When I was a little girl, I walked in a pro-life march with my parents and my two siblings. It's the earliest memory I have of anything relating to abortion and reproductive rights. I don't remember everything about that day, but I do remember that it was warm and sunny outside. I remember walking all over my hilly hometown. I remember being surrounded by adults, most of whom I knew very well, holding signs above their heads while their eyes looked straightforward.
I don't remember any aggressive chanting or hateful fists in the air, but I remember feeling uncomfortable anyway. I remember hoping the cars passing by would see that I was a child, and deduce that this march was not something I'd willingly signed up for. I remember worrying that one of those cars would contain a woman who'd had an abortion, and I remember worrying that our signs would make her feel sad. More than anything, I remember feeling embarrassed.
I wanted to stay home from that march. I couldn't grasp why my family, or my church, needed to display their pro-life beliefs so publicly. I still don't understand why a town with so many churches and registered republicans felt the need for a pro-life march to begin with. The whole thing felt like a waste of time.
I didn't participate in any pro-life marches after that one, and as far as I can remember, my parents didn't either. But I always knew the topic of abortion was one that, according to most of my family members, my religious leaders, and the majority of my friends, was strictly black and white. Regardless of how horrific the circumstances leading to an unplanned pregnancy were, there were no valid excuses for abortion. Period.
The dialogue surrounding abortion, in both my family and the Christian church, somehow managed to be as ingrained as it was hushed. Ironically, the only family member of mine who remotely supported abortion was my grandmother, and her support was limited to teen pregnancy. Whenever my grandmother would hear of local, teen pregnancies, her undeviating response of, "these babies don't ask to be born," was consistently met with disapproval by the rest of my family.
I grew up seeing entire Missouri fields of tiny, white crosses condemning abortion, abortion providers, and more than anything, women who had gotten abortions. This was the abortion rhetoric that was instilled in me, just as it was instilled in my mother before me, and my mother's mother before that.
When I got my first period at 12, I started to wonder what I would do if I became pregnant at such a young age. It wasn't that I was even remotely interested in having sex, but biologically speaking, I was now at childbearing age whether I wanted to be or not. Suddenly, I felt the weight of my fertility.
It was around this time that I remember asking my mom if it was still wrong to terminate a pregnancy when it was the product of rape or incest. I remember her pausing for a moment, then replying sadly, "that would be horrible, but it's still not the baby's fault." The one time I remember abortion being defended in church went similarly. I don't remember how or why the topic of abortion got brought up, but I do remember the boy sitting across from me speaking up, though he wasn't called on, to say with a pained look on his face, "but what about if she was raped?" After the briefest of pauses, my Sunday school teacher responded to him in much the same way that my mother had responded to me, before quickly moving on to another topic.
Rape wasn't a valid excuse, incest wasn't a valid excuse, scholarships, potentially bright futures, health risks, and age weren't valid excuses, either. Life, I was told, began at conception. Babies, whatever the circumstances of their conception, whatever the consequences of their birth, were blessings. Abortion was murder, abortion providers were villains, and women who got abortions were women who had killed their children. Furthermore, I was taught that attempting to prevent pregnancy with emergency contraception was equal to abortion.
This uncompromising, pro-life culture extended beyond both my church and my family. Countless billboards dotting Missouri's stretch of I55 preached abortion as genocide. I grew up seeing entire Missouri fields of tiny, white crosses condemning abortion, abortion providers, and more than anything, women who had gotten abortions. This was the abortion rhetoric that was instilled in me, just as it was instilled in my mother before me, and my mother's mother before that.
The older I got, though, the harder it was for me to accept that abortion was an evil act — particularly considering that, in the conservative, Christian circles I grew up in, the use of birth control by teenage girls was highly stigmatized, and the parents who put those girls on birth control pills were shamed for giving their daughters "an excuse to have sex before marriage." When my sister started seriously dating her now-husband at the age of 18, my parents didn't feel comfortable with her going on the Pill. Fortunately, it didn't result in any unplanned pregnancies.
By the time I graduated high school, I could no longer think of abortion in absolute terms. Though I lived a very sheltered life, I had already witnessed, however indirectly, the frequency with which men feel entitled to women's bodies. But my growing pro-choice sympathies were still dependent on qualifying circumstances. I had already decided that, were I ever the victim of rape, I would take Plan B free of hesitation or guilt. I felt very strongly that women who had been victims of rape or incest, and girls who found themselves pregnant before they could even legally drive, should be able to get abortions without shame.
Though I didn't personally approve of abortion outside of these circumstances, I still felt that abortion should remain legal. I began to understand that, regardless of my personal beliefs on the subject, women deserved to make their own decisions about their own bodies in safe, sterile environments.
The few times I admitted to my family that I now believed abortion should remain legal, their disapproval was palpable. I realized that were I ever to get an abortion, it wouldn't be an experience I would ever feel comfortable discussing with them. Being open with my family about my sexuality, agnosticism, and enjoyment of marijuana was easy compared to what it would be like to tell my family I'd gotten an abortion — because in their eyes, abortion and infanticide are synonymous.
In my junior year of college, when I finally became sexually active myself, my stance on abortion shifted a little further. For the first time in my life, I had to consider what it would be like to become pregnant, of my own free will, before I was ready to. Though my then-boyfriend and I used condoms until I could start taking the pill, I still feared just how much an unplanned pregnancy could potentially alter my future. Even from girlhood, my thoughts on motherhood had been ambivalent, whereas I'd known for some time that I wanted to be a professional writer. I wanted to move to New York someday. I wanted to travel.
I could barely afford the condoms we were using, and when I eventually started taking birth control, I struggled to pay for that, too. Once, when I missed two birth control pills in a row, I had to purchase emergency contraception. At the time, the $40 dollars I had to shell out to pay for it was equivalent to half a day's pay for me. When I later told my mother that I'd taken the pill, the look on her face made me realize that, in her eyes, I had potentially just ended a life.
I started to resent both pro-life culture and the financial burden of being a sexually responsible woman in the United States. It seemed to me as though women, unless they had both money and education, were essentially being set up for unplanned pregnancies in this country — and then shamed for terminating those pregnancies.
At the same time, the birth of my nieces inspired me to work harder than ever and take more risks in both my personal and professional life. Knowing they would grow up watching my every move pushed me to live and write as courageously and honestly as possible. Sometimes I can't help but wonder if having my own children, even if they were unplanned, wouldn't give a whole new meaning to my life and a new depth to my work.
I'm 25, well out of college, and privileged enough that, were I to become pregnant, I know I'd have the full support of my family and friends. But this doesn't make the thought of becoming a mother before I'm ready any less terrifying. I still feel just as ambivalent about having children as I did when I was five. I'm finally living in New York like I've dreamed of for years, as a writer. An unplanned pregnancy would, at least temporarily, devastate me right now.
And yet, while I now support a woman's right to terminate an unplanned pregnancy no matter what, I still don't know if I could terminate one myself. Of all the ways I've divorced myself from my fundamentalist, Christian upbringing over the years, changing my stance on abortion has absolutely been the transformation I've struggled with the most. And, unfortunately, I don't think I've finished struggling with it yet.
Images: Elizabeth Enochs