June 05, 2014

The Path Less Travelled:
I'm pro-choice, an atheist, and a mother

I can clearly remember the first moment that I saw my oldest son. It was after just fifteen hours of labor. My obstetrician laid him on my stomach and he looked at me with big blue eyes. He was absolutely disgusting, or at least, covered in absolutely disgusting goop from head to toe.

He was the most perfect, beautiful creation I had ever seen.

Everything about my pregnancy reinforced my pro-life views. I felt my son move. I saw him on an ultrasound. I couldn't believe that there were women that would actually end such a precious gift.

In my head, I had an image of what "that kind of woman" would look like, the kind that would kill her baby. She was a loose woman. She slept around. She was irresponsible and didn't take time to think through her actions. She wasn't willing to be accountable for the results of her decisions. Women used abortion as birth control, having multiples so that they didn't have to take responsibility for those actions. Ever.

photo credit: my mom :)
The photo above is my son, the night after he was born (he's obviously been cleaned up here--no more disgusting goop!). My mom snapped it as I was holding him. It's one of my absolute favorites.

As I read through a recent piece on the book Something Other than God by Jennifer Fulwiler, I was struck by a few points. For one, Mrs. Fulwiler and I went through reversed experiences: while I have moved from belief to atheism, from pro-life to pro-choice, from anti-feminist to feminist, she's moved in the opposite direction.

But the point that struck me the most, the one that I consistently see, is the idea that because I'm a mother, I shouldn't be pro-choice or an atheist. Or that because I am an atheist and pro-choice, I can't fully understand motherhood.

And nothing could be further from the truth.
Mrs. Fulwiler writes:
“I had been plunged into an experience of love that I’d never had before… Atheism could not account for the bond that Joe and I shared.”
But I disagree. Despite the fact that I find myself in a place of non-belief, I don't love my children any less. Our bond is still special. In many ways, because I understand it differently, it is even more special to me.

I don't need God to make motherhood special. That's just the bottom line.

My child was crafted from the last wish of a dying star. It's last heartbeat, that pushed so much matter out across the universe. He is the result of generation upon generation, striving, overcoming, adapting. That means not only is he a child of the stars, but he's a child of their strongest descendants.

As a mother, I find this much more appealing than the idea that he is a sin-plagued creature, doomed to need salvation, because he can't help himself. I find this better than the idea that he is weak because he is flawed. I find it better than the idea that his inability to rationalize right now is preferable to where he will be a year or two from now, when his mind is able to glean so much from information presented to him.

In addition to her religious shift, Mrs. Fulwiler experienced a shift in her pro-choice stance:
One of the chief things that Fulwiler struggled with, as she fought not to accept the claims of Christianity (she is now a Catholic, as is her husband, and they have gone from two children to six), was the question of abortion. As a modern woman she was a feminist; and feminists believe, as a fundamental tenet, that women have the “right to choose”. Then she saw a picture of her unborn baby on ultrasound and was horrified by the realisation that unborn babies older than him were routinely aborted. Even as her feminist head told her that the Catholic Church was oppressive to women, her more truthful heart told her that this was the Church that had always protected the right to life of the unborn. As her husband, Joe, who was on his own quest for truth, pointed out to her when they had an argument on the subject: “They’ve had 2,000 years to think about this, and they keep saying the same thing.”
First, before I go into my personal experience any further, let me point out something: Ultrasounds are typically conducted between 18 and 20 weeks. I also had one with each of my pregnancies earlier, around 8 to 12 weeks, but I highly doubt that ultrasound would be moving enough to change someone's views--both of my sons looked like peanuts with tails in that first one. So if Mrs. Fulwiler is referring to the 20 week ultrasound...I really hope she understands that the vast majority of abortions are conducted before 20 weeks anyway. There's no data to substantiate the claim that fetuses older than that are "routinely aborted".

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I went through all of the experiences that are mentioned in this paragraph during my pregnancies. With my older son (above) it reinforced my pro-life views. With my younger son, though, my views remained pro-choice.

So what, for me, changed my perception from pro-life to pretty rabidly pro-choice?

Being a mother, for one. I struggled as a mom. It was not the easy, beautiful experience I'd expected. I loved my son immediately--but I was easily frustrated. I was tired all the time. It was nitty, gritty and dirty.

When he was a baby, I worked, went to school and mom'ed. To say there was no time for me is an understatement. And I felt guilty about even missing time that I had once had for myself.

I made financial sacrifices so that he could have what he needed (and a lot he didn't need).

Please don't mistake me: I will never regret my choice to bear him. He's an amazing kid. But what I did gain was a type of understanding that I had lacked as an ideological young person. I discovered that motherhood was hard. It was difficult. It was something that required an expansive commitment, one that was impossible to effectively convey.

I also talked to other women. Women that had had abortions. In conversations with other women, and testimonials I ran across online, I discovered that my perception of women that seek abortions was flawed. There was no narrow box to put them in. They came from many walks of life, many belief systems. They were in the situation for many reasons.

I also found that some of the underlying "abortion is bad for women" reasonings were fundamentally flawed. For instance, one of the loudest arguments was that every woman that has an abortion experiences severe emotional trauma. In my web venturings, what I found was different. Many women didn't regret their abortions. They felt relieved. For other women, the only emotional trauma was that they only felt relief and not guilt, because they'd been told that they should regret it.

I looked at statistics that showed that the true way to win the "war" against abortion was through contraception and education, and I couldn't help but ask myself: If the point is truly to save babies, then why are these not avenues we are pursuing? I looked at the research that showed that making abortion illegal didn't work--women still seek them at the same level. They are just more likely to die from them. If the point is saving lives, why are the unborn lives--these potential lives--weighted so much more heavily than that of a fully autonomous individual?

The argument against abortion from my younger years had been an "ataxia", to borrow from Carneades of Cyrene. Ataxia was how he described arguments that were piled one on top of another. The word means "heap", Carneades advised that the only way to undo it was to "unheap" it--to pull it apart one argument at a time until it was clearly no longer a substantial heap.

All together, my arguments for being pro-life amounted to:

  • It was morally wrong in the eyes of God.
  • Fetuses were a life.
  • Motherhood was a special and perfect gift from God.
  • Abortion was bad for women.
  • Making abortion illegal prevented abortions.

As you can see, together, it's quite a heap. It's strong enough to substantiate a pro-life belief system. Once you start separating out the arguments though, they are easy to refute, and refute I did.

I moved towards pro-choice in stages. First, I said abortion was wrong, but that it wasn't my right to legally impose those restrictions. Then, I said that abortion was a necessary evil. Then that it wasn't necessarily wrong, but it just wasn't for me--which is the closest to my feelings today, I think. I'd say it has expanded to say, "Abortion isn't wrong. It isn't for me, but it should be safe, legal and affordable for women that choose it."

The piece on Mrs. Fulwiler's book was...intriguing, but fundamentally flawed in other ways too. Just two other brief moments that stuck out to me...

One, the author assumes to know what all atheists think and how they respond:
Atheist readers will respond: “Of course it can! Don’t you realise that all your emotions and experiences are just the result of chemical reactions in your brain?” They assume that religious people must have left their reasoning faculty behind when they “get God”, not realising that using your reasoning powers to their full extent, but in a spirit of humility and openness, can take you into unknown territory where the intellect takes its place in an infinitely wider, deeper and richer scheme of things.
Of course, any such generalizing is inaccurate. I would not be surprised if the author was astounded to learn that there is, in fact, a secular pro-life movement, manned by atheists and humanists and others that are not approaching it from a Christian perspective. You see, just like there are pro-choice Christians--I love Samantha Fields' approach on Defeating the Dragons, where she explains exactly how she slowly became a pro-life feminist Christian--there are pro-life secularists. Turns out, people do not always fit neatly into the boxes we would like for them to.

Then, there are assertions that we know to be untrue, such as the concept that after contraception like the Pill became more accessible, abortions went up:
Recognising abortion for what it is led Fulwiler to see the connection between contraception and abortion; to discover that rates of abortion had gone up, not down, with the advent of easy contraception in the form of the Pill. She then began to see that the modern world, in which she had been such an enthusiastic if unthinking participant, had lost the connection between sex and babies.
Here in the US, we know that abortion rates have dropped as the oral contraceptives have come into wide us. However, it's true that in many places around the world, the rates do maintain a parallel trend with each other. Why?

Because often abortion is legalized at the same time as oral contraception, as was the case in Canada, which is often cited as it legalized the pill in 1969 and then saw a climbing abortion rate. Because abortion was, you guessed it, also legalized in 1969.

In other developing countries, the rise is correlated, not causal in nature. Basically, when you start looking to legalize contraception, it indicates a shift in fertility. Rather than just going with God, you're looking to actively control the size of your family, when before, people were not. In a society where family size is unimportant, or where large families are preferred, there's little cause for people to seek contraception or abortion. However, when those attitudes shift, both rates go up. Makes sense, right? There's a really great explanation and in-depth analysis here.

So all around, the piece had misconceptions that abounded. The book receives good reviews, but I have not read it myself. I may see if I can check it out at a library. Might be nice to get a firsthand look at what the hullabuloo is all about.

I know that I wrote a piece on motherhood and abortion last week, but that is because this attitude is so incredibly pervasive. Any time I encounter it, you can expect a post on it--I can't let it pass. It's something near and dear to my heart. Like most attempts to question the strength of motherhood, I find these assertions offensive and ill-conceived. Humans are simply too complex to be put in such tiny boxes.

Bonus points if you get the reference in the title and why it is relevant to this piece. :)

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