Just under 16 years ago, I was a senior in high school. The class of the Millennium. It was a momentous year. It was not only the turn of the century but the millennium, I was turning 18, graduating from high school and it was an election year. I was taking a government studies course, and we were given the assignment of researching and choosing a presidential candidate who most closely aligned with our beliefs. It was an exciting election as we were coming off the second term and impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton, and the country was ready for change. We had had enough of the blue dress scandal; the Moral Majority was in beast mode.
At the time, I was an active member of a conservative Southern Baptist church. I was a part of and helped lead youth group and was vice president of the Christian Youth Club at school. I was an advocate of the True Love Waits program, believed that homosexuality was a sin and, most importantly, was a firm believer that abortion was murder. No ifs, ands or buts. In my mind, only one thing mattered in choosing a president: he MUST be a conservative Christian that opposed abortion. I was a single-issue voter. I was George W. Bush’s prime constituent.
Needless to say, I helped W attain and maintain the office of POTUS for the next eight years. As I entered college, I became even more vocal in my support of the pro-life movement. I joined the local chapter of the Right to Life group and attended speaking engagements and meetings that supported any and all things pro-life. Toward the end of college, I was required to complete an internship to graduate. Much to my delight, I was readily accepted as a full-time volunteer peer counselor at a Christian based non-profit crisis pregnancy center. At these centers, lay peer counselors undergo a brief training on how to counsel girls and women who find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy. Free of charge, these girls are given a pregnancy test, and depending on the results, are counseled on their options: parent, place the baby for adoption, and, in what I thought was an effort of full disclosure, abortion. What intrigued and impressed me about these centers was the fact that scare tactics were never used. In fact, they were condemned. These people were not the angry mob standing outside Planned Parenthood shouting “MURDERER!” Although we wholeheartedly believed that abortion is murder, we presented our case out of love rather than hate or fear.
If the pregnancy test was positive, we presented the girl with a delicate pair of white booties and a plastic model of a fetus at 12 weeks gestation to help her comprehend that what she carried was a baby…not a clump of tissue. If she chose to parent, we offered her support in the form of education and the opportunity to earn points that could be redeemed for essentials such as clothing, formula and diapers. We offered her a shoulder to lean on throughout her pregnancy.
I will never, ever forget my first client. She was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school. She came into the center with her boyfriend, a 17-year-old high school dropout. She was scared…terrified. Her test was positive. When I told her the results and handed her the booties and plastic model, she immediately burst into tears. She knew her boyfriend would be unwilling and/or unable to support her. She wanted to finish high school. And most importantly to her, she wanted to be the first girl in her family to attend college rather than have a baby in her teens. She cried. And cried. And cried.
And I did the only thing I knew to do. I presented her with her options. I explained the pros and cons of parenting, the pros and cons of adoption and the cons and bigger cons of abortion. Yep. You read that right. We never, ever, ever under any circumstances or in any way presented abortion as a viable option. We explained in great detail the procedures and aftereffects of abortion. But we never discussed any positive outcomes. Because we didn’t believe there were any. Ever. So, after meeting with me for a couple of weeks, this young girl chose to parent. Over the course of her pregnancy, her boyfriend broke up with her and her family refused to help support her financially. Just before she had the baby, she stopped coming to the center. She moved and her phone was disconnected. I heard, from another client, that she had had the baby, but that was the only information I had. I never stopped wondering about her.
Over the next few years, I continued to volunteer at the center and was eventually hired as Client Services Director at a sister facility. My job was to recruit and train volunteer peer counselors as well as see clients myself. At this point I was married and after being on staff for just a few months, I became pregnant with my first child. This is when my perspective slowly, but surely, began to change. I had a difficult pregnancy that required me to quit my job and endure months of off and on bedrest. I then experienced a traumatic labor and birth that led to severe post-partum depression and PTSD. And my daughter was extremely high needs and cried relentlessly for months. Throughout the following months and years, I often thought about my first client.
As I rocked my screaming infant, or changed my 100th dirty diaper of the day, or sat in tears and anguish as the depression and anxiety crippled me, I wondered about her. Was her baby like this? Did she ever feel this way? Had she ever fantasized about running away and leaving her baby behind? I was a 25-year-old married woman with the support of my husband, sisters, parents, in-laws, church and friends. With ALL of that, there were still days that I literally could not fathom continuing my life as it was. Thankfully I had never wanted to hurt my child, but I knew that depression affects everyone differently. What if SHE had experienced what I did? What if SHE had wanted to hurt herself or her baby? What if that 16-year-old little girl with nothing and no one AND the baby she birthed had been better off if she’d chosen abortion?
As the next few years passed, I wrestled with my thoughts and beliefs regarding abortion and the so-called pro-life movement. I began to notice that the people who shouted that abortion was wrong and a baby’s life was precious were the same people electing officials that limit or cut access to affordable insurance, assistance programs that help low-income families, programs that make higher education more readily available to the lower class. I began to realize that the vast majority of these people weren’t pro-life at all…they were pro-birth. I could no longer align myself with them. I recently read a quote by Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister that summed it up perfectly for me: "I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is." That quote spoke volumes to me.
As I began reading and researching, I was confronted with story after story of women choosing abortion for every reason BUT as a means of birth control simply because a baby would be inconvenient. I read about and knew personally women with wanted pregnancies who faced medical issues and decisions no person should have to make. Women who had been raped, victims of incest, or impregnated by a domestic abuser. Women who, for various reasons, found themselves with a pregnancy they did not want or need. Women who were unable to make decisions about THEIR OWN BODIES without jumping through the hoops of religion and politics.
That is when I knew that I was pro-choice. At the end of the day, abortion is a deeply personal decision and choice. It is a choice that has no business being made by the government. It is a choice that can and only should be made by each individual woman. It is not black and white. It is 5000 shades of gray.