October 17, 2006

Hey, let’s talk about abortion and religion!

(Wait, where are you going?)

Two things:

1. JB and I went to the Bodies exhibit a couple weeks ago. I highly recommend checking it out if it’s in your city, the specimens are truly amazing and give you a unique chance to appreciate the fascinating machinery under your skin.

One section of the exhibit is devoted to fetal development, and it includes many actual fetus specimens floating, ghostlike, in their containers. You can choose to bypass this room; I imagine it would upsetting to some people. There are heartbreaking examples of birth defects which are particularly difficult to view.

Most intriguing to me was the area depicting gestation week by week, from chorionic sac to embryo to 32 weeks in development. In the first couple weeks you see what you might expect: a tiny blob of cells. By five weeks it takes on the form of a living creature, preliminary arms and legs are there.

The eighth week specimen was so perfectly formed it took my breath away. Fingers. Toes. Eyes. I can’t explain it, except to say it’s one thing to see photos of this stage, and it’s something else entirely to see the actual body from all angles.

I have felt differently about abortion since Riley, which is not to say I have changed my pro-choice stance entirely, but rather that the subject feels much more emotionally charged. It is now difficult for me to be objective or clinical about a process that prevents a viable baby from being born.

I had an abortion when I was a teenager, which I hope is not such an intimate confession it will make you feel uncomfortable – it’s just the truth. I was maybe eighteen and was in no position to feel anything but an overwhelming desire to end the pregnancy. I have no lingering sorrows over that choice. At the time I was incredibly relieved to have the option available to me.

When I think about abortion now, my mind can’t quite escape the image of that eight-week-old fetus. Fingers. Toes. I don’t know how to view it any other way than ending a life.

For my own situation, I didn’t want to have a child. I had nothing to offer a baby: no stability, no money, nothing. I believe my life took a better course for not being a teenage mother, although who can say for sure. I believe Riley would not exist today had I made a different choice back then.

But was it morally wrong? I feel less certain that I know the answer to that question.

2. I have also felt differently about religion since Riley, which is not to say I have changed my personal agnostic, uh, nonbelief system. I am more empathetic to the desire to believe, I guess. I understand that there are things in the world so glorious and good there is no better word for them than miraculous. I understand, in some small scared way, the unspeakable enormity of a child’s death, and the need to believe that this world is not our last.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (which I picked up because she is a great and funny author; she also wrote Bird by Bird, one of the best books on writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading), and while I do not share Lamott’s spirituality, I find her point of view inspiring. She talks about Jesus and God and Mary and so on, but her faith is completely without judgement. She uses her faith as a supporting pair of hands, the motivation to get out of bed on a day that offers no comfort, and a reminder to love her fellow man without exception.

Her perspective is a beautiful thing to read, in my opinion. It is quite different from the ‘family values’ bullshit that is really just hatred and intolerance with a halo drawn on top.

She fundamentally lives her life by a set of what I choose to believe are mythological constructs. But her flavor of Christianity offers a moral compass I can respect and even envy.

Lamott herself believes in a woman’s right to choose, by the way. She wrote, “It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.”

I want to support this right. I really, really do. I have many reasons for believing that women should have legal access to this procedure.

And yet. Fingers. Toes. Visceral reminders of the machinery being built, with all its potential. It’s complicated. It is more complicated for me than bumper stickerisms or yelling lunatics with signs or choices made in the name of God.

Comments

120 Responses to “This complicated life”

  1. B on October 19th, 2006 2:23 pm

    I have been pro-choice for a long time, but I do think it’s important to not overstate the issue … not everyone who is pro-choice thinks of a fetus as a ‘clump of cells’ or however the matter tends to get framed. A lot of people cite Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” as their touchpoint, and I think it’s a pretty good one.

    I became a thousand times more pro-choice when I had a miscarriage, even though I very much wanted that baby. That probably sounds pretty contradictory, but I was just very aware of how many different medical professionals were up in my business (figuratively and, uh, literally), and how much the uncertainty and actual physical pain were taking over my life, and now I really cannot imagine forcing a woman to go through the experience of pregnancy if she does not want to. Forget motherhood, pregnancy is a situation that really has to be a choice.

  2. Leah on October 19th, 2006 3:48 pm

    You’ve done it again. Someone please give this woman an award.

  3. anon on October 19th, 2006 4:31 pm

    I’m with Sympathetic Reader. I had an abortion at 18 and I know my life would not be where it is today had I not done that. I was a stupid kid without a clue. Now I am happily married and while still struggling a bit financially, can’t wait to have a child. I am terrified I will not be able to get pregnant because of the abortion. Like God wouldn’t deem me worthy. So it made me feel so much better reading all these lovley women’s comments and knowing there are a lot more out there like me who are mothers today. Like you.

    I still carry a lot of guilt but I know it was the best decision for me. The father was an ass and I highly doubt he’d be active in the child’s life. We’d probably be broke. Is that fair? But is it also fair that I chose how MY life would turn out over the baby’s? It would have been loved to high heaven, but it would have been tough. I still don’t know. All I know is I’d have a 9 year old kid today and that freaks me out. How would it have turned out? Would I even have carried to term? I could have had a miscarriage. We’ll never know.

    So I truly hope that my husband and I will be able to conceive, and I will honor the child that could have been by making sure our baby is loved and taken care of. The way ALL children should be.

    Thank you so much for this post, and this discussion.

  4. D on October 19th, 2006 8:15 pm

    “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;”

    Jeremiah 1:4

  5. Jonniker. » Throw Down Your Arms on October 19th, 2006 8:51 pm

    […] Secondly, I’d like to thank everyone who wrote comments, sent e-mails or said anything about yesterday’s post. Between those events, and the extraordinarily civilized reaction to Linda’s post yesterday, I have an entirely new outlook on the decency of humanity, and if that doesn’t put a spring in your step, I don’t know what does. I tend to forget sometimes, especially given the madness that goes on almost every day in the world we live in, that for the most part, people are pretty damn good. […]

  6. *lynne* on October 20th, 2006 6:34 am

    hi, was pointed here by 1 more mommy Elisette,,, and wow, what a well-written post on these subjects! Hugs!! *lynne*

  7. Caroline on October 20th, 2006 11:48 am

    I’m late to this post, and I should preface this by saying that I do not have any children. However, I am wondering if you would feel the same sort of change in perspective if the pregnancy had been in a different context. I mean, obviously having a child is a life changing, attitude changing, everything changing event, but what if you were not able take care of the child, what if you were not married, or not in a stable relationship? I don’t think it’s necessarily about what a woman thinks a fetus is, but about what choice she has when the circumstances are substantially less than positive for child rearing. I don’t know anyone who has had an abortion who says they did it becuase it’s not a child? No, they did it because having the child would not be good for them and would not be bringing a child into a stable, supportive, happy environment. Does that make any sense?

  8. Zoot on October 20th, 2006 12:25 pm

    Can I just say this is the most amazing commentary I’ve ever read on any blog? It’s intelligent and wise and I’m so impressed. I was scared to read the comments before, but I’m so glad I did.

  9. rosie on October 20th, 2006 2:52 pm

    I just saw this exhibit here in Denver and people here DID protest the hell out of the fetal development area. Both because it deters abortion by depicting the “life” of a fetus and because it apparently promotes it – how did the fetuses get there in the first place?

    I just thought it was straight up fascinating. Did they have the weird solemn trancey music playing in the fetal area?

    And yes, this was a very a nice thread of commentary.

  10. mnerva on October 22nd, 2006 10:41 pm

    First of all, I have to admit that I didn’t read all of the previous comments. But I did read the majority, and damn, Linda, do you have some great readers. I don’t comment very often, am a lurker for the most part, but feel the need to say something about this (albeit a little late, sorry, I’ve been on vacation). I have been on both sides of the fence of this issue. I have had abortions, and have given birth. My daughter, my beautiful, talented, kind and wonderful daughter is 19. She is now older than I was when I had her. I gave her up for adoption. I felt that I had to: I had no resources, monetary or emotional, to support her. Now add into that mix that I just had a miscarriage at the end of August. I was on the most effective birth control method available–the IUD. I SAW in real life that model that you looked at, sitting at the bottom of the toilet bowl. It was indescribably sad. Does this make me anti-abortion? No, it doesn’t. I totally agree with all that have said that it is a situation-by-situation decision. I personally would probably never do it again, unless it was a life-threatening medical problem for me, or it is was a result of rape.

    Anyway, I just had to weigh in. And let you know how wonderful I think you are, Linda. Your site has repeatedly made me laugh so hard I cried, and made me just plain flat-out sob. Is weird to feel so connected to a stranger, but you do such a great job of letting us in that I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. Please keep up the good work!

    (As a total aside: I LOVED the quote about “soon to be famous writers” that JB made. I almost posted a comment back then, but couldn’t think of something worthy. And you SO are going to be.)

  11. Whitters on October 23rd, 2006 6:39 am

    I didn’t know suicide was illegal either. That’s…completely nuts.

    Suicide isn’t illegal in the United States and never has been, although some individual states did list it as a felony until the 1960s. (The United Kingdom decriminalized suicide in 1961, leading many other countries to follow suit.) What is illegal in many places in the USA is assisting someone to kill him- or herself.

    Re: the pro-choice/anti-war argument
    For me personally, this isn’t a contradiction. I’m pro-choice, anti-war, and anti-death-penalty. That’s because I don’t see a fetus as a human being, while I see soldiers and prisoners as human beings.

  12. michelle/weaker vessel on October 23rd, 2006 10:43 am

    Whitters, you know I love you, boo, but I must assert that it’s a rather insane feat of rhetorical parsing to claim that fetuses, categorically, are not alive. Is there really a meaningful ontological difference between a born baby and that same “fetus” the day before its birth? That kind of literalist dogmatism detracts from your argument, yo.

    For the record, I subscribe ardently to my homey Bill Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” school of pro-choiceness. I believe the choice to terminate a pre-viability pregnancy should always be legal, but that we are obligated to acknowledge the profound, complex ethical implications of the act. The failure to do so, I believe, chips away at our essential human-ness insidiously and deleteriously.

    Linda, great post, and kudos on the level of civilized discourse here, commenters. Zoot sent me here and I am heartily impressed.

  13. Whitters on October 24th, 2006 5:40 am

    Whitters, you know I love you, boo, but I must assert that it’s a rather insane feat of rhetorical parsing to claim that fetuses, categorically, are not alive. Is there really a meaningful ontological difference between a born baby and that same “fetus” the day before its birth? That kind of literalist dogmatism detracts from your argument, yo.

    Well, I personally don’t see where someone can say a three-week-old fetus is not human but an eight-week-old fetus is — the historical Christian notion of “ensoulment” varies from conception to the second trimester to even beyond. Is that a “meaningful ontological difference?”

    I think with regards to this argument, our views of “personhood” and humanity are personal and subjective. My personal belief is that a fetus becomes “human” upon birth. The meaningful difference is that it is no longer relying upon a carrier (the woman) for its existence. I formed this belief years ago and only recently became aware that it’s also believed in Judaism.

  14. Rosetta on October 25th, 2006 4:16 pm

    Thank you for this post, and for your honestly in revealing you’ve had an abortion.

    I also had an abortion, at age 23, for much the same reasons – I had no college degree, no steady source of income, no health insurance, and a very dysfunctional and unsupportive family. I grew up as a result of my unintended pregnancy – it was the first truly adult decision I ever had to make. It was tragic. But it was also the right choice.

    The day of my abortion, I was spoken to rudely by the doctors and nurses at the clinic, who saw me as an ignorant and careless girl, who, through her carelessness, had caused a tragedy. I was heckled by abortion protesters outside the clinic, who chanted, “Mommy, Mommy, where’s your baby?” at me. I remember one woman in particular, who yelled, “You left your baby inside, Mommy!”

    But none of that got to me. I mean, I was angry as hell that people were abusive to me when I was suffering myself, and I was pissed to be condescended to and judged, but emotionally, I was ok.
    Because during the abortion, with my feet in the stirrups, humilated and grieving and alone, I met God. It sounds so cheesy when I write it down, but I felt my spirit held in complete peace, love and understanding. I felt forgiveness. God made peace with me, and I made my peace with God.

    I know that I denied the fetus I aborted life as we live it, and that responsibility lies with me, and me alone. But I did not deny it life. Life is something more than the bodies we live in.

    I strongly agree with everyone who has said that every effort must be made to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country. I also know that there will always be some few times when the tragic choice is the right one, the only one to make. And who wants to let the government in to determine exactly when that is? Abortion needs to remain legal.

  15. Victoria on November 13th, 2006 6:05 pm

    Sorry this is so after the fact, but I was just catching up and I must comment. I am marginally pro choice. I really feel all options should be explored but in the end the mother must decide. What puzzles me is that people seem to think there are only two choices, end the life or become a single struggling mother. What about adoption? My parents adopted my brother and he is the joy of our life. He is 33 years old, married and a wonderful person. We just went to a mass celebrating lives touched by adoption and it was so overwhelming. I was just so thankful that his birth mother made such a wonderful choice. Sorry, off my soapbox now.

  16. Marilyn on November 18th, 2006 12:12 pm

    I love Anne Lamott’s writing…I don’t even mind the Jesus talk. Maybe it’s because she’s a fellow recovering alcoholic (yeah, I let go of that whole ‘anonymous’ thing long ago), but the way she presents her spirituality is so real and earthy and, of course, funny as hell. I just re-read Bird by Bird this past week…I was craving a good ol’ dose of Anne. One of my very closest blog-friends is a Christian…and no one could have predicted THAT. But we have Annie in common…and when you can find some comfortable common ground on that path of believing/not believing, it tends to make one open up one’s mind. Well, and having kids, of course, I imagine that always plays a big role. :)

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