Are you Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?
It's a stand which American society demands its participants take. This could have something to do with the rampant rise of ferociously conservative Christians in the Tea Party. Or it could be the natural aftermath of a still-raw wound since the strident political progress Feminists made in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Probably both. But the result is that everyone, even those technically untouched by the debate, must pick a side, and there is no secret option C.
As a Christian, I am familiar with this fight. There was a time when I gave Pro-Life speeches, debated Roe vs. Wade on the side of Wade. I manipulated statistics so they sounded as bad as possible. I played on sympathy and guilt. I used the famous photo of a doctor's finger being grabbed by the infinitesimal hand of a 21-week-old baby still in utero . Yes, I knew all the tactics cold.
I was sixteen. As far as I knew, none of my friends or acquaintances had had an abortion. The three girls I knew who got pregnant in high school all opted to have and keep their children. More than that, I knew it was a choice I'd never have to make myself. I was committed to remaining sexually abstinent until marriage. This was a decision I made before converting to Christianity. I was influenced by my parents, who instilled in me a huge amount of self-respect when I was very young. Later, when the Church was vying for its young people to make purity promises to the Lord, I was a prime candidate to preach that one from the rooftops.
It was easy to be Pro-Life.
Then life happened.
My friend arrived at my parents' home one summer afternoon. I hadn't seen her in months. She wore a tank top and shorts, and was so painfully thin, I could count her vertebrae from a distance. We sat on my bed as she held out the sonogram to me. Fuzzy black and white, unremarkable. The only picture she would ever have of her child, because she'd had an abortion. I remember how her eyes seemed glassy with fever or unshed tears, and how unnatural it seemed that she could smile at me while she spoke about this. How strange that she'd even thought of a name for this little unborn thing of indeterminate gender. My friend talked for a straight hour, but the words scattered around us and we didn't bother to pick them up and organize them into memories. The same instinct which tells me to fight or fly in a moment of danger had kicked in, and it told me to stay still and forget most of what was being said.
Because it didn't matter.
In that moment, my friend's womb was empty. Had in fact been scraped clean. My knowledge of the Great Abortion Debate wouldn't be a salve or a saving grace here. The difference between a zygote and a blastocyst wasn't helpful. Nor was my staunch Pro-Life high ground.
My friend knew I was against abortion. Everyone who knew me at all understood that. For Christians, particularly active Christian teenagers, and even more particularly, active Christian teenage girls, this position is as much a part of their identity and value as is their virginity. Today, I know how ridiculous it is that any sixteen-year-old should feel that her value as a woman hinges on an intact hymen, or a chaste ignorance of sexuality. Just as ridiculous as expecting such innocents to take up arms against an alleged holocaust without understanding the emotional realities of any of it.
But that's how it was, and how I suspect it still is.
Air conditioning was no match for a closed bedroom on the west side of my parents' house that day. Sweat pooled behind my friend's pronounced collarbones and moistened my upper lip.
There are people I know and have known who would have taken that opportunity to inform my friend that she was headed straight to hell for murdering her child.
I didn't. Even with all my Church had done to equip me with an unwavering understanding of right and wrong, I felt not even the slightest urge to condemn her. Heaven help me, I knew enough about her relationship with the father of this unborn soul to think, perhaps, this was the right choice for everyone. Only for a moment, mind you. Unbridled empathy. Perhaps she and the little one were spared a lifetime of pain.
I put the thought away. I couldn't say that for certain. I didn't know the future.
Our hot palms touched. The sonogram lay between us on the bedspread. All was quiet. When I looked into her eyes, all I could see was the friend I'd known since long before either of us knew what sex was or how it might hurt us, since long before we'd chosen sides. (Yes, she believed in God, too.) In that moment of ultimate vulnerability, I didn't remind her that this decision would affect her profoundly for the rest of her life, that she would live with guilt.
I couldn't say that for certain. I didn't know the future.
In any case, I've walked a different kind of path on the abortion debate since my friend left my parents' home that day, got in her car, the heat glinting off the hood and doors so that it blinded me. I worried she'd burn herself when she reached for the handle. In the twelve years since that eye-opening day, multiple friends have come to me after having abortions. For comfort? For absolution? I'm only qualified, possibly, to grant the former. When a new friend arrives to lay her admission on the table, even if she is less emotional about it than the rest, I remember a few things they didn't teach us sixteen-year-old Pro-Lifers:
- Half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. This is higher than the world average, and FAR higher than other industrialized nations. As educated as American women are, we still aren't smart enough to avoid unplanned pregnancies. Meditate on this one a while and see if you aren't likewise confounded.
- More than 88% of abortions occur in the first trimester. Over half are obtained in the first eight weeks. This usually coincides closely with the woman discovering her pregnancy for the first time. Less than 2% of all abortions happen after the 21st week, when the child's finger was able to reach out of his mother's womb.
- Women who obtain abortions represent every religious affiliation, level of education, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. And the vast majority don't do it frivolously or consider it a method of birth control.
Abortion rates in America are at an all-time low, dropping 5% between 2008 and 2009, according to The Washington Post . We're doing something right. And I can't imagine it has anything to do with people who picket abortion clinics to scream at young women who are in a vulnerable state. Our energies would be far better spent rallying for women to understand their reproductive rights before pregnancy or abortion enter the picture, or ending the stigmas surrounding contraception in religious communities. To this end, my Pro-Life affinity is not a deal-breaker when it comes to my vote. I would rather vote for someone who is Pro-Education, Pro-Contraception, Pro-Woman, and/or Pro-Personal Responsibility than someone who is strictly and narrow-sightedly Pro-Life.
Those who consider the face of abortion to be the lumpy, pink face of a fetus in a 3-D ultrasound are missing half the point. The face of abortion is every woman who has ever chosen to have one. Eyelashes, parted lips, ears, chin, brow, bridge of nose, cheeks, delicate eyelids. Beautiful, breathing, speaking, alive. Women. And women like us.
I am not without sin. In my angry heart, I've killed thousands of men. With my wicked tongue, I've slain my enemies and friends alike. I have even doubted God in his heaven. Who am I to speak at all when it comes to the decision to terminate a pregnancy. This may be anecdotal evidence, but every woman I know who has made that deliberation has done so with the utmost respect for life. I cannot call them selfish or misguided. I have never and will never walk in their shoes.
I don't know what Christians who think themselves righteous would do in such a situation. But as for me...
I reach for my friend's hand, the one warm with coursing blood, and I hold onto it so that she knows life is worth living anyway. In spite of everything else. I remember that my friend was also once a blameless child, the heart of her mother, the apple of her father's eye. She needs not my forgiveness, but I give it freely to her anyway. There are more than enough Christians out there who will do the opposite and, in my opinion, will do more harm for God's cause than good.
Ask me these days which side I'm on and I'll tell you. In every matter over which I have some modicum of control, I am Pro-Life. But I will never sit outside a clinic to rant or wave degrading posters. Nor will I condemn any woman who has had to make that choice for herself. My responsibility is to care for my own heart and set an example in love. That's what I intend to do.