ordeal of the bitter waters, part three

mother and baby
This is simply my story of how I became pro-choice. I’m not writing this to convince anyone– it was a journey that took years, and what convinced me may not convince anyone else. I believe that writing my story for you is important; in all the reading I did during those years, I only found one person who was willing to explain what she had been through. Hearing her story helped me process what I was going through. I hope it does the same for someone else.

For over a year I existed in that place of tension– somewhere in-between pro-choice and pro-life, uncertain of some things, yet completely certain of others.

One of the things I was utterly certain of was that a fetus was a person. Another thing I was also completely certain of was that this was the only real question regarding the pro-choice/pro-life debate: Pro-choice people believe that a fetus was not a person, pro-life people believe that it is, and that was that.

The reason I believed that a fetus was a person, endowed with the same inalienable rights as all other persons, was, of course, my religion. I had been raised a Christian, and excepting a four-year period when I didn’t particularly care if God existed or not, Christianity’s principles regarding the sacredness of all life, including the lives of the unborn, was something I simply accepted. There were nebulous, unformed arguments I knew of– things about Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, leaping in her womb and being fearfully and wonderfully made. It was just a part of my faith. For me, life began at conception. It was the only way I knew how to think about this mystery, this miracle, in hard, concrete terms.

And then, in November 2012, when I was researching NFP versus hormonal contraception, I stumbled across this:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

I . . . had never heard this before. It took me a while just to process what I’d read. A woman’s body naturally expels the vast majority of fertilized eggs? I was faced with a conundrum I had never encountered before: what is conception? Does it really happen when sperm meets egg? How can that be, when up to 80% of all zygotes are naturally aborted? I read the common arguments– that this is just a natural part of the reproductive process. However, I noticed a contradiction I couldn’t overcome. In discussions concerning hormonal contraception, what frequently came up was that if the body expels it naturally, it’s normal and acceptable, but if a woman swallows a pill, it’s . . . murder? That didn’t make any sense to me. If the “intention” of not wanting to become pregnant makes it murder, how is not doing everything within our power to save this fully endowed human life not at least medical neglect? No one seemed to be very bothered by the fact that perhaps 80% of the human population was being decimated by “natural processes.” If conception really happens when the egg is fertilized . . . how is that anything less than a horrific tragedy?

It bothered me that we could argue that conception was the moment of ensoulment, but that all these souls– all these billions and billions of fully human people– were dying in a matter of hours or days, and no one in the pro-life movement seemed to mind that it was happening. And it hit me: I didn’t value a zygote. I didn’t really see it as a person, with life. I believed that a zygote was a person in a rhetorical, philosophical sense– it was merely a logical place to draw the line.

My initial response was simply to bump it forward: oh, that must mean that conception happens when the egg implants on the uterine wall, which is how the medical community defines pregnancy. But . . . up to 70% of all pregnancies are also naturally aborted.

The confusion was overwhelming. I avoided thinking about it– really thinking about it– for months, simply because I couldn’t handle it. The closest word I have to describe my feelings when I tried to wrestle with this issue was panic. This was the first time I started reading about, and actually considering, the concept potential life. In the evangelical atmosphere I’d grown up in, there was no such thing as “potential life”– things are either alive, or they are not. It is a alive, or it is a rock. It is alive, or it is dead. There’s no such thing as some nebulous, murky, in-between life-but-not-alive state. That was simply a rhetorical invention of anti-life people who want the right to murder babies.

Which, I ironically discovered, is not really true. In fact, “potential life” is a very, very old concept:

And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man’s power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being.

St. Augustine, from If They have Ever Lived

St. Augustine wrote that. Augustine. And he wrote it sometime in the early 5th century. Christianity had been wrestling with the concept of potential life almost as long as it had existed. I knew that Augustine was influenced by the classical Greek authors who also all believed in some pre-life-yet-life-state, but he was not alone. The idea of potential life was one of the first that I discovered that I immediately latched on to; something inside of me resonated with this idea. Intuitively, it felt true. It made sense. It aligned with not only my experiences, but what I was starting to feel was a communal experience: somehow, as a pregnancy progresses from zygote to baby, we respond to that.

And pro-life people are not the only ones who feel this way:

It was when I [Noami Wolf] was four months pregnant, sick as a dog, and in the middle of an argument, that I realized I could no longer tolerate the fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement. I was being interrogated by a conservative, and the subject of abortion rights came up. “You’re four months pregnant,” he said. “Are you going to tell me that’s not a baby you’re carrying?”

Had I not been so nauseated and so cranky and so weighed down with the physical gravity of what was going on inside me, I might not have told what is the truth for me. “Of course it’s a baby,” I snapped. And went rashly on: “And if I found myself in circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life, then that would be between myself and God.”

But, even as I settled into this concept of potential life,  I realized that I was in serious trouble. Because, the only concrete thing I was clinging to had evaporated. The unshakable belief that conception is the beginning and conception is life was gone, and I couldn’t touch bottom. If there is no beginning, if there’s this slow, inexorable process of not-quite-life-becoming-life, then I had to ask myself the question: am I even pro-life at all?

So, in my twilight hour, when I had completely exhausted every other resource, when there was nothing left to research, no more perspectives left to read and understand, no other opinions to listen to, no more facts . . . I opened my Bible, hoping that it would be the place I could discover some kind of an answer. And, for what was probably the first time in my life, I turned to the Bible completely empty of what I believed it said. I didn’t know what it said at all.

What I found shocked me.

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

  • Noami Wolf’s article that you quote above is the very best that I have come across in the philosophical literature about abortion. The anti-abortion camp usually seems to ignore the woman who caries the fetus. The pro-abortion camp rarely concedes an value whatsoever to the fetus. Wolf, on the other hand acknowledges both the value of the fetus and the needs of the woman.

    • I really loved Wolf’s article. Really, really loved it. She also has a book called “Vagina,” which I highly recommend. It received some heavy criticism, but it was one of the first books I read that celebrated women AS women.

    • “The anti-abortion camp usually seems to ignore the woman who caries the fetus.” I’m ashamed to say that was me. I’d been having discussions on this fact with my sister, who is pro-choice. She made salient points about abortion, and i was challenged. Then when the Gosnell case broke, I was very disturbed that the woman who died was barely mentioned. The women who had been harmed previously were ignored. It was all about only the babies. Of course the photos of dead babies with incisions in their necks was abhorrent and sensationalized. But the harm done to the women Gosnell injured is just as bad. I’m still pro-life in that I wish there were other ways to help women with unplanned pregnancies. Now I get hit from both sides. I’m not pro-life enough for the true hard core believers, but not quite enough into the pro-choice side to satisfy those folks, either. I live in the gray.

      • If you believe that abortion should be a LEGAL right that women have, and that any decision to abort or continue the pregnancy is between the woman, her conscience, her doctor, and her family — then you are pro-choice enough for me.

        I really, really want to emphasize to any people out there conflicted on this topic — the question is not whether we think abortion is a great idea. The question is whether it is legal and available. You can still prefer that women make another choice, and you can still make a different choice yourself. The question at hand is WHO gets to make that choice. Is it the woman whose body and potential child this is? Or is it the government?

        Unless you think the government SHOULD be the entity making the choice about whether or not a woman brings a child to term, you are actually pro-choice. Please vote accordingly.

        • I don’t usually base my vote on one issue in any election. I often split my votes. But your observation is interesting, non the less. I suppose I can fit into the pro-choice camp in that I think the government should stay out of medical decisions. But I also believe the fetus is alive and has its own body as well. That’s what makes this a gray area. And, I agree with you that most people don’t rejoice at any abortion, no matter where they stand on the issue.

        • Thank you for this comment- I think this is an important element to remember when we have this conversation.

  • I’m pro-life in a more general sense, If someone accidentally dies we don’t call it murder. But I can imagine having this life inside me and cannot imagine not calling it a life. I can’t imaging not loving it, even while it was growing inside me. I understand that things can be very hard on a woman for a number of reasons. I just can’t find myself stepping outside the line to say it’s o.k. to kill that life. I agree with you on most issues, but can’t quite get there on this one.

  • The reality of what a woman’s body does is a big part of why the concept of “life begins at conception” never really made sense to me. There is some science out there that suggests that women miscarry more than half of the pregnancies that occur, most of them before hte woman ever knows she is pregnant, many of them without her ever knowing she was. We’re talking in those first few weeks here.

    Then you add in the 80% of zygotes being expelled by the woman, and… the vast majority of conceptions never go any further. Every piece of scientific information chips away at this view, piece by piece. There ends up being serious mental gymnastics required to maintain both relevant education on how pregnancy works and a pro-life view. I just couldn’t maintain the gymnastics.

    I’m curious as to where you will go with the Bible verse, because I’m thinking it might be the same verses I read when I was seeking “an answer”, at one point, to whether my pro-choice view was sound with my Christianity.

  • I’d like to know the source you cite regarding the number of fertilized eggs that get rejected by the body. However, the point is moot. A woman has no control over whether or not that happens, and is unaware of it, anyway. Most women don’t even realize they’re pregnant until they misses a period, or even a bit later. They also aren’t aware that the fertilized egg has implanted until enough pregnancy hormones are released to make a pregnancy test positive. Is it horrendous that so many fertilized eggs die? I don’t think so, but not being horrified at a natural occurrence doesn’t equate to being horrified at a deliberate action. Just because it happens in nature doesn’t mean that it’s okay to replicate deliberately. We know Down syndrome is caused by an extra chromosome. Would it then be okay for geneticists to figure out a way to replicate that in the womb and create Down babies? It’s okay to be pro-choice with or without religion. It’s also okay to be pro-life with or without religion. My view is based on science; the growing fetus has human DNA. By the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, the fetus already has an independent circulatory system with a beating heart. That’s science. What is more important is the situation in which a woman is pregnant. Was it a planned pregnancy? Was it a result of a rape? What are the economic situations of the mother? What about the health of the mother and/or the baby. What if it is a teen pregnancy? This is the “messiness” of life to which I referred in my other comment. Each situation is unique. We need to treat women with respect and make sure they are safe. That’s my view.

    • There should be a hyperlink to the medical text that contains that information.

      • The hyperlink leads to a site with a book advertised for sale. I assume that within the book the stats you cite are within its pages. I can’t afford the book. I also assume you read it. Can you tell me how, scientifically, the author comes to the conclusion about the 80% lost zygotes? Women who have this happen don’t even know they have that fertilized egg in them, because the hormone that makes a pregnancy test positive don’t ramp up until implantation. I just want to know how they came up with that percentage. It still doesn’t factor into my own views, since this is a natural phenomena, and not a man-made cause. Thanks! I am enjoying your blog immensely.

    • By the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, the fetus already has an independent circulatory system with a beating heart. That’s science.
      The fetal heart starts beating somewhere around week 5 – up to three weeks after fertilisation.
      I knew I was pregnant well over 10 days before my babys heart started beating.
      Many women who have a “standard” 28 day cycle (and especially so if they are actively trying / charting etc) will know they are pregnant somewhere around a week before the heart beat starts.

      • I stand corrected. Due to the improved technology of determining a pregnancy, women can now find out much sooner that they are pregnant. Therefore it is possible that a woman can get a positive pregnancy test before the fetal heart starts to beat. Thanks for the link. Implantation is still the event which sends out those pregnancy hormones, and there are lots of people who see pregnancy not beginning at conception, but rather at implantation.

  • Again you have written a compelling piece. I look forward to part four.

    • I agree. Very compelling. I also look forward to more posts on this issue. I am reviewing my own beliefs on it.

  • Margaret


  • As someone whose mental health would be destroyed by pregnancy, I always subconsciously was on the fence about this issue. Growing up sexually abused, I was well aware of what it felt like to not be in control of my body, and all the pro-life arguments made me feel that way too.

    But I think the first conscious acknowledgment that I wasn’t pro-life came when I realized how cheap it felt that the pro-life people around me seemed to value life only in the body — a beating heart, brain waves…these things were important and valuable. But a person, someone experiencing pain and hardships, someone whose life might be a negative experience full of suffering, well, we didn’t really give a fuck about you. My life was mostly a living hell and being told “well it’s better to live every day in excruciating pain because life is valuable” made life seem, well, cheap, and meaningless. That’s the message that was sent to me growing up: we’re prolife, and life is cheap.

    I grew up with the idea that at the very least, it was the most logical to acknowledge that a zygote was a *potential* life (but that potential should have just as many rights as a living person). I also grew up with the idea that abortion was okay only if the mother’s life was in danger. So it was actually very easy for me to progress to being pro-choice, being someone well aware that *mental health* is a very big component to health, and if someone is having abortion, it probably means *some aspect* of their health is at stake — physical, mental, financial (which is a very big component as it effects the physical and mental) are all perfectly valid and necessary reasons for abortion.

    The further I undo a lot of the lies I learned (my mother told me that abortion was wrong once the heart started beating, and then said the heart started beating after 10 days of pregnancy) the more this whole “save the unborn babies” seems more and more absurd, and I’m not really heartbroken over the loss of all the “potential people” of the world, especially when there are so many born people whose needs are being overlooked for the sake of the “innocent babies.”

    But regardless, I’m still probably always going to be on the pro-choice side because I’m always going to be on the side of the pregnant person’s well-being. Which, if they’re considering abortion, is more likely than not at stake in *some* way.

  • Your personal journey is heart wrenching and compelling.

  • I am pro-life, but I am wondering if it’s really a good idea to force a woman impregnated by rape to carry the rapist’s baby to term. That seems cruel to me.

  • Another Matt

    Also problematic is the fact that identical siblings come from the same zygote — and in fact in the first few cell divisions, any one of the embryonic cells could be separated and could form another identical sibling. I think it’s too murky for ensoulment to work this way.

    • I agree, Matt. If implantation is the beginning of a pregnancy, a position with which I agree, you are looking at a potential human being. A miscarriage or severe fetal anomaly are still potential threats as well. I suppose I’ve moved to a pro choice side, because the welfare of the mother is paramount. When she chooses abortion and enters the abortion clinic, every possible protection ought to be in place for her mental and physical health. I’d still like a woman to know what stage of fetal development she is in, so that she can make a truly informed decision. I don’t want the government to get between her and her doctor. I find it ironic that the GOP is using that very argument against Obamacare. Why is it not okay to interfere in the doctor/patient relationship UNLESS the treatment is an abortion? What I want is for women to never have to face that choice, with the ability to make a decent living, have access to prenatal care, and access to reliable birth control. I am a Catholic, so my personal views on abortion and contraception are my own; however, there are millions of Americans who do not accept my personal religious beliefs, and I have to respect that fact.

  • Pingback: 7 things for Saturday (10.12)()

  • Pauline

    Thank you so much for writing this series. I believe no matter where you are on the fence this is something everyone should critically think about.