Best of 2022 | The white, conservative Southern women who asked me to keep their abortions secret

My middle-class evangelical peers quietly took advantage of abortion rights, while publicly advocating against them

Published December 31, 2022 1:00PM (EST)

Vintage Key On Yellow (Salon/Getty Images/DBenitostock)
Vintage Key On Yellow (Salon/Getty Images/DBenitostock)

This essay was originally published in Salon on September 24, 2022. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2022 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2022.

The day one of my closest childhood friends got married, she asked me to keep two secrets: The first was her high school abortion. "It was so long ago," she said in a terrified whisper, "I can't tell him; it doesn't even matter anymore." She was peeking down the hall, where everything was draped in rented white satin—a traditional, Southern wedding, officiated by an odious Calvinist preacher. She frowned at her family, who were busy decorating. "Nobody except you understood."

She was desperate not to be overheard, so I squeezed her hand to tell her wordlessly, We buried that memory together a long time ago. (Even now as I write this, I can't bring myself to type her name.) Her body relaxed, and she took a breath. As I opened her makeup kit, she added abruptly, "And don't you dare say a word about last summer, either."

A few months prior, my friend had had a second abortion—this one the result of an affair.

"You're the liberal, not me," she snapped. "That was just a one-off."

Too stunned to speak, I drew my fingers across my lips in a zipper motion and grabbed the mascara.

* * *

I was born in the Bible Belt, nine months after Roe v. Wade was decided. My life has been defined by this landmark 1973 ruling and the freedoms it afforded me: bodily autonomy, personhood, empowerment. I heard that message loud and clear, despite growing up in the conservative, religious South. Knowing I would never have to pump out unwanted babies was a lifeline, and the reason I never breathed a word of my friend's abortion — or anyone else's. My peers and I understood that when it came to our bodies, the Roe decision meant we could and must always support each other's reproductive choices. And when anyone's choice needed to be covered up (which was often), we did so unfailingly, certain we were abetting a righteous lie. Now, almost 50 years later, abortion rights are all but gone, and I find myself in shock like many Americans, but also in profound doubt, concerned that perhaps I got the message of Roe wrong.

Most of the Southern girls I grew up with never got far from home, where their evangelical parents force-fed them toxic nonsense.

My parents were proud, old-school, pro-union leftists. In our house, there was no question that feminism is a good thing. Because of my father's military service, we moved around a lot; I went to six different schools in one state alone, and we also spent part of my childhood in Europe. I was lucky. Most of the Southern girls I grew up with never got far from home, where their evangelical parents force-fed them toxic nonsense: They must be "sweet," they should look forward to motherhood as their ultimate (and only) accomplishment, men know best, and gender is absolutely binary. The pressure on them was immense, and they lived in a state of disillusionment which I pitied as I watched many of them eventually surrender to patriarchal norms. As a child, my close friend was a tomboy who despised her family's views, often skipping Sunday school to read "radical" books. By the day of her wedding, she had become a prim churchgoer and Republican. Her tone with me in adulthood was harsh, as if she resented or feared me for not following the same path. Shortly after she married we lost touch and never spoke again.

My Black and LGBTQ+ friends in the Bible Belt got different, darker messages of course, not just about reproductive choices, but also their entire identities. The systemic racism that targets mothers of color starts early and has disturbing results. And for young LGBTQ+ Southerners in the days before legalized marriage, sex and pregnancy could be incredibly dangerous experiences thanks to their neighbor's toxic religious extremism. I feared for them, for everyone. This isn't right, I always thought. We don't have to put up with being put down; it's not legal.

As I grew up, I stayed lucky. In adulthood, I was able to surround myself with like-minded feminists who understood my personal choices around pregnancy and marriage. I found heroines like Jamie Miller, a West Virginia activist who has fought doggedly for abortion access despite being repeatedly harassed and threatened. This past summer, I checked in with Jamie repeatedly as the Supreme Court released its Dobbs decision, and she reminded me that we are not anomalies; the South is incredibly diverse, and not everyone in our region falls prey to toxic evangelical messaging. "My whole family is religious," says Jamie, but "when I started speaking up [on abortion], they accepted it." Jamie's children have also been staunchly supportive of her work, and when she puts out a call for protestors, a noisy crowd always shows up. In many cases, it is only due to gerrymandering and voter suppression that red staters suffer under minority conservative rule. There are far more progressives in my hometown than outsiders realize, and advocates like Jamie have always fought to make certain everyone here has access to reproductive care.

The women in my own life who I witnessed most frequently seek elective abortions have also been the women who present themselves as "good" conservative Christians.

The crux of my newfound doubt about Roe is the "everyone" part. Because that story about my friend's wedding is just one of many. Jamie, me, every left-leaning Southern woman I know—we have all been put in the same position many times, often while being insulted by the very person asking us for help. What I am wrestling with in the wake of abortion rights being overturned is the fundamental tension between Southerners like me, and conservative white women like my childhood friend, who quietly take advantage of abortion rights while helping abolish them.

Put simply, there's a lot of hypocrisy down here, and I no longer know how to feel about it. It dawned on me this summer that in my experience, anti-choice women access abortion care at the same rates as everyone else I know. Indeed, the women in my own life who I witnessed most frequently seek elective abortions have also been the women who present themselves as "good" conservative Christians. Who, I now wonder, have I really been keeping abortion secret for all this time?

Statistics are hard to come by on this issue, but what we do know about abortion access proves my experiences are likely representative of a broad trend. To determine how often anti-choice women are accessing the care they claim to revile, we have only to look at some hard facts and (I hope) familiar numbers: worldwide, 1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Almost a third of pregnancies miscarry, and eight percent have complications that can threaten the life of the parent or child. As for sexual violence, that happens in the U.S. literally once every minute, totaling half a million victims per year. Statistically, there is no way these overwhelming numbers don't reach into conservative families.

More to the point, there is also proof that religious white women have a lot of elective abortions. According to one 2014 study, 62% of Americans who visit abortion clinics self-identify as religious, with 42% specifically identifying as practicing evangelical or Catholic—the two faiths most affiliated with the anti-choice movement. Many conservative news outlets concur, reporting that up to 70% of women seeking abortions are Christian.

Ask any honest Southerner, and she'll confirm these numbers with stories of her own. The majority of the women I know who've had abortions have been white and conservative, and I've lost count of how many asked me to help hide the details. They ask me specifically because I am pro-choice and believe in their right to privacy. My childhood friend, for example, implored me not to tell her fiancé about her abortions because I was the only one who knew about them in the first place.

* * *

In my late twenties, I had a boss who asked me for help scheduling an elective abortion. She had married into her husband's family business, and apart from the Mexican workers she refused to speak to, I was the only female-identifying employee who didn't go to her church or share her last name. She was deeply anxious, so I asked as few questions as possible, called a clinic just over the state line, then covered for her at the office. A few weeks later I made a comment about a local political race, and she shot back, "I'm not voting for anybody who's pro-Muslim or pro-choice." I gave her a hard look. "That didn't count," she said, waving me off. "I'm not a slut."

"That didn't count," she said, waving me off. "I'm not a slut."

Such dismissals are rooted in shame and indoctrination. During my years as a professor at a university in Madison Cawthorn's congressional district, I kept pamphlets in my office for the local Planned Parenthood clinic and offered advice to my evangelical students more often than any other demographic. Few of them changed their views on abortion afterwards. Even the relief of being freed from an unwanted pregnancy couldn't break through their cognitive dissonance. The women who think I'm a "baby killer" may have more abortions than my pro-choice friends, but they still refuse to hear the lesson of compassion we always offer in their time of need. They can also be unspeakably cruel to others who make the same choice. (When one dear friend of mine terminated a high-risk pregnancy, for example, her OB-GYN nurse whispered in her ear "You'll go to hell for this" right before wheeling her into surgery.)

I must pause here to clarify that I am not talking about people in abusive families or insurmountable circumstances. Obviously, many abortion patients need to be secretive for safety reasons. I am also not talking about rural communities, where clinics have been systematically stripped away and replaced with unethical crisis pregnancy centers. My specific beef, the doubt I am struggling with, regards my peers: middle-class suburban white women who have the means and education to access reproductive care easily, and do so on the sly.

Recently I posted a tweet about my observation that white conservatives frequently use abortion for birth control. The tweet went viral, with thousands of corroborating replies and anecdotes. The overwhelming consensus was that these hypocrites expect us to cover for them, but never vice versa.

Now that Roe has ended, I have half a mind to out every last one of them.

* * *

In her famous article "The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion," Canadian activist Joyce Arthur documents abortion providers' experience with anti-choicers seeking abortion care. The abuse these patients heap on healthcare workers is both appalling and illuminating. They believe they are special, an exception to the rule, and more entitled than other pregnant people, whom they believe to be beneath them.

Such entitlement is of course the flip side of their unique brand of oppression. In order to fully internalize the misogyny keeping them down, conservative women have to buy into the white supremacist practice of placing them on a pedestal. What else is the right-wing agenda for? The "pro-family" cause crumbles unless my childhood friend—or my former boss, or any of my old students—accepts that her cage is a gilded one, and willingly enters it, locking the door behind her. There is tremendous psychic comfort in submitting to tyranny, and doing so allows white evangelicals to elevate and separate themselves from people like me.

My struggle, then, is what to make of this new post-Roe message. For the first 49 years of my life, I vehemently followed the unwritten Code of Southern Girls: If anyone says she's a virgin but you know damn well she's not, keep your mouth shut. If she has a date, cover for her; tell her parents she slept at your house. And if anyone needs an abortion, even the pastor's daughter (or wife!), help sneak her into the clinic.

I want to crash all the Sunday church services and tattle from the pulpit.

The betrayal I feel in losing Roe manifests in part as a bitter desire to break this code. I want to shout from the hilltops all the names of my conservative friends who have had abortions. I want to crash all the Sunday church services and tattle from the pulpit. And I now question whether covering for these people was a righteous lie after all. Perhaps it makes me no better than them, a hypocrite on a pedestal.

The history of the "pro-life" movement is appalling, and its future will be even more toxic. Their newest lie is a delicate semantic one: the word "abortion" now only applies to pregnancies resulting from consensual (read: sinful) sex. Forced birth proponents are testifying to Congress that ending a risky pregnancy is not technically an "abortion," when there is no medical difference between the two. It is the same sinister lie my old boss told me: some abortions don't "count." Such misinformation will get worse, more legally confusing, and people will die as a result. And the ease with which Roe was overturned means evangelicals are now targeting other fundamental rights.

Of course, I would never publicly expose anyone who has had an abortion. Though white female privilege and the evangelical agenda are major barriers to social justice in this country, privileged people deserve privacy, too. But my newfound doubts have made me reach out to friends to ask what we should do now, and how we should interact with those who betrayed us.

Jamie Miller, my activist friend in West Virginia, offered the best answer I can find. "I don't think it's possible to chip away at white women's entitlement," Jamie told me on a recent Saturday after she'd spent a rain-soaked afternoon marching outside the state capitol. Last year while working as a clinic escort, Jamie helped an 11-year-old girl through a mob of demonstrators. The crowd berated and insulted the girl, who was wearing kids' pajamas.

The path forward, says Jamie, is to stop sugarcoating. Up to now, we've allowed politicians to be too coy with their language. "No more equivocating," Jamie says; we must take control of the messaging. While we cannot out individuals, we can and must spread the collective truth.

Jamie shares my concern that we have all been complicit in the erosion of Roe, and worries that arguments about "special" exceptions only further alienate Americans from the reality that elective abortion is a universal fact of life, even for people who claim they've never had one. "Misinformation, the media, centrist Democrats," Jamie says, "everyone has failed… abortion has been made into a source of shame, into a lie… and we enable the lie by not speaking of it." In other words, by enabling white evangelical denial about their own abortions, we have helped them destroy everyone's right to get one.  

Oh, the stories Jamie and I could tell; if only the walls of abortion clinics could shout instead of whisper. I still sometimes wish I could out some of my evangelical friends with public proclamations about their secret, salacious abortions. But what I must do instead is tell anti-choicers, tell you, tell everyone that the lie itself exists. Only by owning the secrets we have kept for each other, by calling out the lie and speaking truth to its power, does our right to privacy have any hope of being returned to us.

By Leah Hampton

Leah Hampton is the author of "F*ckface and Other Stories" from Henry Holt/MacMillan, and her work has appeared in Guernica, Ecotone, McSweeney’s Quarterly, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Leah Hampton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Best Of 2022 Christianity Essay Religion Reproductive Rights