[National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1993]
Linda was six months pregnant the first time I saw her. Her mother had kicked her out of the house, and the homeless shelter only allowed her two weeks, so she was about to be homeless again. When Linda came to stay with us, she brought all her earthly belongings were in a black plastic garbage bag; about half was stuffed animals.
The abortion issue is more than a political cause, it is real stories, like this one, of women caught in difficult situations. In Linda’s case there was a happy ending, and she returned for a visit to show off her wedding ring, while her husband beamed over his baby girl. Not all stories end so happily. But I have come to challenge the very notion that happiness and comfort are life’s highest values, as well as questioning whether abortion really solves a pregnant woman’s problems.
For our feel-good culture demands instant relief. This philosophy even infects contemporary Christianity; a typical Christian bookstore promotes titles like "Jesus Wants You Thin," along with tapes on inflating one’s self-esteem, cutie-pie art, and Praise Polka music about being happy-all-the-time. A friend refers to this shallow, profitable sideshow as "Hot-tub Christianity."
But it is worse than that; it is a lie. If Christianity means being happy-all-the-time, what’s He doing up there on that Cross? The deeper truth of our faith is that only in following our Lord on difficult paths can we gain the peace the world cannot know. Women are as able as men to take the challenging path, as their stories throughout history show—and as is proven again every time a woman completes the earthy drama of labor and birth. No one who has witnessed a birth could ever think women are weak.
Perhaps, for women more than men, the crosses we bear are physical. A book on women’s health care is titled Our Bodies, Ourselves, while a similar book for men was called Man’s Body—An Owner’s Manual. Men tool around in their bodies, as if in little skin-tight sports cars, until the day the engines finally break down. But we are our bodies, from the earliest menstrual cramps and fears through the challenges of pregnancy, infertility, hormones and menses, until the final poignant slide into menopause.
Living gracefully in one’s body is the first spiritual school, and an unplanned pregnancy may be a woman’s greatest challenge. Is bearing it to the end an unnecessary martyrdom? Can’t it be fixed, just as she would not hesitate to fix a broken leg?
But, in my experience, abortion fixes the short-term problem at the cost of long-term grief. Abortion providers may daily bask in the glow of client gratitude, but when the client goes home she begins the slow years of pondering what she has done. The burst of relief in the recovery room is bright but brief, though a month or a year or a dozen may pass in denial—years perhaps woven with nightmares, eating disorders, and panic attacks. It is hard to know that your own child died by your choice, and each day reminds you that it cannot be undone—abortion is forever.
The bitterest deceit is that abortion does not solve the problems that crisis pregnancy poses. While an unplanned pregnancy can be ringed with challenging problems, the difficulties are with the woman’s situation—not with her own child, growing peacefully under her heart. Abortion makes women sacrifice their children instead of changing society, and it perpetuates a status quo which insures that other women will "have to have" an abortion. This is most obvious in those cases where the woman felt compelled to abort because she would have lost a job, or missed school time, or because the child’s father had abandoned her.
But even in the worst circumstances abortion does not help. Pro-life groups concerned with sexual assault pregnancies tell me that, when women abort rape pregnancies, they say the abortion felt like another invasion of their bodies, a second act of violence, one which, once again, they had no power to refuse. (For what do people say when a rape victim decides to continue her pregnancy?)
Incest victims protest bitterly that abortion concealed and perpetuated their abuse. A friend who is a counselor tells me of one client who was taken by her father for seven abortions before she was 14. Jean was 12 when her sexually abusive brother took her to an abortion clinic. The staff scheduled an abortion and gave her a bag full of fun-colored condoms, along with a lecture on "protecting herself." Then they sent her home, once again, with her brother.
Sad stories, for and against abortion, pour out in a cascade, and we wonder if it can really be that God will someday wipe all these tears from our eyes. But in a sense the procession of competing stories cheapens the dialogue. In a kind of ghastly Queen for a Day contest, the opposite sides bring out their candidates—this one was raped, this one was ruined, this one butchered, this one abandoned—and the audience claps for the story they find most dismal. Of course, in any such contest, the end result is impasse. All these stories are too sad; we can’t make any moral distinctions among them; it’s best to just let things sort themselves out and go spend some time at the mall.
Elizabeth sits on her couch, eyes brimming with tears; a legal abortion made sure she would not be a teenaged mother and, for good measure, so damaged her that she will never be a mother at all. She tells her tragic story, so familiar and so unique, of how circumstances drove her to the expedient, bitter choice of abortion. As the tears break through she says, "The message the world gives is not true. There are no easy answers. There’s always going to be pain whatever decision you make. But you can suffer pain for life—or for death."
In the darkened church there hangs an image of one who suffered. In the silence we must ask ourselves: was it for life or for death?