I grew up in a religious bubble. I know a lot of people say this. Respectfully, they are amateurs. For most of my childhood, I was homeschooled in a town of five hundred people by a preacher dad and a zealot mom. I went to church three times a week, and I prayed and studied the Bible for a couple of hours every day. I had little social contact beyond my religious community until I was about eighteen. This isn’t a story about all that, but the context is important.
My parents, unsurprisingly, were conservative. They did break from the party line here and there: my father opposed the death penalty, for example, and my mother was decidedly pro-immigrant, but on the issue of abortion they never wavered. When I was little, my mom would round up my siblings and me, put picket signs in our hands and march us out in front of the Planned Parenthood in San Luis Obispo. However intimidated I was to be standing out there in front of gawking peers and shouting motorists, to me, the truth was as black and white as the block letters on the sign in my hands: “STOP THE KILLING NOW.” When I was a little older and had my own say in the matter, I attended a pro-life rally, standing out front and praying in a circle with my friends. We got interviewed by a local reporter and then got written up in the paper as a bunch of wingnuts. Undaunted, we wrote a letter to the editor clarifying our position. Opposition, while unpleasant, didn’t phase me much, bolstered as I was by moral clarity.
I would hear the rallying cries from the left of “My body, my choice,” and I would think, that’s just it – it’s not your body. It’s a whole other person’s body, and that person does not have a choice. It baffled me that this was a politicized issue. It seemed like a purely biological one to me. A fetus clearly had a life of its own – it had its own DNA, its own fingerprints, its own heartbeat. Well before viability, it could respond to stimulus outside the womb, recognizing voices, even songs. It sucked its thumb, for heaven’s sake. There was a point at which it became undeniably human – I had always believed that humanity was conferred at conception – but regardless of precisely when that point arrived, it happened long before a fetus left its host body. The difference between a fetus and an infant, in my estimation, was location. Plain and simple.
Over the years, as I left my Republican echo chamber and wandered out into the world, my politics would drift leftward – hard – until it got to the point that abortion was the only issue remaining right-of-center for me. It was the one piece that never fit. For a time, I continued to vote for conservative candidates despite disagreeing with them on almost every single other issue, because this “holocaust of the unborn” made everything pale in comparison. But gradually, the plight of the born – of people I encountered in my daily life – people with no social safety net, immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and others – came to weigh on me so heavily that I changed my political affiliation. Still, I voted with a pang of reservation, unsure if the scales balanced at the end of the day.
Somewhere along that journey, I was taking a night class at a community college. The class was long, and during the breaks, I’d stand out on the balcony in the cool night air to wake up. There was a sharp-eyed, quick-witted girl who would always stand out there, too. She would chat with me between drags on a Marlboro, deftly flicking ashes from it as she exhaled and spoke – brightly – rarely pausing for interjections. In fifteen-minute increments, we became something like friends.
Mostly, she talked about her boyfriend. She was besotted with him. It didn’t seem to bother her that he was a lot older. Or that he was married with a couple of kids. Or that he had no intention of leaving his wife. I was so astounded by her disclosures that I couldn’t find any judgy words. Or other words. So I mostly just listened. And she continued to fill the space with revelations.
Memory is a slippery thing, especially when it comes to a story you haven’t told. I don’t remember certain details or specific conversations as well as I remember the impressions they left. For example, I don’t remember how exactly she told me she was pregnant, but I remember being surprised that she did. And I remember that she acted nonchalant about it, but her cigarette hand was fidgety, and she was talking faster than normal. I do not remember all the words exchanged, but I came away knowing that her boyfriend knew, and he wanted her to get rid of it. And that her doctor had warned her against carrying the pregnancy on account of a health issue she had. She was going to get an abortion.
I didn’t know much about her particular health issue. But I clung to that piece of information because I adhered to a kind of moral math that allowed a life for a life – a simple, clean exchange of heartbeats. It was the one exception to my ironclad abortion philosophy. If I could place her in that clearly-defined exchange-of-lives category, I could absolve myself of a moral imperative to intervene. Based on what she had told me, I wasn’t sure if her situation really qualified. I felt like I should probe further, but as it turned out, standing in front of her while she confided in me about her situation, I could not bring myself to interrogate her about her medical history. And even if I had, it wouldn’t have really let me off the hook. I grew up in Pentecostal churches where diseases were for people who did not have enough faith. The standard response to any sub-par situation was to believe God to create an ideal scenario and not to settle or create room for anything less. By training, I should have prayed to heal her, preached to her about her sin, led her in a prayer of repentance, seen her spontaneously healed of all her hard-living habits, persuaded her to carry her baby to term, and possibly have adopted it myself. That was the bar.
I showed up at the next class having prayed earnestly and to no avail for moral clarity about the situation. She broached the topic first.
“I got some pills from my doctor. My parents are out of town, so I’m going to do it tonight.”
That was the first time it registered for me that she lived with her parents. Suddenly the reality of her situation began to click into place. Her parents wouldn’t know about this boyfriend, much less this pregnancy. And what of her friends? I imagined this old, married dad was not a natural fit in her social circles. I wondered how many friendships with young people her own age she’d forfeited to wrap her life around him. I wondered who, in fact, she had at this point besides him. It began to make more sense that I had become her confidante. As I processed what she had just said, the enormity of her isolation closed in on me.
“You’re going to be alone?”
And suddenly, there it was: my moral clarity. It was not the clarity I had expected. It was certainly not the clarity that aligned with the math. But my words sprung up unbidden from a deep place, bypassing my dogma entirely: “Do you want me to come over?”
She ground the remains of a cigarette butt into the ground with the toe of her boot. “Okay.”
And that is how a pro-life activist found herself knocking at the door of a darkened house in the middle of the night to sit with a woman while she aborted her baby.
By the time I got there, though, she had done it. She had taken the pills and passed the fetus. She described the process dispassionately while she poured us each a glass of wine. We sat on a pristine couch in a marble-floored room of a massive mausoleum of a house, and I wondered why I was there. She seemed fine. Maybe I misread the situation. But she wasn’t asking me to leave, so I sat down, and I listened. Then, steadily, flatly, as if timed by metronome, she began to tick out a story. She told me about her Dad and stepmom who were always traveling and weren’t really interested in her life. She told me about how they’d sent her away overseas. About how she was raped by the son of her host family. About how everybody believed him when he said she seduced him. About being sent home in shame. That was her introduction to sex. She was fifteen.
As her story continued, I could see events lined up like dominoes cascading one after another in a predetermined direction. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her that she mattered infinitely more than any of the events of her life would have led her to believe. I wanted to rage against every man who had ever taught her she was disposable. But I was young and awkward and couldn’t find words. “I’m so sorry.” I whispered. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” That was the best I could manage. She deserved better than that. She deserved better than me, some random girl from her night class. But I was the best she had that night. And maybe Jesus deserved better representation that night, but I was the best Jesus had. And you know what? I think Jesus was glad she wasn’t alone.
Perhaps her disposing of the life in her belly that night was a sin. If so, it was a sin born of so many sins – of neglect, of assault, of abandonment, of exploitation – all committed by men who were carrying on with their respectable lives, paying no price for it. These sins were themselves the fruit of misogyny, a sin perpetuated by an entire culture – particularly the Church – generations of sin all coming to rest on the slim shoulders of a girl woefully ill-equipped to carry it.
There’s a story in the Bible where some religious leaders bring a woman to Jesus who was caught in the act of adultery. Dragging her out in front of a crowd, they reminded Jesus of what the law said – that this woman should be battered with stones until bludgeoned to death. Jesus, unimpressed, invited whichever of these upstanding men was without sin to throw the first stone. One by one, the men walked away, embarrassed. And then Jesus, the only one with the credentials to pass judgment, told the woman he did not condemn her either.
Sitting on that couch that night, there were no stones to be thrown, not at her anyway. Only an overwhelming sense of how much this woman mattered and how little cause she had to believe it.
Many years later, I would once again face off with the specter of ending a pregnancy alone. This time it was mine. The circumstances were different. I was married. I wanted to be pregnant. I had, to that end, just undergone a surgery and four rounds of fertility treatments, the last one of which was successful. But my most recent ultrasound had been eerily silent. I’d asked if the volume was turned off on the machine, and the doctor had visibly winced when he told me that, no, it was not.
My body was not relinquishing the baby. It held onto it for days that stretched into weeks. If I went much longer, I would run the risk of a septic infection. A more immediate concern was that my husband was about to leave for a work trip, and I could not bear the thought of going through this alone while he was gone. I called my doctor.
She scheduled me in at an abortion clinic. She asked if that was okay. My child was dead. What did I care? “Fine. Whatever.”
But when I got there, I realized I was not fine. I found myself lying on a hospital bed, one of many lined up in an interminable row, each holding a woman waiting her turn. I looked down that long line of women, wondering which of us had heartbeats in our bellies and which of us didn’t, knowing that within hours, all of our bellies would be silent. My pulse quickened such that those heartbeats thundered in my ears. I was utterly wrecked by their immediacy. I imagined myself standing on top of my bed and shouting to the room, “If anybody is having second thoughts, even a little, please, please let me have your baby. I couldn’t keep mine alive.” I didn’t do it. But the grief-fuelled compulsion was real. As was the guilt that, here I was in the inner sanctum of the very kind of place outside of which I used to stand in protest, and I was doing nothing to stop what was happening.
I looked at the women around me. We couldn’t be a less cohesive group. We were all different ages and colors, and even in our hospital gowns, it was clear that we ran the full gamut of the socioeconomic spectrum. A woman who was at least my age looked bone weary. A young woman beside me smiled kindly, while another woman, perhaps her mother, sat close to her holding her hand. Each of us had different stories, different circumstances, different dominoes that had fallen to bring us into this room together.
But here we all were, waiting in a windowless corridor into which no men were permitted entry. The building itself was unmarked. There were no protesters here. Great care had been taken to make this a safe place, and I had been trusted to enter. I thought for a moment about what, realistically, an outburst from me would do. Would it change any minds? Probably not. It would almost certainly cause trauma to women who had already undergone what would have been for many of them a difficult decision-making process. And that mattered. It shouldn’t, you know. Because of the math. A woman’s psychological state should pale in comparison to the value of an unborn life. But again, sitting there in that room, in real life, it mattered. These women mattered. Not just for their heartbeats, but for all of who they were.
I still ached, though. The nurses were kind, gently offering me their condolences. They had even taken my husband and me for one last ultrasound before I was admitted. “It’s important to celebrate what was good,” an older nurse told me as she admired the silent image of my son on the monitor, taking care to point out his little arms and legs. To the young woman next to me, they were also kind. They brought her a magazine and talked about the weather. About her classes. About anything else. It hit me that in that room, the difference between a bereavement and an appointment – between a child and nothing at all – was being wanted. I struggled to process that. Not one thing about that experience was clean or tidy or black or white. My turn came. They wheeled me into the room, and one of those horrible abortionists dilated me and removed my baby, preventing a life-threatening infection, and saving me from hemorrhaging at home by myself.
After a time, we tried fertility treatments again. Once more, I was forced to confront my beliefs about life before birth, as we had graduated to IVF and had to think about what we would do with our extra embryos. I realized that in order for me to have peace of mind, I was not going to be able to freeze embryos – I felt responsible for them somehow and didn’t like the idea of maybe leaving them hanging in a freezer somewhere. I asked my doctor to fertilize only as many eggs as she was going to implant and freeze the rest to be fertilized later. She thought I was mad. She told me it would be more expensive and tried to talk me out of it but eventually gave in. (Incidentally, the issue ended up being moot: I only got two embryos, neither of which took.) Around that same time, I contributed to a friend’s IVF fundraiser, and my husband asked me if it mattered to me whether she was going to freeze embryos or not. It was weird. Despite the circus I was going through for my own peace of mind, I immediately knew that it didn’t matter to me what my friend decided. She was a grown woman whom I respected and admired and who had her own direct line of communication to God. I trusted her to arrive at her own best decision, and I didn’t have any need to know what that decision was.
I still don’t know when cells cease to be cells and begin to be humans. I’ll be honest, when I got a good look at those embryos I’d been so concerned about during my IVF – a handful of circles in a petri dish, capable of being suspended in that state in a freezer indefinitely – I kind of felt like, “Huh, maybe not full human status.” But the precise point at which that status is achieved? I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you that I would like to live in a world where every pregnancy is wanted, and this whole discussion is irrelevant. I don’t live in that world. But the living I’ve done in this world has taught me something that my dogma and my moral math failed to take into account: location matters. Whether we are talking about a cluster of cells or a human being with rights, it matters that it resides inside a human woman with her own backstory, her own risk factors, her own ambitions and dreams and socioemotional and economic needs. She matters.
In our rush to humanize the fetus, we have dehumanized the woman who carries her. We would levy legislation on her that reduces her to a pulse. This moral math takes no account of falling dominoes. It does not, cannot weigh the cost to her of being forced to carry a child. It makes not even a passing effort at holding men accountable for their role in every single abortion. It does absolutely nothing to address cultural, economic, medical, political or religious factors that would put her in the position of having an unwanted pregnancy to begin with. The math, categorically, wrests control away from the one person capable of taking all of these factors into account: the woman herself. Then it takes all of the burden of everything, heaps it onto her shoulders, and walks away from her. It is cruel. It is shameful. It is sinful.
And yet it is unsurprising to me that the Church finds it so easy to justify. The dehumanization and general indictment of women is woven deep into the Church’s culture and, sometimes, its theology. It feeds off of passages that go all the way back to the Biblical account of the very first woman, Eve, who was formed not from the earth as man was, but formed from a man’s rib for the purpose of being his helpmate. Eve, who was first to be deceived and first to sin. Eve, who caused her husband to sin, forcing all of humanity out of a paradise and into a broken world. There are some Christian traditions that do not weaponize the story of Eve, but the one I grew up in drew upon it heavily to cast aspersions on the character and judgment of women and to establish a pronounced structure of male dominance.
It’s not just Eve. The Apostle Paul also presents a problem. Author of approximately half of the books of the New Testament, Paul used a good deal of language that appears to degrade women, to suggest that they should be subservient to men, and to restrict their participation in religious life. I have heard countless sermons contextualizing and softening Paul’s language (“It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church,” definitely requires some finessing) but even if you believe that his words were a measured response to a very particular set of circumstances, the fact remains that Paul’s words are used to limit, control, and abuse women throughout Christendom. Sometimes it is as mild as training girls to be submissive wives, or restricting women from positions of church leadership. Sometimes it leads to violence.
In my house growing up, wearing makeup was a sin of vanity. But I do remember my mother being allowed to wear it once. My dad claimed full authority as spiritual head of the household, but my mother insisted on attending a separate church with me and my siblings. This hurt my father’s ministry career, because he did not “have his house in order.” There was a lot of conflict over the years around my mother’s failure to submit, and sometimes my father’s assertions of his authority left marks. This particular day, we were getting our Sears family portraits taken, and it wouldn’t do to have those marks hanging up in the hallway forever for all to see. And so I learned that makeup is sinful until it covers a man’s sin. I wonder how many abortions have been performed under that principle.
The unaddressed misogyny within the church gives rise to a blindness that, untreated, will never allow the Church to honor the humanity and agency of a woman carrying a child. Is it surprising that we have difficulty with the idea of trusting women with bodily autonomy, trusting them to make their own choices, when we do not trust them to lead a congregation – or even a family? Is it honestly surprising that many Christian men are willing to levy the entirety of the blame for unwanted pregnancies on women when they are accustomed to scapegoating women for literally all of the sin of humanity since the beginning of time? Is it surprising that Christian men are comfortable leaving women to clean up men’s messes when they have been conditioned to expect women to serve them?
Unfortunately, this is only one part of the Church’s blindness. It is also largely blind to the issue of cultural imperialism that has plagued the Church from its early days. A little bit, I can see how we mess this one up, because we have been charged to go and make disciples of all the nations. One of the primary themes of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God, a reality in which the will of God reigns on Earth as it does in Heaven. In church, we speak, sing, and pray about the Kingdom often, one of our primary objectives on Earth being to advance it. Based on our theology, all of human history is an inevitable march towards a time in which God reigns over everyone and everything, and our job is to partner with him in making this come to pass. We are, effectively, tasked with bringing the world around us into agreement with God’s will. But in our fervor to accomplish this, we’ve entirely failed to check the roadmap that Jesus himself left.
Jesus advanced the Kingdom through individual acts of love and compassion as well as demonstrations of His Kingdom’s power – by healing people, by raising the dead, by casting out demons. He specifically and repeatedly stated that his Kingdom was not of this world. When he was brought before the Roman governor on charges of insurrection levied by Jewish religious leaders, he told the man point blank, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” I find it interesting that, despite living under an imperialist regime that oppressed his own people, Jesus never stormed a government building. Not once. He did not lobby to change a single law. He kept out of the politics of his day entirely, spending his time instead sitting with heretics and sinners and scandalizing all the decent people.
The Church has, too often, taken a dramatically different approach to advancing the Kingdom. It always seems to get the ugliest when the Church conflates the Kingdom of God with, like, a regular kingdom. That’s when you get holy wars – things like the Spanish Inquisition with the full-scale, government-sponsored execution of heretics. It’s when you get the Crusades – Christian nations invading heathen lands under the banner of Christ and wiping out entire people groups. It’s also when you get culture wars – when you forget that Almighty God already has his own laws which he has placed within us and written on our hearts, and you try to legislate the Kingdom into being.
We grew up singing this folksy little song about God:
He’s got the whole world in His hands…
He’s got the mamas and the daddies in His hands…
He’s got the little bitty babies in His hands…
I swear to God nobody believed a word of it. Everybody’s in such an all-fired hurry to take the world out of God’s hands – to physically compel people who don’t believe in God to comply with the current prevailing wisdom of what God’s will is through political force. Funny thing about this is, unlike performing miracles, it doesn’t require you to involve God at all. This is problematic just on principle, but when you consider that this approach has been used by the Church at various times – even in recent history – to institutionalize slavery, genocide, white supremecy, and other horrors, one begins to see why Jesus took such great care to model a clear delineation of Kingdoms.
This is not to say that Jesus didn’t care about injustice. Jesus may not have stormed a government building, but he did storm a temple. He cleaned his own house. It would behoove Christians to follow suit: to root out the deep and festering sin against women that the Church has perpetuated for centuries, to confront its own lust for control, to repent – you know the term – to change your whole way of thinking and being in order to forsake what you’ve done wrong.
Obviously, it’s not up to me, but if it were, I would propose that the Church beat its swords into plowshares: that it end this holy war and, from a posture of abject humility, begin to ask women how they would like to be supported. I promise you, the answer will not be crisis pregnancy centers or stripping away what limited options they have. It might involve some things like equal pay, maternity leave, childcare, access to basic necessities like baby formula, or maybe even access to contraception and sex education. It will definitely involve teaching your sons consent and teaching your fathers respect. It will require a surrender of control, and it will be a lot more difficult than slapping a law on a woman and running away.
But imagine how much it would change the narrative. It would no longer be the Church lobbing missiles from behind its walls while dictating to women how much they should be able to bear up under. It would no longer be women fighting for survival against an enemy that does not and will not see them. It would allow all of us to walk into that wide open space between us and see what we might be able to build. Perhaps we could even build towards a world where pregnancies, when they happen, are wanted, and where children, when they are born, are able to thrive. It sounds a lot more like Jesus, and it almost sounds a little pro-life.