9. Big-ticket items: abortion

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.


  1. FYI

    “I didn’t see how it was possible until the fetus had a brain, which doesn’t happen until well into the pregnancy.”

    Not true.

    On one hand, the brain isn’t *complete* at any time during pregnancy, or even during childhood.

    But the beginnings of the brain are there as early as 5-6 weeks (which, because of how they count things, is actually 3-4 weeks after conception, and before many women know they are pregnant if they aren’t peestick stalkers). By 7-9 weeks (5-7 weeks real time), you can actually point at the different parts of the brain.

    If you’re talking about forebrain development (where higher cognitive thought processes happen), that does indeed come into play later — but later as in mostly after birth.

    Unfortunately, this is an area where there is propaganda on both sides, and I don’t know that it has really helped either of them. :(

    1. Author

      Brain and brain! What is brain?

      No, seriously, what is brain?

      Are the rudimentary beginnings of a brain, actually a brain, as in a thing that you can think with? Because that’s what I meant to be talking about.

      Also, the anti-abortion crowd have discredited themselves on that score by opposing things like the “morning after” pill as abortificants. I am pretty sure that blastocysts do not have brains of any kind.

      Although if you tell me I’m wrong about that, it would be sort of interesting.

      1. How to score with christians

        <dominionist style=”mainly in it for the pro-apocalypse stuff… the Jesus thing kinda freaks me out”> Heck, any given blastocyst might yet become zero to eight fetuses. If you believe, as I do, that “ensoulment” happens at the earliest possible moment (ie, any time there is even the remotest chance of procreative sex) and that God isn’t parsimonious (because He’s, like, omnipotent, so why would He be?), then abortion pills are at least eight “murders”. Which, of course, is still better than abstinence. Abstinence is “murder” on a genocidal scale.

        (I’m probably going to hell)

        1. Author

          Re: How to score with christians

          You would have to phrase it using the appropriate in-group wording, but I think you could probably make the case that abstinence is just a really, really early form of abortion well enough to confuse some Christians.

          It’s the in-group wording that would give you trouble. You’d have to go to church regularly to pick up on the cadence and idiom. And then, if they noticed you being flip or sarcastic at any point, it would be all over. They might not even know what it is they’d witnessed (sarcasm and snark of any kind being somewhat foreign to evangelical culture) but they would pick up on the subtle signs that you were Not of The Body and be resistant to your theological notions.

          1. Re: How to score with christians

            Yeah, it’s true. I find it so hard to be sincere about my Christianity that people can see scare quotes when I talk out loud. Maybe if I told them I was having very sarcastic and insincere crisis of fake faith.

        2. Re: How to score with christians

          Also, that twins have only half a soul. Or only one twin has a soul. Which explains why one twin is always evil and has a goatee.

          1. Author

            Re: How to score with christians

            “Isn’t it odd that the left or ‘sinister’ twin is invariably the evil one?”

            (Insert Dr. Hibbert laugh.)

  2. If one truly believes that abortion murder then I can see how it would be an obligation to fight it. Like seeing concentration camps and having the obligation to fight them. That’s the nearest I can get to understanding the mentality.

    I agree with you that the pro lifers are a bunch of nut jobs – especially the hypocritically violent ones.

    I like your quote “I didn’t break with the church. The church broke with me.”

    1. Author

      I think there are people who think they think that abortion is murder, but their actions don’t tend to back that up.

      Although, the more sincere anti-abortion activists do tend to remind me of the folks in PETA, who seem quite earnest (if fuzzy-headed and misguided) in their opinion that meat is murder.

      1. My cousin says ‘If we weren’t meant to eat animals why are they made out of meat.’

        But, Yep. I agree with you. Their actions don’t tend to back up their ideas.

  3. Silly me, you already know of Fred Clark, and TvTropes. I was linked by the lovely Fenmere in a tweet, and I love these entries.

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