(Note: this is an extremely long post. Grab a cup of tea and spend 15 minutes reading my conversion story. Leave a comment at the end to let me know that you got through it!)
My earliest memory on this subject comes at age eight, or there about, and screaming in the middle of a four-square court on a Columbus playground, “Well, I’m not a Republican because Ronald Regan makes women have babies when they don’t want to!”
My concern over abortion rights had a bizarre beginning. My mother started out her teaching career as a seventh grade history teacher in a special inner-city school for pregnant girls. This meant she that had daily exposure to girls ages 12 and 13 who were pregnant with their second or even third baby. So my mom, who was too tongue-tied to offer me an explanation of sex or even to urge abstinence, just kept telling me from age eight “If you ever get pregnant come tell me early so that we can take care of it.”
I knew that I was going to have an abortion if I got pregnant before I even had any idea how one became pregnant. I figured out from watching movies that passionate kissing must be involved. Couples kissed a lot and then in the next frame they had a baby. So I decided that there was some big electric clock-like counter in a couple’s bedroom and after a certain number of kisses in a row- say 500- a baby would suddenly appear in a Mama’s belly. (I distinctly remember having this thought as late as 7th grade.)
Skip to senior year in high school. We’ve moved to rural West Virginia, a place where teenage pregnancy is “rampant” or at least out in the open when girls decide on adoption rather than abortion. I remember standing in the lunch line as a freshman and being shocked at seeing 4 to 5 girls in line ahead of me with swollen bellies.
My senior year, my well-respected doctor, came to speak to my Methodist high school youth group about sexual education. After his chat about the dangers of syphilis, he calmly passes around tiny fetuses in test tubes. “See how small fetuses are,” he said passing them around. “They can’t live on their own. This is why it’s okay to abort them early.” The babies were impossibly small, under an inch long, and looked like unformed Martians bobbing up and down in formaldehyde, like some type of toy. He passed them around to show how uncreepy death was. A freshman girl ahead of me recoiled and refused to touch the two tubes. I remember distinctly pushing down the bile in my stomach, and grabbing the test tube in front of her. I felt like I had to be brave, and have a scientific mindset in front of my doctor. “Yep, this is not human. It might as well be a chicken embryo.” I thought, “Early abortion must be okay, just not late, late abortion.”
(I have no idea why this was permitted in my Methodist Youth Group. I’m sure that many adults in my Methodist church did not share my doctor’s viewpoint. But no parent or the youth group leaders ever complained about it. I can only assume that as a popular doctor, no one dared to complain to their parents about his tactics or his message.)
When it was time to attend Smith College, I looked carefully over the student health insurance brochure. The brochure said plainly that abortions were a covered service, kept entirely confidential from the student’s parents, and even secretly coded in the resulting medical bill. I’d never gone further than kissing a guy, but I remembered thinking at age 18, “this is good. I’ll be responsible and get the insurance for this reason.” It seems so important to be responsible and plan for this service before I was actually in a position to need it. I remember urging my dad to pay for the optional health insurance. He didn’t want to pay at extra $500 because I’d still be covered on his family plan until I turned 21. I fought hard, and kept saying “I really need this.” I never told him the real reason behind my urgency. I justified the extra cost to my parents because I figured it was far easier to pay $500 for a medical plan I may not use, rather than have to ask him for the money to pay for an abortion if I accidentally became pregnant.
I held onto my virginity until just a few weeks before my 21st birthday. My decision to lose it was so heartbreakingly innocent. I remember pacing up and down this hill by my dorm my junior year- weighing the pros and cons. I’d been dating this boy for five months. I’d reached the end of what I thought was the only “normal” time to be a virgin. (I had somehow decided was okay to be a virgin when you went into college, but if you were still one after age 21, you morphed into this scary, weird thing & no one would date you.) So now I’d come to the cross roads: so here was the basics of my internal monologue which continued for over two hours as I paced up and down this steep hill. “I love X. I really love him. But what if we don’t end up married college sweethearts like my parents? Hmm, well even if we break-up and I end up marrying someone else, my future husband is still going to know that I really loved X when I was 20, so what is the difference if I slept with X too?” “So what is the difference?”- that was conclusion what marked my fall from celibacy with a guy who broke up with me three weeks later!
While nursing a broken heart Junior year, I’d also enrolled in this intensive senior seminar called “Women and The Law.” We met once a week at a local café to talk with my favorite professor about musty Supreme Court cases and old articles from The Economist. This class was memorable because I actually got to debate policy while eating my favorite lemon poppy seed scones. I also asked a fellow classmate “How was your summer break?” Her unexpected answer “Great, I was an egg donor!” Out poured a hideous tale about shots, doctor visits and the advantage of a Smith degree on the price of one’s ova. All I could think of was “GROSS.”
So in the midst of this climate, I read Roe v. Wade for the fist time and I get this sharp, stabbing pain in my stomach. Suddenly the abortion debate is real. I had sex, I could have gotten pregnant, and in the middle of this frantic “debate” I realize that I personally could never have an abortion. I was a college student. I had options for employment. Even if it were hard in the beginning, if I got pregnant now, I wouldn’t hesitate to keep the baby.
So that is how I morphed from “I’m going to have an abortion.” To I’m personally against it, but people should have the right to make up their own minds about it.”
Then came two telling events in law school. First, I gave material aid to someone seeking an abortion. One of my close friends picked me up from the airport and said she was pregnant. I said “Congratulations!” She responded, “This isn’t good news.” I had this prickly feeling every time she talked to me about it. At that time, I thought that I might never have a baby of my own. I wondered if I should offer to adopt it for her. I raised the issue with my friend in one hesitant, poorly stated question “Have you thought about adoption?” My friend said she couldn’t bear to do adoption. It was going to be raise the child herself or have an abortion. After two weeks of debate, she asked me to go with her to the clinic.
Filled with ironic pride that I was "such a good friend", I had the "honor" of accompanying her to the clinic. When it came time for the procedure, I asked her if we should say a prayer for the baby. My friend said, “No, that will make this worse.” So I said a silent prayer, instead. (I don’t know why I felt moved to offer to say a prayer for the baby but still lack enough clarity of thought to not yell STOP!) I remember feeling sort of numb towards my friend, but thinking clearly that the other girls in the waiting room looked so sad. They were young, college kids and high school kids. Each had a female friend with her and the friend kept joking in an attempt to take away the pain “Think how much fun you’ll have with your boyfriend tonight at the party!” and “Maybe we can go out for chocolate milkshakes when you’re done.” Soothing the pain of an abortion with promises of milkshakes and boy-girl parties, it seemed so painfully young.
Five months later, I was shocked by the painfully cheap price of an abortion. I was manning the call center for our Family Law Clinic. A low-income mother called, furious, that there was no public funds for abortions in Wisconsin. “Shouldn’t that be illegal?” she asked. “Can’t I sue someone?” Her daughter was pregnant with a second or third child, and she didn’t have the money to get an abortion. It was going to cost $350. On and on this mother went complaining about the cost. “Doesn’t the state know how much more expensive it is to pay for a child on welfare? Why isn’t there more money for abortions?” I started out pacifying her and then I got more and more upset. I remember scrambling to get off the phone and finally hanging up the phone in relief.
Then we read Roe v. Wade in law school. I noticed for the first time that this case is a thoroughly rottenly decided legal opinion. It’s short. It doesn’t cite precedent. It rests on a first trimester, second trimester and third trimester framework which no longer matches the living saving technology available in hospital NCUs. Here I was wrapping my head around terribly complex constitutional issues- and this seemed sort of slapped together, poorly reasoned. How could this central Constitutional law question be so different from all the other Supreme Court decisions in my casebook?
In my last semester of law school, I met my future husband. Only, I didn’t know it at the time. I was graduating in six months and he was supposed to be my foray into guilt-free causal sex. This insight was made I was still a good Methodist girl who was living in dorm attached to an Episcopal Church. I was ridiculously proud that he was only my third partner at 26 and that we “waited” a whole three months. Of course, actual tears came out of my eyes and ran all over his head every time we had sex because I just couldn’t imagine ever breaking up with him.
My new boyfriend was a Catholic, which I should spell with a small “c” because he was only going to Mass five times a year and obviously had no qualms about having pre-marital sex with me. Even so, I knew that he’d draw the line at throwing away a potential baby. He’d be the type to honor his duty and become a father. While that touched me, it also freaked me out. Suddenly, I wouldn’t be the only one who decided what to do about a pregnancy. Also I wanted him to marry me because he loved me, and not feel like he had to stick around for a potential child. At the time, that seemed like the greater tragedy. To have a boy I loved stay with me, but for all the wrong reasons.
So how did I cope with these thoughts? I just doubled up the birth control! I went to our college health clinic before we started having sex and ordered a Depo Preva shot from a nurse practitioner. God Bless the doctor who freaked out that I was putting such toxic chemicals in my body and demanded that I switch to low-hormone birth control pills. I wasn’t excited because I didn’t think that I could remember to take them at the same time each day. But I consented. So their we were having sex with condoms & birth control pills. Within two to three months, I stopped taking the pill. I complained about horrible side effects- and my sensitive boyfriend told me to just stop- he hated me putting those chemicals in my body.
The condoms as birth control stayed the same while everything else changed in two years. I graduated, moved to Ohio, got a job, & passed the bar. He helped me move, started graduate school in New York, proposed the next weekend. We got married, 18 months after we met, in a valid ceremony in my home-town. We moved up our wedding a year so that we never had to “live” together, since we had both decided independently that co-habitation was bad for Christians. (That sort of summed up my bizarre thinking, co-habitation is wrong, contraception is not) During the Catholic pre-marital counseling (called pre-cana) I freaked out about the no-birth control rule. I remember saying, “I’ll agree to raise our kids Catholic but I’m not giving up birth control!” My fiancé agreed. Then came those awful September 11th attacks and I realized that I wanted his children sooner, rather than later.
To celebrate my husband’s 30th birthday, our first wedding anniversary, and his end of graduate school in New York (and hence an end to our nine hour commute)—we took a trip to Ireland. I had just converted to the faith that Easter after finishing a year of RCIA. Being around all those ancient cathedrals with my new shiny faith felt electric. I loved the cleansing feeling of my first confession. When we got home, I just thought that I don’t want to have to confess being on birth control. This was the entire basis of my conversion. I didn’t want to sit in a dark room, anonymously, telling a strange priest, that my husband and I use birth control. I didn’t know why it was wrong, just that the church thought it was. As a result, I was going to have the embarrassment of sharing the details of my sex life with a celibate stranger. Somehow, it seemed just easier to stop using it.
So I shared that incoherent idea with my husband and he agreed.
I remember clearly, we were cleaning up the bedroom and my husband took a long shiny roll of condoms, about fifteen left over from our Ireland trip, in a line so long it reached from his palm to the edge of our trash can. “Guess we don’t need these any more,” he said cheerfully and pitched the condoms inside. My entire line of descendants can trace their existence to that one bold act. My profound thought at the time was “Oh, those cost $22! Such a waste of money if we change our minds!”
So we became “open to life.” Sex, which had already turned into “making love” when we got married, suddenly became this profound, humbling thing. I thought that it would take us six moths to a year to become pregnant. I thought we’d have time for my husband to find a job, for us to settle into marriage, for us to find a similar way to record withdraws in our joint checkbook. Yet two weeks later, Hannah showed up!
I freaked out! I was happy. We called our parents. We set up our first pre-natal visit. Yet most of me was really numb. At the doctors office, I was surprised that the nurses kept saying “Congratulations!” I had a hard time connecting this new state of pregnancy with an actual, live baby appearing within nine months.
I remember so clearly when that all changed. It was a Saturday morning in July. I was fooling around on my husband’s computer and I found this great pro-life site that had real pictures and descriptions of each of the stages of fetal development. We were eight weeks in, and the baby’s heart had just started beating. I remember jumping around and telling my husband “the heart has started, the heart has started!”
We went for a walk downtown to celebrate. I remember so clearly, the bright sunshine, and the feel of my husband’s hand and the rough slope of the sidewalk and this electric feeling that there was a baby’s heartbeat inside of me. A heart beat that would go on her whole life, and it had just begun inside of me!
Then my next thought, "But she’s still a chicken! She’s in that chicken stage of embryonic development, so she’s not really a baby yet."
Then I realized with this all over clarity which somehow sort of hit my whole body at once, rather than just my brain, all chicken embryos are babies. Why should this baby be different? Why are we celebrating the start of this baby's heartbeat just because of a few external factors of her mother? I was white, married and had a graduate degree. As a poverty law attorney, I’d dedicated my life to fight for equality for people who didn’t look like me. I’d helped poor women get food stamps and housing and a decent education. Yet if one of my clients was unmarried, younger, with less education, she wasn’t supposed to be celebrating her baby starting a heartbeat. This was supposed to be a “problem” she should be busy getting rid of.
So that started me on the road to becoming an obedient Catholic, one with a capital “C.” I’d never heard about “natural family planning” and so somehow confused it in my internet research with ecological breastfeeding. That left me blissfully quitting my job (I was the only one with health insurance) and planning a move to Wisconsin, before discovering that I was twenty-weeks pregnant with baby number 2. He was conceived during that mind numbing time of being a full time lawyer, and nursing a nine-month old baby. When we found out the date of conception, I turned to my husband and honestly questioned “We had sex in January?” We did, and thank goodness.
I remember reassuringly rubbing my huge tummy with a baby I called "Joey," when a college friend questioned "Are you sure this is the right time?” I already had one child under age one, neither my husband nor me had a steady job, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment the size of a shoebox. I told her confidently that Hannah didn’t seem to come at the right time either. Now, however, I know that God’s timing is perfect. And it’s true. We are still paying off a $15,000 credit card bill contracted during that time period, but how could the world exist without my son Alex?
My only truly “planned for” baby was my third child, Francisco. We sketched out the time line for our third child when Alex was only one month old. We took classes in Natural Family Planning. We successfully prevented conception during the awful time when we were unemployed and living with my husband’s parents. Once we had a new job, health insurance, and a new apartment, we happily reversed course. When we found out about Francisco, we threw a family “conception party.” I also prayed the rosary in thanksgiving and dedicated the baby to our Blessed Mother.
We were excited to find out that our new health plan offered a free ultrasound at seven weeks. My husband balanced a 3 year old and a 1 year old on each knee. Everyone strained to make out blurry blue shapes on the ultrasound machine. Then the doctor said, “Sorry there is no heartbeat. It looks like a miscarriage.”
Jon removed the questioning children from the room in a hurry. "What's wrong with the little baby, Daddy?" my daughter asked. I was left alone to hear the facts of a 'blighted ovum" from my doctor. We we got home and put the older babies down for a nap, Jon and I reviewed the prognosis. We refused to believe that the miscarriage had already happened. Instead, we prayed and prayed. My whole Catholic Mothers Group joined me in prayer. Our baby grew and developed a strong heartbeat. After two tense weeks, the baby passed his ultrasound: "Your little one looks great. The baby is right on track for where he or she should be at eight weeks." We thought that our conception date was just off and that now we were home free. On week thirteen, I went for a regular ob visit and discovered the baby died the day before. I had a miscarriage at home and we had a full Catholic burial with his body.
The profound experience of seeing my son, who died at 12 weeks and six days, made changed us from pro-life to vocally PRO-LIFE. My son was extremely small, less than four inches, but fully formed. He had toes, fingers, teeth buds inside his gums, and a tiny penis no bigger than a grain of rice. This last fact surprises people, who assume I’m just “wishing” that we had another son since it would be too early to possibly know for certain.
I had an upsetting conversation with my best friend over this issue, whose mother is ironically a science teacher. “He must have been older than the ultrasound date! If you could identify the genitalia, he must have been older” she confidentially stated. This was upsetting because I’d barely reconciled myself to a loss that just crossed over the first trimester. If I’d truly lost him in the second, I thought that it would be so much harder to have a fourth baby. “Let’s trust the experts,” my husband wisely said. I’ve since realized why people are so insistent that Francisco must have been older when he died. Babies aren’t supposed to be recognizable so early. That’s when abortion starts to hurt.
Now it all makes me sick to my stomach. Abortion. IVF babies thrown into the trash. Children aborted because they have Down syndrome. Or because their parents can’t afford the price of another college education. Or the fact that they are due before a marriage instead of after. As Americans, we are so judgmental about female children getting aborted in India, or the second & third children in China. Yet we also live in a culture that is throwing away children. My friends ask me “why have you changed?” But I’ve always been a child advocate. I took on tough child abuse cases as a lawyer and fought for better nutrition in schools. I’ve just moved back the time line on what counts as a child, and now I fight just as passionately for even younger kids.
This experience has given me a profound respect for the Roman Catholic Church. The church knew it was wrong and is the one institution that is consistently pro-life. As a mother and former Protestant, I wish I had embraced strict obedience in the Pro-Life area earlier. Instead, I participated in the death of one child. I debased my gift of sexuality with pre-marital sex. I may have directly killed some of my own children during my months of taking the pill, a chemical that causes abortions as well as preventing ovulation.
The real tragedy is that I freely committed all of these sins while continuing to imagine myself as "a good Methodist girl." I knew that I’d never, ever cheat on my husband once I was married. Somehow, I never connected that having pre-marital sex was just cheating on him before we had a chance to meet. In the same way, I wanted to be a loving mother. Yet, I never connected that only God could decide when you were “ready” to have a child.
I think that birth control also has a dangerous fallacy that there is a time in your life when you can be “ready to have a child.” I think we’d be doing a much better service to low-income women and young teenage women, to just admit that most mothers never feel truly “ready” to have a child. You can never have enough money, enough maturity, enough mental resources.
My proof is that with all of my experience, yesterday, my son throw a cheese grater at my newborn daughter. He hit her in the stomach, while I was inches away shutting down my computer and arguing with my four year old about why she couldn’t wash the dishes again right before Daddy was expected home for lunch. My son stood at my doorway and suddenly threw a cheese grater with all of his might. It bounced off his newborn sister’s stomach. I had a fearful few seconds when I didn’t know if, or how badly,the baby was injured. With every one in time-out, or nursing, I had a breakdown. I just thought, “Everyone is right. I have to many children. I can not keep an eye on them all. I’ve become the old woman in the shoe!”
My poor husband returned to work from his lunch break at home, knowing that he left a wife in bad state. I kept calling him every forty minutes with updates on how horrible life was with three children under age four allergy season. Then mercifully everyone fell asleep. I got to write a blog entry about Spartacus that made me feel human again. We decided to skip the trying to make dinner without any groceries drama and went out to eat to the newly discovered nearby “Noodles & Co.”
Then happiness unexpectedly hit me. My two kids politely shared a cheap plate of buttered noodles. My newborn was cooed in her car seat. Meanwhile, my employed husband drank a Japanese beer to celebrate Labor Day weekend.
I exclaimed over a yummy dish of Japanese noodles, “I love this dish, I used to order it all the time in Madison!” And my husband answered, “I loved that place, I went there all of the time.”
I made the discovery that for two and half years my future husband and I visited the same favorite noodle shop and yet never met. Then I strikes me what a gift this was- that we did meet on a snowy night of January 2000, and now I have a son who sings vintage Spiderman cartoon songs, and a daughter who shows off her newly painted her toenails, and a newborn who can now stare at ceiling lights, and even a little son in heaven who keeps us focused on all things eternal.
This was all “God’s Plan” and ever so much more thrilling than any plot that I could dream up myself!