Carol Platt Liebau, a card-carrying member of the “the exposure of thong underwear by teenage girls is a sign of the Apocalypse” wing of the American right, writes:
When pro-choices (sic) discuss how many women die with “back alley abortions,” somehow deaths like these never seem to be counted.
Gosh, possibly because they fall into two separate categories?
With one or two exceptions, virtually every thoughtful voice for reproductive options understands that in some cases, abortion can have a significant emotional impact on the women who choose it. I am well aware from my own experience that the men who helped conceive that which was aborted can, on occasion, feel very real grief. (It is February; had my high-school girlfriend and I not chosen an abortion, I would have a twenty-two year-old celebrating his or her birthday this month. I think of that often). It simply isn’t true that the majority of what Liebau calls “pro-choices” don’t acknowledge that pain, sadness, and depression can follow an abortion. (We also point out that pain, sadness, and depression can follow the birth of a child, too. Post-partum depression in mothers is very real, and the religious right would likely not wish to employ it as an argument against human reproduction.)
We can experience real grief over a choice we’ve made while being immensely grateful to have had that choice in the first place. Divorce is, in this instance, similar to abortion. No one has sex saying “Gosh, I hope I get pregnant so I can find out what an abortion is like!” No one gets married saying, “Oooh, I can’t wait to go through the heartbreak of dividing up the Christmas ornaments and deciding who keeps the dog!” In my all-too-abundant experience, divorce proved to be the least-worst option in my first three marriages. It was not an option exercised with joy, but with a strange mix of deep sadness and immense relief.
These two emotions, relief and grief, often go together. (Think of how most of us feel when someone we love dies after a long and painful illness.) It is a shameless, not to mention psychologically unsound, tactic of the pro-life movement to argue against choice by suggesting that post-termination grief is ipso facto evidence that having the choice to abort is wrong.
I’m prayerfully back in the fold of the pro-choice movement. I’ve quietly started giving to Planned Parenthood again. My five-year sojourn in the pro-life world (from about 2000-2005) is at last fully over. The mystery of when life begins is not fully resolved for me, and I am increasingly comfortable with that. When I was younger, I was convinced that in the first trimester or so, a fetus was nothing more than a bunch of cells, potential rather than actual life. When I was in the full throes of evangelical enthusiasm, I was equally certain that life began at conception, that a two-week old embryo was as much a human person as the woman in whose body it grew. Francis Bacon pointed out that when you begin with certainties, you end in doubts — and though I have not yet ended all my thinking on abortion, I am increasingly comfortable living with doubt and prayerful uncertainty.
My journey back to the pro-choice side was, in the end, triggered by stark reality. A few years ago, a girl in my high school youth group at All Saints quietly approached me. We’d been close since her frosh year of high school; she was now a junior. She was also just over three months pregnant, and had told no one except for a handful of girlfriends. She was scared and desperate; her relationship with her parents was not good enough for her to tell them. (I knew her parents, and though teens sometimes underestimate their mothers and fathers, in this case, the gal was absolutely right to withhold this from them.) After weighing giving the future child up for adoption, she had finally decided on abortion. Since she had waited until her second trimester (not uncommon), a surgical termination would be necessary.
I gave my youth-grouper a couple of hundred dollars towards the cost of the procedure; she and her friends scrounged up the remainder on their own. I didn’t discuss the issue with anyone else. California law, thank heavens, protects the privacy of teens in these matters (and the voters of this good state wisely chose to uphold that right in two successive elections). I’m glad that this teen — with whom I am still good friends, though she’s long since off to college — trusted me. I’m glad that she had the option she did.
She was terrified when she told me. She wasn’t the first youngster with whom I’ve worked to tell me about an unplanned pregnancy, but she was the first since I had “gone over” to the pro-life side. But looking at this sixteen year-old, I knew in an instant I couldn’t give her a speech about the “sanctity of life”. I knew to do so would be cruel and manipulative; it would be to break the sacred trust that she had placed in me. My arguments for adoption went out the window in a heartbeat. The words that came were the right ones: “I’m here for you, and will walk through this with you.” She and I are still in touch today. When last we spoke, the subject of the abortion came up, and she said she still thought about it sometimes, but it already seemed “long ago, like another lifetime.” She joked with me that she was now “captain condom”, but beyond a tenacious insistence on contraception, had changed little as a result of what she had gone through.
She did offer to pay me back the $200 I had contributed towards the abortion. I refused it, but told her the debt ought still be paid. Someday, I told her, she would surely meet some younger woman in a similar situation. She could pay it back then.
I am sad for this woman in Cornwall who took her own life. But I know that sadness is frequently the result of having made difficult decisions. The answer to post-abortion depression — which clearly in some instances is real — is not to ban abortion. The answer is to do a better job of offering holistic care to those who go through it, honoring the reality that in this fallen world of ours, what is best often doesn’t feel very good.