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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

ordeal of the bitter waters, part one

mother and baby

trigger warning for rape and abortion

My heart was in my throat, my fingers floating over the refresh button on my twitter feed. I was curled up under a gigantic down-alternative comforter, huddled under the half-tent I’d made on the floor of my bathroom. Hours went by as I watched what was happening– the strikes, the interruptions. In the last few minutes I joined with thousands of other voices shouting and screaming, a cacophonous din stretching over the internet, across twitter mentions and live feeds. Together, we watched the underhanded attempt at deceiving an entire country of watching people.

The next day, we celebrated. We declared “We Do Not Sit.” We’d spent the night standing. It didn’t matter that we all knew what would happen, that all of that would swiftly be overturned, and the voices screaming into the night would be silenced. We’d stood. For that single day, it was . . . almost enough.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m pro-abortion. Pro-reproductive rights. Pro-choice.

This is not something I’m revealing flippantly. I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to even write this series for weeks now. I started writing about these ideas back in February. I took the time to explain my stance toward hormonal birth control. I’ve believed, for a long time now, that the most common rhetoric of the pro-life/anti-abortion movement is at best misleading, but that most of the information commonly available to pro-life individuals is, much of the time, outright deceptions.

This isn’t a recent development. It started over four years ago, now. It started when I was raped. It started when I realized I was over two weeks late. It started the day I called the Crisis Pregnancy Center, frightened and desperate, and the woman on the phone implied that I was a slut and I deserved whatever happened to me. It started when I called Planned Parenthood, and she said the words “whatever you decide you want to do, we will help you get there.” She told me about helping me apply for assistance and aid, about adoption, about my optionsall of my options. And I realized that at least part of what I’d always believed had been a lie.

Over the next few years, my views began developing. My perspective developed nuance. I accepted the confusion I felt about all these ideas as something I would struggle with; I decided I could live with the tension, the uncomfortable gray.

But, even through all of these subtle changes, I remained staunchly pro-life. I began thinking that maybe it wasn’t my place to campaign against what another woman wanted to do, but for me– well, I couldn’t budge on that. I believed that a zygote was a baby, and removing it was murder. I even joined the pro-life advocacy group on my grad school’s campus. I became friends with other pro-life activists.

And then, one day, someone asked me if I could drive them to Richmond so they could sit outside the abortion clinic.

I squirmed. “I . . . I’m sorry. I can’t.”

She nodded affably. “Too much work that weekend?”

Do I say anything? Do I just let her think that? That would be the easiest thing. “Actually . . . I don’t really agree with that.”

“With what?” She stopped, turned to face me, her stance becoming aggressive.

“With sitting outside the abortion clinic. Oh, I know you don’t do anything crazy,” I rushed to add. “But I’m not comfortable with the whole thing.”

“Oh.”

She defriended me on facebook. When I saw her around campus, she wouldn’t look me in the eye.

Later, in the private facebook group, the principle leader called one of the women he’d seen going into the clinic on Saturday a misogynistic slur. I called him on it– and was immediately and viciously attacked.

I left the facebook group. I stopped participating in any of their events.

I stopped calling myself pro-life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At this point, I started reading everything I could get my hands on — in dead earnest. I started reading Natural Family Planing blogs– so many now, everything I learned about NFP and all the various methods is one gigantic tangle I still can’t quite sort out. I learned about a completely different approach to being pro-life– a way of seeing procreation as something beautiful and sacred. I began appreciating the earnestness in the dedication of these men and women, who saw a part of the divine in the act itself.

I read about women who were feminist and pro-life, who argued from an interesting perspective on history– and even though I couldn’t quite bring myself to validate their arguments, I liked that they defied the “norm” I’d been taught my entire life: that all feminists are selfish baby-killers.

And I started researching what it meant to be truly pro-life. I asked myself what it would look like if the pro-life movement were actually life-affirming. Would that look like pacifism? Could you claim to believe in the sacredness and dignity of all human life and allow the death penalty? Could you advocate for the rights of the unborn while completely ignoring the desperate needs of the born? What would it look like to bring balance to these issues? I started finding whole organizations who were dedicated to advocating for federally-mandated maternity leave, for legal protections for pregnant women and working mothers. I found people trying to educate others on what women who also want to be mothers face in our world today– realistically, not just the cozy, rose-gold suburban middle-class vision I’d been handed as a child.

I saw people asking the question: how can we help mothers when so many of them are the sole provider? What can we do to make sure their children are clothed, and fed, and healthy, and educated?

All of it made me hopeful.

But then, one day, I read Numbers 5.

And everything fell apart.

Feminism

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

pill

Put in incredibly simple terms, hormonal birth control works thusly:

Step 1 : it prevents ovulation.

“Ovulation,” for the uninitiated, is when a mature egg is released from the ovary and become available for fertilization. “Prevents,” in this case, does not mean that the pill stops the egg from peaking its little head out of the ovary. It prevents because no egg develops to maturity. Simply put, there is no egg to come out of the ovary in the first place. This is one of the most important parts about hormonal birth control options, and something no one seems to pay attention to.

This is also the most important part for me. PCOS means that I get too many cysts developing at the same time, or they never stop developing, and I never experience a menstrual cycle. Ovarian cysts are normal– an ovarian cyst is where the egg matures. Hormonal birth control works to treat PCOS because it does not allow ovarian cysts to develop. An additional part of this process is that even if an ovarian cyst develops, there’s another chemical block in place that stops an egg from forming inside of it.

No ovarian cyst, no egg, nothing mature enough to be fertilized.

But, in the exceedingly rare case (if it wasn’t rare, it would be useless as a treatment for PCOS) where there is a cyst and an egg is developed, we move on to–

Step 2:  eliminate the possibility of fertilization

This is pretty straightforward, and it comes in two steps. The progesterone in hormonal birth control options thickens the cervical mucus– makes it insanely more difficult for the sperm to reach the egg, which is already difficult– and it makes the egg harder to fertilize. So, even if a cyst develops, and if an egg develops inside of the cyst, and IF the sperm makes it up through the thickened mucus and all the way up the fallopian tube, when it reaches the egg, it’s going to have a hard time fertilizing it.

At this point in the process, the possibility of an egg being fertilized is so vanishingly small it’s not even really worth talking about, but I’m a-gonna, because it’s where the pro-life movement starts lying their little tooshies off.

“Supposed” Step 3: prevent implantation

At this point, the egg is a zygote, which is just the technical term for “fertilized egg.” For a lot of people this is where “conception” happens (which, problems), so this is where people start thinking that hormonal birth control is Just the Most Evil Thing those Evil Doctors have Ever Invented.

The most frequent term you’ll find in information about how this works is that the uterine wall is “hostile” for the egg. This is a misnomer. The uterine wall is exactly the same as it ever was, just  thinner (hence, lighter periods). There’s no study that shows that the uterus becomes “hostile”– in fact, the scientific studies show that hormonal birth control options do not alter the uterine lining in any significant way except for making it slightly thinner, and are incapable of contributing to zygote failure (which I’ll explain).

This is the part where the pro-life movement lies. Because, at this point, they claim that this where the Pill murders babies. Literally starves them to death. Because it takes a baby (zygote), and then refuses it the opportunity to grow. It never grows, the woman’s body never receives the signal that she’s pregnant, and then the uterus expels the zygote and the uterine lining: therefore, MURDER.

Ok, folks, this is where I have All the Problems.

Let’s talk about the zygote, the supposed “great red herring” of the pro-choice movement.

The zygote is a single-celled organism, which through mitosis goes through stages (blastocyst, then embryo). Over fourteen days, it has to develop into an embryo, and the embryo has to develop the conceptus in order to attach to the uterine lining. The uterine lining, at this point, must transform from the decidua to the placenta.

Hormonal birth control methods are incapable of terminating a viable pregnancy. They are designed, in an unbelievable number of unnecessary steps, to prevent fertilization from ever occurring. Not by turning the uterus into a baby-killing machine. That’s patently false, and a bald-faced lie. If a woman’s body develops an egg, the uterine lining is unchanged. If there aren’t enough of the synthetic hormones present to prevent ovulation, there’s not enough of the hormones present to affect the uterine lining. If there’s no egg, then the uterine lining is thinner, possibly, and that’s the only real difference.

It’s a complete misunderstanding that in the case of supposed “breakthrough ovulation” that the uterine lining is still thinner. It’s not.

Here’s what the pro-life movement also refused to discuss:

All the medical studies I could scrounge up reveal that 60, 70, maybe 80% of all zygotes fail to implant on the uterine wall, when the woman is trying to conceive and is not on hormonal birth control.

Let me say that again: as many as 80% of all “babies” never implant in the uterus completely on their own.

For those that do manage to make it, another 30% don’t survive the first few weeks.

Let’s do the math again: 72% to 86% of all zygotes, which the pro-life movement refers to as babies,diewithout any outside interference whatsoever. When a woman is not on the Pill, zygotes fail.

When a woman is on the Pill, there’s rarely ever a zygote, and when there is one, it faces the exact same rate of zygote failure as a woman who isn’t on the Pill. The upside? When a woman is using hormonal birth control, there are less zygotes. Somewhere in the ballpark of 98% less zygotes.

Let me make this more clear: if zygote failure is “murder,” and hormonal birth control options drastically reduces the number of zygotes, the number of failed zygotes (i.e.: “murder”) is also drastically reduced.

Tell me again how the Pill is evil?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Edit*

I wanted to include some information I have that might clarify my basic argument in this post: that hormonal birth control options don’t interfere with implantation. I’ve already made it clear that hormonal birth control doesn’t make the uterus as “hostile” place for the zygote, but I thought it might be helpful to explain why, biologically, this is so.

A menstrual cycle is just that: a cycle. It goes through three steps, or stages. The first is the follicular phase, where the uterine lining is thin. Thin, in the same sense that it is thin while a woman is on hormonal birth control. It is not capable of of allowing the conceptus to attach.

However, part of the ovulation phase is that ovulation releases a trigger for the uterus to begin the luteal phase, where the lining becomes thicker and the conceptus is able to attach.

If a woman on the Pill ovulates, this releases the hormonal trigger, and the uterine lining thickens because it enters the luteal phase. If she does not ovulate, the uterus does not receive the trigger, and the uterine lining remains exactly the same as it ever was.

You can read about this on wiki. Seriously.

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

Feminism

I was pro-life until I need an abortion, part 2

I rarely think of that week, now. For years afterwards I tried not to think of it at all– the guilt and shame I carried were debilitating when I let myself dwell on it. I had been so close to crossing an absolute line– the line, the only line that really mattered to most of the people I knew. Before, there was always the comfort of comparison– at least I wouldn’t do that, I could tell myself.

Not anymore.

I would do that, and I had made my decision in a little less than twenty-four hours, not even knowing if I was pregnant. Sometimes I ask myself if I would really have gone through with it– maybe, if I’d known . . . if it hadn’t been some unsettling fear of the unknown driving me to desperation . . .

One thing has been clear since then: my “beliefs” about pro-life weren’t as cut and dried as they were. They couldn’t be.

When I was in highschool, I once argued in favor of mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds for women considering abortions. I defended a position I now see as a disgusting, hideous form of legal rape. When I think back to that blind teenager who had no idea what she would someday be facing, I shudder– and I feel pity for her– and I feel envious of her. To her, the world was so simple, so clear, so black and white.

Learning that it is a messy, complicated place has been a difficult process, but I’m glad for it.

I don’t even have a name for where I stand in the pro-life/pro-choice debacle.

But, for political clarity, I’m pro-choice.

I’m pro-choice because I believe that the goals of the pro-choice platform align better with what I could describe as pro-life-ish beliefs. I believe that lowering the abortion rate is the right thing to do– for the health of women, because medical and surgical abortions carry risks, like any other medical procedure. The American abortion rate is double that of any other first-world nation, and I find that troubling.

I believe that making birth control methods freely available to the women who need them–the women who are statistically more likely to have an abortion and are also the women who, statistically, don’t have as much access to birth control–should be a priority. I also believe that the rhetoric surrounding birth control in many pro-life circles is … well, asinine, idiotic, misinformed, deceptive, and ridiculous–to be blunt. The Pill isn’t a “Baby Killer,” as I’ve heard it called– it actually lowers the rate of zygote passage, which a woman’s body does naturally, by the way.

I believe that teenagers should have access to real sex education– a sex education that is focused on delivering all of the facts while focusing on giving young men and women a informed idea of sexual health, and a healthy environment to discuss a holistic approach sexuality– including that, girls, you have a right to say no, ALWAYS, and you also have the right to experience pleasure. And boys, grabbing a girl’s vagina through her pants isn’t funny– it’s a violation.

And I believe that it would be horrific to reverse Roe vs. Wade, or to outlaw abortion federally, simply because that just makes abortions more dangerous, more fatal, to the women seeking them.

I also believe that it is a very, very bad idea to require a woman to have “permission” from the father. A young man I was speaking to, recently, brought up this point. He felt that it “takes two to make one,” and as the father of the baby he should have a “right” to decide whether or not the fetus is terminated. He feels that the current laws paint men as “assholes” that “don’t care” about the possible outcomes of having sex, that men are irresponsible jerks. I understand his feelings, and I get how he can feel that way . . . but that idea, which I’ve heard discussed plenty of times, misses the point.

The laws aren’t there to make men seem irresponsible– they are there to protect women. To protect young girls, like me, who face possible beatings, or possibly death, at the hands of their abuser. They protect women from having to go through the ordeal of proving their abuser a rapist in order to have the right to make decisions concerning her own body– which may or may not even happen.

The “rape exception,” that a lot of pro-life people talk about, is clouded by a lot of misinformation in pro-life circles. There’s an impression that rape is rare, when it is not rare at all, and that pregnancy from rape is also rare, which it is not. This murkiness is in part due to what Mr. Akin called “legitimate rape”– a rape that is so horrific, so violent, so clearly and obviously rape that it can’t be questioned. When, in fact, most rape is not that way. Most rape may not even “look” like rape at all to a fundamentalist– it will look like a sexual encounter where the woman is clearly responsible for leading that poor man on.

Ick.

I’m confused why so many in the pro-life campaign refuse to consider any realistic method the could actually lower the abortion rate– unless their goal isn’t to lower the abortion rate, but to control women, especially to control a woman’s sex organs, which it absolutely is.

I will be gathering links and source material over the next few days, and I will continue to post it here, but, for now, here is Libby Anne’s amazing article on how she became pro-choice.

Photo by Greta
Feminism

I was pro-life until I needed an abortion, part 1

I counted.

I counted again, more slowly, sounding the numbers out under my breath, tracing my finger over the boxes in the calendar.

I’d never thought to keep careful track of this, but I was becoming more and more sure by the second. Each breath I couldn’t inhale without pain crushing my ribs, each ticking heartbeat I could feel fluttering in my fingertips, each swallow I could barely get past my tightening throat told me the truth.

I was late.

Oh God, oh God oh God ohGodohGodohGodohGod.

No. This . . .

This wasn’t happening. This could not be happening.

I looked in the mirror, but the woman I saw sobbing, silently, wasn’t me. This wasn’t happening to me.

~~~~~~~~~~

To this day, I have never felt  terror like that. Not when John* was raping me for the second time, not when he hit me, not when he left me two months before the wedding heartbroken and destroyed. I’ve been frightened, scared, nervous, anxious. I’ve had numerous panic attacks, but nothing, nothing, compares to the absolute terror I felt when I thought I might be pregnant. I was late, and I’d been fairly regular for over a year. John had attacked me a few weeks before that, and I knew enough to know what that could biologically mean.

In that time, I felt like a ghost . . . or a shell. I had already become what I now describe as a “non-person” inside of my head– I had given up any rights I had to my identity; I had sacrificed my very being on the altar of my relationship with John. But that week . . . that week was hell on earth. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t even go get a pregnancy test to know for sure, because there was no way to hide that from my parents. I felt trapped in a too-small cage, with no way out. In brief snatches of clarity I knew that my parents wouldn’t disown me if they found out, but I also knew what they, and what I would be facing.

I’d be an outcast– forever. There would be no coming back from being the Unwed Mother– for me, or for my parents. My college had strict rules about “this sort of thing,” and I knew they wouldn’t let me come back and finish my degree. I’d have to start over, and starting over at a different college meant starting from scratch since my college wasn’t accredited. Plus, where was I supposed to get the money for that? No, any dreams I had for a college education would be over.

I knew there were Crisis Pregnancy Centers I could go to– I could decide to take the baby to term and then give him up for adoption . . . but that meant John would know.

That, more than any other thought scared me more than anything else. What if his crazy, insane parents got involved and decided they wanted it? What if he felt that he had to do the “honorable thing” and marry me, right away, in some Hodge-podge shotgun wedding? I’d be married, to him, and I had no concept of divorce, especially with a child involved. Having a baby would mean being attached to John for the rest of my life.

After I’d been late for another five days, I googled Planned Parenthood.

At that point, I knew what I would do. If I was pregnant, I knew I had about seven weeks to make it into a clinic and ask for the abortion pill. I would tell one friend just to make sure in case I got sick, and . . . that would be the end of it. No one else would ever have to know, except me. As for me . . . even knowing everything I did about abortion, even knowing that I would be a murderer, I would still do it.

For the first time the phrase “There is always a choice. You always have a choice,” was laughable. Ridiculous. And wholly untrue. Not for me.

~~~~~~~~~~

Six days later, I rushed to the bathroom, breathless. Could it– I saw the bright crimson evidence, and felt everything drain out of my body, all at once. I sank to the floor, staring at the stain in my panties. I couldn’t breathe, because I knew if I started breathing I’d start sobbing, and I could not even begin to come up with a way to explain that to my parents. I stared at the spot, and the bloody tissue in my hand, until those two blotches of red were all I could see.

In that moment, I couldn’t even thank God, because God knew what I had been ready to do, and he would never forgive me for it.