How the Pro-Life movement forces me, a Christian, to be Pro-Choice

Author's note: A version of this essay was published today in the Washington Post. A big thanks to editor Julie Zauzmer for her edits. Find that piece here.

Almost five years ago, in September 2014, I peed on a stick and saw a faint pink line.

My heart pounded. I squinted, forcing myself to see it again. Yes, there it was. I was pregnant.

At my son Jacob's second birthday party, I had just found out I was pregnant for the second time.

The first time I got pregnant, I was 26 years old and working as an intern pastor at a big church in Las Vegas. My husband was working on contract for a company, and we had insurance through my seminary - sort of. We could barely afford our rent and had just scarcely survived our first six months of marriage when he was offered his position just a few weeks before I took that first subliminal test.

We had dated for seven years before marrying, winding our way through college and first jobs, being long distance and breaking up and getting back together, and we'd always dreamed about the little baby whose name would be Jake and whose hair would be red.

So, home or no home, student loans or no student loans, we were having a baby. Or, to be more accurate, I was.

It was in my body where this tiny human would grow, his heartbeat sounding to me like a galloping horse, rushing closer and closer as we moved from Vegas to a 1-bedroom apartment in the East Bay suburbs of Oakland, Calif., puncturing an air mattress we slept on while standing on it to attach Wal-Mart curtains to the bedroom window; considering putting the crib in the closet before purchasing a cheap room divider on Amazon.

He was breech, and tug and push as they might in the hospital, his abnormally large head would not disengage, and so they cut open my abdomen and left me forever scarred. I requested country, and I listened to Taylor Swift distractedly as I saw his red muscly body lifted into the air, and I heard his ferocious wails.

The blood spurting out was mine, the same lifeblood that had sustained his life, passing from me to him. He'd taste it later in his milk, my milk, our milk, as my chapped and swollen breasts gave up the life again to him - and his life renewed me as I looked into his eyes and he finally smiled, six weeks later.

I knew I always wanted to give him a sibling and so when I was 29 and Jake was a year and a half, I stopped taking birth control and we tried again for new life.

Anyone who suggests that a woman who has ever been pregnant does not understand the sanctity of life is severely misguided at best, purposefully cruel at worst. Every month of much of a woman's life, in most cases, her body prepares to host new life. With or without the presence of a man and/or his sperm, a woman's body creates within itself a nursery. The walls of her uterus thicken to provide comfort and coziness to a potential brand-new life, like blankets and pillows on a couch, her body adjusting itself to make room for someone else, generously and openly, without concern for its own wellbeing.

As these walls thicken and muscles contract, an egg begins its journey, nudged along by fluids that women sometimes see when they go to the bathroom, a sign of potential and warmth, a reminder that her life is capable of wondrous new life, with very little assistance from a man.

The egg waits, for fickle and vulnerable sperm, to make their way and provide the necessary fuel to create a life, in a ritual necessitating often male pleasure and female pain, a reminder that we do nothing on our own but we always, unequivocally, need each other - and no one life is immune from its impact on another, whether that life is a few weeks or several decades old.

When the sperm do not come, the egg releases itself into the enveloping walls, which shed themselves in blood and broken tissue. Each month, a woman's body submits itself to a cycle of life and death, a pattern of potential and grief, a reminder - for every woman whose body repeats this cycle, in a matter of days or weeks or months or years - that our lives are never really our own, not ever - a reminder that more than a few men could stand to have etched into their bodies as well.

It is not the signs of life but the absence of death, of blood, that often alerts a woman to the presence of new life inside her. For the majority of us, whose cycles are unpredictable and uneven, this could take weeks or even months. By the time a pregnancy test registers, we are at least 5 weeks pregnant. Doctors don't want to see us, usually, until 8 weeks. In some states, we'd have 7 days, max, to decide how to sustain life, new or old, which may sound generous but is significantly less than six weeks.

In September 2014, I was officially 5.5 weeks pregnant when I saw the faint pink line, so I had two and a half weeks to wait until I saw the doctor. During that time, we celebrated Jake's 2-year-old birthday party. I look back at pictures of myself on that day, wearing a jean jacket and a black elastic waist skirt and a maternal smile, a secret I held within myself, of new life burgeoning within me, seeking its way out in the rosiness of my cheeks.

The next weekend, days before my doctor appointment, we drove to Kansas City for the Royals playoff games. I wore a big flannel shirt and a baseball hat, and I didn't drink any beer, because I was pregnant. The life within me spurted. I asked for Chipotle, because I loved eating it when I was pregnant with Jake.

In this photo, I thought I was still pregnant - and didn't drink any beer at the baseball game - but likely I'd already miscarried and the cells had disintegrated, leaving only an empty sac.

Days later we - I - had the ultrasound. When you are early in your pregnancy, ultrasounds are not on your stomach with the gel, like you see on TV, but instead they're trans-vaginal, which is exactly what it sounds like -- inside your body. The tech kept moving around the thick plastic wand inside my cozy, compact nesting place, banging it against my carefully constructed walls, which were thick and rich and oozing with nutrients for the new life within.

"I'll get the doctor," she said, abruptly.

Dr. Amy was blonde and calming, with a voice that was even and low.

"We don't see the fetal pole," she said, referring to the spark of life that registered itself on the white stick I peed on weeks before.

"We'll wait a few more weeks," she said. "It might be too early."

I knew. Within me, I knew.

The only item on the screen was a large, unwieldy sphere called the gestational sac, a home within a home for the tiny unborn baby who was maybe just a brief cluster of cells that disintegrated itself before dividing again. A phantom life.

Still I waited two more heart-wrenching weeks, watching The Sopranos and taking prenatal vitamins and abstaining from alcohol, though I could have really used a glass of wine. They measured my levels and they were inconclusive, like my heart.

I returned again to the waiting room, surrounded by women with squalling newborns and distended bellies. Their sight made me sick to my stomach.

Maybe it was too early, I allowed myself to suspend disbelief.

Again the plastic wand was inserted, too quickly. Again it banged against my carefully constructed comfy womb-home. Again the unwieldy sac, a gelatinous blob floating inside my internal incubator. Empty, like the hole in the pit of my stomach.

Dr. Amy was calm again, comforting. It was not life, only the illusion of life, though my life went on, and that night I had to go to work. I had options, she said. I could wait, agonizingly, long and longer, until eventually my overeager womb realized that its carefully appointed room was vacant, and then I might explode with blood everywhere, dripping out underneath my white pastoral robe while I led worship, seeping through my jeans while I took my son to the park, pouring out of my pants while I met a colleague for lunch.

That sounded like torture, like a slow and perpetual grief and loss of life, like by starving or drowning, waiting for my inane body to realize it wasn't going to happen, to give up already, to stop over-achieving for a hopeless goal, like I did all the time in my life anyway.

I could also, she said, take a pill, which would induce my body to throw up the empty sac, maybe, though it couldn't be guaranteed and the timing was unpredictable and I might puke.

Or I could, she said, make an appointment and receive some numbing medication, though to be under anesthesia would require a hospital visit and lots of money that my insurance wouldn't cover, and they'd scrape out the inside of my carefully appointed birthing room so that my body would force itself to resurrect itself quicker, and its life-giving power would be renewed sooner, and I could try again. I'd lay there awake during it all, pretending I was somewhere else. Knowing at home I could have a glass of wine, which I hadn't been able to drink even when I knew my body hosted only death.

Like most of us, I preferred a quick and painless - at least physically painless - death. I made the appointment for something obliquely called a D&C, and a couple of weeks later, after another painful and obligatory ultrasound where I made them check, just to be sure, that nothing was there again, that the sac was empty like the tomb, they numbed me and scraped me and it was over, and I bled just a little bit.

My body had been too stubborn to accept the inevitable news, that life was not possible now, and so it held on too long. Once the sac was gone, the tomb was empty, the women ran and spread the news and the next month my cycle renewed itself, the next month after that I was really pregnant, the sac was full of new life, and nine months later Joshua was born.

This photo was taken about a week after my D&C. The new life inside of me had died, but I had to go on living, anyway, with the hope for new life.

Later I found out that D&C is also a term used for medical abortions, which led me down a rabbit hole of reading about abortion and about how absolutely freaking awful it is, for everyone involved. When I had a D&C, it removed no life - only an empty sac - but I felt the loss and pain nonetheless, just as I imagined a woman would whose D&C removed a cluster of cells that were, or would be, or could be, life. Such is the reality of being human, knowing and accepting and grieving immortality and the impermanence of life, or at least it should be, lest we find ourselves playing God.

Three years and three months after my D&C, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to join the March for Life as research for my book, Red State Christians, and a chapter about the Pro-Life movement and Christian Trump voters. I attended a conference called Evangelicals for Life, and I wanted so badly to count myself among them, to value all life because all life is sacred, and as Christians we hold that belief at the very core of our being.

I left the March for Life encouraged. Maybe I could be Pro-Life. Maybe it really was about love, and we wanted to support mothers and children and women, and the condemnation was only for the heartless doctors and mad scientists and Planned Parenthood, which I still believed mostly wanted to provide healthcare for women who didn't have anywhere else to go, but maybe I was wrong, and the discussion of fetal body parts really was horrific and unconscionable.

I wanted to be Pro-Life, achingly. LIFE. I loved life, I loved being a mom, I loved being pregnant, I loved it so much that I gained and lost 70 pounds twice, and I peed when I did jumping jacks and my stomach looked like a road map of pink interstate lines and purple dimples.

I wondered what the Pro-Life movement would say about my D&C, about my miscarriage, about my birth control, about the times I took the morning after pill. They said it wasn't a movement meant to shame women but it did shame me, and I was a married mother of two, so how did others feel?

Still, at that time I thought maybe the Pro-Life movement really was trying to change, to sustain life of all forms, including female life, that to be Pro-Life really was about love and about families and about God and about life, not about treating women as second-class citizens and condemning their bodies and judging them and finding them guilty.

Then, Alabama happened. And Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi and Kentucky. Hard, unbending laws. Laws that seemed to prioritize one life, the unborn, over another life, the female-born. The nuance I heard at the March in 2018 was lost. Positions were hardened, advocates on either side descended into their trenches.

My body and my blood cried out to me from within, as my own cycle continued, as my emotions raged in the week before I bled, and I took a pill each morning that, I guess if you're honest about it, stopped life, too, just sooner.

And yet that same tiny little pill did something to sustain life, too. My own and my family's. We can't afford another baby. "Natural family planning" might as well be called Russian roulette. God called me to be a Mother, and God also called me to be a Pastor and a writer and to travel in the year ahead and talk about my book and Christian nationalism and where the message of Jesus has been lost in America, and try as I might, I couldn't do that in the same way if I were pregnant or nursing or even recovering from another miscarriage.

Supporting life is infinitely more complicated than outlawing abortion. The simplicity of reducing life down to a Supreme Court decision several decades old is intoxicating and sexy, an easy moral high ground upon which to stand, especially if you never have to consider hosting and birthing or losing a life within yourself. I do not have that luxury. Therefore as I much as I believe life to be infinitely sacred, the American Pro-Life movement forces me to remain pro-choice, for myself, for my children, for women everywhere, and, perhaps, for a God who knows that life is so complex as to require death in order to allow resurrection.

Comments

  1. You said you felt shame...and this is because of the pro-life movement? Some specific examples please?

    ReplyDelete
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