My Journey From Anti-Choice Evangelical to Repro Rights Reporter

Editor’s note: This excerpt has been slightly condensed for length.

FOR TWENTY-THREE YEARS, I was vehemently antiabortion. My parents raised my sister and me in a tiny evangelical Methodist church in our West Tennessee farming community, the sort of place where casseroles and cakes appear when something bad befalls anyone within the county lines. Our church was white but not because the community itself was—our halls of worship were always segregated. I remember the first time I heard the word abortion spoken there; I must have been thirteen, maybe fourteen years old. It happened in my Sunday school class, held in a recently constructed annex to our church that felt stark and bare compared to the warm, worn wood and ethereal stained-glass glow of the original structure.

The lesson that day was being taught by a man who had always treated my family with kindness, greeting us with unrestrained warmth, a ruddy-complected young father who seemed to always be laughing or tossing his little boys in the air to make them shriek with joy. He pressed us to consider evil and harm we had never fathomed in our adolescence. It was the first time I’d been asked to consider the nuances of abortion. We were high schoolers—nearly grown. Some of our peers were having their first children, after all. It was time to start talking to us as adults. What did we think of abortion? I have a hazy recollection of one of my classmates declaring that the act is a murderous one. What about for victims of rape? he pressed gently. Incest? Unease bloomed in my stomach; until that moment I had never considered that anyone would get an abortion for any reason other than pure selfishness—when we are teenagers, we are at the height of our ego, and it’s difficult to comprehend much beyond our narrow interpretation of the world. I don’t really recall him offering up a hard and fast opinion; I think his point was to show us that the world is a complex place, and the more you learn about it, the harder it is to apply the lessons taught in the protective halls of church or Sunday school or youth group. He was right about that.

For me, this was where the religion I grew up fervently believing in first got thorny, catching not only on my empathy but also my pragmatism. As of that morning in Sunday school, I was an absolutist, declaring that God could make any evil beautiful if a woman would simply devote her faith and her body to him. Childbirth would somehow, in my underexamined ideology, mean that all would be well. Still, something tugged at me, a knowledge that it couldn’t be so simple, that life was not so straightforward, a sense that there was more to the story. Even then I understood something of the magnitude of growing another person inside oneself, of giving birth, the mechanics of which seemed truly horrifying, and of raising a child without the means and the stalwart desire to do so—out of simply having no other choice. Over the years, that sense that there had to be more to this grew until I could no longer ignore it. Some of my fading certainty came out of pure stubbornness: I never could stand being told I couldn’t do something, certainly not on the basis of my gender, no matter the plans of a paternalistic god I could neither see nor hear. As my world grew, as I learned to let in more people who were unlike me, I could no longer find reasons to justify my worldview as it had been formed in the halls of that country church.

My upbringing, which imbued an inherently female responsibility in me to keep the peace above all else, is not fully dissolved. Even now, when relatives or acquaintances whose politics I cannot identify with certainty ask me what my book is about, or what I cover as a reporter, I reply with something vague like “health care” or “women’s health,” just to err on the side of preserving peace and to avoid igniting a fire I know I can not muster the energy to put out.

When I think about that day in Sunday school, I recall more about the emotion in the room than what was said. I remember the fear, the uncertainty, the strange thrill of talking about a subject that was taboo. I remember the way the word abortion sounded from the mouth of a God-fearing man, more like a demonic ritual than a medical procedure. It’s understandable that so many of the women I’ve spoken with for this book have wished to avoid it, even when they do want to tell their stories. Over the three years I spent interviewing people, many who have sought abortion care told me that they had kept their abortions secret from those around them and had also quietly locked the memory away inside themselves for decades, not wanting to confront the internalized stigma that they had subconsciously absorbed. In the beginning, I expected to hear that sentiment only from women who were able to get illegal abortions before the Supreme Court’s passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which legalized the procedure nationwide. And it’s true that the vast majority of those women, now in their seventies and eighties, were never able to bring themselves to tell their families or friends about their choice until they decided to tell their stories here. Even so, most of them chose to disguise their identities.

But now, I thought, people must be more likely to be vocal about their abortion experiences. Renee Bracey Sherman, who has been called “the Beyoncé of abortion storytelling,” created and organized a nonprofit called We Testify that is devoted to giving people from all backgrounds a space to describe their abortion experiences on their own terms. There are social media campaigns like Lindy West, Amelia Bonow, and Kimberly Morrison’s “Shout Your Abortion” project. Abortion rights groups use storytellers to normalize the medical procedure on Instagram and Facebook. Gen Z activists take to TikTok to cobble together micro poems in video form about their pro-choice convictions. But to my surprise, things haven’t actually changed so much. Abortion is still often whispered about, if it’s discussed at all, especially in states governed by antiabortion legislatures. Those states have been existing in a post-Roe status for a long time.

As of the most recent estimations, about one out of every four women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime; many of those women do not turn around and become advocates for abortion access. They shouldn’t have to. They should have the freedom to be able to get the health care they need and go on to live their lives. Except the right to abortion isn’t considered as intrinsic as the one to gall bladder surgery. It is constantly in danger. The ceaseless attacks on abortion don’t just limit who can have one; it shrouds the entire process under a layer of projected immorality that isn’t easy to cast off, particularly if you grew up anywhere other than a coastal metropolitan area.

I have never had an abortion. I became pro-choice through the slow realization as I came into adulthood that, by design, I knew very little about my own body, like the women I grew up alongside. I know grown women who have never been to see a gynecologist, and still others who did not know what a pelvic exam was long after they became sexually active. Their churches and their schools’ abstinence-only sex education do not discuss women’s health, and in so many conservative homes, the subject of women’s bodies is so steeped in fear of premature sex that the need for knowledge and care is drowned out. Many simply do not have access to reproductive health care or contraception—full stop—for all sorts of reasons: lack of a nearby gynecologist, lack of affordable birth control options, lack of health care because their state chose to not expand Medicaid, making routine check-ups an out-of-reach luxury. In the summer of 2022, the federal protections to the right to an abortion, too, were obliterated. How can we hold people accountable for seeking abortion care when we do not equip them to have basic control over their own reproductive lives?

Still, I remember vividly what it was like to hold a conviction as visceral and ironclad as the one that abortion is murder. It’s not my belief anymore, but it is that of millions of people, and that belief, wrong though I believe it to be, has shaped American politics in a powerful way, launching a societal clash that has inspired more war metaphors than anyone ever thought the English language could produce. Boiling down the issue of abortion care to equate to murder has taken an unquestionable toll on the American societal psyche, and now, we are paying the price.

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