You may not be surprised to hear that, over the last few days—like much of the U.S.—I’ve been thinking about abortion. Sometimes I see people—mostly Christians—say that they feel like they “need” to weigh in. I don’t really feel that need.
Part of it is that I generally don’t feel the need to weigh in on anything right away. My first reaction is usually not the best-thought-out one, and I would rather stew for a while and then hopefully say something more thoughtful if or when I have something to say.
I also don’t really want to play into the news/media/outrage cycle that tends to happen. Often an issue gets a lot of attention for a few days, but really it’s a long-term, long-standing thing. And there are lots of people who have devoted many years of their lives to it. I’d rather listen to those people—the experts on a given topic, those who are committing their time and energy beyond the two days when it’s trending and at the forefront of everyone’s mind—than feel the need for everyone to speak all at once, whether or not we know much at all about it.
Basically, if I speak or write, I want to contribute to movements working to build a better world for the long haul—which often means choosing not to react spontaneously to whatever seems most egregious at the moment.
Caveats and hesitations aside, though, I’ve been thinking about abortion and the complex web of issues that come up whenever people start talking about it. And I have four brief thoughts.
1. Women’s bodies as public property
This is what I think about when I see abortion-related conversations go down. I find it kind of mind-blowing that people have so many opinions and philosophies and theologies about this thing that is so intensely intimate and personal. It’s not just an abstract topic for debate; it’s real women’s medical care, pregnancies, bodies.
People feel so free to state their opinions to anyone who might listen and many who will not. This is a reminder, to me, of how women’s bodies are often treated as public property.
I believe Paula Stone Williams writes about this in As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. Paula is a transgender woman who reflects on how life is different for her now since transitioning in her sixties. Among many other things, once she transitioned, she noticed that people feel free to comment on her appearance in a way they didn’t feel free when they saw her as a man. She felt as if her body, for the first time, was considered public property.
Would people feel the need to state their opinions on difficult health care decisions—not to mention related topics of pregnancy risks, and rape and incest, and teen pregnancy, and that sort of thing—if it were primarily a conversation about men’s bodies? It’s kind of hard to imagine. What men can or can’t do tends to be seen as their own decision.
So I guess I generally feel like it should feel more uncomfortable to talk about abortion than it is. And when we do talk about it, I would love to hear more respect for the privacy, autonomy, and agency of every woman who has had to make difficult pregnancy choices.
There’s something a little dehumanizing when this sensitivity is lacking—something a little disturbing about how everyone feels the need to weigh in with opinions that are often more intellectual than personal, more overly generalized than sensitive to individuals’ needs, highly ideological and not nearly nuanced enough to take into account all the complexities life and pregnancy and birth and parenthood hold.
2. 73% of Americans care about my life
I’ve been sitting with a statistic I saw the other day: “73% of Americans say abortion should be legal if the woman’s life or health is endangered by the pregnancy” (see full Pew Research article).
(To be fair, only 11% say it should be illegal in that case—but I’m also not super happy with the 14% who say “it depends.” I’m not at all sure I want people looking at each individual woman to decide whether her life matters—and when people do that, it’s hard to imagine that things like race and socioeconomic status wouldn’t come into play.)
73%. What this statistic makes me feel is that if I were pregnant, and if there were complications such that my life were at risk, less than three out of every four people I meet in daily life or shop with at the grocery store feel quite sure that they would want my life to be saved. That doesn’t feel very good.
I think of the psalmist’s lament: no one is concerned for me; no one cares for my life (Psalm 142:4). I’m sitting with this—for myself as a woman, and also, especially, in solidarity with women who have experienced real danger in pregnancy.
3. Center those most impacted
This is something we’ve learned from various social justice movements. Why would it be any different when it comes to conversations about abortion?
I remember the time, back when I was working in college ministry, that some of the students wanted to attend an on-campus debate about abortion. So off we went to the debate. Both speakers were men.
On the one hand, I was used to stuff like that. On the other hand, and especially in retrospect, it was kind of surreal. It didn’t make any sense. What exactly qualified these two men as experts on something that impacted other people’s bodies more than their own?
If we’re going to talk about uteruses, we have to center the voices of people who have uteruses. If we’re going to talk about pregnancy, we have to center the voices of people who have experienced pregnancy. If we’re going to talk about abortion, we have to center the voices of people who have made a difficult choice to end their pregnancy. Likewise, if we’re going to talk about various options for abortion-ban exceptions—things like rape, or incest, or risks to the mother’s life—we have to center the voices of people who have experienced these things.
I don’t want any of these people to feel like they have to speak. They get to choose whether they want to speak. But there are those who are speaking. Are the rest of us listening?
In my younger and more conservative days, I used to think that since I was a Christian, I believed that life began at conception. It was all part and parcel of being a believer.
I’ve learned, since then, that the “life begins at conception” argument is really a rather recent one. There is a long, long historical Christian tradition of people who didn’t necessarily think this way. (Alternatively, if you think there weren’t any true Christians in the world until the last half of the twentieth century…I suppose that’s a view you could take.)
I think of this fascinating article from a couple years back. Its author, Dr. Freidenfelds, is a historian who spent fifteen years researching and writing about miscarriage. Freidenfelds suggests that, in the earlier years of Christianity, people believed the soul of a baby entered the baby’s body when the mother first felt her child move in her womb—a moment known as “quickening.”
That makes a lot of sense to me. And even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s an example of how Christian beliefs about souls and bodies and fetuses and life have changed dramatically over time. “Life begins at conception” is a newer idea, and it is not a statement every Christian must believe.
Well, those are my four thoughts. I don’t really want to provoke more debate, but do feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings over these last few days—I’d love to hear.