To be clear, I’m not a very good bowler. Yet, somewhere in my parents’ house, there are three first-place bowling trophies from the mid-’90s, when I was in middle school. The trophies were from the annual bowl-a-thon, one of the major fundraisers for the Crisis Pregnancy Center, a pro-life clinic in my childhood hometown of Laconia, N.H.
There was also the annual walk-a-thon, of which my family were star fundraisers, always raising enough money to earn free tickets to a nearby water park. We’d then go to the water park to celebrate my birthday, finishing the day with Taco Bell. Trophies, water slides, tacos — this pro-life thing seemed like a pretty fun deal.
Sharing my story about anything related to abortion causes me to worry for many reasons: For one, in the evangelical context I grew up in, “pro-choice” might as well have been a four-letter word. Secondly, it’s fair to wonder, “What does this dude from New Hampshire, who has had no personal experience with abortion, think he has to offer to this contentious, decades-long debate?” But that’s kind of what this story is about — it’s not what I know about abortion, but what I didn’t.
Considering the Supreme Court’s impending decision that is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, I have done a lot of reflecting on how, once upon a time, I saw overturning Roe as the best possible outcome. I don’t anymore. As we approach what is sure to be one of the most contentious periods in U.S. history, I have found myself wondering: What does it take to change a mind?
The nondenominational school I attended from K–12 was situated in the woods. We’d build log cabins during recess, carrying firewood in for the wood stoves. All the maintenance was handled by crews of students. But take a closer look at the curriculum and things get less bucolic.
For example, our sex education course (titled “Sex Respect”) was taught by staff from the Crisis Pregnancy Center, and at the time, I had no idea the center was part of a national network of anti-abortion clinics. In high school biology, instructors showed us graphic videos of abortions being performed. The details are fuzzy, but I remember a vacuum of some kind was involved, and the sight and sound shot through my body like lightning. All I knew was that I had questions.
The seeds of change started with tiny, internal moments of “wait, what?” Half-formed thoughts that I tried to avoid thinking too deeply about because they seemed so confusing: If I was pro-life, were other people pro-death? Why are most of the pro-life people I talk to also for the death penalty? And if I’m anti-abortion, what does pro-abortion mean? The way people talked about it, it sounded like if pro-choice people got their way, abortion clinics would pop up on street corners like Starbucks; getting abortions would be as commonplace as ordering an iced latte.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but part of my inability to voice any of these questions to anyone was due to the fact that my pro-life stance was chosen for me by my church and school communities. It’s hard to change your mind when coercive methods are used to tell you what to think. On top of being told what to think, there was the added threat that if I should ever switch sides, I would be joining the wrong team and be shunned by my community.
This kind of fear-based self-silencing from within my fundamentalist context isn’t just applicable to abortion. Thanks to the work of psychology and religious trauma expert Marlene Winell, who coined the term “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS) in 2011, the psychology community has come to better understand the trauma that comes from leaving fundamentalist contexts. As Winell has said, “Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth.”
With that in mind, it is no surprise that the pro-life movement within my fundamentalist context was OK with removing the autonomy of individuals since fundamentalism is predicated on thwarting autonomy and self-actualization.
The questions in my head around the topic of abortion got louder at the Christian college I went to. Once, I remember attending a screening of the film The Cider House Rules. While the movie is dated by 2022 standards, in 2001 it marked the first time I had witnessed the desperation and tragedy that can occur in a society without access to safe abortions.
The experience furthered what began in those “wait, what?” moments of doubt, creating dissonance between head and heart, thought and emotion. Merely considering shifting my views led me to destabilizing amounts of shame. As Winell points out, this was by design. That culture of fear and silence is an incredibly effective means of control; don’t just teach people your views, but teach them to distrust their desire to push back (Jeremiah 17:9). In that sense, I didn’t need to be pro-life to still be controlled by fundamentalist ideology/pro-life ideology/etc. I just needed to be afraid I was wrong.
So, I kept this new discomfort quiet. No one mentioned that a person might have a reason to choose an abortion. Being pro-life was supposed to mean you had a life-affirming disposition — that you liked babies and water parks and the occasional taco of questionable merit.
It would take me years to voice anything about my changing position. I had a growing intuition that it was wrong to legislate against the autonomy of a human body, and I discovered a whole spectrum of reasons why someone would legitimately have an abortion.
What eventually helped push me past this self-regulated silence (beyond years of therapy) was realizing the paradox that supporting bodily autonomy requires collective responsibility, even when it’s not my own body at immediate risk. For years I was able to avoid talking about abortion because the people I knew who had abortion stories were close, but not too close. I could support them personally, but I didn’t speak up or advocate for them out of fear I would upset family members and close friends.
Take, for example, my friend Kate, who had to terminate a pregnancy due to holoprosencephaly, which is a congenital disorder of the nervous system. In addition to the intense trauma of the experience, she also had her humanity stripped away by those pushing for pro-life regulation. “In the minds of those pushing this legislation, I am a monster. I am not a mother who chose the most compassionate and loving choice for her baby, her family, and herself.”
In her essay “Memory and Imagination,” writer Patricia Hampl says that sharing one’s story is not just artistically beneficial, but politically imperative. If we refuse to share our stories, it is not just politically negligent but deeply dangerous. “It’s an efficient way of controlling masses of people. It doesn’t even require much bloodshed, as long as people are entirely willing to give over their personal memories,” Hampl writes.
By writing this article, I am trying to share my story in order to combat that dangerous silence that Hampl warns against, even though this may be the way that my parents find out that I am not “pro-life” — at least insofar as they use that term. For many of those who identify as pro-life, abortion has always been a black and white issue, so there’s never been a need to talk about it because it’s “obvious” that abortion is immoral.
But now people are talking about it and reconsidering their previously held positions. We have to face the discomfort and at least be open to change, even if that change appears to threaten our core beliefs.
It’s interesting that my formative memories surrounding abortion involve watching videos. These videos were formative not because of what they showed, but because of what they did not show.
In the supposed abortion video shown in my biology class, the focus is on the tools of the procedure, the sucking and grinding of machines. Not once do I recall seeing the woman’s face. The refusal to show the woman’s face disallows the viewer from seeing this woman as a human, but my friendship with Kate allowed me to see her humanity despite anti-abortion activists’ attempt to obscure it.
By not turning away, I learned something I didn’t know before, and it changed me.
My story may not directly involve experiences surrounding abortions, but it is a bleak world where only the victims and survivors of injustice are the ones speaking out against such suffering. As things continue toward a post-Roe v. Wade world, how many more people will have to make much harder choices? And when they do, will you hear their story; will you look them in the face?