I identified as “pro-life” during college and my early graduate school years. I marched for life, wrote letters, and prayed – so very earnestly – for the unborn. I even ran a 5K for the Bishop of Baton Rouge!
Then I found myself living in rural Kentucky working in social service ministry for the Catholic Church – a community with no red lights and nearly 100 churches (only 2 Catholic btw.) I worked with women who taught me about dignity and grace in the midst of poverty I had no clue existed – in the US. I didn’t realize people lacked running water or food or tampons. Or heat. Or a bus. I was 25 and most women my age had multiple children. Some worked outside of their homes, but most did not – many of them had not finished high school and were squarely focused on day to day tasks – like doing laundry with no running water and no access to a laundromat. Every week.
I continued to perceive myself as pro-life and participate in the activities and the prayers and so forth, but this increasing sense of “what about their mothers?” was there. What about the women who had sex at 13 and had barely any clue about biology much less birth control? What about the churches, the pastors, the schools, and God – everyone telling these women what to do and rarely asking for their opinions? What about the unrelenting poverty – what about the lives the children were born into? We just kept praying, blaming and doing nothing concrete.
I grew to realize that 1) few people trusted these women to make good decisions even when they were performing Herculean tasks of survival daily and 2) the systems were a major problem. Health care, transportation, education, even utilities!
But I think the true moment I changed my mind was the day I had to recruit inmates from the County Jail to stand guard (really!) while I helped a woman pack her things and flee her home with her four children. Her husband was in the throes of addiction and had threatened to rape her and get her pregnant again. She never told me the whole story but she felt her only choice was to flee to her parents in another state, leaving behind almost everything.
To kill time, I took the girls to a Baskin & Robbins and told them to pick what they wanted – it was a treat. They all picked vanilla cones. They had no concept of choice – they had never been to an ice cream place, they had never been permitted to select food, they were also in shock at all that had transpired. The oldest (13) urged them to get something cheap, the middle two were shell-shocked. And mom was trying to make me not feel bad because they only wanted vanilla. What?
That’s when something about my perception of “choice” shifted. I realized that the women around me were perfectly capable of making their own choices, that I had no right to judge them because I didn’t know their stories and that under duress, even little kids will opt for what’s expected of them.
This is not a particularly mind-blowing story. I was a 25-year-old Catholic woman who changed her mind because of what I learned from other women. End of story.
I don’t think abortion is a simple or easy topic, but I also think we can very caught up in sidebars and language and finger-pointing. We can be ridiculously ignorant to issues of privilege, education, sexism, bigotry and more – even within the women’s reproductive justice movement. I have very strong complicated opinions on birth control, abortion, adoption (transnational adoption), child welfare, food stamps, health insurance, and more.
But I also know – my story has been shaped by the stories of all the women I’ve ever known. So on this day of telling my story, I’m going to step back and simply ask you to listen to them. Listen and learn.