Grieving the best choice

Certain sectors of the pro-life blogosphere are spreading this sad story from Cornwall: Artist hanged herself after aborting her twins.

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.

0 thoughts on “Grieving the best choice

  1. 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!”

    That’s a gross caricature of how incentives work. No one needs a direct incentive to have sex or get married; those are natural human desires. What abortion and divorce do is remove the strongest disincentives to engage in reckless behavior. Does anyone seriously doubt that some people – millions is more like it – engage in careless unprotected sex because they know they can practice easy birth control after the fact? Or that some – half of all marriages is more like it – enter into marriages without carefully thinking things through, in no small part because they know they can easily ditch their “starter marriages” if things don’t work out?

    Nice to see that you’ve dropped any pretenses of being anti-abortion, though. The rest of us saw that when you opposed the parental notification initiative, which even many pro-choicers like me support (I’m unashamedly anti-choice on the issue of having the state help minors exercise their “right to choose” whether or not to evade parental authority).

  2. X, getting married is hardly a natural human desire. Heck, even the church teaches it exists to serve as a constraint on desire! (Better to marry than to burn with lust, as the dear Apostle says.)

    But yes, I have come to a more intellectually honest position on abortion.

  3. Hugo, what you wrote echoes exactly some of the conversations I’ve had as a counselor. (I take calls on an all-options post-abortion counseling line – all-options referring to the fact that the line identifies as neither pro-life not pro-choice; our position is pro-voice in that we want everyone to feel comfortable speaking their truth.)

    In volunteering on that line for over 3 years, and having worked on reproductive health beforehand, the one thing that I always try to express when talking with friends or family about abortion is that it is *never* anyone’s first choice – it’s always a choice made after looking at a bunch of options which are all painful in one way or another. I’m incredibly relieved that the discussion around this is opening up enough for people to be able to acknowledge that they are pro-choice *and* aware of the complex emotions that happen around abortion.

    I can understand why folks previously felt that they had to play down that aspect in order to secure legal access to abortion, but I think that refusing to acknowledge the emotional side of abortion (both the relief and the grief) prohibits meaningful conversations and reflection on the issue. I think that in allowing for this kind of complexity, we’re making sure that people feel able to still discuss their positions without feeling the danger of ‘betraying’ their politics or their emotions.

  4. “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…”

    But you seem to be intimating that the personhood of that two-week embryo is a mere bit of religious dogma requiring Evangelical faith, when in fact most science textbooks say precisely the same thing…

  5. The textbooks are clear that the two-week embryo is fully human, but personhood itself requires sentience, and that is not there yet.

    The reason I can support abortion rights while being a vegan rests on the notion of sentience and the capacity to feel pain. It is why later-term abortions do trouble me more than earlier ones.

  6. he 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.”

    This is lovely, and a great illustration of something I’ve been thinking about for awhile… How many pro-lifers, if faced with, say, their pregnant fifteen-year-old daughter, would actually have it in them to look her in the face and tell her carrying to term is the only moral option? I’m certain there are some, but, being as most people aren’t truly cruel (at least not to those they love), I don’t think it’s a majority.

    The story of the woman from Cornwall is terribly sad. The other half of reproductive justice, which doesn’t get enough attention, is making sure parenthood is a real option.

  7. Hugo-
    “Sentience” refers to an ability to sense something. I would respectfully suggest that you might be confusing “sentience” with “sapience.”

  8. Are the best choices we could give that girl either a) get killed by your parents, b) ruin your life, or c) kill your baby — and oh, by the way, at some time in the future, help someone else kill their baby in the same fracked-up situation — that’s the best we can do?

    That’s not a choice.

    BTW: While “sentience” is not technically correct, thanks to Star Trek and other SF, it’s an accepted usage. I could argue “sapience” is incorrect, too, and some neurologists would argue about “self-awareness” — while others might argue it doesn’t exist.

    Detecting “self-awareness” is extremely problematic. Hugo, if you think “self-awareness” is the criteria…you don’t know the field very well. I’m pretty sure our desktop computers don’t have some minimal sense of “self-awareness.” But I’m not 100% sure, and neither is anyone else.

    Here’s $200 to have your chinni anesthetized and then torn apart. I’m sorry, Hugo, but that’s what I’m hearing.

    Xrlq –

    I know at least one young woman forced into an abortion because of an accidental parental notification. As a paramedic, I kept a young mother alive after her parent attempted to kill her after being “parentally notified.” The baby died there, too.

    In my book, your support of parental notification makes you “pro-death.”

  9. Pingback: One Utah » Blog Archive » Grief and Relief

  10. Xrlq, I take it that you are firmly against the existence of the judicial bypass, which allows minors to circumvent notifying their parents of an abortion?

    I guess the hand-waving crowd wants us to believe that if only it was legal to murder abortion providers, and if this woman had to travel to another country to obtain an abortion, that she would have had her babies and lived happily ever after.

  11. Re: sentience.

    I’m heavily influenced by Gary Francione’s use of the term; Francione is a professor of philosophy and law at Rutgers and a strong voice for animal rights. The Wikipedia article on him is pretty good.

  12. “In my book, your support of parental notification makes you “pro-death.”

    C’mon – that is a cheap shot! Generally, parental notification clauses allow for a judicial bypass under some circumstances. I see no justification for performing abortions on 13 year olds without parental consent when you can lose your dental license if you fill a cavity without that consent.

  13. davev: I don’t know Hugo’s specific views, but there are vegetarians who would draw the line at “sentience” in the original sense of “able to sense,” specifically the ability to sense pain. Others require some degree of ability to form counterfactual preferences, or full self-awareness.

  14. You would not necessarily have a 22-year-old in your life Hugo. I was adopted and thank God every day that my parents did not opt for abortion.

    I also have friends right now (2 couples) who are patiently waiting to adopt. They cannot conceive (both medically necessary hysterectomies (sp)) and desperately want a child. The wait has been pretty long.

    Why is this choice coveniently left out of so many of these conversations regarding being pro-choice?

    This is what made Juno such a great flick. The “other” choice was actually in the spotlight.

  15. Chad, my first instinct in that painful strange spring of 1985, when I was about to turn eighteen and my girlfriend was a year younger, was to ask her to put the child up for adoption. But it was not my choice to make, and ought not to have been; my body would never swell, I would never be the subject of nasty gossip, and so forth.

    Adoption is one choice, and a fine choice, but one that comes with far greater costs than the deeply affecting (but decidedly rose-colored) vision painted in “Juno.” I honor those who freely give of themselves in this way, but there’s a colossal distinction between honoring it as one option among many and privileging it as the “best” one.

  16. Chad, adoption can be just as difficult — physically and emotionally — as abortion. Pregnancy and delivery put a lot of stress on a woman’s body — after a dozen pregnancies (that’s not hyperbole), the devoutly Catholic grandmother of a good friend went on the pill because the last few nearly killed her, and another definitely would. If there was a pregnancy in this or similar situations, adoption really wouldn’t be an option, because the pregnancy itself really wouldn’t be an option.

    Also, opponents of abortion (and some feminist critics of surrogate motherhood) sometimes argue that an emotional bond forms between a pregnant woman and the foetus she is carrying. Assuming this bond is real, then adoption could be almost as traumatic as a stillbirth or miscarriage. In this case, an aborting the pregnancy early on, well before such a bond can form, might be the better option.

    Of course, I don’t want to argue that adoption is a bad idea. I just want to resist the oversimplifying assumption of many opponents of abortion — that, while abortion is a `hard choice’, adoption is the `easy choice’.

  17. That said, I can appreciate your stance with the girl you talk about in this entry. Walking through the myriad possibilities and repercussions was the right thing to do.

    I just think that often abortion is the “easy” way out (understanding fully that it is far from an easy decision – I have been on the “counseling” side of this as well with a teenager who entrusted me to help her through it…and in the end she also opted for abortion) but all too often the push from society and worry about parent’s reactions and so on push one to simply terminate and then sweep it under the rug (that was this girl’s thought processes in the end).

    I would argue that carrying the baby to full term and then giving it up is far harder than deciding for the abortion. I would also argue that in the end the abortion is far more damaging to the soul, at least in the vast majority of cases.

    Believe it or not, I do consider myself pro-choice…I believe God gifted us with freedom of choice and that we have to have those choices available to us to fully realize the blessings that come from those choices. I just happen to believe that in the majority of cases, abortion is the wrong choice.

  18. I agree with you, Chad. At the moment, I am not sure what to call myself. I am not ready – and perhaps never will be ready – to call myself pro-choice. I personally could never get an abortion, nor could I support someone financially who wanted one. Of course, I disagree with the pro-life crowd on a lot of issues related to abortion as well, but that’s another topic entirely.

    I hear there’s a new movie out about abortion. It’s in independent theaters. I am not sure what the title is, but I hear that it’s pro-life.

  19. I guess my biggest thing is I am deeply afraid of the extremes of anything like this (like extreme left and right in politics too). The pro-lifers I cannot really relate to, even though I feel personally that it is the only viable choice, because they are so fanatical about “no abortion, no how, no way” regardless of the cost to the mother or the mother’s decision to do what she wants with her body.

    At the same time, the extreme of the other side almost pushes for “do what you want with no thought to the consequences…the best birth control is simply abort the baby.” I think there is a big part of personal accountability before God and ourselves that leaves out being responsible for the choices that lead to pregnancy to begin with.

    I am middle of the road on the issue as a whole. I agree that neither option is wonderful and always right in and of itself, but I guess if there is any fence-sitting involved I would fall off on the side of adoption. Maybe it is my own experience, but I cannot say with a clear conscience that “it would be better to have a mill-stone tied about your neck and be dropped into the sea than you should harm one of these little ones” does not influence my thinking as well.

    I wish there were an easy answer.

  20. Chad, a point that I feel is important, but is small in the particular context of your last comment: You don’t like the `extreme’ of the pro-choice that thinks that `the best birth control is simply abort the baby’. I don’t know (personally) any feminist that think this, and I can’t think of a feminist in the public square that has said something to this effect. Every feminist I know realises that abortion is painful, inconvenient, and often traumatic. That’s a big part of why every feminist I know — including several devout Catholics, and even one who is opposed to abortion — is a strong supporter of contraception.

  21. I really, really want to find out where people seem to think that “pro-choice” means “abortion is happy and fun”. Nobody on the pro-choice side wants a lot of abortions, but they don’t want them because they don’t want “unwanted pregnancy”. Abortion isn’t a great option, but then again, neither is open-heart surgery.

  22. understanding fully that it is far from an easy decision

    Yet you paint it as an “easy” choice anyway, and pretend that the choice pushed on women is abortion, not adoption, as if women aren’t told “you can just give it up for adoption”? And bringing up your friends with fertility issues doesn’t really make it sound as though you are all that concerned about the woman facing the choice. She’s not merely a brood mare for couples who can’t have babies, you know.

  23. “The textbooks are clear that the two-week embryo is fully human, but personhood itself requires sentience, and that is not there yet.”

    I will clarify that the textbooks are not only clear that the two-week embryo is human, but also that (s)he is A human. And while I’ve seen some people attempt to create some sort of distinction between “human being” and “person,” I opt to lean towards science and use the terms interchangeably.

    “The reason I can support abortion rights while being a vegan rests on the notion of sentience and the capacity to feel pain. It is why later-term abortions do trouble me more than earlier ones.”

    Careful, speaking too much about “sentience” will turn you into Peter Singer, who, as well all know, is a lunatic who supports infanticide. If I see an ant walking across the floor, I could simply step on him/her and (s)he would die instantly, hardly suffering at all. So do I do it? Of course not, because, suffering pain or otherwise, that ant has a life that possesses value. As for our species, we are human beings long before we possess the ability to feel pain.

    “That’s a big part of why every feminist I know — including several devout Catholics, and even one who is opposed to abortion — is a strong supporter of contraception.”

    What is your definition of “support”? I don’t know anyone who is in favor of making contraceptives illegal — provided that they are true contraceptives, rather than abortafacient agents. But that doesn’t mean that everybody thinks that using artificial methods of birth control is always the best course of action, or that the “contraceptive mentality” that a child is equivalent to a venereal disease (to be prevented at all costs!) is at all healthy. I believe that abortion gained such a foothold (to the chagrin of both pro-lifers and some pro-choicers) because this contraceptive mentality was already so popular. Mind you, this is not to condemn everyone who uses contraceptives, but those who eschew them aren’t backward-thinking, either.