At the age of 20, I became pregnant. I was just beginning my senior year of college at a Catholic university not far from my home. The baby's father was a student there as well; we had met at a Halloween party the previous fall. I had been raised with the "Catholic values" that spelled sexual morality out quite clearly: Don't have sex outside of marriage. Don't have an abortion.
I wasn't taught these things overtly as much as they simply seemed to exist; they were just there and they were true, like gravity or the earth's roundness. I didn't consider abandoning either belief in my younger days, as they didn't apply to me. But then I was a college student. Many students, then and now, experience college as a path to an exciting future. For me, it felt more like a path I could use for running away. My home life was unpleasant. I was a sensitive girl, and my father's drinking and the atmosphere of anger and fear was taking a toll. I reacted as many do; I coped by drinking and looking for places where anger and fear hid in the shadows where they belonged. I wanted a "family" that was fun. I found one in a group of friends; not necessarily a consistent group, but one composed of peers who came and went, young men and women like me, who were raised with certain values, but finding them too difficult or too painful to live up to.
As in all groups, there were values to live up to, a code of sorts. The code included sex, of course. Young women of a certain age were expected to have lost their virginity. (We all know a similar standard exists for young men.) At 19, I was well past the expiration date. So when a nice boy seemed to like me (he really was just a boy, and I just a girl) it seemed right that I should meet our "family" expectations. Birth control was not something most of us took seriously. It should not have come as a surprise to me when I found out, officially in mid-December when my mother took me to the family doctor after I threw up one morning, that I was expecting a baby.
I'm not sure if I was surprised, but I can name many emotions that I felt: sheer terror, complete horror, and the deepest, deepest shame imaginable. After all, I was a "good girl." I had spent most of my life earning excellent grades, being honored with awards, offending no one, and going to Church every Sunday. But none of that mattered now. I was pregnant. My life was over. No matter what I did next -- if I lost my baby, had an abortion, gave birth and gave him or her away, chose to raise him or her myself, or married the father and tried to form a family -- one thing would remain. The shame. The shame was forever.
Yes, I thought about abortion.
Women and girls I knew began to suggest it. They told their stories, and assured me I would be OK. An older coworker, who at 40 seemed so mature and knowing, told me about the baby she had aborted, whom she later named Morgan. She wiped one or two tears away while telling me, but she was smiling as well. She assured me that if I went soon, I could tell my parents that I had a miscarriage. It would be so simple.
Friends at school told me their stories. One told me of how much she appreciated her father taking her in for her abortion, even though he seemed very angry at first. Another reluctantly shared how she had been gang raped. When she discovered she was pregnant, she traveled to Texas to abort when she was six months along and could no longer hide it from her parents. It took an enormous toll on her, but she told me if she got pregnant from her current boyfriend, she would probably have another abortion, as the "time just isn't right."
I heard much encouragement to abort. One person told me that she would have told no one and had an abortion. I was being selfish. The voices were not only from friends, coworkers and acquaintances. I think the most powerful voices came from the world, from everywhere I looked. If I had this baby, my life would be horrible. I was a smart girl with a future ahead of her. Be sensible, it said. Do what is best for you.
I thought about abortion.
I was a smart, educated, thoughtful young woman. I knew right from wrong. I had the privilege that accompanied living in a white, middle-class home. I had gone to Church my whole life. I was a good person; one who tried to be kind to others and do the right thing. And yes, I thought about abortion.
I didn't think about it for very long. I had thought about it objectively many times, when it wasn't something that affected me directly. I had decided that it was immoral, meaning essentially I knew in my gut that it just wasn't right. I knew that each and every human life had value, and that just because a human was small and not born yet, he or she still had value. I could not have an abortion without violating my conscience. But for a time, I was tempted.
I was tempted because I am human. I was terrified and ashamed. As my friends began to drift away and my mother could not look at me for months, as I wept daily and could not imagine a future in which I would ever be happy again, I began to rediscover the God of my early childhood who loved me. I prayed. I asked God to give me the strength to make it through the experience. I accepted the love of the baby's father, whom I married one month after our daughter was born. I was blessed with the most magnificent gift a woman has ever received, my precious Rachel. As I moved away from fear and toward the God of Love, I was blessed even further, with the perfect husband for me and six more children.
I can now look back and reflect on this period with perspective. I can understand the pain of my parents, who loved me so deeply and only wanted the best for me. I can know that those who shared their stories had their own reasons for what they did, and that they cared for me in some way, too. I can forgive my friends who abandoned me, as I was a sign of what might happen to them. I can forgive myself for the mistakes that I made, and be grateful for the graces that I received when I allowed myself to trust God.
But I will never forgot that for a time, I thought about abortion.
Today is the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in our country. It's a day to take sides; don't we Americans love to do that? I am certain that my Facebook feed will reflect these divisions, as my friends have varied beliefs. Some will post pictures of babies and pleas to save them, others will celebrate that women have a right to choose abortion. I thought about what I might post, and when I (as usual) discovered I have far too many things to say, I decided to write this.
I am strongly "pro-life." This means that yes, I oppose abortion. I also oppose many other things, like capital punishment, torture, and the victimization of the poor, elderly and disabled. But remember, I am PRO life. This means I don't just object. This means I support.
I support providing resources for women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies. I support making it easier for families to adopt. I support initiatives that provide for the poor, elderly, disabled and mentally ill. Most of all, I support a culture in which love, not shame, dominates.
We talk about whether or not we can legislate morality. One could argue, of course, that all laws are based on morality. The truth is, abortion will likely always be around, whether or not it is legal or paid for by tax dollars. I don't know much about legislation or laws, and I don't care to become an expert in either. I do, however, want to become an expert in Love.
If I love as I should, I will do my part in making the world a place where the focus isn't on whether or not we can terminate pregnancies. I might be a simpleton, but I've decided that while my reach might be small, I do have a sphere of influence. I have a mantra: " I will do my best to love the person standing in front of me." I do not have to determine if this person deserves my love. I don't have to know if they qualify for benefits, or if they meet any particular standard. I do not need to see a list of their sins, or even to know if they believe sin exists. It matters not if they are a person of faith or an atheist, a hero or a fool. What matters is that I love.
Sometimes love will require me to challenge the person standing there. I might have to tell him or her something that is difficult. Often love will require that I be silent, which is much more difficult. Always love will require that I recognize that the person standing in front of me is worthy of respect, that he or she deserves to be treated with dignity.
So today we, many of us, will think about abortion. Some of us, including some people I love and admire and cherish as friends and family, will think about abortion and be grateful that it is an option for women. Others, equally loved and respected, will spend the day praying that no abortion will occur ever again, for any reason. While I agree with the latter, passionately, I refuse to attack or shame the former.
Each of us is on a journey through life, and I will not be so self-righteous as to tell anyone that I am in a better spot than they on that trip. I believe that most people believe what they do and behave as they do because they sincerely believe that they are doing what is best. They may be profoundly wrong, but they still deserve to be respected. They deserve to be loved.
I have some suggestions for my friends who join me in praying for an end to abortion.
- Do not refer to those who support abortion rights as "monsters." They are imperfect, sinful human beings. Just like you.
- Do not ask "What kind of mother could kill her own child?" I'll tell you what kind of mother could do that. A terrified, shamed mother, for one. A mother like me.
- Do not post pictures of dismembered children. I understand you want to expose the horrifying truth about abortion. Those pictures, like pornography, don't show too much, they show too little. They don't depict the horror of what the mothers suffer as well - even the mothers who don't feel they are doing anything wrong and never feel remorse. They also traumatize many who see them (especially sensitive folks and young children) and they often make those who support abortion believe more than ever that pro-life people are extremists who want to terrorize others to change their point of view.
- Do not stop supporting women in crisis pregnancies the moment they decide not to have an abortion. The goal isn't just to prevent an abortion. The goal is to help a woman become the best mother she can be. The goal is to love her so much she knows that abortion wasn't the choice for her, or for anyone.
- That girl who didn't have the abortion, and is now walking around ((gasp)) single and pregnant? Stop shaming her. Stop being scandalized that she is a visible sign of sex outside of marriage. There is a man walking around somewhere who is not a walking billboard of that scandal. Encourage this mother (and this father, if you know him) to be the best parents they can be. Do this by example.
- Stop the madness of telling your children that the key to future happiness is found in going to college and getting a good job. These things are fine things, excellent goals. But there is an incongruity in many Catholic families that drives me mad. We tell our children that they should welcome children, but ONLY if they can afford them. We shame members of our community who accept public assistance so that they can welcome these children, often while attempting to work and perhaps go to school. Treat each child like the blessing her or she is. Even the children that YOUR children have when you think they cannot afford them.
- Treat those who disagree with you with respect. Don't tell people who support abortion rights that they are hell-bound. Don't talk about "those people." Don't say they are "evil" and don't say Hitler. Show them the love that every person - from the tiniest innocent pre-born child to the oldest pro-abortion atheist - deserves.
- Anger, fear, and shame don't change lives. Love does. Talk quietly. Be patient. Smile. Be respectful.
- Be aware of your own sins and failings. It might be very possible that some of these pro-abortion folks might be standing in line far ahead of you at the pearly gates. Only God knows their story - their experiences, the formation of their consciences. Focus on your own paper. Ask God to show you your own sins in a brighter light than the one you cast on others.
My daughter Lauren has four young children. The six-year-old boy, Zeke, and four-year-old girl, Gigi, saw the candle that mom and dad had brought home.
"Mama, what is that candle for?" Gigi asked.
"Yeah, why are we lighting this candle and putting it outside?" said Zeke.
Lauren took a moment before answering, contemplating the complexity of the issue, trying to come up with an answer that was both authentic and audience-appropriate.
"Oh it's just for the babies, and their mamas,"she replied. "To remind us to pray for them."
The children smiled.
"Oh, it's for the babies and the mamas! We will pray for all the babies and the mamas."
Today, let's all do that. As usual, if we listen, the children will remind us how to love.