Sometime around 2012, at a Good Friday service at the church my family had belonged to since before I was born, the pastor gave a sermon on abortion. The story he told was the classic pro-life narrative of a brave mother who, being informed that carrying her most recent pregnancy to term would lead to her own death, chose to sacrifice herself for the life of her child. This mother’s sacrifice, Pastor Ken said, was the same as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross: a gift based in love, for the salvation of a powerless child. In the story as he told it, the mother’s choice was also, like Christ’s, a foregone conclusion. After all, his unstated implication said, what other choice could a Christian mother have?
I spent the remainder of the service furious on behalf of this anonymous, possibly fictitious woman, her husband, and her surviving children. When we made it home, one of my sisters and I raised our objections to the sermon, but the conversation quickly dwindled into silence. My mother is, above all, a person who has based her life around mothering; pro-choice rhetoric in our household was not just a matter of morality or politics, but a direct affront to her. A year or so earlier, when her long-awaited seventh pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, my father encouraged us to think of what had happened as a death in the family. Supporting abortion under her roof was simply not an option. And so we let the issue drop, went back to church on Easter morning, and moved on.
Only I couldn’t forget about this sermon. A year or two earlier, I probably would have absorbed it without consternation. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, one of the largest evangelical denominations to emerge from the nineteenth-century Wesleyan Holiness movement. Until I was an adult, I never heard anyone I knew and trusted question the basic proposition that abortion constitued murder. At college, however, that changed. In my sophomore year, I took a course called Crime and Gender in Early Modern Europe, following my long-standing fascination with true crime. What I didn’t anticipate in the course was learning about the early modern prosecution of infanticide and how it relates to modern struggles for reproductive justice.
As I read about women in both early modern Europe and twenty-first century India, whose pregnant bodies were violated, misinterpreted, and criminalized by authorities with little concern for their personhood, the health, or their families, I realized far more might be at stake in the abortion debate than I had imagined. For the first time, I was presented with the possibility that women who, like my mother, simply experienced the miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy could be punished for that “crime” without any recourse. The lines between menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion, which seemed so clear-cut in my upbringing, suddenly appeared perilously blurred. For the first time, I considered the possibility that my mother was wrong about the central tenet in her life.
In college, I learned not just about the history of reproductive rights but about myself. I learned, for instance, that I didn’t want to be pregnant – and for the first time, I felt that I had the right to make that choice. I realized that I was a lesbian, and that parenthood, for me, would look very different from my mother’s experience, which revolved so heavily around pregnancy as the route to motherhood. When I was accidentally outed to my parents just before my graduation, the language my father used echoed their loss a few years earlier: they felt, he said, like she’d had another miscarriage.
As the conflict between myself and the world I’d been raised in unfolded, the issue of abortion encompassed so many elements of what I found to be cruel in that culture. Abortion cuts to deep places of emotion, regardless of one’s political orientation. It is, in fact, about life, in more senses than one: the unborn child’s imagined life, which can feel so real to some and so theoretical to others, and the multifaceted life of the person carrying the potential of that second life. It’s about the choice not to (or choice to) have children. It’s about women: our expectations of what they should or should not do, what they should or should not be, and even who belongs to the category of woman. It’s about morality – right vs. wrong. But it’s also, in a more slippery sense, about criminality: what actions, or inactions, we collectively agree require outside intervention in order to prevent further harm. It’s about fear: fear of childbirth, fear of financial ruin, fear of losing children, fear of hell. And, yes, it’s about love: love for children, love for women, love for God.
When I started studying the history of abortion in graduate school, I found that the long story of abortion in America, although it culminates in the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate I grew up enmeshed in, doesn’t follow that binary model. In the nineteenth century, when abortion was not yet a federal crime, the idea that abortion could be considered murder didn’t really square with popular understandings of pregnancy. As historians such as Susan Klepp have demonstrated, the concept of “quickening” – usually around the fourth month of pregnancy, when the pregnant person feels movement in the uterus – allowed pregnant people in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to use abortion as a treatment for the medical problem of a missed period. This way of thinking about pregnancy, as a condition whose status depended on the needs (and the wants) of the pregnant person, has only fairly recently become a political construction specific to pro-choice supporters.
Studying history allowed me to see the other sides of the abortion debate and to see abortion as a practice beyond debate – one that has been part of people’s lives in a million ways, both good and bad. Throughout American history, people have died from abortions and people have been saved by abortions. Abortion has been forced on people who did not want it, particularly in the context of intimate partner abuse. Unwanted pregnancy has also been forced on people, most recently by Texas’s new SB 8, which restricts abortion to a space of time so early that, in the nineteenth century, it would not have been considered pregnancy at all.
Above all, I study the history of abortion to highlight the cruelty and violence inherent in anti-abortion politics, the same cruelty that I heard from the pulpit growing up. While a part of that work consists of telling the many and long stories of abortion in US history, to break down the current narratives which leave so little room for movement on either side, another critical need is to direct aid to those most affected by the current chapter of this story. The Avow Foundation for Abortion Access works to educate Texans on the need for abortion access. The Texas Equal Access Fund helps to finance abortions for low-income Texans in need of reproductive healthcare. If you are able, please donate to these organizations, or others like them in your own community, to help create a new and better history of abortion for future generations.
- At various points in this essay, I’ve used “women” and “mothers” to refer to the groups affected by and targeted in abortion discourse, and at other times I’ve used “pregnant people.” While I believe that misogyny is one of the principal motives at the heart of opposition to abortion, many, many people who are not women can and do get pregnant, and can and do seek reproductive healthcare restricted by pro-life interests. So there are times when it’s important to speak about women specifically, and times when it’s important to deconstruct the category of pregnant people and consider a wider range of experiences and needs. ↑
- For more on this, look at Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867–1973 (University of California Press, 1997) or James Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy (Oxford University Press, 1978). ↑
- Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). ↑