A liberal in the South: I didn't mean to scream at that woman about abortion rights, but I was not in control

I tried to have a civil conversation about abortion with someone who called herself "pro-life." Here's how it went

By Catherine Landis

Published June 22, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

I did not mean to scream. Screaming was inappropriate and embarrassing. If it had also been effective it might have been worth it, but it wasn’t, and I knew it but could not stop. It was as if inside me some hidden beast was waking up, wounded and stirring. “You don’t have to scream,” the woman said to me. But I was not in control. I was not myself.

October 2014, Knoxville, Tennessee. The woman and I were standing just beyond the requisite 100 feet from an early voting station, each of us holding our opposing signs. At that time, Tennessee’s constitution contained stronger privacy rights than the country’s, which you would think would make Tennesseans proud, and it might have if not for abortion. The stickiest of sticking points. The hottest of hot topics. Privacy provisions in our state constitution were keeping our deeply conservative, Republican majority legislators from enacting restrictions on abortion. What they were doing in Texas, they couldn’t do in Tennessee. The solution? Change the constitution. To that end, they managed to get Amendment 1 on the ballot, which, if passed, would strip away abortion from those protected rights. My sign said, VOTE NO. The woman’s sign said, VOTE YES. We should have agreed to disagree, that tiresome pabulum another VOTE YES sign holder had cheerfully quipped at me earlier that day as she pretended to believe my opinion was as legitimate as hers, just different. At the least, we should have kept our mouths shut.

She started it. I had brought a friend with me to the polling station because around here it doesn’t feel safe to stand alone if you’re going to publicly come out as pro-choice. If that sounds slightly paranoid, it does to me, too. However, in a place where many people think abortion is murder, you never know if somebody might decide to become a vigilante for the cause. Six years ago, a man walked into a local Unitarian Church with a gun hidden in a guitar case because he wanted to kill some liberals. He managed to kill three. That’s why you never know.

My friend saw the woman approaching before I did so maybe she was better prepared than I was to stay calm. The woman was friendly as she invited us to explain why we were against the amendment, but the way she asked, it was not as if she really wanted to know. Her voice was silky with feigned cordiality but behind it was the cocksure certainty of people who know they’re right and you’re wrong because God is on their side. To my ears she did not sound interested in our opinions, only in baiting us. She was looking for an opportunity to win an argument. Does this suggest I might have been bracing for a fight?

As my friend began calmly explaining our reasons for opposing the amendment, I noticed the woman was holding some fliers, and I asked to see one. Essentially, the flier asserted that our poor state legislators were hamstrung by “activist” judges who wouldn’t let them enact “common sense” regulations on abortion, outlined in neat bullet points: a waiting period, informed consent, and then something about licensing clinics, but my eyes never got to the third bullet point because the instant I saw “informed consent,” that beast inside me stirred. Wait a minute.

Because, like all code words, “informed consent” does not mean what it says. It does not mean telling patients what they need to know about the procedure. Abortion providers in the state of Tennessee are required to be physicians with active hospital privileges and they already do that. They do that in the same way gastroenterologists inform patients about colonoscopies. Informed consent is what doctors do. Only in the context of abortion does “informed consent” mean legally requiring physicians to read a script written by non-medically trained politicians telling patients all kinds of factually challenged scary stories designed to induce second thoughts. What got that beast so quickly stirring inside me was the audacity, the disingenuousness, the callous pretense written in black and white: The same people whose goal has always been to make abortion illegal were now claiming all they wanted was to make it safer? They were lying to get their way. (It is not inappropriate at this moment to ask why, oh why, at the age of 58, for Pete’s sake, should I have been surprised.)

Instead of patiently laying out the argument against the amendment, as my friend was doing, I began pointing to the flier, intending to refute with facts and reason each bullet point, except that something, my dumbfounded brain, my outraged tongue, that uninvited beast inside, took over. The women claimed I was screaming, as in, “You don’t have to scream!”

But yes, I did. I can scream all I want to! I will scream bloody murder if I want to, I will scream and scream and scream some more because you are trying to take away my rights!

Or something like that. I can’t remember exactly everything I said, although I won’t deny my outburst may have included I don’t give a damn what you think and many other things that might or might not have been prudent. Blinding rage is not conducive to prudence or a reliable memory. The more interesting question to me is not what I said, but why. What caused such a raging, overwhelming, immature, unapologetic, visceral and primal reaction? I say visceral and primal because I remember what it felt like to talk to that woman: It felt physically threatening. It felt like the emotional equivalent of being hauled off to a cell for a crime I did not commit.


* * *

I have lived all my life as a liberal in the South, which means I’m a member of a minority in a place inhabited by people whose worldview is profoundly different from mine. I am not alone, of course. There are a great many of us, if you take by way of a loose measure the fact that in 2012 almost a million people voted for Barack Obama in Tennessee alone, but we tend to be wary. It is not uncommon when meeting a fellow liberal to hear something along the lines of, thank goodness I found you, I thought I was the only one. Many of us tend to keep our mouths shut in social or professional settings whenever politics or religion come up. Many of us would not dare write a letter to the editor of the newspaper, where it is not unusual to read letters arguing for the existence of God and the sanctity of the Confederate flag. The people we vote for generally don’t win. We do put bumper stickers on our cars but we think about it first. Guns are everywhere, not that anyone’s ever been shot over a bumper sticker that I know of. The fight to keep prayer out of the public schools has long been surrendered. You are not considered crazy if you think the president is the anti-Christ. You are not considered odd if you don’t believe in evolution. Fox News is playing in most public waiting rooms. But more than any specific example, it’s in the air, a subtle sense that this is a government hating, gun-loving, God-fearing, kind-of-racist, kind-of-sexist, kind-of-homophobic, big-car-driving, live-free-or-die kind of a place. Like any stereotype, exceptions abound, but like any stereotype, there is some truth to this one, and if you happen to be deeply conservative and deeply Christian, you will feel right at home here. It’s a culture, it’s a climate, it’s a prevailing wind.

So as a liberal in the South, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have a voice. Nobody’s listening: Why even try? It makes sense to stay in a bubble with people who think like you and grumble. In recent years I have often wondered if it’s even possible anymore to sit down and talk with somebody from the other side. Have we grown so far apart in our politics and religious convictions, have we become so rigid in our opinions, have we swallowed the media’s interpretations of each other to the point where -- forget talking -- it’s hard even to be civil? Is there any common ground? Is compromise possible? Is it even desirable? How do we stop screaming? Or should we be screaming louder? I don’t know. What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? What do we owe our fellow citizens? How hard is it to listen?

With that in mind, I went looking for somebody from the opposite side of the abortion argument willing to sit down with me to see if we could have a conversation, and that’s how I found Sue.

* * *

Her name is not Sue, but I’m not going to use her real name because she’s a private person and it seems unnecessary and, frankly, cruel to expose her. For my purposes, what she said is more important than who she is, although whom she works for, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, matters a great deal. She was introduced to me as someone who is “pro-life,” but just how extreme I had no idea until after our conversation when I looked it up. The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is an antiabortion organization that likens abortion to the Nazi genocide and displays graphic images of aborted fetuses on college campuses and in other public places. To call her “pro-life” wasn’t the half of it. But I found her, and she was willing to talk to me.

Sue is a thin, well-dressed, poised and attractive woman somewhere around her early 60s, so close to my age. Over coffee one morning at Panera Bread we structured our chat so she could explain her position while I listened without interrupting, then it would be my turn. At the time I saw some benefit to simply being heard by the other side rather than arguing over every single point. So Sue talked and I listened and did not interrupt, which you might think would have been hard, and it was in a way. In another way I was too stunned to speak.

Sue’s core belief is that a fertilized egg, at the instant of conception, is exactly the same as a human being, so abortion is exactly the same as murder, and that means no exceptions. Not for rape, not for incest, not for anything except ectopic pregnancy.

“I know I can’t say I’ve talked to everyone in the whole wide world,” she said, “because I haven’t, but I’ve talked to women who’ve been raped and actually gotten pregnant. I think there’s a misconception; not everybody who gets raped gets pregnant, and I’m thankful for that, but there’s a young lady who works for us who was raped at 19. She went to her pastor, and her pastor said, I think it’s OK to have the abortion, and she did. Her testimony is: It was harder for me to get over the abortion than the rape because, in the rape, I was the victim, I was victimized. But in the abortion, I victimized … I don’t think a woman has to parent a child, but I do think she needs to deliver the child. A baby doesn’t come into this world with a big R on its forehead so that forever he’s going to be known as a rape baby.” Sue used similar anecdotal evidence to tell the story of a female victim of incest who apparently said she wanted to stay pregnant because “that was the only way anyone would believe what had happened to her.”

Sue conceded she would allow abortion to save the life of a woman, but don’t go looking for compassion in her narrow definition of what constitutes a threat. “I’m not a medical doctor,” she said, “but this is what I have understood over the years. Her life [the woman’s] is at risk early on if she has an ectopic pregnancy, and you remove the tube, which means you also remove the life. The life is too young to save. You’re saving the mother. Later on, she can have toxemia, where the baby and she become incompatible. She could die, but at that point you still have two patients, so you do a C-section. You remove the baby, and usually by that time the baby is very viable, so the baby goes to the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], where it’s allowed to grow in that little incubator we’ve got. You treat the baby, you treat the mother, and we all live happily ever after.”

So, no exceptions. Also no birth control pills.

Before talking to Sue, I knew that many of the same people who oppose abortion also oppose birth control, but I never understood how that wasn’t hypocritical since birth control is an awfully good way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and thereby reduce abortions. How can you be against abortion and birth control?

This is how. Sue does not accept the concept of an unwanted pregnancy. Somebody wants it, she said. The only person who doesn’t is the mother.

To be fair, she said she was not opposed to the concept of birth control as long as it is not what she termed an “abortifacient.” In other words, if the birth control method prevents the sperm from reaching the egg, she’s OK with that, but “if the pregnancy happens, and it [the pill] ends the pregnancy, then I oppose that because it’s the same thing as taking a life … I’m not Catholic but I’m a big proponent of natural family planning. I think people can do that real successfully.”

Consistent, rigid, utopian, extreme, honorable, cultish, cruel, honest, noble, tyrannical, simplistic, unhinged: However you want to categorize it, Sue’s position holds that, regardless of the circumstances of a pregnancy, or the condition of a woman or of a fetus, or what a woman needs or wants or believes or can or cannot do, or whether there will be anyone at all who is remotely prepared to take care of an actual baby after it’s born, or any one of the millions of individual stories and situations and predicaments and tragedies that people find themselves in at particular moments in their lives, there is only one uncompromising option. Don’t mess with a fertilized egg.

I suppose if she had stopped there I might have understood. I would have disagreed, but I would have understood. But she didn’t stop there.

* * *

Sue traced the origin of her own anti-choice activism to working for the pastor of a Baptist Church in a small town in Florida where she moved with her husband after two years of missionary work in Kenya. “I worked part-time for the pastor and spent long hours just talking to him and letting him help me grow up some,” she explained. (I stop here to mention how often in our conversation Sue used language suggesting that pro-choice advocates and women who seek abortions are immature, and if they would just grow up, they’d see things her way.) “During that time,” she continued, “he [the pastor] showed a video to our church. It was a seven-part series by Francis Schaeffer, and it was called 'Whatever Happened to the Human Race.' I can still remember parts of that. He [Schaeffer] was such a prophet about what he foresaw was coming to America if we went down some of these roads, and one of them was abortion. I was so compelled by the things he said, things that he saw, things that he foresaw, and what he found in scripture … What he stressed were the effects on our society when we choose not to defend the most defenseless. I think he was dead on. I’ve seen the increase in child abuse, I’ve seen divorce, I’ve seen the increase in sex trafficking, I’ve seen the increase in violence against women, I’ve seen the increase in school shootings and workplace shootings … Why would the student sitting in the classroom who knows they all could have been aborted, that they are all here just by happenchance, why would he not think, if he’s having a bad day, that it’s not OK to kill his classmates?”

Why indeed.

All this havoc! And all because of legal abortion? Yes, according to Sue. No hint that things in this country were all hunky-dory until 1973 when Roe v. Wade had to go and mess everything up. No mention of how great life is in countries where abortion actually is illegal: Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Syria, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, to name a few. No evidence, whatsoever.

She has studies, she said.

Everybody’s got studies, I said, without mentioning, to take but one, the study Steven Levitt used in "Freakonomics" to suggest the drop in crime rates in the 1990s was due to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s, but I was tempted. You name it, you can find a study to prove it; has she ever watched cable news? If I claim school shootings are caused by fluoride in the water, and if I shout it loud enough and long enough and can get enough people to believe me, then who’s to say it isn’t true?

Sue’s more potent and anecdotally supported scare tactic, and the one the pro-life movement nationwide seems to have embraced, is that abortion is bad for women. “There are risk factors [to abortion],” she said, “of ever being able to conceive again, a high rate of drug abuse and alcohol abuse, a high rate of divorce and unemployment because they [women who’ve had abortions] can’t keep a job, and the inability to connect with their next children. You know, I’ve met too may women and talked to too may women to not think that this is a reality.”

It’s hard to know where to start dismantling that argument except by lining up the women who’ve had abortions and then, inconveniently, did not become addicts or unemployed or depressed or divorced, and who went on to lead productive, happy lives and to conceive and successfully raise healthy children. I don’t know whether Sue has never met such women or if she ignores them or if she does not believe them, but again and again, she used language to suggest that women by nature are fragile, clueless, helpless, confused victims who are somehow “pressured” into having abortions by boyfriends and husbands and parents and Planned Parenthood. And not just abortions. Sex, too.

“So I just have felt like over these years that abortion has become a way for girls to be promiscuous,” she said, “and not necessarily because they really want to be but because they think they have to be that independent woman on campus. And these guys who just whip out their posters saying, 'I love pro-choice': I know what they are saying. I love you because you are going to sleep with me, and then if you get pregnant we’re going to take care of this, and we just have this vicious cycle of men abusing women for their own enjoyment. So I don’t see any real positives from killing our offspring.”

I must concede: It’s brilliant to equate antiabortion with being “pro-women” as if protecting women from themselves is somehow the same as feminism. As if protecting women from making personal decisions that you happen to disagree with has any place in a free society. It is exactly that kind of bait and switch they use to pretend that all they want with these mandated waiting periods and informed consent laws is to protect women, when the true goal is to shut down access to safe abortions. And for all her talk of helping women, Sue placed little value on the relationship between an actual woman and her uterus. Speaking in terms of how the mother “may have participated in the pregnancy” (but doesn’t have the right to end it), and using such terminology as a fetus being “housed” in a woman’s body, she made no distinction that I could hear between a uterus and a free-standing incubator.

If Sue is serious about protecting women from those selfish boyfriends and hard-hearted parents who might pressure them into abortions, and no doubt there are some, isn’t it better for everyone if those abortions are kept legal and safe? But Sue’s solution is to reverse Roe v. Wade and then, for citizens in states that don’t end up criminalizing abortion, “educate them.” She was less certain, or at least less willing to tell me, how criminalization would work, but for sure, she said, it would be “the abortionist or the medical doctor” who would go to jail. She also laid out a vision of how, somehow, adoption and parenting classes would solve the problem for each and every woman who finds herself unwillingly pregnant.

“I’d like us to work very seriously on making adoption affordable and easier,” she said. “I’d like us to work on how many chances do parents get before they lose their parental rights. People need to be encouraged to adopt. There are churches doing a good job teaching their people about foster care and bringing foster care children into their homes … I don’t want us to demonize that young woman who is in a crisis pregnancy. I don’t want her to feel like she’s done something wrong. I feel like the church should be at the forefront of this. We’ve done a very poor job telling our girls we don’t want you to have sex before marriage. But, if you do, we love you, and we’re not tossing you out as a, you know, putting an A on your forehead and sending you out from us. We will come around and help you whether it be, you can live in my home, whether it be, I will find an adopter who is willing to help at no cost or little cost, or I’ll take you for parenting classes. I just think there’s so much for life that we as a nation can do, and I think if we are going to value that child from the moment of conception through natural death then it says to the child, I’m valuable and the kid sitting next to me is valuable and therefore I’m not going to shoot him.”

* * *

By now it might be reasonable to think I deserve a medal for not screaming. How was it possible for me to sit still in my booth at Panera Bread, sipping my coffee and listening, calmly, without interrupting? Partly, I think, Sue’s willingness to admit to the most extreme anti-choice positions led me to feel less like her opponent and more like an anthropologist studying a member of a strange new tribe. So accustomed have I become to hedging and softening a bit for the cause of getting along, it was strangely refreshing to hear her candidly and unapologetically tell me what she really thinks. It sounded honest. It was only later, away from the fog of making nice and everybody getting along, that I recognized the extent of the propaganda.

Because if it were true that an egg, at the moment a sperm hits it, is a full-fledged human being, even before implanting in the uterus (the medical definition of pregnancy, by the way), even at the point when it still has a tail, even when it does not yet have lungs, even before it can survive outside a woman’s body, then you should not need any other argument to oppose abortion. You shouldn’t have to claim that abortion causes depression, infertility or school shootings unless you know that most Americans don’t believe it, and you’re going to need a little extra ammo to sell it.

Maybe Sue believes her claims, I have no idea, although I suspect she absolutely does. I am certain she believes her cause is just. There was a moment, though, when she would have had a difficult time convincing me she wasn’t being disingenuous. It came after I made what I consider my strongest argument, which is: You have the right to believe a fertilized egg is a human being, but that idea is grounded in a religious belief, and in this country, in this democracy, set up specifically never to adopt a state religion, the state cannot compel its citizens to follow any one set of religious beliefs. Legalized abortion does not take away a person’s freedom to follow her own religious traditions and moral values, but criminalizing abortion, forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will, most certainly does.

To that Sue simply claimed her views on abortion have nothing at all to do with religion.

* * *

Sue had an answer for everything. She speaks in a quiet, calm and supremely confident voice, sprinkled with frequent laughter and self-deprecation. She is warm and friendly. It’s hard not to like her. At the same time, perhaps because her job takes her to college campuses where she’s used to speaking to young people, she often slips into a materialistic tone, patient yet superior, especially when insinuating that women who seek abortions are selfish, spoiled and childish brats who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions as if they were trying to get away with not doing their chores. She talks like a person who knows – who knows – what’s best for every other person in the world, seemingly without a moment’s pause to wonder why on earth she got to be the judge.

Listening to the recording of our discussion later, I cringe, embarrassed by how my voice stammers, pauses, tangles up on itself. You would conclude from hearing the recording that I am incapable of finishing a single sentence. My voice drips with emotion and strains from awkward passion. Clearly I am the amateur here. If this had been a debate with points given for style and coherence, Sue would’ve creamed me.

Then I realize that Sue’s job is to talk about this stuff every single day. Over coffee at Panera, she was simply giving me the same spiel she gives to college students and anybody and everybody else she talks to. She had practiced. Articulate, yes, she was that, but she was also a little too slick, a little too scripted, and because of that, because she works for an organization whose reason for being is to criminalize abortion, she was probably not the ideal subject for my little project. Instead of a professional, I might have been better off finding an ordinary person, a person like me, who identifies as pro-life the way I identify as pro-choice but doesn’t get paid to talk about it.

And maybe I’ll find that person and maybe we can have a conversation, but we’ll be talking about something else: the economy or educational reform or healthcare, issues with at least a potential for a variety of solutions that can be discussed and argued over in a search for common ground. But I have come to believe that abortion, like racism, homophobia and evolution, is not one of those issues. I don’t know why I didn’t know that before talking to Sue, but I do now.

In fact, I don’t even want to talk about abortion anymore, not in the sense of whether it should be legal or not and certainly not in the sense of whether a fetus is a person. It isn’t. If you think it is, don’t have an abortion. I don’t even want to be debating this endless string of silly laws politicians are throwing up to close clinics and otherwise impose roadblocks. What I want is to stop the culture of shame that people like Sue have successfully strapped to abortion. Until we change how abortion is looked at and talked about in this country, we will be debating those laws, and many, many others, forever.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure, necessary for myriad individual reasons that should remain safe and accessible. It is not a sin. It is not immoral. It is not murder. It is not shameful. It is not dangerous. It is none of your business. We need to turn the moral outrage toward those who would force women back into seeking unsafe, illegal alternatives, risking septic abortions, disfigurement and death. We need to turn the moral outrage toward those who value undeveloped embryos more than actual babies. We need to turn the moral outrage toward those who would treat women as second-class citizens who can’t think for themselves. We need to call the “pro-life” movement what it is: a cult.

Because like a cult, its members manage to use the exact same talking points with no deviation. Facts contradicting their stated beliefs are tossed aside. There is no room for nuanced thinking. And instead of reevaluating their original premise when their propaganda stops working, they invent new propaganda. It’s not just that a fertilized egg is a person; abortion also makes women depressed, causes school shootings, and – for you social justice fans - is just exactly like genocide!

Do some women regret their abortions? Of course. But some women don’t. Some women who believe an abortion saved their lives and would make the same choice again still feel regret. Some women regret giving up their children for adoption. Some women regret never having children. Some regret their children. Women regret getting married or not getting married, and men, too. Women and men regret their divorce, that extra 30 pounds they gained, not going to law school when they had the chance, going to law school instead of playing in that band, dropping out of high school, having an affair, not visiting their mother before she died, saying that stupid thing to their daughter, drinking too much, betraying a friend, missing the boat, being late for the party, send in the clowns. Since when do we outlaw regret?

But we certainly are masterful at manufacturing it. To my core, I believe many women who report regret would not feel that way if the anti-choice cult had not done such a bang-up job convincing us that, OK, so abortion is legal, but it’s not right.

When girls, and boys, are raised to believe abortion is murder, especially if it’s the church telling them, why wouldn’t they feel regret and shame and guilt when faced later with the real world? A physician friend who once worked at a university health clinic told me she often encountered young women who would come in to get information on where to get an abortion. Did they also want birth control? No. Because they were never going to do that again. According to my friend, not only did they eschew birth control (and often return pregnant again) but after they conveniently did not have to deliver a baby during exams, many became ever more fervently “pro-life,” and all this because of guilt manufactured by a cult. If we spent 40 years on a campaign insisting coffee is a sin, we’d have an awful lot of guilty coffee drinkers. This is brainwashing. When a narrow definition of how life works does not match your experience, sometimes it's safer to stay in the tribe rather than being tossed out into the wide sea of complexity that is real life. I’m never going to do that again.
Admittedly, I have just relayed an anecdote. Sue was full of them. Like studies, you can find an anecdote to prove anything, but that just proves there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to an unwanted pregnancy.

* * *

In Sue’s world, women don’t have sex with men they wouldn’t want to have a baby with but if they do, if they “slip up” and get pregnant, they will buck up and figure out how to raise that baby or they will hand that baby over to one of the millions and millions and millions of families -- she claims -- are ready to welcome them into their, presumably, Christian homes. (I wish I’d thought to ask her if families headed by same-sex couples would count.)

In the real world, many women will need to have abortions, not because they are irresponsible or callous or lazy, but because real human beings engage in sex, and sometimes this leads to pregnancy, and sometimes, for as many reasons as there are women in the world, it is absolutely the wrong thing to do to bring that pregnancy to term, and the woman has a choice.

There’s always a choice. At least if you have money. Legal or illegal, it’s a lot harder and more dangerous if you don’t, and getting harder with every waiting period imposed, every clinic closed.

Sometimes a woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant chooses to give birth even if she is 13, even if she is raped, even if she is 37 and already has four children she can’t afford, even if she is a drug addict, even if she is an alcoholic, even if she is schizophrenic, even if she’s suicidal, even if she just started college, a new job, a marriage, graduate school, high school, even if it means she has to quit college, lose her job, lose her marriage, drop out of graduate school, out of high school, even if her partner is abusive, even if her baby will be disabled, even if her baby will die in pain days after being born, even if she already has twins and an autistic child and can’t take care of one more, even if her parents disown her, even if she knows she can be a good mother to two children but not to three, even if she’s working two jobs and can barely afford to feed herself, even if, even if, even if.

And sometimes she chooses not to. And sometimes not bringing a pregnancy to term is the most responsible, moral and brave decision a woman can make because she knows that what’s on the other end of that pregnancy is a baby. An actual baby. A real and viable human being who will need somebody in the actual world to take care of him.

The anti-choice cult is skillful at showing pictures of actual babies with loving mothers as if anybody is suggesting aborting an actual child. Some anti-choice parents of unplanned or disabled or adopted children are horrified that some wicked woman might have aborted their beautiful child, or even that someone might think they should have chosen abortion, but that is not a fair narrative. They made the decision not to abort because they were prepared to take care of that child. As a thought experiment, I would suggest they picture their beautiful baby, not born to their loving, nurturing home, but to a nightmare of abuse and neglect in a home, or series of homes, where no one is even remotely capable of taking care of a dog much less a child.

Only a woman can make the decision to carry her pregnancy to term, not politicians, not clergy from churches she doesn’t belong to, not members of the pro-unborn cult who don’t know her and don’t know what she can and cannot do.

Many people I spoke to while phone banking during the Amendment 1 campaign reluctantly conceded that abortion should be available for victims of rape and incest and to save the life of the mother, but not for birth control, absolutely not! (As if. I would love to find the woman who uses abortion, a medical procedure that can cost as much as $600, as “birth control.”) Speaking logistically, who, exactly, would decide whose reasons for wanting an abortion are legitimate? Would we hold trials for women to prove they were raped? What about women who were using birth control but it failed? Would “health of the mother” include bipolar disease?

I’ve heard this argument of limiting abortion to certain criteria used as an example of “common ground,” but that’s not what I heard on the phone. Nobody was talking logistics. It shouldn’t be used for birth control, people said, very nearly spiting out the word, "birth control," as if the idea of these loose women running around having sex because they can always get an abortion made them sick. If that makes them sick, how sick does it make them to think of “those women” as mothers?

“Those women.” Sue used the term “promiscuous.”

I hate to be the one to break the news, but women like sex. If you don’t, don’t have any, but can we dispense with the judging already? It is none of your business who sleeps with whom and how often, and it is certainly not the role of the state to regulate unless you want to live in Afghanistan. Men who “sleep around” are never judged the way women are, but evidently we are surrounded by huge swaths of people who wish to punish women whose sex lives do not conform to their ideal. And they seem to want the punishment to be a baby.

An actual baby.

So the punishment for the 14-year-old pressured into unprotected sex by her 17-year-old boyfriend is a baby.

The punishment for a woman getting drunk one night and engaging in unprotected sex is a baby.

The punishment for a woman stupid enough to get involved with an abusive man is a baby.

The punishment for a woman whose birth control fails is a baby.

The punishment for a little too much fun is a baby.

For her. Not for him.

And how has it happened that the toll of pregnancy itself has been tossed off as no big deal? One of the reasons, and there were many, I hated the movie "Juno" (directed by a man and starring an actress who had never given birth) was how this teenager’s pregnancy involved nothing more than a cute little baby bump, devoid of any other health issues, that magically disappeared after the seamless and uncomplicated birth process, leaving the teenager blissfully unaffected to carry on with the rest of her life. Some women love being pregnant, good for them. Personally I found it difficult, and that’s an understatement, and if I had been 15, I would have been traumatized, and if I had wanted to write one slick piece of antiabortion propaganda, "Juno" would have been it.

A uterus is not an incubator independent of the rest of a woman’s body. Pregnancy is a big deal. Bigger for some women than others. It’s hard on the body. It’s a hormonal and emotional riot. It is as much an act of violence for the state to require a woman to bring a pregnancy to term against her will as it would be for the state to force a woman to have an abortion.

Let me state that again. It is an act of violence to force a woman to bring a pregnancy to term against her will. It should also be recognized that giving the state the power to force a woman to bring a pregnancy to term is the same power that would allow the same state to force a woman to have an abortion.

If you really want to stop abortion, you would not try to tell women how and when they can have sex. You would work very hard to make sure all girls and boys grow up understanding the facts about their bodies, sexuality and birth control, and then you would work just as hard to make sure birth control is cheap and accessible to everybody, and then, if you wanted to work even harder, you might try to do something about building a community where people have access to affordable education, childcare, and jobs that pay a living wage. But even then, there will always be a need for safe abortions.

If you think abortion is murder, don’t have one. You are free to live your life according to your own moral values, but you do not have the right to impose your morality onto other people. Criminalizing abortion prevents other people from living in accordance with their deeply held moral values. Criminalizing abortion does not stop it, it only forces women to seek out illegal procedures or leave the state.

To which Sue said, “Or they will have to figure out how to have a baby and become a parent.”

To which I responded: I respect your right to your beliefs, but you don’t respect mine.

After which I thought, if it were only a matter of disrespect.

Why did I feel physically threatened by the woman with the VOTE YES sign? Because she and Sue and people like them do, absolutely, hope to take away the right for women to be fully functioning human beings. They are working tirelessly to force all of us into a narrow, moralistic, paternalistic, dangerous, horrific fantasyland where women are treated as children who don’t make good decisions and can’t handle complex emotions such as regret and sadness and relief. Don’t think they can do it?

Since January, more than 330 abortion restrictions were introduced in 42 states, including Tennessee because, yes, we lost that Amendment 1 battle. By the time the politicians are through, abortion may be legal in the United States, but nobody will be able to get one. Never underestimate the power of a small, loud, righteous minority of people who are not ashamed to bully.

Can we talk? Yes, we can. Can we listen? No problem. Civilly? By all means. But on the issue of abortion, I see no room for common ground and I’m not going to stop screaming.

* * *

The definition of abortion stigma is a shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and or socially unacceptable. This is what has to change. It is foundational to basic human rights to control one’s own reproduction, and when women are stripped of the ability to decide how many children they will have and when they will have them they are not and never can be equal to men. Abortion is simply one tool available to women if they need it. If we believe it should remain a legal and safe medical procedure, then we need to stop being defensive about it. It does no one any good to accept the moral terms of the “pro-unborn” cult. In fact, it puts women and the doctors who treat them in danger.

Women deserve to be supported, not shamed. If we create a space where some women can feel safe speaking out about their abortions, others will find the courage to do the same. When more women stand up and declare they are not ashamed, shame will lose its power. When the woman sitting next to you in the church pew can tell you about her abortion, you might not feel so entitled to judge. It is past time for anti-choice people to be the ones apologizing. We need to work for the day when it will be embarrassing to admit you would be willing to force a woman to bring a pregnancy to term against her will. When we go on the offense, when we take away the culture of shame surrounding abortion, when we demand to be treated by the state as moral agents in our own lives, only then will we be able to defeat the tidal wave of laws designed to whittle away abortion access. Until then, we will be trying to put out fires with a squirt gun. Let’s take care of the babies who are born. Let’s make sure that the actual girl babies get to grow up with the same rights as the boy babies.

The cult of the unborn has temporarily seized the moral high ground. It is time to seize it back.

Catherine Landis serves on the board of directors for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee and leads the community action team Knoxville Advocates for Reproductive Rights, which is launching a storytelling project to reduce abortion stigma. She is the author of two novels, "Some Days There's Pie" and "Harvest." 

Catherine Landis

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