I was thirteen or fourteen when I learned about abortion at religious summer camp.
The camp was connected to Lake Sawyer and followed the same general Chickian doctrine, but in a lot of ways it was like every other summer camp. There were crafts and altar calls and junk food and kids making out in the woods and young-earth creationism and an anti-abortion propaganda film.
Adults may not realize this, but teenagers usually know when they are being propaganda-ized, and resist it mightily. In fact, you can get teenagers to do some pretty stupid things just by working too hard to get them to not do them.
My reaction was fairly typical, for me. I bought it for about ten minutes and then went "hey, wait a minute." Why did I buy it for that ten minutes? Well, for one thing, I’m highly vulnerable to narrative tricks in film. I get tense when the music says to and I cry on cue and I laugh at the right times and I’m surprised when that narrative thread I kind of forgot about comes back and resolves the story. I’m a sucker, really. But I’m also a skeptic. If a movie pulls those tricks on me and I don’t feel like it earned them, I get mildly outraged.
Another reason, probably, is that once I was prompted to think about it, I realized I didn’t want to have an abortion. But I knew I didn’t want to have a baby either. Both options creeped me out on a deep, visceral level.
So I spent a lot of time thinking about it. The true ethical choice didn’t seem at all clear to me.
Was a fetus a person? I didn’t see how it was possible until the fetus had a brain, which doesn’t happen until well into the pregnancy. But then, how much of a brain did a fetus need to have before it could be considered a person? And even if you assumed, for the sake of argument, that the fetus is always a person, the welfare of that person needed to be weighed against the welfare of all the other, unambiguous persons involved — the pregnant woman, and her family, including other children she might already be responsible for.
So, I decided that the decision had to be left up to the individual woman. There wasn’t any other option that even made sense. Abortion needed to be legal, and safe, and available, and prevented through birth control and smart decision-making whenever possible.
That was my position then. It’s my position now. Several years of anti-abortion propaganda when I was still connected to the church could not budge me from it one iota. Rather, it strengthened my resolve, and eventually became one of the many things driving me away from the church.
Why did it fail so spectacularly? Well, for one thing, I self-identified as a feminist long before I self-identified as a Christian. Yes, little six-year-old old me had somehow absorbed this concept, probably because of news coverage and general pop culture awareness of the Equal Rights Amendment (approved by Congress in 1972, failed to gain ratification before the 1982 deadline.) I had read enough stories that were written or set in the past to know why feminism and women’s rights were necessary. And, you know, I was a future woman. So not only did feminism appeal to my basic sense of fairness, but it was also something that would benefit me, personally. I concluded very early that anti-feminists came in two varieties: idiots (the female kind), and big meanies (the male kind).
When you’re already a deeply committed feminist, and get hit with religious anti-abortion propaganda, its anti-woman biases come popping out in a blaze of neon.
Another thing. I don’t have a generic !!BABY!! button that you can press and have me turn into incoherent pink goo. I certainly feel the human urge to take care of and protect small, young helpless living things, like babies and kittens. But I am keenly aware of what you’re protecting them for — kittens grow into cats. Babies grow into adults. You protect them so they can live, and that also means protecting their environment, protecting the world they’re going to live in.
Anti-abortion propaganda is all about pushing that emotional !!BABY!! button, without any practical context. You’re supposed to feel bad about abortion because, !!BABY!! It’s kind of weird and ironic, really, because anti-abortionists say they are against abortion because a fetus is a !!BABY!! which you might think is because they believe a fetus is a person, but you would be wrong about that. They don’t even think of the !!BABY!! as a person. The BABY! is a symbol of goodness and purity and the proper order of things. It’s an idol. They worship it.
Actual people, they couldn’t give a toss about.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. My cynical conclusions about the Cult of the Unborn Child, and my general level of face-punching rage toward the anti-abortion movement, took years to develop. Back in my adolescence, when it was a new concept to me and just beginning to infiltrate the church, I was more willing to take the debate at face value. At the time I accepted that abortion was a true ethical quandary.
I just already knew how I resolved it. Pro-choice.
I would say it was my first major break with church doctrine, except that’s not true. First, it’s not true because unaffiliated evangelical Protestants don’t actually have doctrine. Doctrine has to be handed down from some type of authority. And even if they did have doctrine, being anti-abortion wasn’t yet a part of it.
It was in the process of becoming a part of assumed church beliefs at the same time as I was solidifying my own pro-choice stance.
So, really, I didn’t break with the church. The church broke with me.