A friend, noting my past opposition to laws that would require teen girls to notify their parents before having an abortion, asked if my views had changed since Heloise was born. He’s not the only person to assume that becoming a father to a daughter would shift my views. And his assumption was that I would want my daughter to be forced to tell me (or her mother) if she became pregnant and wanted to terminate that pregnancy.
I gave him a one-word answer: no.
I’ve been pro-choice for almost all of my life, save for a brief period (from 2000-2004) during which I flirted with the “consistent life ethic”. When I was under the influence of the Mennonites, with whom I worshipped for a few years, my pacifism became so strong that it included opposition to abortion as well as to capital punishment, war, and factory farming. What seemed congruent with the spirit of Jesus, however, was really just a longing for a kind of perfect consistency. And my opposition to legalized abortion foundered on the rocks of hard reality.
When one of the 16 year-olds in my youth group came to me for help with an unintended pregnancy, I realized that in my gut, I had never for a moment stopped believing in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. I helped pay (quietly) for that young woman’s abortion. And her parents, whom I knew well, were never told. My youth grouper wasn’t ready to have that conversation; all I could do was offer to be present when she told them. She was adamant that she couldn’t tell them (for a while, I was the only adult who knew), and I didn’t push any further.
I’ve written about that before. And now that I have a daughter, a daughter whom I love with an intensity that takes my breath away, have my views changed? What if Heloise Cerys Raquel were pregnant at 16? Would I want her to come to me? Of course. But if she couldn’t come to me, for whatever reason, I would not want the state to compel her to do so. I would hope that she would find someone like, well, me — a teacher or a youth leader whose counsel she trusted. I would hope that if she chose abortion, that she would have easy access to a skilled medical provider — and to friends to support her through the process.
Growing up, I heard a joke that sounded as if it had the whiff of common sense behind it:
Q: What’s the definition of a conservative?
A: A liberal with a teenage daughter.
It was sexist, of course, but also captured conventional thinking about the way in which anxiety about adolescent sexuality is “supposed” to turn otherwise progressive parents into anxious reactionaries.
Heloise is not a teen. She’s fourteen months old. But I can see in her the woman she will someday become. I am fiercely protective of her as my vulnerable child. I know that she will, gradually, grow less and less vulnerable. When she came into this world, she bequeathed to her parents the guardianship of her autonomy. Because as a newborn, she could do nothing for herself, we were of necessity sovereign over her. But already, my little girl (who is now toddling about) is asserting her will. When it’s bathtime, she wants to pull off her own pants, or pull her dress over her own head. She’s making heroic efforts to feed herself with a spoon (these are efforts, mind you, not yet successes.) And the early stages of toilet-training are going well.
Heloise is, to put it simply, already reclaiming what is rightfully hers. Soon she will feed and dress herself; soon she will walk off to school; soon she will begin to take her parents’ vision of the world and test it against her own experiences and the messages she gets from her own soul. Our love for her will grow even as we slowly, sometimes anxiously, relinquish back to her the agency that is her birthright. And by the time she is a teen, though she will have been on the receiving end of some first-rate sexual education, she will be making her own choices. We will counsel, we will advise, and we will surrender her to the God who made her. We know that God will speak to her most clearly not through our voices, but through the still, small voice that she will find inside of herself. There will be worry, no doubt, for her parents. That’s part of the job. But our fears will not trump her rights for long.
As the husband of a woman whom I watched give birth, as the father of a daughter whose umbilical cord I cut with awe, I am a thousand times more pro-choice today than I was before I watched the sonograms and held a tiny infant in my arms. And I will fight with every fiber of my being for the right of women like my wife, and girls like my daughter, to remain safe. And safety requires that to the greatest extent possible, they remain sovereign over their choices, their bodies, their lives.