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.
I was sitting on a bean bag in my dorm room when I got the call. It was a friend of mine -- let's call her "Sara" -- and she was sobbing so hard it took me a moment to know who it was.
Finally, she pulled herself together enough to speak. With a voice that sounded as weary as if she had aged 100 years since the last time we talked, she said, "I'm pregnant."
My heart sunk on her behalf. I was completely pro-choice and didn't find the idea of abortion to be troubling, but I knew that she was not comfortable with it. She had always said that she respected other women's rights to choose, but that she could never do that. Yet I also knew that she was not entirely thrilled with this guy she was dating, a young man named Rob. He was handsome and charismatic, but he had a serious drinking problem, and didn't treat her with the respect she deserved.
I listened while she explained through tears that it would ruin her life to have a child, especially with Rob. She had recently decided that she would break up with him soon, and even looked forward to doing so; the thought of having an inextricable, lifelong connection to him made her physically ill. Then there were the facts that parenting a child would derail her college career, and that she didn't even want to be a mother -- not to mention the fact that she was pretty sure her parents would disown her if she came home from school pregnant. "I knew this would be my worst nightmare. That's why I'm always so serious about contraception!" she said. But, despite her best efforts, something had gone wrong. Her contraception had failed.
I tried to turn the conversation in a constructive direction, employing the word that was supposedly so empowering to women of our generation. "Let's talk about your choices," I suggested.
"Choices?" She let out a hard, bitter laugh as she spat the word back at me. "I don't have any."
Sara went to an abortion facility and had the pregnancy "taken care of." We never spoke of it again. She became distant from me and many of her other friends in the months that followed, and we eventually lost touch.
I still think of Sara now and then, especially when I come across pieces like this one at Patheos that's making the rounds, in which Libby Anne writes of why she lost faith in the pro-life movement. Her story felt oddly familiar, as it reminds me a lot of my own. Though my conversion went the opposite direction, mine, like hers, hinged on the issues of contraception and personhood, and the question of what really liberates women. I've been thinking about it all ever since I read her post, and thought I would share my own story.
Who's afraid of information?
My first tipoff that something was wrong in the pro-choice movement was when I realized that there was a great fear of information. A year or two after Sara's situation, another friend found herself in a crisis pregnancy (also due to failed contraception), and was wrestling with the issue of abortion. She had asked me to find out how far her baby would have developed at this point, so I did some research online.
I found some images and descriptions of fetal development, and was amazed by how much I hadn't known. For all the time I'd spent talking about abortion rights, I'd never bothered to learn the details about what, exactly, happens within a woman's womb when she's pregnant, and no one had encouraged me to do so. I had never heard that fetuses have arms and legs and tastebuds at eight weeks gestation, or that they began practicing breathing at 11 weeks. I paused and thought about that for a long time. It didn't make me question my pro-choice stance, but for the first time I could understand how someone could be uncomfortable with abortion.
The biggest thing I noticed, however, was that pro-life sites had this information in abundance. The pro-lifers encouraged women to educate themselves about the details of pregnancy, suggested that they view ultrasounds to know what was happening within their bodies, and offered resources to educate women about all aspects of the female reproductive system.
On the pro-choice side, it was a totally different story.
I had started my research on websites for abortion providers and various feminist organizations, which I had assumed would equip women to make informed choices by providing them with full information. To my concern and surprise, I could not find one shred of information about fetal development on any websites associated with the pro-choice movement. When I read their literature about the details of abortion procedures, they were full of insulting euphemisms. Even when describing second trimester abortions, they would use eerily vague terms talking about "emptying the uterus" of its "contents." I felt like I had been transported back to Victorian England, where women weren't supposed to be told hard facts, even about their own bodies, because they might get all flustered.
Personhood: The other elephant in the room
Nowhere was the fear of information more obvious than on the issue of personhood. We had always gotten a good laugh out of anti-choicers and their love of zygotes, and would feel triumphant when we would point out the elephant in the room that they must not really value these lives as fully human since they didn't hold full funerals for, say, early miscarriages. But as my questions about the pro-choice worldview festered, I began to notice that we were tripping all over our own elephants.
We may have snickered at the idea of a three-day-old conceptus being completely human, but I began to notice a startling lack of interest in nailing down the question of when unborn life did become human. Folks within the pro-choice movement would scoff at the idea of a seven-week-old fetus being a person, and would nod in unquestioning agreement that a baby is fully human the day before her due date. So that must mean that there is some point at which we're no longer talking about a sub-human "fetus" and we're now talking about a fully human baby. Yet I could not get a single answer about when that might happen, not from individuals, not from official organizational statements. There was absolutely zero interest in the question of when we should start protecting unborn human life.
I'll never forgot the first time I read the documents to the Supreme Court case of Stenberg v. Carhart. Intelligent, educated people -- some of them leaders of our country -- coolly debated the most effective way to kill babies who were close to or beyond the age of viability. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote an amici brief in which they advocated for D&X, a procedure in which babies are delivered and then killed outside of the womb. Their reasoning?
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. [emphasis mine]
The ACOG had recently made statements condemning homebirth, in part because they were concerned about the health of babies. And yet here they were, coolly saying that it's better to kill babies outside of the womb because their decapitated heads can injure their mothers.
I was left speechless by the level of disconnect I was seeing -- not just among fringe extremists, but by the average pro-choice person. I had recently visited a friend's baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at a local hospital, and I recalled that the baby in the incubator next to us was born the week before at 24 weeks gestation, and so was now 25 weeks old. This baby was the same age as the babies whose method of extermination was debated in Stenberg v. Carhart. If he were to be murdered in his incubator it would be a headline-generating tragedy. But if the same thing were to happen to him -- at the exact same age -- in which he was murdered as part of an induced delivery, it would be an ACOG-approved medical procedure.
I saw an almost pathological level of avoidance, in myself as well as in the larger pro-choice community, on this most critical issue of when a fetus becomes a person, and when abortion becomes infanticide. When pressed on this topic we would always dodge the issue, usually by responding with the utterly irrelevant answer that these procedures are rare compared to first trimester abortions. Even though many of us were personally horrified by the idea of such occurrences, some great pressure kept us from taking a clear look at this life-and-death issue, and calling a horror a horror when we beheld it.
What really takes away women's reproductive freedom?
What I was encountering was a level of internal inconsistency and intellectual dishonesty that bordered on insanity. I noticed it in myself, too: No matter how many red flags popped up in front of me, no matter how much data pointed in the direction of the humanity of unborn life, I couldn't bring myself to think of myself as anything other than pro-choice. Even though I was increasingly uncomfortable with the entire concept, something within me screamed that to not support abortion would be to support women being slaves to their biology.
This pressure built and built over months, and eventually years. And then, one day it clicked.
I was looking through a Time magazine article whose infograph cited data from the Guttmacher Institute about the most common reasons women have abortions. It immediately struck me that none of the factors on the list were conditions that we tell women to consider before engaging in sexual activity. Don't have the money to raise a child? Don't think your boyfriend would be a good father? Don't feel ready to be a mother? Women were never encouraged to consider these factors before they had sex; only before they had a baby.
The fundamental truth of the pro-choice movement, from which all of its tenets flow, is that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences. I suddenly saw that it was the struggle to uphold this "truth" that led to all the shady dealings, all the fear of information, all the mental gymnastics that I'd observed. For example:
--> If it is true that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences, then life within the womb cannot be human. Otherwise, when your contraception fails or you otherwise end up with an unplanned pregnancy, you just became a parent, and that truth was proven false.
--> If it is true that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences, then people should be able to engage in sexual activity as they see fit, without giving a second thought to parenthood. And if it's true that it is morally acceptable for people to engage in sexual activity without giving a second thought to parenthood, then abortion must be okay. Contraception has abysmal actual use effectiveness rates, especially when taken over the long term. Combine that with the fact that the contraceptive mentality tells women to go ahead and engage in the act that creates babies, even if they feel certain that they're in no position to have a baby, and you see how women would feel trapped, and think that their only way out is through the doors of their local abortion mill.
Over the years I'd heard many pro-lifers say things along the lines of, "If you're engaging in the act that creates babies, you might create a baby; if you are absolutely certain that you're not ready to have a baby, avoid the act that creates babies." The pro-choice movement dismissed such statements, often sneeringly, as being overly simplistic and even oppressive. Yet is it not true? Now that I had taken a look under the hood of the pro-choice worldview, I came to see this as yet another example of pro-lifers respecting women enough to tell them hard truths that they may not want to hear, but need to hear. And far from blowing women off with pat answers, as I had always imagined pro-lifers did, when I took a closer look at that movement I found it to be quite realistic about the complexities of life, and surprisingly understanding that things don't always work out the way they're supposed to. I was interested to learn that there are more pregnancy assistance centers in the U.S. than there are abortion facilities, and that the Catholic Church, which is the largest pro-life organization in the world, is also the largest charitable organization in the world.
Once all of this set in, I thought of all my friends who had ended up sitting in the waiting rooms of abortion facilities, and mourned for them anew. In each case there was an unspoken but palpable question of, How could this have happened? These young women played by the rules. They tried to do the right thing. None of them slept around, none lived careless lives. They had dutifully used contraception, just like they were supposed to. They were told that this was the path to a life of freedom, and were dazed and traumatized when they found themselves without real choices, backed into a corner by their circumstances.
I believe that most people who are pro-choice hold that viewpoint because they want to help women. I was pro-choice out of loving concern for my sisters all over the world, and, on the surface, it seemed that this view was the most compassionate. But when I took a hard look behind the closed doors of the pro-choice movement, and demanded full information, and acknowledged the dignity of women of all ages (even those not yet born), and asked hard questions about what women's reproductive freedom really means, that is when I became pro-life.