I was once a single-issue voter. If you had approached me 15 years ago and started talking about government-funded healthcare or tax laws or systemic unfairness to marginalized groups or student loan forgiveness, I would have undoubtedly responded with a single question: “But what about abortion?” Despite the beliefs in love and compassion I professed, in my mind, the issue of abortion was at the pinnacle of American politics.
My pursuit of medical education has challenged me to think deeper and to see multiple sides of every argument–to listen to other people with the goal of understanding their heartache, their struggle, their desires. This is something I am profoundly grateful for.
In a recent conversation with my beloved 84-year-old grandmother, I began to explore my former political stance, respectfully straddling the boundaries between the Christian Evangelical theology in the Southern Baptist church where I was raised, and the intellectual, empathetic cultural awareness I am developing as a physician in training. As my conversation with my grandmother amicably unfolded, I realized that many people who hold the rigid position I once held may have never had an opportunity to consider abortion as it actually exists, and therefore do not completely understand what they are fighting against. I told my grandmother the following story:
During my OB/GYN rotation, I listened to a panel discussion led by veteran physicians in the field. One of the doctors told a story of the first patient he cared for as a medical resident when he began his training decades ago. This incident was prior to Roe v. Wade, when abortions were illegal. He described a 15 year old girl who had become pregnant. She had very scarce financial resources and little social support, and she chose to end her pregnancy because she would not be able to handle the responsibilities of caring for a child. Because abortion was not legal, she did not have the option of discussing this with a physician or having a doctor perform the procedure in a safe way in a hospital or clinic. Like many before her, she had turned to clandestine operations in private homes and dark alleyways. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was already very ill and bleeding profusely. She was rushed to the operating room where the team my teacher was working with did all they could do, but despite their efforts, this frightened, desperate 15 year old girl died on their operating table.
It would be unfair and disrespectful to speculate about the girl’s behavior prior to the predicament she found herself in. We do not know her circumstances. However, to those who will inevitably mention sinfulness and promiscuity, I would argue that the penalty for any adolescent’s misstep should never be death. I would also note that 15 years prior to this incident, the patient in the story would have been a fetus herself. To be “pro-life” and support her right to life as a fetus, we would certainly continue to support her right to life as a teenager.
To those who say that she could have given the baby up for adoption, I would point out that 9 months of sharing one’s body with a growing fetus is an enormous commitment even for a stable, supported, self-sufficient adult, much more so for an adolescent learning to navigate society. We do not know if this young girl had means to attend doctors appointments or access to appropriate nutrition, whether she was dealing with personal abuse or even substance use issues that may have been harmful to herself and the fetus. We do not know if she lived in a stable home environment. We know only that she made a hard decision and lost her life as a result.
After several minutes of discussion, my grandmother paused before responding, “I guess I never thought about it like that.”
Choosing to think about this young woman as an individual–and to envision how terrified, confused, and hurt she might have been–opens space in our minds for empathy and compassion for her and for those who face myriad experiences that force them to make a choice about their bodies and their futures. Even more, listening to the stories of real women who have faced this decision and survived, challenges us to consider the roots of our beliefs and to explore and develop our own opinions beyond simplistic dogma. With today’s new and improving cultural awareness about systemic racism and health equity in the age of COVID-19, I imagine there are voters who feel torn between wanting fairness, justice, and opportunity for all, and feeling the need to vote “pro-life” in order to maintain their religious integrity.
In this episode of Freedom Road Podcast from May 2020, Lisa Sharon Harper discusses these topics with thoughtful women from various Christian communities. The conversation presents insights on the origins of the “pro-life” movement and extends compassion through each speaker’s personal experiences with abortion and reproductive injustice. The discussion also poignantly explores the intersection of these issues with systemic racism. Whether you’d like to examine your own beliefs, deepen your understanding of these issues, or expand your strategies for discussing abortion with friends, family members, or patients, I highly recommend listening to this podcast: