Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mandatory Motherhood

The cover article of a recent issue of New York magazine was entitled "My Abortion". It included first-person accounts from 26 women who had abortions between 1968 and 2013. While each woman's story is gripping and provides vital perspective, there is one I haven't been able to get out of mind.

In 2002, Cherisse, a paralegal, thought she was going to an abortion clinic, but the ultrasound technician she was referred to told her that having an abortion would ruin her uterus for bearing children in the future. Cherise kept that baby, but went on to have three abortions over the next five years before meeting a "reproductive-justice advocate who finally taught me how to understand my fertility."

And Cherisse is but one voice for throngs of desperate women seeking to make the best choices in difficult situations. Why would anyone who opposes abortion not want to equip women with the knowledge they need? Why not teach women to understand and care for their own bodies? Why rely on "lies and scare tactics"? Why give misleading or erroneous information like telling women they can go to college for free if they have a child?

At the ripe age of fourteen and a half, I was already learning and spouting many lies myself, winning a $50 prize from Right to Life for a speech in which I announced that "more abortions have occurred from Christians using the Pill than in all the abortion clinics combined" and lauded a couple in Tennessee with eleven offspring. I quoted the Old Testament: "Be fruitful and multiply" and paraphrased from the prophet Malachi. "God's purpose for marriage is that Godly offspring might be raised from the union."

Parroting arguments I'd heard, I threw myself headlong into subjects of which I was almost completely ignorant: "Islam is the most rapidly growing religion today", I said, "because of their respect for life. The average Islamic woman has six children; that's really pro-life!" And I went on: "Children are blessings, God's rewards to those who fear Him. But why do we place a limit on how many we'll take? With attitudes like that, how can ever expect to persuade the world to abolish abortion? Today many couples are having reversal surgeries and trusting God for more children..."

Little did I realize that I was promoting arguments from the Middle Ages. 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas posited that an unprotected vagina was the only place a man could ejaculate without imperiling his soul. For centuries since, this teaching on sex has been part of the good news of the gospel the Roman Catholic Church has promoted around the world. And if that isn't enough, the Church also opposes all forms of contraception.

Little did I dream standing under a portrait of the Pope on that spring night, that ten years later my own parents would have produced eleven children, that another three years later I would have conceived every time I ovulated since my marriage, that there was nothing natural about natural family planning, that condoms were as essential for my babies' wellbeing as for my own, that birth control is an expression of selflessness, and that one day my husband's vasectomy would be an occasion for rejoicing.

Cherisse was in Chicago, but women in Kansas face similar hurdles to self-care. Take A Better Choice, for example, a crisis pregnancy center operated by the Catholic Church. ABC offers pregnancy testing, STD education, information about abortion procedures, compassion, and "chastity mentoring". On the other side of town, the evangelical Pregnancy Crisis Center of Wichita offers pregnancy tests, STD testing, counseling on abstinence, parenting classes, Bible studies, and adoption information. PCC's website assures clients:
"Everything we do is focused on empowering you to make healthy, informed choices. Here you will meet people who care about you."
However, it also states:
"PCC is a limited medical facility and does not provide or refer for abortions or birth control."
Dr. Scott Stringfield is a family practitioner who is also the chairman of the board at Choices Medical Clinic, an anti-abortion organization affiliated with Via Christi Health that has the stated goal of helping women "come to know Christ". The Bible is his favorite book and his faith his primary passion. Stringfield serves on the faculty of Via Christi's Family Medicine residency program: according to the Choices website, the clinic has served as community rotation for over 200 residents. Nursing students from Wichita State also rotate at Choices, and the clinic offers internships for student sonographers from Washburn University. 

When asked recently--at a Q & A after a film screening in Wichita last month--about how his clinic helps women to avoid future unplanned pregnancies and whether he and his staff counsel women about contraception after delivery, Dr. Stringfield squirmed a bit. He does not see access to birth control as a problem for his clients. According to Dr. Stringfield, a woman can easily purchase contraceptives (condoms) at Walmart. But he had to choose his words carefully because he does, indeed, have a moral objection to any birth control method that might prevent a fertilized egg from becoming a pregnancy.

As a Protestant, Dr. Stringfield does not hold any religious objection to "barriers" that prevent sperm from entering a cervix, but after that...  Information on abortion risks? Oh, my, yes. But information on how not to get pregnant again? Well, no, that is a service Choices Medical Clinic does not currently offer.

My own unplanned pregnancy forever changed my perspective on reproductive rights. I well remember months of guilt and confusion, trying to learn about my body and sort out myth from fact. I often fantasized about visiting the pregnancy crisis center down the street, not that I needed financial help or was debating my options: I just longed for support, compassion, and honest information about controlling my fertility. What could they tell me, I wondered, to help me be there for my babies instead of dazed and sick on the couch? I loved sex, and I loved my husband, but I had no intention of spending the rest of my childbearing years pregnant! I wanted to be a devoted mom, an energetic wife. So what options did I have?

Today, ten years later, I finally called, heart racing as emotional memories flooded my soul. I chatted with a nurse--I'll call her Susan--on the Choices staff. I told her about Cherisse's experience. I told her about my own. I asked her what services are available to help women prevent future unwanted pregnancies. At first she echoed Dr. Stringfield's remarks, saying that women can purchase condoms at the grocery store. I agreed, but pointed out that condoms require a high degree of cooperation and are of little efficacy if a woman finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship.

"Susan" told me that her clinic refers pregnant women to either Via Christi (a Catholic hospital) or GraceMed (with ties to both Via Christi and Wesley Medical Center (HCA)) for prenatal and obstetric services. A discussion about contraception would presumably take place between a woman and her doctor after delivery.

"Do you tell them that the doctors at Via Christi cannot offer contraceptives?" I asked (remembering a conversation in our Catholic doctor's office).

No, the women are not told that. However, if a pregnant woman states that she does not want any more children in the future (i.e., desires a tubal ligation), the Choices staff will recommend she go to GraceMed, because Via Christi doctors are not permitted to perform that surgery.

Our conversation was cordial, and I could feel at its close that "Susan" could see how offering prenatal care is not enough. "We really need to have a talk about that here," she said. Perhaps she really had never pondered the subject before.

Women who don't want to get pregnant need options. They need to be empowered and educated about their own bodies. Right now, anti-abortion groups are focused on "supporting" pregnant women and telling women not to let a penis come near their vagina. As if married women never need to avoid pregnancy! Do they assume that married women don't even want sex anymore? Or that once a woman has borne a child, she knows all she needs to know about how to prevent it next time?

Certainly planned pregnancies account for some abortions, but if opponents of abortion also refuse to educate women about fertility or allow them access to contraceptives they can use on their own, how can they ever hope to reduce the number of abortions? I was largely ignorant of birth control methods when I became sexually active (after marriage, in my case), and I have written elsewhere of my experience trying to educate myself without breaking any commandments or accidentally creating any new human life. 

When Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics are the only organizations offering to help women understand, manage, and guard their fertility, it is time for the anti-abortion movement to realize that it is not about protecting or supporting women--it is about protecting fetuses by controlling women and making motherhood mandatory.


  1. Thank you for this perspective. I don't think I've read it anywhere else. These are challenges many people inside and outside of the church have never contemplated.

  2. Many women decides that Tubal Ligation is a right option for permanent birth control, but it has various issues like PTLS.

  3. Abortion still has a lot of complications, including possible sterilization. Abortion is very risky. Women have suffered major complications, sometimes loss of life from abortion. Abortion also has emotional and spiritual side effects. I don't have problems with most forms of birth control.

    1. Actually, abortion is safer than pregnancy and childbirth. You should compare mortality rates of abortion with maternal mortality rates for giving birth! Most women who have abortions do NOT regret them. I can tell you from experience that pregnancy and birth have plenty of emotional side effects, as well!

  4. Thank you for sharing this post again. I do not believe I have read it before. It is so appropriate for today and our upcoming vote in August. I look for your writing. I have learned so much from you have shared from your journey. You have helped me seewhat I thought was a great week college friends attending an Basic Youth Conflict Institute was actually what became a cult and could have greatly damaged me more than I had already been growing up with an alocholic father. Today I am the more liberal one in our marriage. Thank you for your honesty. Wish I could have been a better support for you. I was busy with my own struggles.

    Crystal W