Listen to this story
… we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
— Gwendolyn Brooks
When I was 15, I had to decide whether to get an abortion. I was living on a tiny island in the remote wilderness in Alaska, where I lived every summer with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, father, brother and a handful of crew. We all worked together seven days a week to fish commercially for salmon.
I leaned against the workbench beside the radial saw and told the 22-year-old crewman who had had his way many times with my body that it looked like I was pregnant. I remember sawdust-flecked sunshine slanted through the old dusty warehouse. I was wholly unaware of it at the time, but I suppose that I was beautiful. I was young and healthy and very strong, which all adds up to a kind of beauty no matter if most days your face is speckled with seaweed and fish slime and you bathe once a week like everyone else.
We talked quietly. He had come in to get another can of paint, and I took the chance to tell him, quickly, before he would be missed among the working men back outside.
His body stilled, a bird flown into glass.
He said nothing for a beat, which I was used to.
Then “I’m so sorry,” quietly, with heart. He usually had no affect; he wasn’t cold, he was just barely ever there. So this moment, so different from all the other ones, is carved out of time and stays with me like a thing unchanged.
“It’s OK,” I am sure I said, although I don’t remember specifically. I remember feeling no sadness, no anger, no disappointment or wishing or even fear.
“I’ll marry you,” he said next, and I knew he meant it and I knew he would. We were both Christians, the kind who would probably now be called fundamentalist.
Then it was time for him to bring the can of paint back to another building. I stood in the warehouse among the sunlight sawdust motes, my skinny body in jeans.
My whole being was collected into one thing only: strategy. I knew it was possible — even probable — that our families would make us get married when they found out. In his family especially, that’s simply what was done. Because constrained agency governed every part of my life, I had no idea at the time how constrained that agency was in my relationship with him — which is to say, how much I was doing things with him sexually I very much did not want to do.
What was the way out of marrying him? Hyper alert, I scanned the possibilities, like a person run aground on a strange beach in the wild will scan the ocean’s horizon with superhuman attention to every shimmer or glint that might mean rescue.
The moment I thought it, I knew. Abortion. “I would rather carry the lifelong guilt of having killed than marry this man” were the words in my head. Believing abortion was immoral was simple and straightforward to me, because when a woman got pregnant she had a tiny person inside of her and it is wrong to murder a person. That was how I thought of it and how everyone I knew thought of it, and I had not encountered anyone who had explained otherwise.
I stood in the warehouse and did not suddenly support abortion rights. I did not think, “I should be able to decide what to do with my body.” I simply understood in my gut that carrying terrible guilt for the rest of my life would be better than bearing the pariah status they’d inflict on me once they found out. “They” being everyone I knew. Now that I have an adult’s perspective, I see that almost certainly neither my mom nor my dad would have made me marry someone I did not want, and my mom would have helped me raise a baby. But the fear overwhelmed any capacity to parse with that kind of clarity my parents’ love for me from the overall cosmos in which we all moved.
Pregnancy outside of wedlock was the most despicable state a person could find themselves in, a status that could never be lived down no matter where you went from there. I knew this from all the stories about all the “loose” women who had “allowed” themselves to be reduced to this state. And murder was better than risking a possible lifelong union (and certainly lifelong connection) with this man who rarely spoke and who, although I did care about him, was a poor match for me and did things to my body I did not want.
Now that it is some 30 years later and I have come across people who conceptualize pregnancy and abortion differently from how I was taught to as a young person, I have found myself feeling angry about the way many abortion-rights advocates caricature those living within the conservative paradigms. In talking with friends who support abortion rights, I realize that if we took a time machine back to my 15-year-old self, many of them would roll their eyes at her dumb belief system (while displaying that particular flavor of condescension that fancies itself kind: saying it wasn’t her fault since she was raised that way) and dismiss her family and religion as backward. They would not try to understand her on her own terms; they might take the time to try to convert her to their worldview, but they would not look for inroads for connection within her worldview. What disturbs me most — what I find so upsetting to realize now — is that they would have no way to reach for her that would actually reach her, meet her where she was at and help her, rather than requiring her to discard what she believed in order to find a way through a terrible situation.
If we took that time machine, my 15-year-old self would be caught between the group to which I belonged who would treat me as a pariah if it came out I was pregnant but condemn me outright if it became known that I’d had an abortion and a group of abortion-rights folks who would scorn my worldview if I sought refuge with them and require me to reject everything I believed to gain full acceptance with them. I was caught between committing murder (so I believed) and having a baby at 15 that I couldn’t have taken care of with a man I wanted to escape.
I believe that deep, deep, deep down, many conservative Christians wish they had a way to ethically embrace abortion — a way out of unwanted pregnancy that does not require either murder or discarding an entire worldview.
My 15-year-old self was abandoned twice — by the people I knew then and by people I had yet to meet. Why I am choosing to think through these things now, when it’s way too late for my 15-year-old self, is that I want to urge those of us who support abortion rights to find a more multifaceted, flexible and spacious structure in which to house these tenets about the ethics of abortion. Right now in mainstream American culture, the dominant abortion rights stance is housed within a radically individualist paradigm — the right to bodily autonomy, self-determination and individual choice — such that if someone belongs to a culture that prioritizes self-sacrifice for the well-being of others or conceptualizes a person as an interdependent part of an organism called the family or group, if that person finds themselves unwantedly pregnant, many pro-abortion folks have no idea how to speak to them on their own terms.
Is it possible to find or create additional stories about abortion that do not rely on the discrete, individual self? Or a rationale for bodily agency rooted in, say, a communal and interdependent worldview? Is it possible to admit that the question of “when does life begin?” is not answered simply and that it is nevertheless an important question; that sometimes we actually do have to prioritize one life over another — baby over birthing parent, mother over embryo or, like in pre-obstetrics days, a terrible choice during a difficult birth; that relinquishing concern for the well-being of the most vulnerable is not a value to be discarded; that moral complexity and ambiguity are a necessary part of an honest and rigorous grappling with ethics and life?
Apart from me, the entire fishing crew was men, and the only other teenager was my brother. Every day, all day we fished in open skiffs out on the big ocean, or we mended nets, painted buildings, pulled nets back into boats or towed anchors. The work was rough; the men were rough; we saved each other’s lives and put each other’s lives in peril. We were intimately bonded, and we were at sea.
I had no idea how a person even got an abortion, where abortions happen, what the steps were. The nearest doctor’s office was 70 miles away, reachable only by 12-hour boat ride or small plane. Although a doctor’s office did not seem relevant in the situation, because abortion had been described to me as such a shadowy procedure carried out only by the most nefarious actors, I believed I would have to somehow find my way to some underground economy or black market. This was the 1990s, before the internet.
When I wasn’t living with my dad in Alaska in the summer, I was living with my mom during the school year in Indiana, where both sex education and birth control were as uncommon as being personally acquainted with a liberal or knowingly acquainted with a queer person. Throughout my high school career, I saw scores of girls ages 13 to 18 walk the halls pregnant, then drop out after they had the baby or disappear mysteriously for months or show up newly haggard to classes after dropping off their baby in the school’s daycare. All of this only reinforced my belief that pretty much everyone who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant ended up with a baby, that abortions were to be found in unmarked buildings down dark streets or maybe in other countries.
But I was scrappy, resourceful, muscular and, as a female teenager commercial fishing full time in a dangerous and profoundly patriarchal place, very good at steering through treacherous conditions. So I had no doubt I could locate these spectral agents who carried out abortions and stoically endure whatever it was they would do to me. It never occurred to me that they might not be able to do so without my parents’ permission.
The Christian story, at its best and truest — no matter whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox — is a communal story. It is a story that tells us that, if you want to find God, welcome into the community those who have been excluded and discarded. That tells us your well-being is not separate from your neighbor’s well-being and is not separate from your enemy’s. It’s a story that says that, if you want to find God, go look among those whose power has been stripped from them. It’s an anti-empire, anti-hierarchy story that says God is mostly with those who suffer.
In this worldview, we are responsible for what happens to one another’s bodies and well-being. Although it has been cynically leveraged politically for decades, the average person in the evangelical church pew often deciphers abortion within a communal worldview in which we care for each person in our community, even at great personal sacrifice.
But Christianity as it has been lived by white Westerners for hundreds of years is often far from its best and truest. The beautiful interdependence of caring for each other is twisted into surveilling each other, controlling and violating the lives of “the other” rather than giving oneself over to the sacredness of, as Scripture says, “the least of these.”
I was born into a form of Christianity that believed strongly in controlling the bodies of women, among other people, although “controlling bodies” is not the language that was used. Children must be obedient, I was taught, and they will be physically hurt if they aren’t. (This is for their own good.) Wives must submit their bodies and wills first to their fathers and later to their husbands. Men must submit their whole selves to whatever God asks, even if what God asks is treacherous. Women must not tempt men by dressing provocatively, and — in an ideological move not exclusive to religion — if they do dress provocatively then they’re partially or fully to blame if men violate them in response.
God, in this paradigm, loomed large on controlling humans and testing or punishing them by harming their bodies. God allowed Job’s entire family to be slaughtered and Job’s own body to be afflicted, to test Job’s fidelity. God tested Abraham by commanding Abraham to murder his only child, Isaac, and when Abraham showed he would willingly comply — binding Isaac’s body and lifting a knife to kill him — God praised Abraham. (Luckily, at the very last minute, God provided a ram to be sacrificed instead so that Isaac could be spared.) It might not make sense, we were told; it might defy all human sense of sanity or basic ethics; but the highest good — and actually the only good — was to trust and obey God, no matter how counterintuitive or cuckoo bananas God’s commands might seem. The Bible verse I often heard recited to me to back up this worldview was Job’s words: “Though He slay me, yet I will trust him.”
These days, much of this way of interpreting Scripture sounds abhorrent. And yet, this conviction that all of existence is rife with divine presence — that even atrocious events will one day be shown to not have been without meaning — is one that seems ill-advised to casually toss. Because along with all the problematic stuff also came the conviction that we are not alone, and nothing is meaningless — and the decree that we are beholden to one another. Those are principles so many conservative religious people learn as children and often carry with them even if they leave the conservative faith. What guided my life then was a complicated web of stories and ideas, many of which I have left behind, and some of which I still find more vigorously good and just than what I’ve found in the secular world. Surely there is an ethic of abortion that can be derived from the stories and ideas at the lively heart of the Christian worldview.
It just so happened I was also born into a family in which the men were not ambivalent or shy about their God-given license to dominate. The men directed and constrained the women and children’s mobility, communication, relationships, what we did in work and in play. For us, this was the way things were ordained. We were living according to laws that governed reality as fundamentally as the laws of gravity and entropy; the only difference was that because of our sinful nature (we believed), humans are bent on resisting these laws. We believed temptation to disobey was everywhere and especially located in women’s bodies, which were naturally prone to compel men to sin. So to keep the system humming properly, we policed ourselves and one another.
We weren’t aware that we were policing each other — that’s not how it seemed at all. We were trying to love God and follow God’s laws: We were frail humans prone to slipping up, so out of care and concern we helped each other stay true. Again, our worldview was based on the good of the group more than the preferences of any one person. It was an unspoken truth that the price of not complying was exile from the group, but this was known mostly subconsciously and was invisible since we rarely considered not complying.
Given this paradigm, not only did it not seem strange to me that women — the gender binary and an essentialist understanding of gender is of course key to this worldview — would need to submit their bodies to carrying a pregnancy to term irrespective of the circumstances, it was unintelligible to me that pro-abortion groups expected women to enact individual agency in this one area (pregnancy) when our whole lives were founded on the idea that our bodies, souls and wills did not belong to us alone; we were meant to consistently override our own desires in order to submit to and please God and men.
I genuinely had no idea what abortion-rights folks were talking about, and in the moments when some sliver of abortion-rights rhetoric would break into the enclosed world where I lived, it seemed bizarre that they appeared to want women to enact agency over their own bodies when it meant doing away with sheltering creatures (babies) even more vulnerable than us. We (those named girls and women) knew what it was to be powerless; wouldn’t we want to protect those even more powerless than us? I honestly believed and visualized that starting very near conception there was a human, aware and capable of feeling pain and desire — complete but miniature — sheltered inside the womb, hoping the person carrying them would protect them. It was taught to me that way, by people whom I think sincerely believed that too.
And sure, the pregnant person might not have chosen to be pregnant, because of mistakes in birth control or because of rape, but there are so many things we don’t choose, like a relative who has an accident and is suddenly disabled and dependent; or a desired pregnancy in which the child is born with serious birth defects; or an elderly grandparent who needs increasing help; or a global pandemic that requires us to drastically limit ourselves in order to save each other. We don’t choose these things, and yet it’s widely understood that the right thing to do is to rise to the occasion anyway.
I knew the other side was “pro-choice,” but the language confused me. Why was the ability to select between options more important than the moral mandate to save a human life? It seemed like consumer logic to me, although I wouldn’t have had the phrase “consumer logic” in my lexicon yet. “The freedom to choose” appeared to be the same language employed in advertising: Come to our store where there are 20 different choices of coffee! Fifty different choices of jeans! Choice was what elevated one store or brand over another. Was I missing something?
Since I could not figure out what I was missing, it seemed that the only ethical thing to do as a teenager and into my 20s was to oppose these “pro-choice” people and their horrific worldview. It was that simple for me, and it was that simple for pretty much everyone I knew. Often I have heard pro-abortion folks speak about those who hold anti-abortion views as if they are being disingenuous, as if we all know their real agenda is to control women. But the men and women I grew up among straightforwardly believed abortion was wrong because it took a human life. I have yet to personally meet someone who holds anti-abortion views whose conscious agenda is to control women’s bodies in some way above and beyond the way that controlling (and being suspicious of and allured by) women’s bodies saturates that worldview, not to mention saturates many worldviews and the culture at large.
Besides that, many evangelical men (especially younger generations) believe that what they are doing is “cherishing” women. In contrast to the liberal secular culture that does not honor women’s hallowed place in God’s order, that wants women to be treated “just like men,” much evangelical culture prides itself on treating women as “princesses,” as “a beauty to rescue” (John Eldredge’s phrase). As Kristen Kobes du Mez says in her deconstruction of white evangelical masculinity, “Jesus and John Wayne,” “Joshua Harris introduced a generation of young Christians to ‘biblical courtship,’ the idea that fathers were charged with ensuring their daughters’ purity until their wedding day, at which point they handed unsullied daughters over to husbands who assumed the burden of protection, provision, and supervision.” When I was a little older and attending a conservative Christian college, Harris’ books sold like hotcakes on campus.
But as a teenager, I could not see with clarity the contradictions, insidious male control based on “purity” and misogyny tangled up in the stories told to me about how human relationships ought to work. I internalized the misogyny and the shame, and like so many of my peers, I simply believed the story.
I was visiting a good friend in Washington, D.C., on June 24, 2022, the day that the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. That night, we walked together to the street in front of the Supreme Court. The steps that are traditionally open to the public were blocked off by a fence and Capitol police. Every gender, race, age and persuasion of human milled about, chanted, yelled. Almost everyone we saw was carrying signs or wearing shirts supporting legalized abortion.
The few antiabortion folks weren’t hard to locate because so many other people were screaming at them. As we tried to get our bearings, I watched an abortion rights group of 40 or 50 people stand in a tight circle surrounding a slim, small-bodied person holding an antiabortion sign. In a kind of frenzy, they screamed, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” for all they were worth at the young person. All the rage, grief, powerlessness and fear was directed at one of the few antiabortion people they had access to in the flesh.
The young person, maybe age 18 or so, perhaps had been socialized male, but it was hard to tell.
“Fuck you! Fuck you!” the pro-abortion crowd screamed, frenzied.
I watched the antiabortion protester slow down in breathing. I watched the protester turn in slow circles, looking each person in the crowd in the eye and say, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
The crowd roared all the louder, “Fuck you!”
As I stood and watched, my heart nearly gave way from the sorrow. I knew so intimately what that sole human was trying to do — making a sacrifice, as trained to do.. In response, the crowd abandoned an actual human being with breath and skin and wide open eyes right in front of them. The person was not a Supreme Court judge, a senator or even a conservative pastor. Just a young person, alone. And this was how the crowd responded — each crowd member never doubting the crowd had the moral upper hand.
A few weeks after the man said he would marry me if I was pregnant, my period came. My period had been delayed weeks, maybe from the physical labor we did every day or maybe from a pregnancy that eventually miscarried — I don’t know. Or maybe my period was late from the stress of being sexual as a teenager in a world where I knew I’d be a pariah if anyone found out. Or maybe it was late from the strain of being impelled to be sexual with a deeply dissociated man in a context where neither of us had been taught about consent or even heard the concept.
When my period came, he was repairing the pilings holding up a three-story warehouse, so I crawled underneath the warehouse to tell him.
“I’m not pregnant,” I told him. “My period started.”
We laid on the wet dirt together staring up at the underside of the structure above us. It was so much bigger than us. We had to be quiet, understated. Our bodies were flooded with whatever flows through blood when an unexpected freedom is suddenly let loose.
I was freed back into a community that held and bound me, both.
The story of how I walked from that moment to changing my mind about abortion is a journey of a thousand miles, 2 million steps, and I am unable to trace from memory what each of those steps were. I married at 18 and learned the hard way just how much it will fissure your body and soul to partake in sex you do not want but believe you are obligated to; and so I learned something about the importance of bodily agency. Slowly, I analyzed the doctrines I’d been handed as a child; painfully, I relinquished many of them, giving up most of my friendships in the process. I got divorced, which taught me viscerally just how much my social and familial belonging had been contingent on enduring with my body things I did not want, which made me question all sorts of things I’d been taught about bodies and sex. I then had sex with men I wasn’t married to, and sometimes the sex was incredible, which sure wasn’t what I had been told it would be. I took the morning-after pill once after a condom mishap and underwent the blistering judgment of conservative evangelical friends when I confided in them about it. I began to understand that if it were up to them, they would choose that their dear friend risk bearing a child she did not want. These and many more experiences slowly changed me.
But what if I had not gotten my period then, out there in the wilderness at age 15? And what if, period or no period, pregnancy or no pregnancy, there had been a way to think about abortion as morally acceptable from a perspective that fit with my worldview at the time.
Sometimes I wonder if the “women’s right to choose what she alone will do with her own body” story is serving everyone it claims to serve. There is no such thing as a discrete body owned fully by oneself, disconnected from other bodies. So many babies are raised by grandmas, grandpas, aunties, cousins or a combination of all of the above, plus childcare workers. If a person, imagining themselves to be an autonomous individual, decides to carry a child to term, there will be nothing autonomous about the complicated web of life into which their child is born. Are there stories — other imagined ways of conceptualizing bodies and relationships — that more widely hold the complexity of it all and offer multifaceted wisdom about how to proceed? Are there narratives that could be created, rediscovered or blended to honor what science offers us, humility within the communal, respect for the singularity of every person, a commitment to the absolute necessity of consent and a primacy of place for the idea that perhaps a whole lot more is going on in this cosmos than we can grasp with our minds? Can we agree that the whole thing is rife with mystery? We can do that, can’t we?
If I could take the time machine to walk with my 15-year-old self on that island, back before her period came, I would pick a dark, new moon night. With the Milky Way ribboning above us, I’d ask her to meet me out on the Shelikof Strait side of the island, far away from human light and sound. Together, we’d sit on the knob where wild cranberries and blueberries grow on the ground in late summer, and we would look across the 40 miles of open, wild ocean to the mountains of the Aleutian Range.
“Hi,” I would say to her. She’d be so tough that there would be an impermeable wall between us — and I would know this because I know her well — and I would not try to scale the wall or even mention it. I would know that she is full of fight, and so I would still my breathing so that she could feel me calm beside her and sense me as someone who would not try to overpower her (not even with ideas).
“I got your message to meet you here, but I don’t know who you are,” she would say.
“No,” I’d reply, “but you will. We’ll meet again and you’ll know me, down the road a piece.”
We would look out at the ocean, inky, eternal in its flux, every kind of undulation along its surface, both of us imagining what we couldn’t see under what we could see, galaxies of curving sea lions, killer whales, trout, sharks, humpies, herring, jellyfish bells and strings. And all those stars.
And suddenly, imagination breaks open into the time travel imagination can actually be, and I am there with her.
“You know,” I say after a long while, thinking aloud and intentionally not trying to make some subtly coercive point. “There’s so much in the ocean that we can’t see, that we’ll never see. But somehow I am comforted knowing it’s there and knowing it’s unreachable by us. Knowing that almost everything in existence is outside our capacity to tame or even touch.” I have no idea where I am going with this — if I’m going anywhere at all. The whole purpose is being here with her, as real as I can possibly muster.
She nods. She puts her hands — ferociously strong, skin peeling off them in layers from the labor of fishing — on the tiny blueberry leaves we are sitting on, and she thinks about the situation she is in, how impossible it is, how she can’t trust anyone to help her. She doesn’t tell me any of that. I’m aware that her body is stronger than mine, but much more fragile.
I want to weep. I feel so much grief, nearly overtaking me, for all she has endured and has yet to endure. But I won’t give in to any of that because then she would once again be in the position of having to manage an adult who cannot or will not manage themselves — as she has had to with so many of the adults around her.
I am here to give her something. Something. I am trying to figure out what it is. I want to recite Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems or tell her that she will be OK or to find books by Audre Lorde when she gets back to civilization. I want to say, “It’s not a baby yet, it’s just cells.” But none of that would reach her, not here, not yet. It would just scare her more than she already is.
“There’s this passage in Lamentations,” I finally say. “I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long.” She looks over at me, squints, furrows her brow the same way I still do 31 years later. She looks back to the dark sea.
“He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”
I know she wants to scoot over and let me hold her because I have reminded her that within her own Scriptures there are words that describe what she is feeling. But she can’t reach for me, it would cost too much.
So I recite the next verses in the passage from Lamentations: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for God’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning.”
She starts to cry. She does not move; she just looks out across the uncrossable waters and so do I.
“I have to go soon,” I say. I feel her gathering her strength to be without shelter again.
“Can I put my arm around you for a moment?” I ask. She does scoot over now, with fierceness. “Listen,” I whisper as I hold her thin body close just for a moment. “I know what you are going through. Do you understand?” A small nod. “You are nowhere near as alone as you think you are.” Her body is pure muscle and not relaxed at all but pushed into me, close.
“Do you hear me?” I ask. A small nod.
Whispering again into her hair, “Nowhere near as alone as you think you are.”
Our time is up. I pull around, look into her eyes and now I let her see my tears. I pour all my courage into her and say, “I am coming through time to find you. Just hold on.”
This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.
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