getting pregnant, to cautiously acknowledging parts of me would love to nurture new life. This trajectory has been fueled by deconstructing the ideas of motherhood, childbearing, autonomy, and identity I grew up with.
This conversation is really about purity culture. I’m trying not to write another book here, but the attitude towards people having kids in scenarios that weren’t considered optimal quickly went from “oh babies are such a blessing” to “well that’s what they get for not making the right choices.” Do you see what happened right there? Babies - supposed to be this highest blessing from God themself - are all of the sudden seen as a punishment for breaking purity culture rules. This was the story I believed the most. The “pro-life” ethos at this point turns from saving babies, or even just believing babies are the best and providing mothers with all of the possible support through multiple avenues, to finding ways to legally punish women and those assigned female at birth (men and those assigned male at birth are conveniently missing from the narrative) for making choices they don’t approve of. Now this is a motivation and ideology that those in “pro-life” community are far more consistent with than that of loving or caring about babies and humanity as a whole.
There are lots of discrepancies in the term “pro-life” and even whether or not those who claim the title actually want everyone who genuinely wants a baby to have one. There are also many issues besides abortion which speak to whether or not we as a society value human life. These include but are not limited to the human lives (including children) being detained at border camps, lives lost to gun violence, human lives that are incarcerated, the lives of humans who are refugees, the lives of Black trans women whose current life expectancy is all of 35 years, the lives of those living in countries our military occupations have destabilized and thrown into chaos.
So I actually do vote on whether or not I believe government representation is pro-life. I vote based on their policies of prison reform, whether or not they address the school to prison pipeline, their views on education and the minimum wage, immigration, whether they protect BIPOC and LBGTQIA lives, gun reform, and yes, I do also care about the protected time parents can take to care for family members and new babies. But all of these things my communities of origin were silent on, or actively opposed. Here’s where the cognitive dissonance started for me. How can people be so passionate about the sanctity of human life but then not care about gun laws when school shootings can take the life of that same baby just a few short years later? At what age do we stop caring about human life? Perhaps when it costs us something personally. Or as mentioned, it’s really not about valuing human life but about punishing those who disagree with a specific religious ideology.
I want to also share that a large number of the folks that I’ve known in pro-life communities didn’t discuss all of these things, and I’m guessing (hoping?) just never connected the dots. I know lots of people with really big hearts and the best of intentions, but we all know that even the best of intentions can have catastrophic outcomes when we are operating from harmful ideologies and theologies. There’s also another smaller movement that is still very anti-abortion but also is more consistent in their ideology of wanting to provide the support women and children need to thrive. This is the exception to the rule, and also doesn’t account for many of the challenges we’ll address in the rest of this post.
If we shift our lens for a moment to a more recent discussion, some of these folks who claim the “pro life” title also feel that wearing a mask to protect themselves and others from a deadly virus is a violation of their rights. I have been amazed to see the very same people who are happy to legislate those who get pregnant accidentally or forcefully turn their lives upside down for an unplanned pregnancy refuse to even cover their nose and mouth to protect the lives of themselves and others, let alone get a vaccine. It seems we are all for policing the lives and decisions of others while some of us refuse to take the bare minimum of action for protecting and honoring humanity. Which makes me think this belief system has never been about honoring life or speaking up for the voiceless or protecting babies.
When I was young, I was taught the abortion debate was about whether or not you cared about babies being murdered. Imagine my surprise when I learned that legislation promoting accessible reproductive healthcare and comprehensive sexual education was proven to drastically reduce the numbers of abortions. I was confused - if this legislation was actually resulting in less abortions, which is what we all wanted, why was it so evil and hotly debated? If our priority is welcoming babies into homes ready to support and nurture them, this doesn’t make sense at all. But again, if our priority is finding ways to punish people (especially women and those assigned female at birth) for not playing by our rules it makes perfect sense. It also may or may not be a surprise that many women who strongly consider themselves staunchly “pro-life” have also gotten abortions. If even those who believe they are committing a deep and serious sin still end up doing it, the system and ideology is not working.
Turns out the gears behind the abortion debate are numerous and intricate. There are many topics that come to a head here.
There’s a well known saying of unknown authorship that goes “He who frames the question wins the argument.” I’d like to take it a level deeper though. When a political debate pits two marginalized groups against each other, take a look at who’s framing the argument because they are the ones benefiting from the chaos.
It’s not an accident that the abortion debate pits women against babies and children. Statistically, men cause 100% of unplanned pregnancies and have the capability to cause many more than women. But where is the accountability for men who cause abortions in these conversations? Where is the personally invasive legislation? What if, instead of women needing agreement from their male partners to get their tubes tied, men automatically got vasectomies and then needed a permission slip from the person they want to have a baby with to get it reversed? This could hypothetically prevent 100% of abortions. What if it was illegal to impregnate someone without their consent? Yes these are extreme ideas and I’m not saying they would make good policy. But the policies being suggested are equally invasive and horrific, however speaking up against those somehow means you don’t care about the lives of babies. We as a society are not far removed from the age old patriarchal dynamic of valuing women primarily for the ability to birth children.
One of the really horrific things slave owners often did was push slave women to have as many children as possible because those children were seen as property that made the slave owners wealthier. They then either had additional workforce or could sell the children to other plantations.
Reproductive rights are a big deal because those with wombs have been controlled and abused through their ability to create life since forever. The Bible itself has multiple accounts of the social shame women experienced in ancient times if they were infertile, which often resulted in their husband taking on more wives to increase the chances of carrying on the family line. (Whether or not those wives were taken willingly is another whole topic which casts additional light on the expectations, roles, and value of women in ancient society.) Reproductive rights are especially important in demographics that have been historically exploited the most, which are of course more statistically affected by invasive legislation.
The reason this is a “women vs babies” political argument is plain and simple misogyny. As Elyse Meyers says; “I do not receive that.” Whether we’re talking about state or national level control of reproductive care, the news and social media cycles bring up the feelings for me of being targeted, trapped, and exquisitely vulnerable. I do not receive the story that this is the legacy being able to create new life hands me. I refuse to pass these narratives on to the next generation. Yes we need to smash the patriarchy. We need to harness our creative rage. But at the same time if we are not learning to embody a new world that truly values and honors sanctity and autonomy of ALL life what will we be left with?
How would things change if instead of villainizing women who want autonomy over when and how we have children, we asked “How can we nurture a society that allows women and children to thrive?” or “How can we make spaces where it’s safe for people to have children and thrive?” or “How can our communities better support the unique challenges moms face?” Do you see how that opens up the conversation instead of pitting people against each other? I know, I know, it lacks the punch of turning what’s supposed to be the biggest blessing of being a woman (according to the “pro-life” ideology) into a weapon pointed at her, but we could actually be having productive conversations. If we don’t want birthing babies and children to be seen as a liability we need to create a society where it isn’t one. And even in the perfect society there would still be situations where unviable and ectopic pregnancies among other scenarios would require abortion care. I have more than one friend still alive and in my life because if they had attempted to continue an unviable pregnancy it would have been fatal.
This brings me to a fundamental problem I have with many of the social ideologies I grew up with - they assume the worst. They assume scarcity (that there isn’t enough for everyone.) They assume people are out to get them, out to cheat the system. And you know what? Sure, some people probably are. But living with the assumption that most people would be their worst selves given half a chance is a shitty way to spend your time on this planet and it makes even worse legislation. What if we tried assuming the best? Now listen, I’m a fan of accountability and transparency in legislation, but laws that are passed specifically out of mistrust are an issue.
Then there’s the history of why abortion became such a polarizing topic. Back in 1983, there was a supreme court case, and according to wikipedia; “Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court holding that the religion clauses of the First Amendment did not prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from revoking the tax exempt status of a religious university whose practices are contrary to a compelling government public policy, such as eradicating racial discrimination.” This lawsuit was brought against BJU for failing to accept Black students while wanting to retain their tax exempt status, and this looked really bad for the community. Leaders in the evangelical Christian world felt like their grip was slipping, and in the interest of protecting their white supremacist interests, the religious right was born. What could be a unifying political issue to rally voters across denominational lines? If you guessed whipping up outrage about Roe v. Wade you’d be correct. Frank Schaeffer was a founding member of this political movement and he discusses his involvment in detail in his book “Sex, Mom, and God.” This is well documented. More recently, we’ve seen this play out as politicians with truly horrific stances on human rights capture the majority of evangelical Christian voters because they have claimed to be “pro-life.” It’s the perfect way to justify all manner of atrocious policies while maintaining a comfortable elitism because the idea of saving babies placates any other cognitive dissonance. It’s not a coincidence that these “pro-life” candidates at least recently have also been heavily backed by white supremacists and insurrectionists.
Lastly, religious (and specifically Christian) views on terminating pregnancies vary widely throughout the faith tradition. Others have done far deeper research on this than I have - Nadia Bolz Weber discusses this in more detail in her book Shameless.
Being the Christian mystic I am, I’d be lying if I didn’t also say yeah, there are things about pregnancy and babies that are miraculous. But this common feeling is why this topic is so easy to hijack and misappropriate. You can value babies and trust women, you don’t have to pick. In fact, being actually pro-life, valuing all humanity, seems like it would demand we do both.
I have the greatest respect and appreciation for those who are loudly resisting, sharing their experiences and organizing. My resistance is a quieter one. I’m going to keep nurturing and feeding the stories of abundant, protected, and sacred life of all beings. Like mama nature, I’m going to keep growing despite the terrifying odds. I’m going to vine and tendril over these archaic ruins of patriarchy, and someday we will all bloom.