“The issue of life and choice does not resolve itself in legislation, it waits to be resolved in the hearts of women.” –Alexa Hyman
During my senior year of college, I received an email from a friend who worked for a pregnancy center: “Do you know anyone who could babysit for an almost two-year old while a young pregnant mother and father attend high school?” They needed about a month of childcare before other daycare arrangements would open up, and the pregnancy center was trying to do everything possible to support this young couple. My roommates and I checked our class schedules and determined we would be able to divide care for the child throughout the duration of each day.
No problem, we said. It was a no-brainer. We loved children, and truthfully, we were grateful to have a more tangible way to volunteer our support to women struggling with unintended or difficult pregnancies.
We interacted with the mother and father on a few occasions—when they met us before we started caring for their child and when they’d pick up their child after school sometimes. We’d fill in the mom on what we played and what her child ate, and we’d ask about her school and life.
I remember sensing an unease about the situation—here I was, a student at a private college in a nice apartment, with extra time to care for a stranger’s child for no pay. Here she was, a woman who became a mother the same year she could legally drive, now pregnant again before finishing high school. As I recall, most of her family members—with the exception of a sister—were in jail or deceased. Her boyfriend was her rock, she said.
We tried to act as ordinary as possible, but nothing about this situation was natural for any of us. However different our lives were, my roommates and I were well-intentioned, compassionate, and trying, and surely that counted for something, I thought.
A few weeks into our time babysitting, the pregnancy center called us. The young mother had chosen abortion—that very day. In our shock at the news, the pregnancy center mentioned, “If you want to stop babysitting, we’d understand.” We didn’t blink before saying, “We’ll keep babysitting.” We made a commitment to them, and their choice had no bearing on our care for them.
The next few weeks continued as the last few had, with a sweet, often testy toddler playing, eating, and napping in our college apartment. But we didn’t see much of the mother after that phone call—until the last day. She came to pick up her child, and we met her outside our building.
We offered her a few outfits for her child and a gift card for her and her boyfriend. She thanked us, and we thanked her for trusting us with her child.
We learned her reason for procuring the abortion was because her boyfriend told her he couldn’t continue to live if they had another child to care for. It seemed the weight of the responsibility was too much for the depressed teenaged father to bear, making the future in turn too hard for the mother to bear as well.
I hardly knew what to say. While we could provide her with tangible resources, there was a critical need that the pregnancy center and we, well-meaning college girls, could not fulfill—a lifetime of support from the father of her baby.
Looking back, it’s hard to find blame and fault in her decision—I can see how her circumstances led her to it. If I were in her shoes, I can’t even be sure how I’d respond to the circumstances she faced. And yet, I couldn't help but feel heartbreak at her choice.
I’ve thought about this story a lot these past few weeks as legislation restricting abortion access has passed in several states. I don't want to weigh in on the legislative debate. But seeing the broader public reaction these past few weeks has led me to consider how our culture talks about abortion, women, and the concept of choice.
Considering what shapes cultural beliefs
Factors like poverty, family stability, and physical safety cannot be disregarded as small matters, especially when it comes to unintended pregnancies. The real suffering in the difficult circumstances surrounding the choice of abortion should not be diminished. And, of course, individual circumstances for women in crisis pregnancies vastly differ. Some women have stable homes and partners they can return to, with resources to help them take responsibility for a child and have a healthy pregnancy and birth. Other women face circumstances as difficult or more difficult than those of the young mother I met in college.
But what troubles me is how having the option of abortion communicates to women that we expect there may be times when she might not be able to be strong enough to bear her pregnancy. Taking it one step further, having abortion as an option allows the father of a baby an out, so that he too doesn’t need to be strong enough to care and provide for the mother and child.
Is this what we really want to believe about the strength of women and men?
It’s also worth noting that, according to research surveying the poorest women who face non-marital pregnancies at the highest rates, becoming a mother is often seen as a great opportunity for a young woman to display her strength. Very few circumstances are seen by these women as dire enough to merit ending the pregnancy. Yet abortions are still procured because of difficult, seemingly hopeless scenarios like the one I encountered in college.
It’s worth imagining what we could accomplish if all the time, energy, and resources we spend fighting over abortion were channeled to causes like strengthening families, improving sex and relationship education, improving maternal health, boosting adoption options, eradicating domestic violence, and reforming laws against rape, to name a few.
What would it have taken for that young high school couple to believe themselves capable of combating the difficult circumstances they faced, and to choose to not terminate their pregnancy? What would it have taken for them not to have faced an unintended pregnancy in the first place?
Having the difficult conversations that matter
In many ways, our nation’s extreme emotional reaction on both sides of this conversation makes a lot of sense. There have been tens of millions of abortions since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. It’s not unlikely that every single woman in our nation has been touched personally by abortion—because they know someone who had one or they faced the choice themselves. Driving our desires to tweet, post, and protest on the sides of both life and choice is the love we feel toward the women we know who chose abortion and the women who didn’t; the women who regret their abortions and the women who don’t; the people we meet because they weren’t aborted and the people we haven’t met because they were.
The delicate responses women facing unintended pregnancies and abortion often need to hear as they face their choice stand in stark contrast to the vitriol many of us see on social media, in protests, and in the media.
Over the past week and half, I’ve scrolled right past almost every social media post that touched on the topic of abortion. As I reflected on why, I came to a few conclusions: I’ve feared my emotional reaction to what I’d read, and I anticipated whatever I would read would only make me feel more helpless. But as the national conversation has raged on, it’s become impossible for me to avoid it.
I’ve spent most of my professional life utilizing technology to communicate messages in society. I believe deeply in technology’s good and transformative powers for a culture. There is a time and place for public conversation that educates and aims to change hearts and minds on important issues like abortion. Yet, nuance, which our discourse so badly needs, rarely gets the most likes and shares, and outlandish statements that aren’t as emotionally sensitive and videos of confrontations will almost always go viral.
The legislative fight about abortion will continue, and so will the vitriol we’re seeing online. We can be certain there are women who are watching this public debate and have been personally hurt by it—because it triggered pain from her own abortion or her choice to give birth to an unplanned child, because she’s in the midst of her own decision about her unintended pregnancy, because it reminded her of someone she loved who faced that choice, or because there are people in her family she’s never met because of abortion.
How do we reach the women most impacted by abortion with the necessary compassion and support that communicates to her we believe she is strong enough to face her circumstances?
The answer is not clear-cut to me, but I do think it starts with worrying less about what social media status you can post, like, or share, what argument needs to be made in the media, or what protest can be staged next, and more about what we’re actively doing in our physical communities to support women—like properly and appropriately talking with our children about our bodies, sexuality, and relationships; advocating for reform of laws surrounding rape, paid-leave, and domestic violence; befriending single mothers and other individuals in difficult circumstances; and offering compassion before judgment toward those who have faced or are facing difficult circumstances.
When it comes down to it, our efforts to resolve the issue of life and choice must always be connected to our desire to reach the hearts and lives of women.
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