I want to tell you a story.
When I was fifteen, I slept over at a friend’s house. I knew that friend because both of our big families attended the same Catholic church.
Late that night, after it was too late to go home, she told me that in the morning, we’d be getting up early to go protest outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic. We’d go with her mom and meet our youth group leader and some other people from church there, and we’d hold signs and pray for the women entering. If I didn’t WANT to come, I could stay home and have a quiet morning with her siblings, but….
She didn’t have to say the rest. If I didn’t want to come, I’d be a bad Catholic. If I didn’t want to come, she’d think less of me. If I stayed home with her siblings, it would be because I was like them, a child. If I went, it would be as a woman of faith, doing the hard thing for what I believed in.
And so the next morning, I made one of the most cowardly decisions of my life, believing I was being brave. I went.
When I was twelve, I had had a dream that I was raped while at summer camp. I don’t know why I had it–I had never even kissed anyone at that point, I’d barely had so much as a crush, and I’d never been sexually abused. But the point is, I had the dream. And after that, my period was late. I was fucking twelve years old, and my period had never been all that reliable, and it was a fucking DREAM but some crazy part of my brain was sure that I must be pregnant, somehow, magically. And as stupid as it was, the terror that lurked in the back of my mind until my period came was very, very real to me.
I was never a very good pro-lifer. I tried very hard to believe what I was supposed to believe. But I never was very good at turning off my empathy for the woman making the choice, and I always had the visceral sense that being pregnant when you didn’t want to be, for whatever reason, had to be the most terrifying, isolating, miserable experience in the world. Maybe because of that dream I had. Maybe it was because, even as a young teen, I already knew women…girls, really…who had been raped or pressured into sex. But deep down, I always felt conflicted, even though I prayed for God to help me release my doubts. [God, the irony of praying to a supposedly all-loving God to release me from the pain of empathizing with other women…]
But I tried to suppress that. I said the right things. I brought home my bags of anti-choice paraphernalia from youth group and cried when my conflicted but ultimately pro-choice Catholic mother threw them in the trash, declaring angrily that we were too young to have this propaganda shoved down our throats, that wasn’t what she sent me to youth group for. I wept at misleading pictures of dead babies, the ones that looked like mutilated newborns, even though the vast majority of abortions are performed far too early for the fetus to look anything like a baby.
I tried, so hard, until that day that I went along to protest outside the clinic like a good little Catholic. That day, I was forced to come face-to-face with my conflictedness. I had to hold up signs carrying images that turned my stomach, and I had to watch women duck their heads and turn away as they walked into the clinic with us at their backs. I’m sure that the people I went with thought the tears that kept welling up in my eyes were for the poor dead babies, but they weren’t. They were for the unseen children in the cars driving by, undoubtedly traumatized by the images I was holding just as I had been cruelly traumatized in my youth group meetings. They were for the parents of those children, who had to explain to them what they saw, somehow, on the way to the grocery store or a goddamn soccer game. And most of all, they were for the women who could not even look at us out of shame. Needless shame, that I helped create.
I did not feel like a moral crusader. I felt ashamed of my cowardice, at going along so that my militant catholic friend and youth group leader would think highly of me. I felt sick.
My transition to being pro-choice was neither easy nor seamless. After that day, I spent a long time wrestling with the issue before I could feel comfortable with what I believed. But I did know, after that day, that I had not been brave or morally superior. I had been wrong. Whatever “right” was, it didn’t involve shaming terrified women and girls, or shocking and traumatizing unsuspecting innocents with brutally violent images to manipulate them around to my point of view.
There are two epilogues to this story, and I think it’s important that you hear them both.
The first happened after I came home from that sleepover. I wasn’t privy to the details, but I know that my mother stood up to the mother of my friend, who at the time was her friend. I know she fought with her, I know that she was angry that her daughter had been dragged into this without her knowledge or permission. I know that she defended me, and that one of her strong friendships at the time suffered for it.
And I know that when my mother reads this post, it will make her cry, because she cannot bear to hear about her daughter in pain, and I’m sure part of her is still angry that any of this happened. I know that despite her love for her faith and the church it pains her greatly to recognize the harmful messages that her children were exposed to being raised in it. I’ve avoided writing this post and posts like it for a long time, because I don’t want to make her relive that pain.
But I hope that she knows that I am not angry; I am grateful. I know that she is just a person, with her own struggles with her faith, and that she worked very hard to teach me as well as she could, despite not having all the answers, like all parents. And I know that when I came home from that morning outside the clinic, confused and hurt and ashamed and not at all wanting to talk about it, she did right by me as my mother. She stood up to that holier-than-thou bitch, and in doing so made it okay for me to not feel good about that morning. That example helped me have the strength to continue to wrestle with what I believed.
And mom? I’m not sorry that I experienced discomfort that morning. Maybe I was “too young”, maybe there were better ways to learn that lesson, and my friend and her mother were definitely terrible for manipulating me into going. But because of that morning, I started to trust my own sense of what was right and let it lead me to a deeper, logical examination of my morals. And that was something I needed, something that should be an essential part of growing up, and I’ll never be sorry for that.
The second epilogue occurs much later. I was nineteen, attending college at a state school in conservative Indiana. The Christian groups on campus made up a substantial portion of the student groups on campus, and every year several of them had the audacity to turn one of the quads into a baby graveyard…. a field of white crosses, each one representing however many dead “babies” since Roe V. Wade. The first year I ran into it, it took me by surprise, a surreal scene in the early morning fog as I walked to my fucking ridiculously early OChem lab. As you walked through, pro-lifers dressed in black accosted you to creepily whisper dead-baby statistics.
The first year, I found this traumatizing. First of all, because my brain hates me, all the gory images I was shown in my youth group were burned into my consciousness permanently, and for a long time they popped into my brain the second I was confronted with pro-life demonstrators, which frankly made me want to vomit. Also, my OChem partner was staunchly pro-life, and the debate that occurred in lab that morning between me and him and in general in the deeply-divided class was fucking terrifying. I was pro-choice but rather timid and apologetic about it at that point, so I felt utterly unprepared for what felt like a vicious attack. Not to mention, having passionate political/religious debates while handling dangerous chemicals is a terrible idea, and our TA eventually had to tell the class to stop talking entirely lest one of us irrevokably damage lab supplies, ourselves, or our grades. Basically, those damn crosses pretty much ruined my whole day, and nearly ended an otherwise beautiful lab-partnership.
The second year, though, I got pissed. When the creepy graveyard monitors whispered damning statistics in my ear, I ranted back a list of my own. And then I marched across the quad to the tiny National Organization for Women booth set up as a counter protest. They had made their own rather provocative display–in opposition to the field of crosses, a smaller field of coat-hangers. To be honest, that also turned my stomach a bit, as did the thought of having this debate with people all day long, as would surely happen if I openly showed support for the pro-choice side. But I shook it off, and I thanked every woman at the booth for being there. I told them that I used to be one of “those assholes”, and that people like them had helped me learn and grow up. And then I took pins and stickers for my bag and my jacket, and headed to my next class–ready, if necessary, to do battle for what I believed in.
This post was inspired by a series of posts in which another blogger detailed her journey from “pro-life” to pro-choice. Hers is much more detailed and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.