Impurity Culture: Learning to Support Reproductive Rights When Your Religion Doesn't
Hello. I’m glad you’re here.
I first just want you to know that I see you. I see you showing up here and maybe elsewhere, trying to learn, being open to new information and being willing to change and to grow. Intelligence, Stephen Hawking famously reminded us, is the ability to adapt to change. You’re smart, you’re doing your best and I believe in you.
I know what it’s like to go your whole life being told one thing is true only to find out that actually, it isn’t. That’s happened to me so many times, on so many different topics, I’ve lost count. I know what it’s like to feel angry and disillusioned.
I felt angry and disillusioned, too, when I began to realize that what I had been told about abortion was a lie.
I grew up in the United States during a peak of cultural abstinence-only hysteria in the late 90s/early 2000s over what other people were doing in bed: naturally, that extended to what they were doing with their pregnancies. I thought I knew for certain that abortion was Wrong and Bad before I even really understood what sex was. As far back as I can remember I was told that as Christians, we only vote Republican. I was told that Republicans are “pro-life,” whereas Democrats are not, and no matter what other political issues are at play in a given election, the most important one is the unborn babies. Maybe this sounds like your story, too.
When I got older, I marched for pro-life candidates. I even participated in pro-life protests.
I bought merchandise from booths at Christian concerts and I took all the pamphlets home and kept them on my desk. I absorbed their claims wholeheartedly, and I wondered how something like abortion, as they described it, could be allowed to exist, I felt certain I would spend the rest of my life trying to stop abortion from happening.
But in my early twenties, I began to see things differently. The map of sexuality, for one, that I had been given to navigate the world didn’t have much to do with the landscape that I was actually seeing in front of me. As I moved through the process of changing my mind about premarital sex, same-sex relationships, divorce, monogamy, gender roles, and more, changing my mind about abortion was a natural extension of that process.
Several years ago, I signed up for my first greeting shift at my local clinic. I've continued to greet several times a year since then, especially during local pro-life demonstrations, where I come face-to-face with people just like the person that I used to be, staring back at me from the sidewalk, shouting terrible things at me, not knowing that just a few short years ago, I thought the way that they do.
What helped me change my mind?
Here are five things that aided me during my process and have been helping me come to the person I am today: a full-fledged supporter of reproductive rights, birth control, sex education, and yes, abortion.
1. Listening to the stories of people who had actually had an abortion.
Until I started reading stories from people who had actually had an abortion, and in some cases talking to people I knew who had had one, I was under the impression that most abortions happened happened because because young, single people who got pregnant didn’t want or feel able to be parents—a perfectly fine reason to get an abortion, but at the time, I struggled with that misconception.
However, when I started listening, I learned that many people who seek abortions are married or in committed relationships. I learned that many abortions performed after 20 weeks are due to severe fetal abnormalities, the health of the mother, and other life-threatening circumstances wherein the fetus could not live outside the womb or could only live for minutes or hours. I learned just how many abortions are sought by women who desperately wanted to have babies and wanted to be mothers.
Listening is hard, especially if you’ve been conditioned that it’s dangerous to listen to people, because what you learn might tempt you to change your mind. I remember once asking my mother why she didn’t just go ask her Democrat friend why she voted that way and how she had been able to make sense of the issue of abortion, since she was lucky enough to have a friend that thought differently than her. My mother looked down in frustration and said, “I just don’t think I can do that.” But I think you can do it, and I think you should. Listening is always a great first step.
2. Distinguishing spiritual beliefs from scientific facts.
When I was still somewhere in the middle of my journey to support reproductive rights, I found myself in an odd place where I still believed that a fertilized egg was a human life with a soul and inherent worth, but I also had to acknowledge that that belief was not provable by any known mechanisms of science. That spiritual belief (as only a belief) is fine - I believed and still believe all kinds of things that can’t be proven with beakers and vials. Maybe faith isn't meant to be evaluated on the basis of its scientific factualness, anyway.
But I had to ask myself: did I really want my unprovable, and likely not factual, spiritual beliefs to be determining the laws for a whole country of people, even those who didn’t share my beliefs? And if I did, where would it stop?
Ultimately, I came to realize that I was well within my rights to believe whatever I wanted to about the personhood status of a fetus, but I was not within my rights to demand that all other people who can get pregnant also share my view and to force them to via legislation. Spiritual beliefs about abortion and pregnancy are not the same thing as scientific facts, and only one of those things (it’s facts) can be used to make laws, if they’re to be fair and just.
So for a while, a couple of years maybe, that’s where I hung out. A fetus is a person, I believed. I reasoned then that if it came down to it, I wouldn’t personally get an abortion. However, I had begun to see that it was the right choice for some people. It also was inconsistent for me to fight on all the other battlefronts of sexual justice that were capturing my heart and hold out on just this one because of my own discomfort. Then, I started researching birth control.
3. Learning about actual science.
When I became sexually active, I started researching what birth control options would be best for me. That’s when I learned that for a sexually active person who can get pregnant and is not on birth control, pregnancy is actually kind of the exception rather than the rule. I learned that for every pregnancy that “takes” - that is, where the fertilized egg successfully implants as intended in the uterus and begins the process of turning into a fetus,- there are probably several others that don’t take at all and where the cells involved just get reabsorbed by the body, usually unbeknownst to anyone. Some have estimated it may be that at least half of all fertilized eggs or more don't make it to implantation (and so don't become pregnancies all on their own), but it is at least a third. Learning this helped me make my decision about birth control, but it also blew my mind - and made me a little angry.
If what I had been told my whole life was true, then I would be forced to admit that, at least according to pro-life teachings, at least one out every two to four human souls that come into existence (and maybe more!) fail to turn into fetuses and later into babies—and according to some Christian traditions, might even go to hell. I don’t believe in hell anymore and I haven't for a long time, but for those who do, this presents a very serious problem.
The people who conceived never even knew anything had happened, and some of them probably wanted to be pregnant or were trying! I thought of my own six siblings in my family of seven children and did the math. Nothing made sense but to admit what I already intuitively knew: that “life,” however that was defined and whatever I believed about the human “soul,” cannot possibly begin at conception. This was a revelation. The belief that a soul was imparted to every fetus at the moment of conception was tantamount to gospel in my family, the churches I had grown up in and the schools I had attended. But the more I read, the more I found just how little evidence there was to support any of those beliefs.
I was a woman on fire and I had to keep digging.
4. Researching the history of the “pro-life” movement.
As I mentioned, I had always been told that the belief that a fetus is a person and that life begins at conception was the “historic” Christian position - that real Christians had always believed those things, and if you didn’t believe those things you might not be a Christian at all.
Imagine my surprise when I did a little reading and found out that up until the 1970s, even quite conservative Christian publications like the magazine Christianity Today displayed somewhat ambivalent attitudes towards abortion. There had been varying theological opinions, just not in Christianity but in Judaism as well, where the fetus is generally considered to be valuable but not of personhood status like the mother. The question of “when life begins” had in no way always been settled. Why did the Christians I grew up around pretend that it had been?
As it turns out, prior to conservative Christians mobilizing around abortion in the 80s and 90s, they had another cause: opposing desegregation. But as the tide of public opinion began to shift and they lost important high-profile cases like Bob Jones University vs. The United States, they realized that they needed to find another rallying cry - and this time, it needed to make them look good. And thus, the so-called “pro-life” or anti-choice movement was born.
If the liberal Christians, Democrats and non-religious people could be painted as "anti-life," then who wouldn't want to support the conservative Christians and Republicans instead?. It was genius, from a marketing standpoint. It was also incredibly dangerous. Once this rhetoric took hold, abortion clinic bombings became something every doctor and staff member had to fear, and seven murders occurred during the 1990s alone. Many of the murderers were Christian and claimed to be acting on behalf of unborn babies. Most notably, though, the adoption of “pro-life” as the primary conservative cause also served as something of a Trojan horse for racist policies. Those who had been fighting desegregation and Civil Rights simply pivoted and started talking about babies, but they retained their racist beliefs and were elected into office over and over again. In the end, Roe v. Wade has been relatively safe (up until recently), but legislation like the Voting Rights Act had its legs cut out from under it.
5. Tapping into my empathy and intuition.
Ultimately, all of these amazing facts that I learned about the human reproductive system, about all the diverse reasons people choose or need abortion and about our recent-yet-mysteriously-veiled history only served to bolster the distinct feeling I had felt building in my gut - that access to reproductive healthcare, not “even” abortion but especially abortion, is a justice issue.
There’s a funny thing that sometimes happens when you’re raised in conservative Christianity: you end up wanting to be a better person than your theology allows you to be. Whether it’s about abortion, transgender people using the bathroom they feel comfortable in, LGBTQ adoption rights, immigration, or many other issues, a lot of people tell me that they want to be able to support this thing (insert any of the issues above, but in this case, abortion) that would mitigate a ton of suffering for people, enact justice in their communities, and make people’s lives objectively better - but they just can’t, because their faith doesn’t allow them to.
If that’s you, I just want to say this: you may be right.
Your faith as it currently exists may not allow you to be the good person that you want to be. Your kindness and empathy and compassion may have outgrown your faith like an old shoe that doesn’t fit anymore, and now it hurts because you still keep trying to squeeze yourself into it. But as hard as we try, we can’t fit our feet into shoes that are too small for us. Doing so will only injure us, and by extension those around us. Allowing my empathy to be bigger than my theology was the best thing I ever did for my faith. My theology isn’t sacred, but humanity is.
If you’re someone who’s seeing access to reproductive healthcare and abortion being peeled away one ruling at a time and are wondering whether your faith allows you to mourn with those who mourn, I am here to tell you that the only version of it worth following most definitely does. I don't know if we have a “soul” or what one might be if we did, but I do know that your heart and your mind are bigger and better and worth more than a system of theology that demands cramming ourselves, our bodies, our sexualities, and whatever our souls may be into shoes that are way too small. When you find yourself wondering why you don’t feel about abortion and the people who seek them the way that your theology says you should, perhaps consider that the theology is the problem, rather than your inborn human empathy. And when you find yourself feeling obligated to support ideas and people whose end result is suffering, oppression, and the loss of basic human rights like healthcare for whole swaths of people, remember that it’s okay to question those ideas and those people - that no belief system is more important than real-life actual people.
For those who are “struggling” to support abortion rights for all, I hope that you can continue to show up, to research, to read, to learn, and to listen. I hope that you allow your empathy to blossom and your compassion to extend beyond the bounds of your theology. I hope your theology grows with you. I hope you know that no matter what you lose along the way, there will be a whole community of people who care about justice waiting to embrace you and a whole wide world out there to explore, bigger and better and more lovely than anyone’s theology can encompass. For those who are “struggling,” I hope you are struggling just a little less.