Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A version of this post was originally published at my personal blog as How I Became Pro-Life. I wanted to run it here in honor of this weekend's March for Life. (Note: It includes a graphic description of abortion.)
Who is human?
When I was younger, I was always particularly shocked when I heard about societies where it was common to abandon or kill unwanted newborns. In college I once read a particularly graphic description of a family in ancient Greece "discarding" a newborn baby girl. I was shocked to the point of breathlessness. I was also horribly confused: How could normal people be okay with this, let alone participate in it? Nobody I knew would do that! Were people that different back then?!
Because of my deep distress at hearing of things like this, I found it really irritating when pro-lifers would refer to abortion as "killing babies." Obviously, none of us pro-choice folks were in favor of killing babies; to imply otherwise, in my mind, was an insult to the babies throughout history who actually were killed by their insane societies. We weren't in favor of killing anyone. We simply felt like women had the right to stop the growth process of a fetus if she faced an unwanted pregnancy. Sure, it was unfortunate since fetuses had potential to be babies one day, and we recognized that there was something special about that. But, alas, that was a sacrifice that had to be made in the name of not making women slaves to their bodies.
I continued to be vehemently pro-choice after college. Though my views became more moderate once I had a child of my own, I was still pro-choice. But as my husband and I began a religious search that led us to Christianity, we were increasingly put on the defensive about our views. One day my husband was re-evaluating his own pro-choice ideas, and he made a passing remark that startled me. He said:
"It just occurred to me that being pro-life is being pro-other-people's-lives. Everyone is pro-their-own-life."
It made me realize that my pro-choice viewpoints were putting me in the position of deciding who is and is not human, and whose lives are worth living. I (along with doctors, the government, or other abortion advocates) decided where to draw this very important line. When I would come across claims that life begins at conception, I would scoff. Yet I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with my defense:
"A few cells is obviously not a baby, or even a human life!" I would sneer to myself. "Fetuses eventually become full-fledged humans, but not until, umm, like, six months gestation or something. Or maybe five months? When is it that they can kick their legs and stuff?...Nine weeks?! No, they’re not human then, those must be involuntary spasms..."
I was putting the burden of proof on the fetuses to demonstrate to me that they were human, and I was a tough judge. I found myself looking the other way when I heard that 3D ultrasounds showed "fetuses" touching their faces, smiling and opening their eyes at ages at which I still considered abortion okay. Babies -- I mean, fetuses -- seen yawning at 12 weeks gestation? Involuntary spasm. As modern technology helped fetuses offer me more and more evidence that they were human too, I would simply move the bar of what I considered human.
I realized that my definition of how and when a "fetus" became a "person," when he or she begins to have rights, also depended on his or her level of health: The length of time in which I considered it okay to terminate a pregnancy lengthened as the severity of disability increased ("I wouldn't be comfortable with abortion after 26 weeks, unless the fetus had a disability," I once said). It was with a sickening feeling in my stomach that I realized that, under the premise of wanting to spare the potential child from suffering, I was basically saying that disabled babies had fewer rights -- were less human -- than able-bodied ones.
At some point I started to feel like I was more determined to be pro-choice than I was to honestly analyze who was and was not human. And I saw it in others in the pro-choice community as well. On more than one occasion I was stunned to the point of feeling physically ill upon reading of what otherwise nice, reasonable people in the pro-abortion camp would support.
In reading through the Supreme Court case of Stenberg v. Carhart, I read that Dr. Leroy Carhart, an abortion advocate who actually performs the procedures, described some second-trimester abortions by saying, "[W]hen you pull out a piece of the fetus, let's say, an arm or a leg and remove that, at the time just prior to removal of the portion of the fetus...the fetus [is] alive." He said that he has observed fetal heartbeat via ultrasound with "extensive parts of the fetus removed."
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which presumably consists of well-educated, reasonable, intelligent men and women, spoke out against this procedure. When I discovered their reasoning, I felt dizzy. They didn't oppose it because it's clearly infanticide in its most grisly form; they opposed it because of the inconvenience of dismembered body parts. In their amici brief to Stenberg, the ACOG explained in detail why they believe it's better to kill these babies outside the womb, in a procedure they refer to as "D&X":
D&X presents a variety of potential safety advantages over other abortion procedures used during the same gestational period. Compared to D&E's involving dismemberment, D&X involves less risk of uterine perforation or cervical laceration because it requires the physician to make fewer passes into the uterus with sharp instruments and reduces the presence of sharp fetal bone fragments that can injure the uterus and cervix.
There is also considerable evidence that D&X reduces the risk of retained fetal tissue, a serious abortion complication that can cause maternal death, and that D&X reduces the incidence of a 'free floating' fetal head that can be difficult for a physician to grasp and remove and can thus cause maternal injury.
I read the Court documents from Stenberg in a state of shock. A few years before, a friend of mine had her baby prematurely, and I had visited him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He was so beautiful, just like the full-term newborns I’d seen, only smaller. Seeing him and the other babies lying there so peacefully in their incubators, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wanting to protect these precious, innocent little babies. So I found myself in a state of cold shock that I was reading of people -- not just fringe crazies, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and some Supreme Court Justices -- casually speaking about the inconvenience of the severed heads and bone fragments of dismembered children ("fetuses") the same age as those babies in the NICU.
It took my breath away to witness the level of evil that normal people can fall into supporting. They were talking about infanticide, but completely refused to label it as such. It was when I considered that these were educated, reasonable professionals who were probably not bad people that I realized that evil mainly works by getting good people to believe in lies. I also took a mental step back from the entire pro-choice movement. If this is what it meant to be "pro-choice," I was not pro-choice.
Yet I still couldn't bring myself to say I was pro-life.
I started to recognize that I was no better than Dr. Carhart or the concurring Justices or the author of the ACOG brief, that I too had probably told myself lies in order to maintain my support for abortion. Yet there was some tremendous pressure deep within me that kept me from truly, objectively looking at what was going on here. Something within me screamed that to not allow women to have abortions at least in the first trimester would be unfair in the most dire sense of the word.
It wasn't until I re-evaluated the societal views of sex that had permeated the consciousness of my peer group, took a new look at the modern assumptions about the act that creates those fetuses in the first place, that I was able to let go of that internal pressure I felt, and to take an unflinching look at abortion.
It all begins with sex
Here are four key memories that give a glimpse into how my understanding of human sexuality was formed:
- When I was a kid, I didn’t have any friends who had baby brothers or sisters in their households. To the extent that I ever heard any neighborhood parents talk about pregnancy and babies, it was to say that they were happy that they were "done." Kids seemed like an optional add-on that a couple may or may not choose to add to their marriage, as long as they deemed that caring for offspring wouldn't ruin their ability to have fun together -- which was, as far as I could tell, the main purpose of marriage.
- In sex ed class we learned not that sex creates babies, but that unprotected sex creates babies. After we were done putting condoms on bananas, our teacher counseled us that we should carefully decide when we might be ready to have sex based on important concerns like whether or not we were in committed relationships, whether or not we had access to contraception, how our girlfriends or boyfriends treated us, whether we wanted to wait until marriage, etc. I do not recall hearing readiness to have a baby being part of a single discussion about deciding when to have sex. Not one.
- On multiple occasions when I was a young teen, I heard girls my age make the comment that they would readily risk dangerous back-alley abortions or even consider suicide if they were to face unplanned pregnancies and abortion wasn't legal. Though I was not sexually active, it sounded perfectly reasonable to me: That is how much we desired not to have babies before we were ready. Yet the concept of just not having sex if we weren't ready to have babies was never discussed. It's not that we had considered the idea and rejected it; it simply never occurred to us.
- Even as recently as 2006, before our marriage was validated in the Catholic Church, my husband and I had to take a course about building good marriages. It was a video series by a nondenominational Christian group, and in the segment called "Good Sex" they did not mention children or babies once. In all the talk about bonding and back rubs and intimacy and the importance of staying in shape, the closest they came to connecting sex to new life was to say quickly that couples should discuss the topic of contraception.
Sex could not have been more disconnected from the concept of creating life.
The message I'd heard loud and clear was that the purpose of sex was for pleasure and bonding, that its potential for creating life was purely tangential, almost to the point of being forgotten about altogether. This mindset laid the foundation of my views on abortion. Because I saw sex as being closed to the possibility to life by default, I thought of pregnancies that weren't planned as akin to being struck by lightning while walking down the street: Something totally unpredictable, undeserved, that happened to people living normal lives.
For me, and for many others I knew, being pro-choice was actually motivated out of love: I didn't want women to have to suffer with these unwanted pregnancies that were so totally out of their control. Because it was an inherent part of my worldview that everyone except people with hang-ups eventually has sex, and that sex is, under normal circumstances, only about the relationship between the two people involved, I got lured into one of the oldest, biggest, most tempting lies in human history: To dehumanize the enemy. Babies had become the enemy because of their tendencies to pop up out of the blue and ruin everything; and just as societies are tempted to dehumanize the fellow human beings who are on the other side of the lines in wartime, so had I, and we as a society, dehumanized the enemy of sex.
It was when I was reading up on the Catholic view of sex and new life that everything changed.
I'd always thought that those archaic teachings about not using contraception were because the Church wanted to fill its coffers by pushing the faithful to have as many kids as possible, or something like that. What I found, however, was that their views expressed a fundamentally different understanding of what sex is. And once I heard it, I never saw the world the same way again.
The way I'd always seen it, the standard position was that babies are burdens, except for a couple times in life when everything is perfect enough that a couple might temporarily see new life as a good thing. The Catholic position is that new human life is always a good thing. They said that it's fine to attempt to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons, but warned that if we go so far as to adopt a "contraceptive mentality," feeling entitled to the pleasure of sex while loathing (and perhaps trying to forget all about) its life-giving properties, we not only disrespect this most sacred of acts, but we begin to see new life as the enemy.
I came to see that our culture's widespread use and acceptance of contraception had led to this mentality toward sex being the default position. As a society, we'd come to take it for granted that we're entitled to the pleasurable and bonding aspects of sex -- even when we're in a state of being vehemently opposed to any new life it might produce. The option of abstaining from the act that creates babies when we feel like we'd be unable to care for a baby had been removed from the cultural lexicon. Even if it would be a huge crisis to get pregnant, you have a right to have sex anyway, the cultural wisdom whispered.
If this were true -- if it was indeed morally okay for people to have sex even when they felt that a baby would ruin their lives -- then, in my mind, abortion had to be okay.
Ideally, I would have taken an objective look at when human life begins and based my views on that alone...but the lie was too tempting. I didn't want to hear about heartbeats or souls or brain activity. Terminating pregnancies just had to be okay: Carrying a baby to term and becoming a parent is a huge deal, and society had made it very clear that sex is not a huge deal. As long as I accepted that for people to engage in sex in a contraceptive mentality was morally okay, I could not bring myself even to consider that abortion might not be okay. It seemed inhumane to make women deal with life-altering consequences for an act that was not supposed to have life-altering consequences.
So this idea that we are always to treat the sexual act with awe and respect, so much so that we should abstain if we're vehemently opposed to its life-giving potential, was a radical, new message. For me, being able to consider honestly when life begins, to open my heart and my mind to the wonder and dignity of even the tiniest of my fellow human beings, was not fully possible until I understood the nature of the act that creates these little lives in the first place.
The great temptation
All of these thoughts had been percolating in my brain for a while, and I found myself increasingly in agreement with pro-life positions. Then one night I was reading something, and a certain thought occurred to me. From that moment on I was officially, unapologetically pro-life.
I was reading yet another account of the Greek societies in which newborn babies were abandoned to die, wondering to myself how normal people could possibly accept something like that. Then, a chill tore through my body as I thought:
I know how they did it.
I realized in that moment that perfectly good, well-meaning people -- people like me -- can support gravely evil things through the power of lies. From my own experience, I knew how the Greeks, the Romans, and people in every other society could put themselves into a mental state that they could leave a newborn child to die: The very real pressures of life -- "we can’t afford another baby," "there's no dowry for another girl," "this disability would overwhelm us" -- left them susceptible to that oldest of temptations: To dehumanize other human beings. Though the circumstances were different, it was the same process that had happened with me, with the concurring Supreme Court Justices in Stenberg v. Carhart, the abortion doctors, the entire pro-choice movement, and anyone else who's ever been tempted to dehumanize inconvenient people.
I imagine that as those Greek parents handed over their infants for someone to take away, they remarked on how very unlike their other children these little creatures were: They can't talk, they can't sit up. Surely those little yawns and smiles are just involuntary spasms. I bet you anything they justified their choices by referring to these babies with words that stripped them of their human dignity. Maybe they called them something like "fetuses," and walked away confident that the lives that had been taken were not really human at all.