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women’s rights

Feminism, Social Issues

ordeal of the bitter waters, part six

mother and baby

This is the final post in this series. I wanted to thank everyone who’s been reading and commenting for your support and encouragement as I put all of this into writing– very public writing. I also wanted to note, again, that everything I’ve written here is merely my story– I’m not expecting to convince anyone, merely explain why I’ve changed my mind on this issue so totally.

In 2009, the facade of my fierce pro-life beliefs suffered its first crack when I was facing a choice I’d never expected to encounter.

In 2010, I started understanding that many of the beliefs I had were either self-contradictory or dangerous.

In 2011, my eyes were opened to the innate hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement, which was only really pro-birth and anti-abortion.

In 2012, coming to terms with my culture and society meant that I could no longer support pro-life politics.

In 2013, I put not my politics, but my beliefs under the microscope.

In June, I was held in thrall by Wendy Davis.

In July, I was confronted by the truth of Numbers, Hosea, Genesis, Isaiah, Exodus, and 2 Kings.

In August, I finally came to terms with the concept of potential life, and that is when it finally, finally hit me: through most of my thoughts, my explorations, my research, I was almost exclusively focused on whether or not the zygote, the conceptus, and ultimately the fetus had fully endowed, inalienable human rights . . . and I realized that what I’d been reading from pro-choice women was absolutely, undeniably right in my own life– pro-life beliefs view women almost entirely as a vessel instead of as a person.

Even when I’d been raped and I thought I might be pregnant, I saw myself as merely a support structure for an embryo. I was traumatized by the idea of needing an abortion– how could I do that to this innocent baby? What right did I have to end its life? When my period finally came, I collapsed on the bathroom floor, more relieved than I have ever been, while simultaneously grief-stricken and horrified that I had ever considered an abortion.

That was the belief that had caused me to struggle with this system for years. I believed that a zygote, a conceptus, an embryo, and a fetus were all fully human while simultaneously believing that my rights as a person, my autonomy, did not exist and that my own body did not belong to me but to a growing, developing fetus. As long as I believed that my own rights as a fully human person with inalienable rights were completely subjugated to a potential life, I was incapable of seeing anything about this issue– and these women— fairly. In my own head, I saw pregnant women as less than the developing life inside of her. All the imagery, all the narratives, everything I’d had access to as a young woman taught me to see a fetus in terms of a miracle and the woman creating that miracle as little more than a necessary tool.

That was truly the only thing keeping me from committing to being pro-choice. But, a few months ago, that balance shifted.

I am not a vessel. I am a person.

I am not a procreative tool. I am a person.

I am not my reproductive organs. I am a person.

I am a person, and I am fully endowed with inalienable human rights.

That shift changed everything.

I felt like Saul-becoming-Paul, with the scales falling away from my eyes, and the light more blinding than the darkness had been. This was a revolutionary change in paradigm, and it took two more months to truly come to terms with it, to accept what had happened to me. And, as I walked around in this brand-new world that was terrifying and thrilling all at once, I started understanding what it means to be pro-choice.

For me, it almost entirely boils down to the simple fact that I believe in women. I believe that we are intelligent and capable. I believe that we are fully able to examine the situations of our lives, examine what we need and want, and make up our own damn mind about our own damn decisions– and we do not need a male-dominated bureaucracy that has next-to-no understanding about (and absolutely no personal experience whatsoever) women’s lives telling us what to do about an incredibly personal decision that is really no one else’s business.

I had grown up in a systemic belief that women do not know any better- and are really incapable of knowing any better, so they must have their decisions controlled by the government. Women were making decisions that were different than what we believed was right, so all I saw were characterizations of man-hating feminists and stupid sluts. There was no in between. I had no image of a woman who rationally made an emotional decision based on personal experience and the evidence available. That woman simply did not exist in the universe I grew up in. Women were being constantly manipulated and lied to, and that was the only possible reason any of them could think differently than us.

Becoming pro-choice meant that, for the first time, I saw those women. I got to know some of them. Sometimes, I merely read their stories. I saw women look into the eyes of her precious child and sorrowfully realize that she could not afford to feed him if she had another baby. I watched as women struggled with the fact that if they carried to term, they would most likely find themselves unemployed— and unemployable. I saw women with visions for their future who wanted children but lived in the harsh, bleak reality that women with children are either not hired, paid less, or are given less opportunities than women without children. I talked with women who were afraid of having children because they could be denied tenure. I read the heartbreaking stories of women whose health was seriously threatened by pregnancy. Of women who could not afford going off of their pain medication or their anti-depressants for a pregnancy.

I realized that there are as many reasons for having an abortion as there are women, and it is wrong for anyone, especially a government, to dictate what reasons are permissible and what reasons are not– and the only concessions that the pro-life movement seem willing to make are not the concessions women desperately need.

As I became more familiar with the ethics and morality in the pro-choice movement (not that I’m claiming it’s perfect, it is not), I also became increasingly disturbed by the strict pro-life politics and legislation being enacted all over the country. Even though I had already been convinced that the rhetoric and goals of the leaders of the pro-life movement were dangerous, I started seeing the threat they pose to women’s health care. Up until this point, I largely thought of it as almost harmless. Now, when I listen to men like Todd Akin and Trent Franks, I’m horrified and very, very worried.

Today, I’m pro-choice not because I think that a fetus is some form of “parasitic invader” or that an embryo is a worthless group of cells.

I’m not pro-choice because I don’t care about my faith.

I’m not pro-choice because I value convenience more than life.

I’m not pro-choice because I’m uninformed and haven’t thought through my position logically.

I’m not pro-choice because I’m heartless and lack “natural affection” or some nurturing, motherly instinct.

I’m not pro-choice because I believe in population control.

I’m not pro-choice because I’m racist.

I’m pro-choice because I’m awake and looking at the desperate, broken world around me.

I’m pro-choice because women need to have concrete options and resources.

I’m pro-choice because women are magnificent and brave, and we wake up every morning and go out into a world that wants to crush us.

I’m pro-choice because I believe that women deserve to be understood, and known, and loved.

Feminism, Social Issues

ordeal of the bitter waters, part five

mother and baby

I puzzled over yarek naphal for days– I dug through commentary after commentary, through lexicons, through concordances, through history books– and what I found was frustrating. Of the people who bothered to remark on what yarek naphal meant, most seemed comfortable assuming that “thigh to rot” was a euphemism for miscarriage– but no one said why. It was usually a short phrase, perhaps a sentence, and then the commentary would move on to explanations why this ritual appeared in Numbers. Exasperated, I ranted for a bit on twitter, and one of my amazing readers, Jennifer, directed me to some resources I am ashamed to say I hadn’t thought about.

She gently pointed me in the direction of Judaism, and told me that I was likely to find answers there that I was unlikely to find elsewhere. And she was right.

When I first started researching this passage in Numbers 5 in Judaism, I was incredibly overwhelmed. Many of the websites I was visiting assumed you had a basic knowledge of Judaism– which I did not. I had to familiarize myself with terms like Tanakh and Torah Shebictav and Mishnah.

So, I started reading what the Mishnah (the written record of rabbinic oral tradition) had to say about Numbers 5. This ritual, known as ‘The Ordeal of the Bitter Waters” in Christianity, is referred to in Judaism as the Sotah (“Errant Woman”). One of the first things that was consistently pointed out is that the Sotah is a specific type of ritual very common in ancient Middle Eastern cultures– the “divine ordeal.” Western culture is most familiar with the “divine ordeal” in the form of ordeal by cold water— commonly used in witch hunts. However, what is curious about the Sotah is that this is the only time that this form of ritual appears anywhere in the Tanakh. There is no other form of “divine ordeal.” It is also significant to note that the Sotah was discontinued, and there are no concrete records of it ever being performed.

However, the startling thing that stood out to me was that in translations by Jewish scholars– people who are steeped in the culture that I am wholly separated from– the way they translate yarek naphal is as “discharged uterus” (this is also how it appears in the NRSV). And what I discovered is that this is because there is a linguistic connection between “thigh,” “belly,” and the feminine genitals. Yarek, in other places in the Tanakh, means “place of procreative power“– for both men and women. And naphal is actually closer to “fall,” but it is connected to violent death, to wasting away, and to failure.

The linguistic connections in yarek naphal paints a picture of something either dying or wasting away in a woman’s uterus.

This picture clicked with me in an epiphany a little while later as I was reading Half the Sky. In it, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn spend a lot of time talking about the global maternal mortality rate, and one of the primary reasons for it: fistulas. Specifically, obstetric fistulas due to obstructed labor. Nicholas and Sheryl spent time in Africa, in hospitals dedicated to helping women with this medical problem. They tell the stories of many women who have fistulas, and the medical care that they desperately need.

But, as I read, something struck me. When they described the horrific plight of these women, they described these woman as surrounded by shame and ostracism– because their thighs are literally rotting away. For the women who survive, they are shunned by their families and communities because of this. It is not an image that I, as a modern American, am at all familiar with. I’m barely even aware of maternal mortality (although America’s rate is the same as Iran, Bahrain, and Hungary, and close to Saudi Arabia and Turkey)– but, it is an image that would have been common in the ancient middle East– and in 1611 England, when the translators chose the phrase “thigh to rot” for yarak naphal.

I had an answer of sorts– the Sotah ritual, if the woman was guilty, would resort in any pregnancy being aborted as well as a lifetime of barrenness.

As I continued reading about the ritual and Hebrew perspectives on it, the question that I’d been terrified to face, the question what does this mean about God, slowly faded, and I realized something that’s continued to help me in the few months since then.

I was afraid of Numbers 5 because I didn’t know how to face a God that would command that. I didn’t know if I could continue believing in a God that forced abortions. To me, that’s the only thing this passage could mean; God had created a ritual that forced abortions in order to prove a woman’s guilt.

But, as I explored the “ordeal of bitter waters,” I began to view the ritual through a different light. My perspective grew, and I attempted to see Numbers 5 not through the eyes that I’d been given as a child– the eyes that saw a holy, righteous, wrathful God ruthlessly punishing disobedience– but through eyes that see God as a mother-father trying to protect her children from themselves. Something Rabbi Riskin wrote nudged me in that direction:

Judaism emerged from the Middle East, where jealousy is rampant and women are often considered the chattel of their husbands. A jealous husband can easily persuade himself to harm the wife whom he suspects of adultery. I therefore believe this trial of the bitter waters provided a marvelous psychological ploy to protect the woman from a husband’s wrath.

This was an idea I started encountering everywhere I went. In a culture almost completely dominated by patriarchal jealousy and the belief that women were property, this ritual could have been instituted to give women a concrete, unassailable way to prove their innocence. Husbands could not divorce their wives on the grounds of some nebulous suspicion that she’d been unfaithful– he’d have to prove it in front of God and men. A woman could agree to the Sotahknowing that she was innocent, and be supported by the kohen, the priests of the Tabernacle, and G-d himself.

But . . . now I felt truly rudderless. There’s no truly pro-life stance anywhere in the Bible. Between the story of Tamar; passages in Isaiah and 2 Kings that declare “their women with child shall be ripped up” and another in Hosea that God will give them “miscarrying wombs”; the fact that pregnant women aren’t counted twice in the census; that there’s only a fee for causing a woman to miscarry instead of the usual execution for murder . . . none of it adds up to a “biblical” position on a-fetus-is-fully-human-with-rights that pro-life advocates say that the Bible “clearly” has.

All of this led me away from thinking of “pro-choice” on purely religious terms. I had to look at it as a citizen, as a part of my culture, as a voting woman who would either have to take a stand on this issue or melt away into the shadows.

Feminism

ordeal of the bitter waters, part four

mother and baby

I stared at what I’d typed into Google. The blinking cursor was silent, patient, waiting for me to hit enter.

Verses in the Bible about abortion.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I didn’t know what I was about to face. I knew I was about to wade chest-deep into pretty intense pro-life territory, a place where I would be jumping at shadows, wondering how much of what they said would be misrepresentations or merely misconceptions. But, I wasn’t looking for their argument– I only wanted to know where I needed to go looking. Finally, I hit enter, and started digging through the websites, writing down every single reference I could find. Eventually I closed out of the screen, shut down my computer, and started reading.

Over the next few days, I had sorted everything into patterns. First, the Bible seemed to be silent about abortion, which wasn’t initially a problem. The Bible isn’t comprehensive, and it’s not unusual for it not to talk about issues that seem vitally important today. Arguments were made from a variety of ideas:

Human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1, James 3, Acts 17). This is an important idea for the pro-life movement, because it’s the primary motivation for being pro-life. The imago dei is what makes human life sacred. The imago dei, not sentience, is what separates man from beast and makes humanity special. We are the children of God, made in his likeness. And while the doctrine of imago dei is one of the doctrines of Christianity that I cling to tenaciously– it is one of the most beautiful ideas in my entire religion– it doesn’t necessarily answer the question I had about conception.

Children are to be valued (Psalm 127, Matthew 18, Ephesians 6). I was familiar with this argument primarily from my research into Natural Family Planning; their stance toward anti-contraception is born in this concept. They value the lives of children and believe fervently, earnestly, that children are a gift, a blessing . . . but again, all of this is merely a rhetorical connection– and a fragile one at that. It doesn’t answer the question when does life begin?

There is life, even in the womb (Psalm 139, Psalm 22). These were the verses I was intimately familiar with. David, the psalmist, uses the image of himself in his mother’s womb in his poetry. But, as a student of literature, I had to ask the question: is a metaphor used in a poem enough? And what did these verses actually say? They were usually a testament to God’s fore-knowledge, in a similar sense that David also uses the metaphor of “the foundations of the earth.” And, again, I wasn’t denying that there is life, whatever it is, in the womb.

And none of these verses talked about identity, or personhood, or being-ness, but about what God knows. I realized that the fact David had chosen this metaphor was significant. He chose something so deeply mystery, a miracle beyond the comprehension of ancient civilization, to talk about what God understands, but he did not. The miracle of life being created in the womb has been one of the constant images in ancient religion; it was a process held as sacred and enshrined in idols, altars . . . He didn’t understand it anymore than I did, and that was why the metaphor was so poignant, why it mattered. It was beautiful, this metaphor, because of the not-knowing; David was trusting God with what he knew he couldn’t understand.

It took me a few days to grapple with all of these things, and I was left with just as much confusion as when I’d started. Months went by, and I was ready to give up entirely, when this showed up in my facebook feed in July:

In other words, this potion of “bitter water” will have no effect if the woman has been faithful, but if she’s cheated on her husband and gotten pregnant, it will rot her body and cause her to have a miscarriage. Whether or not you believe in this sort of black magic, the people who wrote it clearly did, and that tells us something about their worldview.

I couldn’t sleep that night.

At first, I didn’t even know what the hell the author, Adam Lee, was talking about. The concept that there was a passage in the Bible that not only allowed but mandated abortion was so utterly foreign to me I couldn’t- couldn’t— wrap my brain around it. And it wasn’t because I’d never read this passage before– I’ve read the Bible all the way through at least a dozen times, thanks to my fundamentalist upbringing. I’d never heard a sermon preached on Numbers 5, that was true, but I had to have been aware that this passage existed.

How did I miss this?

So, I went back and read the verse he cited in the version I would have read it in before:

And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.

That was a really big difference from the version Adam Lee had cited, which used the word “miscarry” instead of “thigh shall rot.”

So why did some versions translate this miscarry? How accurate of a translation was this? Was this passage talking about a woman becoming barren and diseased (which . . . still problematic), or was it talking about God– or the “bitter waters”– causing an abortion?

The first thing I did was write letters to all of the organizations that had decided to translate it miscarry, asking what their linguistic support was. The only organization that responded at all was Biblica, and they didn’t offer any evidence or support for their decision.

It was obvious I was going to have to look for answers on my own. But, I was going to have to do it with the handicap of knowing next to nothing about Hebrew (outside of a single semester in college and sleeping on Strong’s Concordance every night as a child). It didn’t take me long, however, to find that the words that were going to be my primary focus were יָרֵך נָפַל  (yarak naphal), שָׁכֹל (shakol), and יָצָא יֶלֶד (yeled yatsa). And the question I was going to have to answer was: Why did the man who wrote Numbers use yarak naphal in Numbers, when supposedly the same writer used yeled yatsa in Exodus? Or why hadn’t he used shakol, the word used in Hosea? Why yarak naphal? And what does yarak naphal actually mean? Does it mean “miscarriage”?

There was also a question I didn’t want to ask. But it was there, pressing, throbbing at the back of my mind, beating in my heart. If it does turns out that this passage is talking about God causing an abortion– what am I supposed to think about God? If an unborn baby is a fully human person, and God is willing to kill that baby just to prove a woman is adulterous . . .

I had a lot to lose.

Feminism

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.

Feminism

ordeal of the bitter waters, part two

mother and baby

For this series, I’m going to be monitoring the comments a little more closely than I ordinarily do. I haven’t gotten any comments that I’ve needed to moderate, yet, but I am discussing an incredibly charged issue. I will not tolerate any personal attacks– on me or anyone else.
Also, I am not really writing this series to convince anyone. This series is about my story
— the road I traveled that brought me to this point.

For a long time– years, actually– I was in a very similar space to many of you. It’s a place that is beginning to fill with people who are searching for answers and realizing that there aren’t many. So, I used to exist in a sort of limbo where nothing quite makes sense, but somehow it feels the most honest and the most compassionate. It’s an in-between place where your hearts can grieve over a tragedy, but still see the necessity for women to have access to safe reproductive medicine. Being willing to protect the reproductive rights of women, all while believing that abortion is morally wrong. Politically and legally necessary, but still wrong.

The interesting thing about this place is that there is a huge spectrum. No one is there for exactly the same reason, and the gray is constantly shifting. When I first entered that space, I was there because I had my first glimpse at the harsh, broken reality.

For most of my life, I believed that almost all abortions were wrong– evil, actually. The only exception– the only one— was in cases where the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother. Only then was it acceptable. Only then. Exceptions for rape and incest weren’t even on my horizon– after all, why punish an innocent baby? It’s not his fault that the father was a rapist. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and the words would come out glib and blithe while I confidently flipped my hair and turned up my nose at women who would murder their own baby.

But then I came staggering, bewildered, into the gray place. Because, at the time, I didn’t have the word rape for what had happened to me. The only thing I knew was that the thought of having my fiancé’s baby terrified me for reasons I couldn’t explain. I could not have his baby. I could not. And I didn’t understand why. But, in those weeks, before I either miscarried (most pregnancies fail in the first few weeks) or was merely late, I came to understand that there were probably thousands of girls who were so frightened they could barely breathe or eat or sleep, and I could no longer judge them– because I was one. It took me years to understand that one of the reasons why the thought of carrying my abuser’s baby frightened me beyond reason was that he was also my rapist.

And that’s when I understood that being pro-life and advocating for the rape exception was wrong.

Because, if I’d lived in a system where you have to prove you were raped? I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I didn’t even understand that I was raped– and, even if I had, that would have meant going through the excruciating, traumatic process of reporting him. All of that would have had to happen before I could have even called a clinic. And the thought of living in that world . . . it sickens me.  And when I first stumbled into the gray place, one of the first things I discovered was that, in 31 states, rapists can sue for custody of the child— and they frequently do this in order to get the woman to drop criminal charges. If she doesn’t take him to trial for raping her, he’ll surrender all legal rights to the baby.

My eyes were forced open, and the reality I’d been denying all my life came crashing in. None of what I’d been taught to believe was as clear-cut, as black-and-white, as it had been given to me. There were reasons– desperate, horrible reasons– for a woman to need to end her pregnancy. I understood that, had felt it in a way that now, when I try to remember what those weeks were like, I can barely breathe and all I want to do is cry.

I wandered deeper into the gray when I started reading the stories of women who had terminated for medical reasons. I had come into this place believing, with all my heart, that it was all right– even merciful– to terminate a pregnancy if it threatened the mother’s life. It never occurred to me how untenable that position was, or what it revealed about what I believed about unborn life. But these stories brought that piece of me into the harsh light: there was a sliver inside of me that already knew that an unborn fetus was not the same thing as a full-grown human being. I had accepted that, in this worse-case scenario, it is morally acceptable to terminate a pregnancy, and I had made that decision because I believed that a fetus did not have the same rights as a mother.

But I read stories, like this one, and my heart broke. Because these mothers didn’t see it that way. They wanted their precious babies, to cradle them in their arms and smell their skin and touch their fuzzy-soft hair. But they gave them up, valuing them as life unlived, because of a diagnoses that meant their child would live in constant, unending pain. And what I’d always believed– that God is in control, and he created that little baby with all its medical problems — that belief was crushed under their grief. And they didn’t decide to terminate their pregnancies because it would eventually result in their own death: they ended them because they loved their baby, and were trying to do the right thing, the best thing, for their child.

So I stepped further into the gray. I decided that I could no longer accept any of what the pro-life/anti-abortion movement wants to accomplish. They seek to reduce access to contraception– even though that raises the teen pregnancy and abortion rates. They believe that a rape exception would be all right– but living in that world would be heinous and terrifying. They want to ban any abortion after 20 weeks outright, with many laws having no exceptions for any medical reason.

In short, they want Ireland.

Ireland is a pro-life advocate’s dream.

But, Ireland is being forced to come to terms with the real-life consequences of its policies. Tania McCabe, pregnant with twins, died in 2007, because doctors could not legally terminate her pregnancy. Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 from sepsis, because the doctors had to wait until the fetus’ heart had stopped beating in order to perform the procedure. And, today, lawmakers in Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, North Carolina and others are pursuing the same type of legislation that killed these women.

So, I became politically pro-choice.

But, morally, I couldn’t bring myself to embrace it.

That changed when, after years of struggling, I turned to the Bible for answers– and what I found unraveled everything I believed.

Feminism

how I learned to stop worrying and love the Pill, part one

pill

When I was fourteen, I was diagnosed with Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). To cut a very long, and a very awkward, story short, hormonal birth control (also known as “the Pill”) is the only known treatment for it. It’s not a cure, but it works to mitigate the suffering for a lot of women who suffer with PCOS. But it’s the only treatment [edit: occasionally, blood sugar problems can be a part of PCOS, but not always, in my case it is not], because of how it works and what it does, but I’ll get to that in a bit tomorrow.

I had to start taking it at fourteen– the doctor said that if I wanted any chance of ever having children, I would need to take the Pill. And even then, she warned me, I’d probably still need to have a full-blown hysterectomy before I was thirty. If I didn’t take the Pill, everything would get continually worse and I’d need to have multiple surgeries just to keep it under control.

So, I went on the Pill, and I took it faithfully for the next three years. It got my hemorrhagic cysts under control, even though it continued to cause persistent nausea and daily headaches that could blow up into migraines at a moment’s notice.

I also didn’t tell anyone, not even my best friend, that I was taking it.

When I started college, I was faced with a pretty significant dilemma: how was I going to hide taking the Pill everyday from roommates and suite mates? My solution was to put the pills into a regular prescription bottle, but that only worked for about a month, until I got my prescription in the mail. Then I had to figure out ways to get the Pills into the bottle and then hide the packaging– it had my name all over it, so I couldn’t just throw it away anywhere. I got pretty creative, coming up with means to hide what it was.

The fact that I was worried about people finding out about me taking the Pill every day should tell you something. What in the world was I expecting them to think?

Well, for one thing, I was absolutely positive that if someone who didn’t know me very well found out about it, they’d just assume that I was a slut. And secondly, if the administration found out about it (which was not outside possibility, they cared an awful lot about intimate details concerning their students), if something happened, my character would automatically be in question. They’d be suspicious about me.

Because I had PCOS, and was taking the Pill to treat it.

But, I knew that having a “legitimate” medical reason for taking the Pill wasn’t going to change the way anyone had already decided to perceive me. If they found out I was taking it, I knew they would label me a slut, and there would be nothing I could do about it. I was on the Pill– it would be all the proof they needed.

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A whole bunch of years later, when I’d figured out that I didn’t give a damn about idiots who would judge me for taking the Pill, I was talking to a woman about some of the pain she’d been suffering. During the course of our conversation, I realized that she probably had PCOS, and when I asked her about it, she agreed– that’s what the doctor had diagnosed her with. For her, it had caused her to lose her job, and she’d been hospitalized several times because of cysts rupturing. The pain had caused her to miss church, to constrain her to her bed for days on end.

I asked her what the doctor had suggested for treatment, and her response was that he’d given her pain killers, but she was trying not to depend on them too much.

“You aren’t on any medication?”

“There’s not any real medication for this, though.”

“There’s the Pill,” I blurted out. “It can help.”

She stared at me, her eyes widening in horror. She leaned in close, and dropped her voice to a whisper, even though we were in my house and the only people around were friends. “You mean, the birth control pill?”

I nodded. “Yes. I’ve been on it for years.”

Again, silence, and her wild eyes boring into me. I watched her think about what I’d said, and I watched terror form. She was completely horrified by my suggestion. “Oh my goodness, no, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. That would just be so . . . wrong.”

It was my turn to be horrified.

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I should make it clear that this wasn’t in my fundamentalist church-cult. This was from a woman who had grown up in “regular” Christianity. There was nothing extreme about the religion she’d been surrounded by. It was all pretty typical, run-of-the-mill Baptist stuff. And she was still so horrified at the very idea of taking the Pill that she refused to even consider it as an option, even though it is the only medical recourse for her condition.

This is One of the Many Reasons why I have a Serious Problem with the Pro-Life Movement.

Because, and not to put too fine a point on it, they lie to people, especially women. They have spread so many lies for so many years that when a woman could take the Pill to treat a medical condition, she won’t, because the only thing she knows about the Pill is poppycock and hogwash.

So, I present a Crash Course in What the Pill is, For Realsies.

First, the Pill is a really limited concept of birth control. There are so many different kinds of birth control, including Natural Family Planning (NFP), barrier methods (condoms, sponges, vaginal condoms, diaphragms), vasectomy,  tubal litigation. For hormonal birth control, there’s oral contraception (the Pill), hormonal and copper IUDs (intrauterine device), Depo-Provera (the “shot”), OrthoEvra (the “patch”), and now things like the NuvaRing.

Some of these are long-term, like the shot or an IUD, lasting from a few months to a few years. The patch and the NuvaRing last for the month, usually. You leave it on or in, and take it off/out for a week to have your period. The Pill you have to take every day, which is a bit of a nuisance.

All of these methods work a little differently, but the one that the pro-life movement has spread the most lies about is hormonal birth control, so I’m going to focus on that tomorrow.