Why I Am Prochoice
Why are you prochoice? For this issue of Conscience magazine, we asked people from around the world, from diverse backgrounds, experiences, cultures and religions, to answer that question.
I want to let you know why Catholics for Choice is prochoice.
At Catholics for Choice, we approach the word “choice” from an ideological standpoint. As a result of our faith and our political convictions, we believe in the power of choice.
As Catholics, we believe in conscience. We believe that everyone has a God-given voice that resonates within us and guides us in our decision-making. Nothing and nobody less than God can take that voice away from us. Choice respects each person’s right and responsibility to listen to our inner voice when making moral decisions, including the one to continue or end a pregnancy.
Our work to make sure that women can make their choices a reality is rooted in our faith’s tradition of social justice. We are called by our faith to advocate most strongly for policies that protect and lift up all people, particularly the marginalized and the poor. Our religious beliefs compel us to recognize the dignity and rights of all people, including that they deserve respect and equal access to reproductive healthcare, irrespective of race, color, class or creed. No matter what they decide, people should be able to carry out their choices safely, with dignity and without having to circumvent coercion, stigmatization or unnecessary obstacles. A commitment to choice means that we make sure there is a level playing field, so the ability of a woman to act on her choice isn’t limited by economic, social or political factors. It means striving to ensure that you can carry out your choice as easily as I would like it to be to carry out mine.
At its very core, our commitment to choice is rooted in trusting women and in the deepest respect for personal autonomy. We believe it is the best, most just way to approach advocacy on public policies that deal with these very personal decisions. To be prochoice is to acknowledge that we cannot make a critical life decision for anybody else, just as they cannot do so for us.
In its insistence that personal autonomy is nonnegotiable, choice applies to each and every person in each and every situation. It does not change even as political climates, public perceptions and social realities come and go.
This is why we are prochoice. It is why we lead the way on issues like public funding for abortion and access to later abortion. It is for these reasons that Catholics for Choice will continue to talk about these issues and why we will ask you to talk about them with us. I hope you find this issue and our colleagues’ stories stimulating, inspiring and challenging, and that you visit catholicsforchoice.org/prochoice-essays to tell us why you are prochoice.
Curtis Boyd, MD
Today, people seem to think that if you are Christian, you are opposed to abortion. However, it was my Christian values that brought me to this work. I am a physician who has provided abortion care for over 40 years, but I was a Baptist preacher before I went to medical school. I first thought about “problem pregnancy” from a Christian perspective. My extended family raised me to believe in kindness, gentleness and compassion. God was love. God was merciful and forgiving.
In medical school my need for religion led me to Unitarianism, which in turn led me to social activism in the 1960s. By then, I had a busy family practice in the small town where I’d gone to high school. I had established a Unitarian Fellowship there and was its president. The Unitarian Universalists were involved in a number of social issues, and since I was a doctor, I was recruited to work with the Clergy Consultation for Problem Pregnancy. I joined a large group of college and university chaplains and ministers from many denominations. These clergymen (and they were all men) believed that their Christian duty compelled them to serve the needs of their students and their congregations. Like me, they believed in a God of understanding, compassion and love.
Like most men, I’d given little thought to women’s issues. Sometime in childhood I realized that our culture was not entirely fair to girls, and in high school I clearly saw how an unplanned pregnancy could ruin a girl’s life. But the depth of the unfairness did not register with me. I believed racial equality and stopping the war in Vietnam were the important causes of the day. So when some of the women I was working with on social justice said, “Look, we have our own issues,” I didn’t get it. “What issues could women have that men don’t have?” was my question. I got an answer: “We want to control our bodies and our lives. We must be able to control our reproduction if we are to plan our lives—our families, our careers. We want abortion to be available.” I was shocked … and my consciousness was being raised.
As a physician, I knew that a pregnant woman had no voice in whether she got a desired abortion or not. The ethics committees that met in hospitals to decide whether a woman deserved the abortion she sought were all male. It was that way everywhere—church leaders were men, politicians were men, most doctors were men. No one considered the pregnant woman’s point of view, much less her “rights.”
In the 1960s, the feminist movement said for the first time that the pregnant woman should be involved in the decision-making process about abortion, and the Supreme Court finally granted her the right to decide, in consultation with her doctor, in 1973. I believed the matter was settled, and that the solution was just.
I still believe the pregnant woman is the only person who should have the right to decide. Since 1973, I have listened to tens of thousands of women weigh their options. I know that a pregnant woman considers what is best for everyone in her life, including what is best for the pregnancy she carries. I am in awe of the depth of women’s moral thinking.
I was born before World War II to a very liberal family in a small town in northern Italy. At age 11, I asked my grandfather, a pharmacist and a socialist, what a condom was and had my first sexual education lesson. I was 14 when I heard my father—a doctor—saying that many children should have been named Ogino. When I asked why, he explained in very simple terms the Ogino Knauss (rhythm) method, and that it was not a safe method if a woman did not want to have children. The birth control pill was already available when I had my first sexual experience. I have had only one daughter, with whom I have always had a marvelous relationship. I chose not to have more children and I never had an abortion.
In my family, only one of my grandmothers was a believer; she was raised in a boarding school for girls run by nuns and had six children in seven years before undergoing a hysterectomy. The other grandmother used to wear a Fatima hand (not usually a Christian symbol) and I regret I never asked her why. We were 10 cousins more or less of the same age, all baptized, but our spiritual guidance came from a Dominican priest who, when we were teenagers, organized a two-day retreat in a convent for us and our friends to speak about the sexuality of Jesus Christ. He died in Brazil fighting with the guerrillas. I stopped going to church when I was a graduate student in development economics at UCLA.
I joined the women’s liberation movement in 1972, after I had moved to Rome and gotten married. We were a small group of radical women and men, most of whom had studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship, and we immediately decided to include the liberalization of Italy’s abortion law as part of our mission.
I remember talking about this to my mother, who was involved in many programs for the poor, and she shared with me her story of a voluntary interruption of a pregnancy immediately after the war. She also told me that for her, the wife of a doctor, an abortion was not difficult, but that it was very hard for most women, who had to terminate a pregnancy unsafely. My mother felt that it was all right for me to fight for women’s freedom of choice.
When I was expecting my child, I used to march in the first rallies for free abortion access while wearing a sandwich poster that read: “desired motherhood, happy motherhood.”
My prochoice view was thus a political conviction but it soon became also part of my professional commitment. In 1973, I was one of the founders of a feminist magazine, EFFE, which followed the abortion campaign until the law was approved and later, the referendum in which the antichoice movement was badly defeated. I also worked for several years as a producer for a very famous Italian public television program, “Si dice donna” (So say women), for which I did four reports on the Italian campaign for abortion rights.
In 1981, the TV program was cancelled because my last report, covering 10 years of the women’s movement for the legalization of abortion, created an uproar among all of Italy’s political parties. This was when I founded AIDOS, the Italian Association for Women in Development. Its mission was naturally to support “the rights, the dignity and the freedom of choice of women” with an integrated, holistic approach to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Kellie Rose Ferguson
Being a prochoice republican is at the core of my political and personal convictions. My political leanings were formed early in my home state of Massachusetts, when decades of inflated tax policy and government spending put a strain on the budgets of businesses and families, leading to the state moniker “Taxachusetts.” The entrée of William Weld, Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, along with an increase of mainstream Republicans in the state legislature, brought a new discussion that made me keenly aware of priorities of the GOP. These Republicans were champions of limiting the government’s control of our pocketbooks and our personal lives. They promoted the ideal that the role of government was to do only that which citizens could not do for themselves. The GOP control of the state’s corner office for more than 15 years led to groundbreaking improvements in tax policy, welfare reform, education reform and balanced budgets. These Republican policies improved the lives of the states citizenry while decreasing tax burdens and protecting individual freedom.
“Prochoice” is a political label—one that is not about promoting abortion, but that means supporting the full range of reproductive health options while upholding our nation’s ideal of personal freedom and respecting the views and decisions of others. Many Republicans identify as prolife; yet they understand that the true conservative position is to ensure that government does not insert itself into medical decisions.
During my first pregnancy, I remember well the massive amount of information and constant swarm of concerns. While my husband and I were thrilled to be adding to our family, we were simultaneously worried about the unknown. From the prenatal classes to the unending pamphlets about ways to ensure my health and that of our child, we wanted to do everything “right.” One of our primary concerns involved the many tests offered throughout the pregnancy to ensure everything was on track and, if any problems were detected, to allow us to take early precautions in order to provide the best care to our child. I know for certain that there was never one time that I thought, “If only I could have the advice of my congressman.” I wanted facts—from a medical professional, not a politician—about which tests were necessary, what the side effects could be for both me and our baby. It is because our doctors gave us accurate information that we were able to make informed decisions about which tests we would or would not go through.
When I was pregnant I never thought, “If only I could have the advice of my congressman.”
Ours was a relatively easy pregnancy and we count our blessings for our children daily. We wish the same for every family who wants to grow. I also know that we were lucky—we never encountered the life-threatening situations of many families who are forced to make heartbreaking decisions. Laws that mandate one-size-fits-all medical care are dangerous because every family situation is different. We must place a premium on education about and access to contraception, knowing that these investments are proven effective ways to ensure healthy families and fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions. These are surely goals that all sides can embrace.
When I began to consider myself a feminist, I questioned what has been described as “natural” and “normal” for women, reflected on making visible that which had been rendered invisible and giving a voice to that which had been silenced. I wondered whether I could also be a Catholic, because it is precisely the patriarchal dogmas of Catholicism that have kept women from being independent and free.
Then I understood that many Catholic women are fighting for the right to choose. We are constructing our own discourses and interpretations of Christianity based on our own experiences and feelings. We are fighting to have diversity recognized within our churches and to have silenced voices be heard. We are trying to build and comprehend a Catholicism that will make us free, rather than oppress us. We believe that each person builds his or her own relationship with God, a God who liberates us and understands us.
That is precisely what motivated me to join up with the political efforts of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Perú (CDD – Perú), which is part of the Latin American Network of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir. CDD – Perú is a movement of feminist Catholic women whose aim is to safeguard free–dom of choice and freedom of conscience, which is part of Catholic doctrine itself.
I now have a clear understanding that it is not natural for women to have to be obedient or to be only mothers or virgins, or to have to be silenced, oppressed or violated. Our bodies are not opposed to the spirit; they are not base nature, fear, shame or original sin. They are a vocation and pathway toward the sacred, and must be placed in a context of freedom and self-determination. Many Catholic women do not accept the notion that the purpose of sexuality must be reproduction, or that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation.
It is not natural for women to have to be obedient or to be only mothers or virgins, or to have to be silenced, oppressed or violated.
Catholicism must be the standard-bearer of equality, justice and freedom. It must understand people’s circumstances and needs and support them in their decisions on private matters. If a woman decides to use contraception, she is not committing a sin, because she is listening to her conscience and writing her own history. If she decides to have an abortion, she is not committing a sin, because she is preventing a serious harm—as described in canon law—and she is making a decision about herself. Motherhood cannot be imposed as an obligation or punishment.
The right to choose has been recognized after long, historic battles waged by women against the patriarchy, but many women are still unable to exercise it. To this end, the government must ensure freedom of conscience and sexual and reproductive rights, and it must strengthen the secular nature of the state by affirming its independence from religion. Meanwhile, we must promote a more democratic and diverse Catholic church: one that truly includes and represents all Catholics; one that respects people’s right to make decisions about their own bodies, lives and histories. The struggles of feminist Catholic women continue.
After my first child was born, a friend asked me if my views on abortion had changed. I believe I surprised him when I responded, “Yes! I never thought I could be more prochoice than I was … but I am.” I suspect he thought that my becoming a mother might make it harder to understand why some women make a different decision. However, the experience had quite the opposite effect and served to strengthen my conviction that all women should be able to make this life-changing decision freely.
My son is now a talkative, inquisitive two-year old who fills my apartment with drawings of dinosaurs, has conversations about trains and popsicles and gives sticky hugs. There are, of course, times (fairly often) when I get nostalgic for my pre-parenting days, but I have come a long way from the year following his birth, when I suffered from postpartum depression. Unlike some mothers who delight in their babies’ first smile, cooing and tentative steps, I felt trapped being alone with a baby all day. I found the experience to be isolating and lonely, at worst, and boring at best. There was not a day that went by when I did not find myself crying helplessly in a heap on the couch. I feared that my life had taken a wrong turn and that I might not be cut out for parenting. I felt completely out of control of my life and missed my job, my friends and the free time to read, explore the city or take a run. It did not help that it was the dead of winter in the Northeast!
However, the one thing that made me feel empowered and determined to get through the darkest days was the knowledge that motherhood had been my choice. It was a decision that I made with a wonderful partner who was doing everything possible to help me. It brought joy to my extended family and offers to support me in any way possible. It was a decision that I made after determining that my health insurance covered all the necessary medical expenses and that my employer offered sufficient paid maternity leave. And it was a conclusion I came to after finding out that I could pay for childcare when I returned to work.
Becoming a mother was completely my choice, and yet I was still struggling day in and day out to care for this new member of the family. Time and time again I thought of the millions of women out there who were going through what I was going through without the luxury of it having been a choice. I thought about the women who were forced to become mothers without the emotional and financial support that quite honestly were the only reasons I got through that tough year. So yes, becoming a mother did change my views on abortion. Motherhood, and the ups and downs that come with it, should always be a choice.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro
To me, abortion is a morally complex matter of conscience that speaks to our most fundamental values as citizens and as legislators. As my record indicates, I have been and will always be a strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose. This, I believe, is consistent with my work as a Member of Congress to advance respect for life and respect for the dignity of every human being.
While I know that my legislative record on this issue puts me at odds with some of my fellow Catholics and the church’s hierarchy, I also know there are many other areas where we all agree. We all envision a world in which every child belongs to a loving family. And we are all committed to reducing the need for abortion, creating an environment that encourages pregnancies to be carried to term and supporting new parents. I believe achieving these goals must include promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, improving access to healthcare and child care, and supporting policies that encourage paternal and maternal responsibility.
That being said, I do find troubling the choice by some in the church’s hierarchy to make the divisive issue of abortion seemingly the only issue that matters in the public realm. Whether from the pulpit, in the media or in the halls of Congress, church leaders pursue the issue of abortion as the only issue of consequence. Given all the challenges we face as a society, this single-mindedness is disappointing. Our church should be a moral force in the broadest sense, working to mold a more just America and a more just world. So why does the church only judge Catholic Members of Congress on whether they support a women’s right to choose? A member’s commitment to feeding the hungry and lifting up the poor is as important. Yet no members have been threatened with being barred from communion for this lack of commitment, as I have been for my prochoice stance. The focus on abortion alone by a few bishops risks a moral selectivity that weakens the church’s authority on other issues.
I have been and will always be a strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose.
On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Sister Joan Chittister when she says: “I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you prolife. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. That is not prolife. That is probirth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of prolife is.”
This is why I am so moved by the recent proclamations of our new pope, Francis. In his short tenure as the leader of the church, Pope Francis has been bold in highlighting the richness of Catholic social teaching. His words and actions point to a church rightly preoccupied with the common good and the preferential option for the poor. Recently, he also announced that his first encyclical will be on the theme of global poverty—the first one to ever deal with this issue.
My hope for the future is that Pope Francis will continue to proclaim our rich Catholic tradition and speak to the broad range of issues we all care about, including life, dignity and social justice. That choice could make a world of difference for so many.
When I think about the word “choice” in the context of sexual and reproductive health, I can’t help but think about my maternal grandmother’s 22 pregnancies and 19 live births and whether, if she had had access to information and services, that would have helped her understand her options—what type of choices would she have made? At that time many others were choosing for her: a machista husband who emotionally and sexually abused her; a religious system that told her it was not OK to refuse her husband’s oppressive sexual overtures, nor to protect herself from unwanted pregnancies; and a government that did not provide a poor and illiterate woman access to affordable healthcare for herself and her family.
I think of the meaning of choice when I try to picture the story my mother told me about my birth: days of painful labor, no food, high blood pressure and screaming matches between my mom and the nurses who didn’t understand Spanish. “You don’t understand this pain? Have you ever given birth to a child—have you?” she asked them. “Shut up, lady; if you don’t calm down we will have to restrain you. Maybe you will shut your trap when we tie you to the bed,” they responded.
On day four my mom finally got a cesarean. Drained, in pain and very swol–len, she was not able to fight for my name when the nurse brought her my birth certificate stating that my name was Jersey, instead of the one my mom had chosen for me, Suleika. What choices regarding birth–ing options and patient rights did an immigrant, non-English speaking and, for lack of a better word, uneducated woman know she had in the 1970s? While lying in bed in the maternity ward of a large public hospital in New York City, there didn’t seem to be many.
“Prochoice,” I believe, goes beyond being able to make a decision about a pregnancy.
Growing up, I watched several of my cousins get pregnant before the age of 16, hiding their pregnancies until a sister’s casual touch on her belly found it unusually hard, or being rushed to the hospital unconscious with heavily bloodied pants, having secretly self-induced an abortion with misoprostol. What choices were they aware of when all the sexual and reproductive health education they got was, “If you come to this house pregnant, you will be kicked out and disowned”?
“Prochoice,” I believe, goes beyond being able to make a decision about a pregnancy. What is choice without access, without information, without support? An empty promise, I suppose, or a suppressed reality, because who decides, and who chooses in that context? I am prochoice because I am the product of—and the witness to—so many unrealized choices. I hope that voicing them now will free other women to demand, fight for and secure what is rightfully theirs.
I was raised in the Catholic church, and our family life was built around it. I played parish softball and sang in the children’s choir; my dad was a lector, my mom a Eucharistic minister. My years of religious education emphasized stories about Jesus and the values of love, forgiveness, care for the poor and social justice. Ah, the church in the 1970s.
For me, being prochoice is fully in the tradition of my religious teaching and family upbringing. I believe that the right to choose is, in its essence, about our society recognizing that women have worth—that our lives are worth nurturing, our contributions valuable, whether or not we are mothers. I believe in the importance of community— where individuals are bound by mutual obligation and affection, and we can depend upon our welcome and take action together to help those in need. Because the institutional church stands in opposition to my beliefs about worth and community, I have separated from it rather than separate my values and beliefs from my work.
I watched a friend stop going to Mass after an unplanned pregnancy ended in abortion, alienating her from our tradition without anyone reaching out to bring her back. I met with couples in great despair after terminating a pregnancy that they wanted desperately, and then attended Masses where priests prayed for the unborn without ever mentioning women who are seeking to give birth or parents who are raising children. I stood up as godmother at the baptism of a beloved friend’s child, and less than seven weeks later, sat with a priest to suggest readings and hymns for that friend’s funeral. When the priest learned that I was a Planned Parenthood affiliate CEO, he protested, “You mean the clinic? But you seem so Catholic!” Then I confronted the fear that he might take the step of refusing me Communion, and thus call attention to me at my friend’s funeral Mass.
I helped Members of Congress prepare for votes related to contraception and abortion. Often, I saw them differentiate what they truly believed from what they thought constituents would expect from them. They feared being unwelcome in parishes and other faith communities in which they and their families had worshipped for years or even generations. And sometimes, despite what they believed was right, these policymakers would not vote to support access to abortion because the church had promised to make them pay—a cost that, in personal as much as in political terms, was very high.
The institutional church would not call me Catholic, and I don’t seek the affiliation. I had to choose the work. I have put years of effort into prochoice organizations that exemplify what Sargent Shriver identified as “spiritual values”—service, dedication, compassion, humility, reciprocity and the spirit of charity. I have kept faith with the faith, and the family, that raised me, and my commitment transforms everyday work into a mission.
My experiences as a nurse were a catalyst for me to realize that the right to choose is very important for people, and more so for women, because the right to choose is not just about me wanting to drink water. This right goes beyond that, because it involves women’s bodies and the prospect of breaking away from the centuries-old social mandate that has kept women from controlling their own bodies.
Amanda is a 20-year-old mother of two: a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. She inserted the spokes of an umbrella into her uterus because she was pregnant, placing cotton at the end of the spokes so they wouldn’t hurt. She was brought to the hospital with septicemia. “Can I die from this?” she asked. “We’ll do everything we can,” we said. “I don’t care about dying, but I don’t want this!” she replied.
Back then no one knew about misoprostol, and it was a criminal offense for a woman to have an abortion, although the laws weren’t so strict.
I saw women who were absolutely determined not to continue with their pregnancy, although they were fully aware of the risks. I saw them make decisions that women only make out of the need to discontinue an unwanted pregnancy, decisions that would lead them to either freedom or death.
My support for the right to choose, as a woman and as a healthcare professional, brought me problems. I think I started to be a feminist, but I was not aware of my own gradual change, dulled by what I’d been taught at nursing school, the nuns …
The three legal exceptions whereby an abortion could be performed for medical reasons did not fully apply in practice because the latest technology was not available. An anencephalic pregnancy would be taken to term despite the complications involved. Information was lacking.
As a Catholic, it confused me to see women making such bold decisions about their own bodies, including the decision to die. But these were all poor women; some women got a proper abortion because they paid for it. That was just the way things were.
The government should not allow the Catholic hierarchy or any religion to interfere in this public-health issue, and it should finally decriminalize abortion.
In my 15 years as a professional, from 1998 to 2013, the laws have gotten tougher. But the tougher they make the laws, the more abortions take place, and the more women die. Teenage girls commit suicide, or they place themselves at obstetric risk and then go to prison, with no judicial investigation—to serve sentences of up to 40 years.
The Salvadoran government has an obligation to women: it should educate on sexual and reproductive matters in a way that is free of prejudices, of cultural and religious strictures, of myths and beliefs, of sins and guilt. Sex education should promote self-care and provide the information people need to make free, responsible decisions. We should be speaking about free, voluntary motherhood and pregnancy prevention. Information on readily accessible contraception and on emergency contraception should be made available.
The government should not allow the Catholic hierarchy or any religion to interfere in this public-health issue, and it should finally decriminalize abortion and guarantee the right to an abortion that is legal, safe and free of charge.
Sophie in ’t Veld
The short answer to why I am prochoice would be another question: can a civilized person be anything else but prochoice? No society can call itself truly free and democratic if people cannot freely decide over the most important and intimate aspects of the private lives: procreation and sexuality. Of course there are difficult ethical dilemmas. But as a humanist I do not believe ethical dilemmas can be solved with simple, one-size-fits-all truths to be imposed on everyone. As a humanist, I believe asking questions is more important than providing ready-made answers. Ethical dilemmas cannot be solved by closing our eyes to reality, either.
It has been proven that the number of unplanned pregnancies is lowest in countries with very liberal abortion policies and, inversely, highest in countries with very strict, conservative policies. Good sex education and accessible family planning services are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. Very strict abortion laws, or an outright ban, only lead to unsafe abortions, which, in turn, cause a great deal of anxiety and medical complications.
Can a civilized person be anything else but prochoice?
I am grateful I grew up in a country with very liberal policies. In my own environment, I have seen up close what a blessing it is to have wide access to safe and legal abortion services. Take a case I know of involving a severely handicapped fetus that would not have survived after birth—which was not discovered until very far into the pregnancy. The couple chose to terminate just within the legal 24-week mark. Such a situation is a tragedy in itself for the expecting parents. But at least they did not have to worry about an unsafe abortion carried out covertly; they did not have to fear prosecution. They were surrounded by all the medical and psychological care they needed, and they could focus on dealing with their loss. What drives me is that I feel all people are entitled to such services. It hurts me to see so many people, women in particular, are not the masters of their own bodies and their own lives. It hurts me to hear the stories of women who have been raped and abused but are obliged to carry the baby of their aggressor. I am unable to understand how religion can be distorted as a pretext to deny these women the care and support they need, or how religion can be misused to justify horrible suffering for so many women around the world. I hope one day all people will live in a world as safe and free as the one I grew up in.
I could say that I am prochoice because I value women’s full participation in society, and that to ensure this freedom, women must have the right to decide when and how many children they will bear. I could say I am prochoice because I don’t want to go back to pre-Roe days. I could say I am prochoice because it is part of my progressive political leanings. I could also say that I am prochoice because I want my daughter to live in a society that values her.
The real reason why I am prochoice is because I work at an abortion clinic, where I have witnessed thousands of different reasons for why women decide to have abortions.
Women speak. Women speak of their parenting dreams, disasters and realities. I have heard about their lives, loves, relationships, religions, children, future children, hopes, dreams and aspirations. I have listened as they have talked about failed birth control and no birth control. I have heard heartbreakingly real stories about fear, abuse and assaults. I have heard about conceiving while in the most loving and rewarding relationships.
The real reason why I am prochoice is because I work at an abortion clinic, where I have witnessed thousands of different reasons for why women decide to have abortions.
I have heard women speak about their anger and resentment for being in this position. I have let women cry, have a moment, speak in fear and, yes, many times I have even laughed with women.
I have made their appointments, discussed their decisions, held their hands through the procedure, checked in with them in the days and weeks after their abortion and I have seen many of those same women return to the clinic for more than one abortion.
When faced with an unintended pregnancy, women examine their lives: who they are, who they want to be, how they want to be the best person they can be. They do not take this decision lightly. Women value life, and for that very reason they often choose abortion when faced with an unintended pregnancy. Women grapple with this decision on a level of moral reasoning that most of us will never experience.
Women make the decision to have an abortion, even when this decision is so stigmatized in our society. They tolerate protesters at their doctor’s office. They have had to beg, borrow, steal and even sometimes sell themselves to pay for their abortions. They expect to be judged, treated with disdain and looked down upon. Yet, they still choose abortion.
I have heard the voices of thousands of real women who have had abortions. I am prochoice because of those women. I am prochoice because I trust them. I trust women to make the best decisions for their realities. I have heard only a small portion of the 53 million-plus American women who have had abortions since Roe. And, when I listen to them, I know that there is only one way to be, and that is standing with these women, honoring their very real decisions about their own lives. That is why I am prochoice.
Rev. Vincent Lachina
How does a person who grew up in the Deep South, who as a teenager joined one of the most conservative denominations in the US, was educated in a religious college and seminary and ordained in that conservative denomination decades ago, and who has served in ministry for 50 years find himself to be not only prochoice, but a feminist? That has been the incredible journey that has led me to take such a passionate stand on reproductive justice.
Perhaps the most fortuitous aspect of my life’s journey is having been born at a time when great change was sweeping across America. As a teenage high school student, I was confronted with integration and was forced to put my faith beliefs about equality into practice by supporting the first African-American students who came to my all-white school. As a college student, the reality of war and its cost for humankind led me to become a Vietnam war resister on my campus. During my seminary days, the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment brought me face to face with the reality of gender inequity, something that remains very real to me to this day. As a minister in Kansas, observing the shocking and hateful acts committed by the antichoice group Operation Rescue against Dr. George Tiller and the women he cared for opened my eyes to the struggle for reproductive justice in America.
All of these major movements, in my opinion, have at their core one common theme: human dignity and compassionate justice. Over and over again, I have relied on my own understanding of the sacred scriptures I as a minister and believer hold to be true to provide my foundation for advocacy and activism. These same beliefs also lead me to be passionately opposed to and outspoken about the abuse and misuse of faith and religion to oppress any people, without exception. No one can lay claim to being a follower of any loving God and practice hateful acts towards others. Those two acts are at such diametrically opposed ends that there can never be reconciliation of the two.
Over the years, I have been often asked why I am prochoice. That, for me, is such an easy question to answer. I am prochoice because I believe in women, and in believing in them, I recognize their right of self-governance, trusting that each woman knows what is best for her and does not need my direction nor anyone else’s. It’s really just that simple.
I am an 85-year-old prochoice United Methodist, obviously long past the time when issues relating to childbearing have a direct impact upon my life. As I reflect upon why it is that I continue to work on behalf of the prochoice movement, countless memories come flooding back.
In the small rural town in Minnesota where I grew up, no one talked openly about issues related to sexuality. We all knew why my neighbor had to quit high school and get married. But no one talked about it. Just a few years later, when I tried to talk to my pastor about my relationship with my then-fiancé, he didn’t want to talk about it. I left that session frustrated and deeply aware that something was wrong. In the first few years of my subsequent marriage, every time my husband and I had sex, my sense of well-being was tempered by my fear that I would become pregnant. But we never talked about it.
I have only a fading memory as to when I decided it was time to start talking about the wondrous gift of sexuality that God has given us mortals. It might have been when I first read that my own denomination believed that “each couple has the right and the duty to prayerfully and responsibly to control conception according to their circumstances.” Or when I read, “We [United Methodists] believe that continuance of a pregnancy that endangers the life or health of the mother, or poses other serious problems concerning the life, health or mental capability of the child to be, is not a moral necessity.”
If that is what my church believes, why was nobody talking about it? Those who know me best know that I do not believe in the idea of an intervening God, but that I have come to accept the concept of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the reason, I began working on behalf of the prochoice, reproductive justice movement. This effort to encourage both men and women within our faith community to openly deal with these issues so central to our existence continues to consume much of my time and energy.
I was born and raised in Cuernavaca, Mexico. My mother was a member of the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEBs, or grassroots church organizations), which were very active in my state during the 1970s and ’80s. I grew up taking part in the weekly CEBs meetings with her, where I was surrounded by people interpreting the Bible in the light of liberation theology and talking about the Second Vatican Council. There was also a bishop, Sergio Méndez Arceo, who was a promoter of this theology and a human rights advocate. In addition, when I was six years old my brother decided to join the Dominican order and become a human rights activist within the church. For these reasons, I do not see religion as something that constrains my freedom; rather, it is a way to live a full life.
At the university I had a group of friends who became my second family. We were very close since we were living far away from our families. During different semesters, two of my friends became pregnant, were not ready to face the responsibility of raising a child and decided to have an abortion. I was with them during the painful decision-making process. I saw them crying, suffering and being afraid of the consequences. Abortion is illegal in Mexico—with the exception, since 2007, of Mexico City. My university is based in the state of Puebla, which is a very conservative place where abortion is criminalized. Of course, there are always doctors who want to make money by doing business with women’s bodies. There was a doctor like this close to the campus. We went to his practice, and as soon as he knew we were studying in a private university, he doubled the price we were told he charged. We, as a group, raised the money and my two friends were able to have the procedure. The doctor caused severe damage to the uterus of one of my friends and told her she might not be able to have children in the future. She was devastated. Fortunately he was wrong, and now she’s the mother of a healthy boy.
In my ethics course, a group of students made a presentation on abortion. They showed a film and made statements condemning women who have had one. I imagined if one of my classmates had had an abortion—how would she feel at that moment? I told the professor I wanted to do a presentation from a prochoice perspective, and he agreed. At that moment there was not a lot of prochoice literature in Mexico. I talked to my brother and he sent me the materials of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (a sister organization of Catholics for Choice). I learned that abortion is a social justice problem and that thousands of poor women die every year as a result of illegal abortions, while others, like my friends, were lucky enough to afford them.
When I graduated, I decided I wanted to work in favor of women’s right to choose because I trust women and am convinced that women possess the moral authority over their own bodies and reproduction. I am prochoice because I do believe that the right to decide—when to have children, how many of them to have or not to have them at all—is a fundamental right that influences the enjoyment of other civil, economic and social rights. I am prochoice because I do not believe that pregnancy should be a punishment for having sex. I believe it should be a wonderful stage of a woman’s or a couple’s life, a time to feel blessed. I am prochoice because I care about children. I believe that the right to life does not end when a baby is born; on the contrary, it is a broader right that includes the right to live in dignity, the right to education, health, housing, food, etc. I am prochoice because girls’ and women’s lives are worth it. I do not want another woman to die as a result of an illegal abortion or to live the rest of her life with fear and without dignity. I want girls, boys, women and men to be physically and emotionally healthy, to enjoy their sexuality in an informed and responsible way. I want them to be happy.
I am prochoice because respect for sexual and reproductive rights shouldn’t depend on the country where you were born; every human being in every country should enjoy them. Having the opportunity to live in Germany and Italy (countries where abortion is legal) gave me the first-hand experience to understand that promoting comprehensive sexuality education, affordable and accessible contraception, social support for pregnant women and women with children, pre- and postnatal healthcare and affordable childcare results in prosperity, social well-being, gender equality, lower maternal and infant mortality rates and lower abortion rates for the country.
I wonder if men could get pregnant, would there be a different approach to the right to choose?
(Adapted from Feminists-at-Large blog)
There is a picture of me standing proudly in the free speech zone of Red Square, holding a piece of paper with a statement that some people might find controversial, disrespectful or downright heretical: “Choice is a Jesuit value.” To me, it is one of many beautiful pockets of truth amid the messy contradictions that are part of the Jesuit Georgetown identity.
Choice is a Jesuit value. But the reason H*yas for Choice has to use an asterisk instead of an o, and the reason we can give out condoms only in a free speech zone, is that the Vatican finds contraception and abortion morally unacceptable under any circumstances, so our Catholic university is prohibited from giving us access to these benefits. If we look at church history, this prohibition is completely arbitrary, and following it blindly is completely out of step with the Jesuit values I was taught to embrace since my first moment on Georgetown’s campus.
“Cura Personalis suggests individualized attention to the needs of the other, distinct respect for his or her unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights.” This is straight from Georgetown’s website for Mission and Ministry. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this language so closely echoes Planned Parenthood’s talking points—that we must respect each woman’s knowledge and understanding of her own situation, as well as her needs and priorities.
When we say we are prochoice, we mean we hold a distinct respect for each person’s unique circumstances and concerns and an appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights.
“This commitment links the authentic following of the Gospel of Jesus with an obligation to address the social realities of poverty, oppression, and injustice.” This is an important point on the site. People who oppose contraception and abortion rush right past living, breathing women in need to worry about justice for the unborn or unconceived. Poverty and oppression are inextricably linked to a woman’s ability to control when she has children and how many she has. Without being able to control her own reproduction, a woman cannot control her own income, ensure access to education or have any job security.
“Approximately 52 percent of our student body are women,” says the Mission and Ministry site. That’s 52 percent of the student body who will face choices that the male authorities of the Catholic church will never have to face. How can Georgetown value diversity if it expects all students to conform to the same behaviors, same ideas and same morality system? To value diversity is to seek out and incorporate different perspectives, to learn from each other and to understand and accept that different people have different needs and different contexts.
We’ve heard people say that H*yas for Choice is anti-religion, anti-Catholic, anti-Georgetown. That’s not it at all. When we say we are prochoice, we mean we hold a distinct respect for each person’s unique circumstances and concerns and an appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights. We mean we feel an obligation to address the social realities of poverty, oppression and injustice. We mean we value the diverse needs, contexts and choices of every member of our community.
Choice is a Jesuit value. Pass it on.
Lukoye Atwoli, MD
I do not consider myself to have taken a side as either “prochoice” or “prolife.” I consider myself to be both prochoice and prolife, in the sense that I place a huge value on life. Because of both a personal commitment and a professional calling, I would do everything in my power to save and preserve life. However, when it comes to the decision to terminate a pregnancy, I do not hold a dogmatic view, because I realize that this decision is a tough one and involves another person’s own lived experience that I may not understand very well. I therefore seek to understand each person’s decision-making process, and as long as the final decision will help the individual live a healthier, happier life, I would not deign to interfere. If I were in a position to make a decision on behalf of a patient or close relative of mine, I would try and make a decision that I think promotes her own well-being, rather than furthering my own ideological goals.
I arrived at my current position on abortion through a combination of factors. First, from a very early age, I have always questioned received wisdom. My skeptical mindset would not allow me to accept any dogmatic posturing on abortion, or indeed on any other social or political issue. Instead, I always made a stand after doing some research and seeking to understand individual points of view, especially from those that would be directly affected if my opinion were to hold. Secondly, my profession has exposed me to the suffering that women undergo because of decisions made on their behalf by men who hold intolerant opinions on matters that they experience only remotely. This is why I have made it a practice to listen first, before I come to any conclusions on issues considered controversial.
I realize that this decision is a tough one and involves another person’s own lived experience that I may not understand very well.
As for my faith, I do not have a “faith” in any sense of the word. I was born into a family of Christians, but I never quite accepted the faith. Today I am referred to as an atheist, although I am not bothered overmuch by what anyone calls me as far as religion and faith is concerned. My life simply does not have that dimension.
But clearly, my philosophical stance from an early age has influenced my positions on various issues, including my political and social views, as well as my own personal decision-making processes.
I think there are no straight answers in some of these issues, but I assure you I grapple with each individual situation I meet in an attempt to discern a pattern that would guide my future decisions.
When I was about 15 years old, I overheard my mom talking to her friend. The friend was about to get her 25th abortion. She already had four kids and did not want to have another one. Her husband did not interfere too much with how his wife was dealing with her “family planning” methods and refused to use condoms.
While this story may seem extreme, it was not unusual in Azerbaijan, where I was born, or other republics of the former Soviet Union, especially in the early 1990s. Modern contraceptives were highly discouraged by doctors, who claimed they were dangerous or would lead to weight gain, excess hair growth and other scary bodily dysfunctions. While the number of abortions that particular woman had is startling, one thing was evident to me at the time: women did not have to consult anyone about what they did with their bodies and what decisions they made about reproduction. This is how I grew up.
As I grew older and went to the US and then moved to Europe, this story often floated back from my memory, and I realized the extent to which the Soviet Union had failed to educate its population about the methods of modern family planning that women in the West enjoyed for so long. But as they say, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Who could have known that this West—the region that has been an example of quality and access to medical services for the rest of the world—continually fails to protect women from intrusion into their bodily integrity!
A question would pop in my head: how can we keep the freedoms women had during Communism while giving them education about and access to all the latest scientific evidence about family planning? This would mean avoiding any obscurantism on the part of health professionals and politicians.
I am one of those lucky people who can combine personal interests and beliefs with their daily work tasks. A big part of my work is devoted to advocating for sexual and reproductive rights and health in Europe, where the picture is not ideal: alongside full access to the latest family planning information and services, women’s rights become a football on the playing field of big politics. That’s why we see the “we adopt the law/we repeal the law” sequence depending who is currently in the government.
One day, women’s rights, their ability to make reproductive decisions and the choices they make will be universally accepted and respected. I hope I will live to see that day. And if one day, my work will help save one life in this world—then it was worth it. Then I am truly blessed.
I am prochoice because I grew up in a family that taught me the value of women. My parents instilled in my siblings and me that women themselves are the best people to decide when and if to get pregnant, give birth and raise children. I am prochoice because I believe that the right to control your own reproduction is a fundamental right, and is protected both under our Constitution and by basic human rights. That fundamental right includes the right to prevent pregnancy, the right to get pregnant, the right to carry a pregnancy to term and the right to terminate a pregnancy. I believe in sexuality education and in responsible sex. However, we live in an imperfect world: one in which violence is common and where sexual abuse and sexual violence are perpetrated against girls and women. Our imperfect world contains many families who are struggling economically and not in a position to be able to provide for another child. Our world challenges us with different health conditions that put the life of the mother or child at risk.
My parents instilled in my siblings and me that women themselves are the best people to decide when and if to get pregnant, give birth and raise children.
I have been fortunate to be able to visit a number of developing countries. In each country I learned a new lesson and was reminded why women are the best people to decide their own fate. Governments should not be restricting a woman’s freedom to decide her future, which is what is sacrificed when laws limit a woman’s right and access to safe healthcare. As a result, 80,000 women die every year from complications from illegal abortions and hundreds of thousands more are injured. Access to safe healthcare should not be contingent on where you happened to be born.
Being prochoice is personal for me, but I have also decided to make a professional commitment to the movement fighting for what I believe is a fundamental right for women. I am prochoice because I see what places look like when abortion is safe, legal and available; contraception is accessible; and sex is considered natural, normal, and something we should take responsibility for and not be ashamed of. I plan on being the voice for the women who may not have access to the resources they need to tell their stories.
I am a man. I am black. I am Catholic. And I am a feminist who supports a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions. Some might see dissonance in those identities. Obviously, I don’t. I work at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and have spent all my adult professional life advocating to ensure women (and men) have access to needed reproductive healthcare because it is fundamental and vital to our wholeness.
I grew up staunchly Catholic and was an altar boy from age 11 until I left for college. I even considered priesthood for a while. I’m grateful for the many life lessons the church taught me, and I still carry them with me today. Ironically, Catholicism also gave me the very tools I used to dismantle much of the hypocrisy and “un-Christian” views I felt the Catholic hierarchy often preached.
The most important lesson Catholicism taught me comes from Matthew 22:37: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That sums it all up. The rest is just exposition.
Compassion is my North Star—my work at Planned Parenthood and in women’s health are driven by it. Compassion, for me, means we must feel with others and that starts with women. It means that when we talk about incredibly complex and deeply personal topics like abortion, I don’t believe you can honestly make that decision for someone else. Decisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy or raise a child must be left to a woman and the circle of people she trusts: her doctor, family, clergy and God. I have sat and cried, laughed and celebrated with people near and dear as they made important life-changing reproductive health decisions. It is not simple and is certainly not the domain for politicians.
There is no real dissonance between the heart of true Catholicism … and my work at Planned Parenthood.
When I became a parent, I wondered if it would change my views about abortion. And to no surprise, it did. It cemented the enormous beauty and gravity of bringing new life into the world, sustaining it and nurturing it, which is no easy task. It also cemented my belief that reproductive health decisions are to be made by a woman, not someone she doesn’t know.
There is no real dissonance between the heart of true Catholicism—as opposed to the conservative interpretation of Catholicism we get from the hierarchy—and my work at Planned Parenthood. The heart of Catholicism, like the heart of all religions, is unflinching love. That is what I strive for at Planned Parenthood—to use love to make a difference in people’s lives and care for them, no matter what. I would urge the Catholic hierarchy to breathe deeply and once again centralize love and truth.
Suzanne Poppema, MD
I am a physician—now retired from seeing patients—but I have been performing abortions for women since 1974. That said, my reproductive justice activism was late in developing. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family and went to Catholic school from first grade through high school. I don’t think I ever even heard or said the word abortion until I was at university. It was becoming evident to me that women were expected to be satisfied with a dismayingly small amount of personal power in their lives, a situation I was determined to change. A career as a family physician, one who would make sure all of my patients had access to excellent healthcare, seemed the perfect way to make the world a better place.
It was during my last year at Harvard Medical School that a respected colleague was embroiled in a criminal case for performing an abortion. The tribulations he went through really awakened my sense of outrage about the hypocrisy of both the medical and judicial systems with regards to abortion. I became an activist. This was also at the early stages of the feminist movement of the 1970s, and it was clear to me that if women could not decide when and if to be pregnant, none of our other “rights” would be of much use.
My politics became personal when I had an unintended pregnancy during my residency and did not recognize it … until the second trimester.
I chose family medicine as my specialty and moved west to Seattle for my residency. From the very first year, I obtained training in abortion care as well as obstetrics, gynecology, pediatrics and adult medicine. It was now clearer than ever that my professional obligation was to help women who wanted them to have healthy babies, and to help women not have babies when they didn’t want to be pregnant. I delivered many healthy babies and prevented as many unwanted pregnancies as I could by providing contraception—and also abortion, when contraception failed.
My politics became personal when I had an unintended pregnancy during my residency and did not recognize it (denial is a strong defense mechanism) until the second trimester. The desperation and resolve I felt because of this situation made me understand the needs of my patients more deeply. When a woman knows she cannot be a mother at that time, she (myself included) will do whatever it takes to end the pregnancy. Luckily for me, abortion was legal at the time, a very fine physician performed my second-trimester abortion and all is well. A woman’s right to bodily integrity is paramount; only she can decide if she is able to carry a pregnancy to term. We grieve for the lost pregnancy, of course, but it is a grief tempered by relief and strength of conviction. My abortion patients have taught me that all women make this decision with gravity and feelings of loss, and that they have an absolute right to receive compassionate, respectful and skilled care from the medical profession. Yes, I am prochoice in every fiber of my being.
John Nyamu, MD
As a specialist gynecologist and a person with extensive knowledge in sexual and reproductive health and rights, being prochoice for me is a part of my professional commitment to preserve the life and health of women in need. During the recent constitutional reform, I was part of a team that participated in significant advocacy initiatives that sought to enshrine SRHR gains for the women and girls in Kenya within the bounds of the current constitution, which was passed in 2010.
These gains included the right to access a safe abortion in an emergency situation, when the life or health of the mother is in danger, or as permitted by any other written law. This means that women and girls in need of a termination of pregnancy now have the legal authority to do so, as spelled out within parameters that I see as a major step in addressing the issue of unsafe abortion that has claimed the lives and affected the health of many of them.
As a young doctor, I found many women having complications and even dying from unsafe abortion.
As a young doctor, it was disheartening to constantly find many women seeking care for abortion-related complications, with some of them losing their lives simply because the previously restrictive Kenyan law on abortion had forced them to seek out unsafe abortions. Out of this grew an impetus on my part to help women in need of safe abortion services within the law. I was also compelled to participate in advocacy efforts for law and policy reform, as well as public awareness on what the law said, because many Kenyans believed that abortion was illegal in Kenya at the time.
Being prochoice therefore means that as a provider, my additional role is to continue educating the public on what this more progressive abortion law means and how it translates into provision of safe abortion services.
I embrace the role of an SRHR advocate as I seek to ensure that women and girls are not dying and suffering due to unsafe abortion while the law allows for legal termination of pregnancy.
I grew up in a small, tight-knit working-class community in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the conflict known as “The Troubles.” My area was like many others at that time, full of families struggling with the daily occurrence of violence on our streets and trying to make ends meet with the little amount of money they had coming into the house. The street where I lived was always lively with mothers and grandmothers huddled around doorways gossiping about the latest news while we kids played in the street.
It was as a young girl of about seven or eight that I first became aware of the risks women will take when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.
I heard a group of women talking about a young woman I knew. They said she had gotten herself into “trouble.” As a small child I wondered what she had done that was so awful and how she had got the whole street talking about her. I started listening to the adult conversations and looking out for the young woman to see if she was okay. But I never saw her again.
The adults said she had gone to see a doctor who would “sort her out.” This doctor was an alcoholic who had been struck off the medical register, and the stories I heard about him were frightening. He could be found in a hotel bar not far from where I lived, and for a few drinks or a bottle of scotch he would tell the woman where and when to show up so he could “end her troubles.” Many of these women were found bleeding in the back alleyways around our streets. Some escaped with serious infections. Others were not so lucky. I learned in later years that he had been convicted of medical negligence in relation to the death of a young woman he had performed an abortion on.
Being prochoice is not an option: it’s a fundamental right and one that I am proud to defend for women.
As I grew up, I knew how to reach this man; where he hung out; what he looked like; the clothes he wore; how he smelled; what his favourite tipple (drink) was. As a child I was used to accompanying women who needed this man’s services. I wondered to myself why they could not see their own doctor to get the help they needed; why some went across the water on the boat to get help; and why others just disappeared.
It wasn’t until I was older that I understood why women in my community were not able to choose what they did with their own bodies. The law did not allow women to exercise their own individual moral autonomy; their right to choice; the right to decide when to have children and how many they wished to have. I saw this and continue to see this as a gross injustice. Being prochoice is not an option: it’s a fundamental right and one that I am proud to defend for women.
I was in the bleachers at a high school football game when my best friend told me she was pregnant. Moments later, the crowd around us erupted in cheers for the boys on the field, but Marina and I were completely still. The next five months were a constant, stressful exercise in keeping secrets and keeping up appearances. We were 15 years old, honors students in middle-class suburbia. Perhaps we were both wishing that, like all bad things in our privileged bubble, the pregnancy would miraculously go away on its own. At the time, I knew we were both going through something important, but I had no idea how much I would be shaped by that pregnancy—one that wasn’t even mine.
For a long time, I was the only person Marina trusted with her secret, and I couldn’t betray her trust even as I watched her grow sicker with each week. Miraculously, she found a sympathetic doctor who committed himself to treating her prenatal complications, which were distressingly frequent and ranged from anemia to preeclampsia. It is not an overstatement to say that he saved her life. By January, Marina’s feelings had changed: her fear of being pregnant at 15 was slowly replaced by a sort of pride for continuing the hardship of pregnancy and a sense of guilt for originally refusing the challenge. Unfortunately, her health never quite caught up with her maternal resolve. It was only one cold, lonely day that Caleb Abel lived and died.
When I think about why I became prochoice, I think of Marina. But she didn’t choose abortion, and neither I nor her doctor ever tried to convince her to. Though I took on Marina’s troubles as my own and stood firmly by her side throughout her pregnancy, I could never speak for her. Though I would have chosen abortion in her shoes, to declare my preferences to be a better decision for her would have been unhelpful and arrogant. Similarly, while I now stand in solidarity with women in their struggle for reproductive justice, I do not wish to speak for them. I do not confuse my singular voice as a woman with the full chorus of women’s voices. The sheer diversity and complexity of women’s lives makes that impossible.
Rather, the most I can do, and what the prochoice movement affirms, is to respect and validate each individual woman’s feelings and decisions. As a prochoice activist, I advocate not on behalf of women, but for the right of all women to advocate for themselves. Although each woman makes her own decision within a particular context, all women deserve equal dignity, whether they are seeking an abortion, an adoption or alternative birthing methods.
There’s a lot that can be said about my high school experience with Marina—the stigma of pregnancy among a gossiping student body; the cost of abortion for a teenager earning minimum wage; the importance of having a doctor willing to treat her—and treat her as an adult. To be prochoice is to have trust in women and their doctors. I am thankful that Marina chose to confide in someone whom she trusted and, more importantly, who trusted her.
Abortion used to be completely illegal in Colombia. In high school, all I knew from word of mouth among my friends was that if one had enough money, one could easily access safe abortions, but I never gave it too much thought. It was not an issue.
Then, during law school, when I was first confronted with the legal abortion debate, I tended to sympathize with fetuses, those without a voice and completely helpless. I do not recall anyone articulating a reasonable argument on behalf of the woman. However, I do remember the “liberal” professor shying away from the debate when we started arguing on behalf of the unborn. Again, it was not an issue.
The first thing that drew my attention was a decision from the Constitutional Court in 1997 that cited papal decrees declaring that the complete ban on abortion was constitutional. It was strange to find a reference to papal decrees in the case law of a recently created court that took pride in being modern, secular and the ultimate human rights defender. This memory became relevant when, a couple of years later, I studied the international human rights legal framework, as well as abortion law in other countries. All the arguments were on behalf of women’s rights: our rights to life, health, integrity, dignity and autonomy—and the right to live free from discrimination—were among the most important areas affected by restrictive abortion laws. I started reading all about the women whose lives and health had been endangered by pregnancy, those who did not want to give birth to the child of a rapist, those whose lives were so complicated for so many different reasons they could not responsibly raise a child. And I understood.
Martha Solay had told me she had been offered an abortion when there was still time to save her own life, but … she just did not have the money.
I decided I needed to bring this side of the debate to my country: to present all the arguments to the court and offer people the opportunity to think for themselves and take an informed stand. And while doing this, I met Martha Solay Gonzalez. She was diagnosed with cancer when pregnant with her fourth child after a failed tubal ligation. She was denied chemotherapy and forced to carry the pregnancy to term, while the cancer metastasized in several organs. She died a year after the Constitutional Court decided in favor of the constitutional challenge I brought. Martha Solay had told me she had been offered an abortion when there was still time to save her own life, but having struggled all her life to barely support herself and her daughters, she just did not have the money. It was only then that I understood what choice is about: regardless of the legal status of abortion, only women with resources truly have a choice.
“Your Husband will decide how many children you have.” My mother’s voice was authoritative. She would not be entertaining an argument. And what did I know anyway? Twelve years old and ignorant as the day is long. My sex education was yet to come—and not from home or school.
I never questioned my father on the matter. He was known, in the whiskey-spirit of his time, to hold that “women’s things” were beneath serious consideration, daughters and their concerns less important.
Following her too-young death not ten years later, I found a hardback copy of something called “The Fertility Cycle” buried among my mother’s possessions. Yes, it was a manual describing the rhythm method. Of course, contraception—even within marriage—was still illegal in Holy Catholic Ireland; abortion unmentionable. My parents viewed Humanae Vitae as a terrible mistake.
The relatively small size of our family had been explained to us children as a medical matter. Childbirth was too risky for my mother; the doctor told her so. Any implications for, or adjustments in, the marital relationship were not discussed.
Meanwhile, at single-sex school, nuns were peddling the party line: if it comes to a choice in childbirth between mother and baby, the doctor is obliged to favor the baby. (It was understood that such a fatal eventuality was unfortunate.) The purpose of this message was unclear and, perhaps, less than motivating for the female adolescents to whom it was addressed. It certainly had a chilling effect on me. As an adult, I was publicly challenged by a male representative of the church who denied the nuns would ever have spoken thus. As if he could know.
At single-sex school, nuns were peddling the party line: if it comes to a choice in childbirth between mother and baby, the doctor is obliged to favor the baby.
Portrait of the prochoice activist as a young girl? Absolutely, even if it took me years to understand the cumulative dynamic of these and other experiences: that the personal is political.
My parents, whose support was ambiguous at best, died before I became one of those Irish feminists who brought demands for legalized contraception to Dublin’s streets and abortion rights to international law courts. Their absence is coincidence. Activism for me never depended on their approval or complicity.
But it was—and continues as—a tribute to my mother’s reproductive struggles. And to give the lie to her dictum, for myself and for my global sisters.
Rabbi Dennis S. Ross
“What does the patient want?” I heard asked time and time again when I served on a patient care hospital ethics committee and we deliberated about important medical decisions. With the concept of “patient autonomy” firmly established as a pillar of medical ethics, “what the patient wants” was always at the center of the committee’s conversations. It all boiled down to one word: conscience.
I came to recognize the importance of conscience as a seminarian while I worked in a hospital learning how to be a pastor. A doctor would present a patient with a dilemma, such as: the most effective treatment would likely leave significant side effects, while a less-effective treatment would not leave that impairment. Which to choose? The doctor provided medical information, advice and support, but left the decision to the patient who had to live with the consequences. The patient typically sought out advice from other doctors, family, trusted friends and me, the chaplain. But when decision time came, the patient’s conscience ruled.
The centrality of conscience appears in a bedrock statement of my denomination, Reform Judaism. We read, “Jewish obligation begins with the informed will of every individual.” “Informed will” means that each one of us is to arrive at a learned and considered decision about the Jewish way of life. Informed will begins with the study of traditional teachings—sacred texts including the Bible, the Mishnah, Talmud and later rabbinic writings. This comprehensive body of literature instructs about prayer, ritual diet, Sabbath and holiday observance, social justice and everything else that makes for Jewish living. Informed will calls for examination of those ancient and modern religious teachings in light of personal experience, and then it demands arriving at a considered and individual conclusion. Informed will is at the heart of my rabbinate, of religious advocacy and of Jewish being.
How fortunate we are to have one another, as people of faith who would support laws and policies that honor the conscience of each and every faithful person.
As the years went on, my understanding of informed will expanded as I turned to deeper study of the great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber. In writing my book God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber (Jewish Lights), I came to appreciate Buber’s I-Thou relationship. I-Thou means that the person in the relationship responds to a unique constellation of time and circumstances, which is Buber’s way of describing how a person exercises conscience. And when I went on to write All Politics Is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community, I examined those religious groups who would trample the conscience of others—and how we can respond.
Some religious people want to turn the sins of their faith into legal prohibitions for everybody else, the religious liberties of others notwithstanding. How fortunate we are to have one another, as people of faith who would support laws and policies that honor the conscience of each and every faithful person and safeguard church-state separation. I am proud and gratified for times like these, when we work together—across religious lines—on behalf of the greater good.
Rosemary Radford Ruether
I have been a prochoice Catholic for 50 years. But it took a little struggle to get there. Herman Ruether and I were married in 1957, when I was in my last year of college. Both of us favored family planning, but, under pressure from the pastor of his hometown church, we decided to use the Catholic “rhythm method” to space our children. That produced three children in six years. When I was pregnant with our third child, we decided to move on to the use of the birth control pill, then coming into favor. This was not a difficult decision for us. We simply came to the conclusion that we needed to be practical and use a more effective method. We did not think of this as a public issue, but simply a personal matter. Both of us had academic work to finish and planned to be teachers as well as parents. Three children were enough!
However, during my stay in the hospital where my third child, Mimi, was born, I had a transforming experience. In the bed next to me was a woman who had just endured the very difficult delivery of her ninth child. Her doctor came to her room several times to tell her that her health was in danger and she must not have any more children. She responded by weeping, declaring that her parish priest insisted that birth control was wrong. Her husband accepted this view. But they were very poor, were living in an unheated house and she had to turn on the heat from the stove to warm the kitchen. The stove leaked gas and her health and that of her children were in danger. As I listened to this drama unfolding next to me, I became more and more angry.
Many people were suffering deeply because of the hierarchy’s teaching on birth control.
I left the hospital with a beautiful daughter, but also with a new determination to become politically involved in the issue of birth control. It had become evident to me that this was not simply our private issue, but a glaring social justice question. Many people were suffering deeply because of the Catholic church’s teaching on birth control.
I quickly penned an article criticizing the bishops’ position, which was published as “A Catholic Mother Speaks Out on Birth Control” in the Saturday Evening Post. The article was picked up and republished in The Reader’s Digest, which meant it received national distribution. I also joined a group that was being organized in New York on prochoice Catholicism. This group became Catholics for a Free Choice, and I joined their board and worked with them for many years. Thus, I became politically engaged in the prochoice movement for the next 50 years.
Unfortunately, despite many years of struggle, this issue is not over. We still have both the Catholic bishops and right-wing Protestant leaders seeking to deny women the right to choose. Women around the world still suffer from this denial. The fight must continue.
Steven W. Sinding
In the summer of 1967, while I was a graduate student in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was engaged to write a case study of the North Carolina Abortion Act of 1967, one of the first liberal abortion laws passed in the country. I learned a great deal from that experience and it convinced me that a woman’s choice whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term was not only a fundamental right, but also a public health good. In that sense, I have been prochoice for as long as I can remember.
But in another sense, my journey to become a champion of reproductive freedom was considerably more tortuous.
Like many of my generation, I had become alarmed about the so-called “population explosion” while still a college undergraduate in the early 1960s. In 1971, an opportunity arose to join the population program at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). As a teacher of international development, I decided that there were few more useful ways that I could make a contribution.
I was influenced by the prevailing view that high fertility was a natural response to subsistence agriculture that required many hands, lack of old age security systems, high infant and child mortality and the subjugation of women. My first field experience in Pakistan, with its unsuccessful efforts to introduce family planning, reinforced my view that only by overcoming extreme poverty would childbearing decisions change. But since socioeconomic change occurred so slowly, I came to believe that, given the rate at which populations were growing in many countries, the only option was to restrict reproductive freedom, or to create incentives for lower fertility.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity soon thereafter to study family planning programs in several other countries: Tunisia, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh, among others. There, due to strong, well-administered family planning programs, especially when combined with good maternal and child health services, fertility was falling rapidly—far faster than from improved living conditions alone. Studies were beginning to show very strong unmet demand for contraception in a broad cross-section of countries. Throughout the 1980s, fertility behavior was changing quite rapidly in many countries in response to public policies that encouraged smaller families.
Then, in the run-up to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, a confrontation developed between population-control advocates and human rights activists, the latter insisting on a less numbers-driven approach to reproductive health. To find common ground between the two opposing forces, in 1992 I conducted an analysis showing that if governments focused on satisfying the unmet need for contraception, the result in almost all the countries studied would be higher rates of contraceptive use than the targets those countries had set for themselves. Programs that respected individual choice were likely to be far more effective from a demographic standpoint than almost all the coercive or semi-coercive approaches.
This was the beginning of my transformation from population alarmist to sexual and reproductive health champion, a role I was able to play most fully when I became the head of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 2002 and helped to move IPPF to a position of global leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion rights. I had finally become truly prochoice.
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter
My decision to be prochoice can be traced to an experience I had with a roommate while in graduate school at the University of Kentucky in the early 1950s. This smart, motivated, strong woman had lost her parents early on in life and was raised by her grandmother. She became pregnant while we were working on our Master’s degrees. The young man immediately abandoned her and married someone else. In the meantime, her grandmother had become ill and was dying of cancer, and my friend was terrified to go back home to care for her relative “in her condition.” Her grandmother, like so many people at the time, would have been simply unable to accept her as an unmarried pregnant woman.
The search for a healthcare provider who could assist my friend was a monumental effort. For me, this was the first experience that drove home the idea that women simply had no choice in these situations. My friend had been deserted and was facing losing her chance to complete her education, being ostracized by her family and sacrificing a future that she had worked so hard for all her life.
I am happy to say that my friend was finally able to find the health services she needed, and she went on to have a successful career, marriage and three children, none of which would have been possible had she not had the ability to choose her future. Everything I did for women’s rights and for choice from then on—and I have spent nearly 40 years of my career fighting those battles—was rooted in that experience.
Being prochoice certainly influences my professional life, as evidenced by my role as the co-chair of the House of Representatives Pro-Choice Caucus, along with the many stands I have taken for women’s health and choice over the years as a Member of Congress. However, being prochoice is not a politically motivated decision for me, although part of the reason I came into Congress was to be sure that these rights were not compromised on the national level.
My faith was also not a motivating factor in my decision to be prochoice, although I am proud to be part of a denomination—the Episcopal church—that fully supports the rights of women to make the decisions they believe are right for themselves and their families. Rather, being prochoice is rooted in my deeply held belief that we all have a responsibility to care for our sisters. This responsibility calls each one of us to stand together in the fight to allow women to make decisions about their lives and their healthcare for themselves and those they love.
Dame Margaret Sparrow
When I was 21 years old and married in 1956, I chose to abort my first pregnancy at a time when abortion was a crime in New Zealand. Ignoring the risks, I tried DIY methods, and the one that worked was an abortifacient mixture from a mail-order chemist. It was not in the least traumatic—anticlimactic really.
In 1961, then a medical student with two preschool children, I took the brand-new oral contraceptive pill. Without that choice I doubt if I would have finished my medical degree. In our medical training we received one lecture on contraception and none on therapeutic abortion.
In 1964, I was working at a rural hospital when a local GP was charged with performing an illegal abortion. His patient had died and I experienced close up the devastating effect that such an event has on all concerned. It made me aware of the dishonesty, hypocrisy and double standards that surround abortion, because abortions under the guise of D&C operations sometimes took place within the hospital.
In 1969, I joined the Student Health Service at Victoria University. My training had left me ill-prepared for the needs of students. Abortions were then legally available in Australia across the Tasman Sea, and I became involved in making referrals.
In January 1973, I attended a Student Health Conference in Australia where I presented a paper on my pioneering work with emergency contraception. I remember the buzz that morning when the news came through from the US about the Roe v. Wade decision.
In 1974, a private clinic opened in Auckland, but after only four months it was raided by the police and the abortion provider, Dr. Woolnough, was charged with procuring abortions. As a referring doctor my convictions were significantly tested, first in the Magistrates’ Court and then in the two jury trials. Dr. Woolnough was acquitted, but to defuse public controversy the government appointed a Royal Commission.
In August 1974, I was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania. Although abortion was not the major focus of the conference, I met a number of world leaders working in this field and was inspired by their advocacy. I joined the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand.
In 1976, thanks to Professor Malcolm Potts, I had a rewarding sabbatical based in London. I learned how to do early suction abortions under Dr. Dorothea Kerslake and worked for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service making referrals. I gained a diploma in venereology and on my way back to New Zealand learned how to do vasectomies in India.
As a result of the commission, Parliament introduced legislation in 1977 providing a complicated pathway for a legal abortion, and I became an abortion provider. I have spent over four decades helping women to make their own best choice. Thinking back to my own “medical” abortion, it is not surprising I have been at the forefront in making medical abortion an alternative for New Zealand women.
It’s very hard for me to say exactly when I felt I have the right to choose. As a child I was raised in the values of the Catholic religion. I went to Mass and fulfilled all of the sacraments. But I didn’t believe in all of the teachings, and not just in sexual matters; I also didn’t understand the catechism they had us study, which was based on 99 questions. I didn’t agree with everything, but at church I found a place to live my faith, and it was a very important social gathering spot in a small town.
I was always rather rebellious, and I was inclined to question things. From a very early age, I started joining up with the emerging popular movements in Argentina and Latin America. Circulating in these milieus were various discourses, some of which were quite liberating, while others reproduced the church’s sexual morals.
I was born in 1949, and as a teenager my major transgression was to engage in sex with greater freedom than recommended by my family and the church. But the main thing that led me to fully believe in the right to choose was my early quest for independence. I couldn’t stand having my parents watch over me, and I didn’t feel I had to obey all of the church’s teachings. I started working at age 14 in various job opportunities that allowed me to go to school in the evening. My family was of humble means. My mother took care of the house, and my father was an unskilled railroad worker. They did not force me to work; it was my personal quest to do what I wanted.
In the experiences with sexuality in my youth, everything happened free of guilt and was linked to a politically progressive environment. We didn’t talk about abortion rights back then, and we had the birth control pill. I got married and became a mother even as I continued my political activism, and life became more complicated. I am the mother of three sons and one daughter who grew up in hiding—in exile—with many hardships, never settling down. The idea of terminating a pregnancy was not on the menu of allowable choices in my mind at the time. While it was difficult, I enjoyed being a mom and learned a lot from it. But I also started thinking that all this effort could not be based on an obligation, but rather, that it had to be based on a woman’s free choice.
We returned from exile in 1984 with four children, no money and one piece of hand luggage each. Just as we were settling back into our country, which was not the same as we had left it, I was surprised to find out I was pregnant. I did not hesitate in deciding to terminate the pregnancy. Feelings of doubt and guilt combined with the dictates of reality and the responsibility of bringing another human being into this world. I felt greatly relieved to be able to choose, and I never regretted it. I had started to consider abortion a right soon after I got into feminism, feminist theology and the women’s movement, which is very strong in Argentina. I always had the support of my lifelong partner. In abortion rights activism I found one of the greatest challenges to the mandates that the patriarchy tries to impose on women. And I continue to insist that financial independence, control over our reproductive capacity and access to decision-making processes are the things that will give us more freedom.
First of all, let me say that I grew up in a Catholic family and had a religious education during my childhood and adolescence in a Salesian school. I was Catholic until I was 17 years old, and I was even an activist in the Catholic university movement in Lisbon.
During this period, sexuality was mainly approached as a matter of sin and hell. Every sexual behavior was immoral and unacceptable. However, during my religious education I knew more progressive priests that approached sexuality on other terms. The Catholic university movement was also very open about these issues. Even in the last year of secondary school, contraception was discussed, but in a Catholic way that condemned the birth control pill but supported the Ogino Knauss method (natural family planning). But it was still the first time that somebody talked to me about pills and contraception. Abortion, though, was not even an issue that could be talked about, it was so hidden.
Up until this point I was a committed Catholic, but I started to disagree with the Catholic church because of several things, among them, its complicity with the Portuguese dictatorship before 1974, but also because of the negative values it placed on sexuality. I stopped practicing my faith when I was 17.
I was still Catholic when an unwanted pregnancy situation happened. It turned out that there was no pregnancy at all—I was really ignorant on these issues—but I remember it was the first time that I really reflected on abortion. At that time, I remember thinking that nobody had asked me if I wanted to be born or not because this would be impossible to ask.
Then I logically concluded that the people involved in a pregnancy should make the decision to continue it or not. I was far away from imagining that I would be deeply involved in sexual and reproductive rights some years later. In fact, in 1979 I started to work in the Portuguese Family Planning Association (APF). In 1988, I became the executive director of APF.
When I joined APF on a professional basis in 1979, I already had strong ideas about being prochoice (even if this word was not so much used at that time). Basically, I thought that sexual life and parenthood were such important and transcendental parts of human life that people should have total freedom to decide what would be better for them. Nobody, including religious or nonreligious activists or professionals, should be allowed to point someone towards a certain decision.
My professional experience only confirmed the personal convictions that I had. Though I started to be involved in political activities later on, my prochoice ideas were born earlier from my beliefs. Political values and discussions also reconfirmed and enriched my ideas on issues like contraception, abortion, sexual rights, nondiscrimination and so on.
Today I am not a believer, but I began to be prochoice when I was a believer, specifically from the Catholic tradition. I have no doubts that the great humanistic values of Christianity were part of my thoughts, my basic values and my arguments for being prochoice. They still are.
Chi Laigo Vallido
Looking through the lens of reproductive rights, an irony about the evolution of democracy in the Philippines becomes apparent. I was born in the 1970s, during the time when our country was under martial law. This was also the time when the government implemented a strong family planning program. I was aware that my mother was taking the birth control pill and the supplies were available. But all of this changed when the dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos, was toppled by a peaceful revolt of the Filipino people with the support of leaders in the Roman Catholic church. Ironically, the dawn of democracy in the Philippines was also the beginning of the suppression of the right to reproductive health (RH) access, such as family planning.
I was raised to believe that I have choices and the freedom to make the right ones, which made it hard to understand that there were women who didn’t have choices. Particularly on matters related to family planning and RH, this reality became even more evident when I worked in health programs for the NGO sector. My first job in the nonprofit world exposed me to reproductive healthcare as a human right and a development issue. I was already involved in advocacy work as early as 1999, when the first RH Bill was filed in Congress. What I didn’t realize is that it would take us nearly 14 years before this bill would finally be signed into law in December 2012. But the law faces another hurdle, as petitions were filed against it in the Supreme Court by forces led by the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines.
My Catholic faith instilled a passion for social and development work. This same Catholic upbringing taught me about free choice, but specified that choice didn’t extend to RH and family planning. This contradiction has caused me many years of sadness and disappointment towards a church and religion that I love. But fighting for freedom of choice also made me realize that my faith must be strong enough to fight the status quo upheld by the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines. I have to love the church deeply enough to speak out about what I think is wrong and unjust. Will changes happen in my lifetime? Maybe not, but all over the world, Catholics are starting to speak out about atrocities and are starting to stand up against the hierarchy, so why should Filipinos be silenced?
I grew up in a house of “social justice” Catholics—what my grandfather imagined as “Kennedy Catholics.” I was raised so that my faith in action was about serving the poor and working for peace. The guiding hand of my mother, who is among the most deeply spiritual women I’ve known, led me away from prolife marches and instead into homeless shelters, soup kitchens and around the world to live and work with the poor and marginalized.
It wasn’t that I was unaware of the prolife movement in the church, but it was never at the forefront of my living faith. I knew that I didn’t identify as a “prolifer,” but this was mainly because the tactics and rhetoric the movement used often did more to polarize and dehumanize than focus on “life” at all. But I certainly did not identify as a prochoice advocate either. Instead, I stuck to pragmatic arguments: There is a significantly stronger correlation between social safety nets and lower abortion rates than any restrictive laws on the books. Shouldn’t those of us concerned with the lives of fetuses focus our energy towards efforts that actually prove effective?
Sarah was dying in her school bed, but she was unable to explain why she was in pain because she feared the repercussions if anyone were to have learned what she had done.
Needless to say, I wasn’t the sort of person who would have marched to the Texas Senate to stand with Wendy Davis, but I also wouldn’t have raised my voice at the March for Life. However, this place of uncertainty changed shape as my vocation took me abroad to work in the global South—namely, in South Asia and East Africa. I was confronted with serious questions about women’s health and the role of access to contraception and abortion. This confrontation was never more profound or tragic than during my final weeks living in Uganda.
I met a bright young teenage girl who had achieved academic success and hoped to attend university and make a better life for her family. She was concluding her final years at a secondary school not far from where I lived. She was kind-hearted, with a great sense of humor and even greater aspirations. For our purposes, I will call her Sarah.
One day, Sarah arrived late to school. She said she was feeling ill. It was not uncommon for students to regularly suffer from malaria, so she was sent to her dormitory to sleep and await treatment. However, it quickly became clear that Sarah was suffering from something far beyond malaria. Her condition worsened rapidly. Sarah was dying in her school bed, but she was unable to explain why she was in pain because she feared the repercussions if anyone were to have learned what she had done. She did not survive the night.
Sarah’s mother, full of regret and guilt, later explained that her daughter had become pregnant. She recognized the great future ahead of her daughter and knew Sarah would not be able to finish school if she had a child, nor would she have the means to provide for the child. She took her daughter to get what we would call a black market abortion. Because Ugandan abortion laws are both restrictive and unclear, medical practitioners are reluctant to perform the procedure. Instead, women often seek illegal, unsafe abortions.
I recounted the story to a friend in the medical profession and he said, “This is the cost of living in a country that restricts access to reproductive healthcare.” He was right. What should have been a low-risk procedure became fatal, and Sarah was gone.
I still don’t know if I would be one of those voices standing with Wendy Davis in Austin. But, I do know that when I think about reproductive rights and access to contraception and abortion, I don’t see a Senate hall filled with chanting prochoice advocates. I don’t see gruesome photographs of dismembered fetuses. I don’t see congressmen or bishops or NOW. I see Sarah—I see Sarah during those final frightening moments where she was embattled with both physical pain and the internal shame for what she believed she had done. I try to imagine her final thoughts, but it is all too troubling. I can only hope that she found comfort in the love of God and that all that the fear and shame and pain faded away.
I probably have always been “prochoice,” but a lot had to happen before I realized it. I am a Baby Boomer, and in my youth we did not talk about such things. It took a revolution to make me realize all that I could do with my life; what women across the country and the globe are up against; and why every individual deserves to make choices about her own life.
I was already married and a mom when the “click” (as described in Ms. Magazine’s first edition) hit me. I had always thought I would be a lawyer if I were a boy, but instead I became a 4th grade teacher, married my high school sweetheart, became a mom at 24 and then quit my job to stay home, all of which I wanted to do, but also thought I had to do. When the “click” hit, my eyes were opened to vast new worlds, not the least of which was the awareness that women could and should be in control of their professional choices, their relationship choices and their reproductive choices.
During those years, “everything changed” (as Gail Collins put it in the title of her wonderful book on the subject). I learned what a woman had to do to be able to fulfill her potential, why she needed to rely on and be in charge of herself and be responsible for her choices to become the person she wants to be. This realization included the understanding that a woman must be in charge of her own body. How could she be the person she wanted to be on the job, in a relationship or as a parent or daughter if she did not control her own reproduction?
Luckily, I was born at a time when politics and science had advanced enough so that the means existed for women to exert this control. The Supreme Court helped also. It was only two years before I became a wife at age 20, when the court had agreed that states could not prohibit married couples from using contraceptives. The “second wave” had begun. We discussed our concerns at length in our consciousness-raising group. We stood in line for a long time so we could see 10 minutes of the Roe v. Wade argument. We organized and lobbied and entered politics. I started law school. Along with the other women of my generation, I became committed to being prochoice—not just for myself, but for women everywhere. We learned together that being prochoice on abortion is an integral part of being pro- all choices for women.
Callie Odula-Obonyo, MD
During both my undergraduate and postgraduate training, I encountered many women, mostly of younger age groups, who, because of pressure—societal or otherwise—just couldn’t go ahead with their pregnancies. They landed at our teaching hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital, which is, incidentally, also a referral hospital. I remember struggling during the admission nights to prepare them for surgery to remove objects from their pelvises after running around the hospital looking for life-saving blood, intravenous fluids and antibiotics. This situation weighed heavily on my conscience, and when I tried to do some postoperative follow-up in the wards, I realized that the psychosocial side of our management at that time must unfortunately have been quite wanting.
The hospital setting was in stark contrast to my role at the Marie Stopes Nursing Home on the outskirts of Nairobi as a junior consultant. I performed surgical abortions with analgesia (at a small fee) after counseling and then did follow-up with contraception and antibiotics at the same sitting. This was back in 2003, when the laws in Kenya were quite restrictive. Providing this care ended up throwing me into the ring during the 2010 referendum on the new abortion law; when discussions with policymakers and lawmakers commenced, I stood up to be counted without fear or favor.
The Kenyan presidential elections were a time when citizens were again divided along the issue of abortion. We had built the capacity of one side, which had positive language, but one of the contenders for deputy president then said in a debate that “abortion was illegal in Kenya.” I believe that politicians must not misrepresent the facts that pertain to abortion, because the Kenya Constitution promulgated in August 2010 is the supreme law of Kenya—the environment has been expanded for the benefit of women and girls.
Being prochoice is now part of my professional ethics, but my personal commitment is just as strong, if not stronger.
Being prochoice is now part of my professional ethics, but my personal commitment is just as strong, if not stronger. My feeling is that I would rather “repair a leaking tap than continuously mop the floor” as regards the morbidity and mortality of unintended, risky and unplanned pregnancies that drive women to unsafe abortions. This position has elevated me to be the National Focal Person in the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics initiative on the prevention of unsafe abortions.
This engagement with the prochoice cause plays out in every aspect of my life. I happen to be a strong Roman Catholic since I converted before marrying a strong Roman Catholic man (he was actually a former altar boy). In our congregation, the A (abortion) word is taboo, along with all modern contraceptive methods. When invited to speak to young people in large gatherings, to the media and even during workshops that I facilitate, I encourage open discussion so that myths and misconceptions about abortion are dispelled. It works well for me.
I have been a reproductive rights activist and attorney for over 30 years. I’m also born-and-bred Brooklyn Irish and a practicing Catholic who took an unorthodox road to prochoice politics.
My mother, unsurprisingly for a woman of her era, had 11 pregnancies; six of us survived into adulthood. I went to parochial school and to a Catholic women’s college, where, to my surprise and that of my family, I became deeply religious. After graduation, I entered the novitiate of the nuns who had been my professors.
That was in 1968, an apocalyptic year of war, rebellion and political assassination. I anguished over the Vietnam War for nine months before deciding that my most urgent religious calling was to help end it. I left the novitiate, took a job working on housing in a poor section of Brooklyn and plunged into work with the Catholic Peace Fellowship.
Soon, I joined one of the women’s conscious raising groups then forming all over the country. I’d never grappled with the question of abortion; it was just wrong. But the fact that all the non-Catholic pacifist women in my group disagreed shook my assumptions. Still, it wasn’t until Congress passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976, cutting off Medicaid funding for abortion, that I was converted. The legislation targeted poor women in a way that offended my very Catholic sense of social justice.
Congress passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976… The legislation targeted poor women in a way that offended my very Catholic sense of social justice.
Over years of struggling with this issue, I’ve learned that it’s much more complicated than ideologues and politicians would have us believe. Women don’t choose abortion, or joyfully welcome a pregnancy, based on beliefs about the definition of personhood. They decide based on the interweaving of their relationships and responsibilities at that moment in time.
Some years ago, I spent a year at Harvard Divinity School researching some religious aspects of abortion—elements not easily reduced to sound bites or legal arguments. A Hispanic student group organized a service for the “Day of the Dead,” a festival honoring the memory of the departed. The service was dedicated to the “Desaparecidos,” those killed or missing due to war, insurrection or oppression. The altar was covered with candles and pictures of loved ones like Bishop Romero and the four US churchwomen murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Among them was a newspaper photo of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a Buffalo obstetrician and abortion provider who had been shot dead in his home just that week by an anti-abortion extremist.
The altar seemed to me a reflection of the deep continuity underlying my choices and callings through the years.
I grew up in a traditional and religious Filipino household and went to a Catholic school from elementary to high school in a small town outside of the capital. I went through childhood and puberty safely ensconced in traditions and norms related to what is expected of a good Catholic Filipino woman. These included: never show your interest in men, hide your sexuality and obey your parents and elders first and foremost.
My sheltered existence was somewhat shattered when I attended the state university in Manila at a time that coincided with tumultuous events in our country’s history. The call to be engaged in the larger community and the country’s future became prevailing mantras of my college days. Heady from the fall of the dictator and the promise of a new democracy, I gravitated towards work in health development projects and got drawn into women’s health issues.
At the time, the Philippines was also trying to adapt the policies and programs of the ICPD Programme of Action. Involvement in these projects afforded me the opportunity to see the situation of women around the country and really gave me a chance to have serious discussions about their health and about their lives. Many women and their families were and are very much dependent on the government to provide for their reproductive health services, but with the decentralization of the health system in the early 1990s, income disparities across municipalities, towns, cities and provinces translated to health inequalities. Furthermore, some elected officials were led by dogma to ban all forms of modern contraceptives in their respective areas. In such cases, choices for many women living in these areas were severely limited.
The issue of faith was less of a concern for these women as they believe in a more forgiving God than what the priests and bishops would paint.
For many of the women I encountered, choice is hard to come by, as they are often tied to the limitations posed by their circumstances in life: where they live, their socioeconomic class, their religion, their education. In many instances, though, what I know is that women make choices not only for themselves but most often in consideration of their own realities and the significant people in their lives. The issue of faith was less of a concern for these women as they believe in a more forgiving God than what the priests and bishops would paint. The lived experiences of these women are simply too powerful to ignore and those long-ago encounters taught me about how choice is defined in day-to-day existence: not by dogma but by a sheer determination to have a life worth living.
I’ve been prochoice for 40 years, spanning most of my adult life. I couldn’t say at what particular moment I decided to nail my colors to the mast, although I know only too well that for most of that time, the decision has put me at odds with the establishment in all its multifarious forms. Campaigning for the right to abortion in Ireland was considered an act of radical defiance by all the elites, whether clerical (the power of the Catholic church only began to wane in the early 1990s), political, professional or academic. Not a very comfortable position for a young woman academic from a middle-class Catholic family. To be a known “abortionist” (the term was applied indiscriminately and quite improperly to prochoice activists) was seen in some bizarre, convoluted way as a betrayal not only of one’s class, but of the very nation itself. And it was certainly not a sensible route to a successful career in a university environment then still heavily marked by clericalism.
But you do what you must. In my case, as part of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, I believed (as I still do, most ardently) that control of our reproductive bodies is a baseline requirement for equality and autonomy. I believe that a woman has the right to decide whether or when she will have a child. In a world where there is often still inadequate or no information about, or access to, contraception, and where contraception can and does fail; where sex education may be minimal or nonexistent; where social and economic conditions are atrocious (increasingly so); where women are impregnated by men against their will; and where, by no means least, mistakes quite simply happen, abortion is a necessity and a reality for countless numbers of women, not an abstract philosophical or moral issue.
I believe that control of our reproductive bodies is a baseline requirement for equality and autonomy.
Way back then, 40 years ago, I saw young women like me being forced either to go through with pregnancies they didn’t choose, or having to make the lonely journey to the UK for an abortion. I knew I’d go to the UK myself if I had an unplanned pregnancy. I saw the misery and difficulty and the pain. I hated a society and a value system that forced women to give birth against their will. I thought it was wrong and that it should be changed. So I suppose my decision was both intensely personal and acutely political.
Things have a shifted in Ireland since then, but not much. We’ve had a referendum on the issue roughly every decade since 1983 and seem set to have another in the near future. We have a law protecting women’s lives in pregnancy (but only just, and only maybe), and it is at least easier now to say “I’m prochoice: I stand for every woman’s right to have an abortion if that’s what she considers to be in her best interests.” But there’s still a long way to go. n
Ten years back, I met a 17-year-old girl in a public hospital. She was a high school student who had gotten pregnant and did not intend to keep the pregnancy. Believing that she could be imprisoned for seeking an abortion, she chose to do it herself. She inserted a fork through her vagina to a point that she couldn’t reach it. After two days she was found severely bleeding and in pain and rushed to the hospital. The girl underwent surgery to remove the fork, and then additional surgery to repair her severely perforated uterus, but ultimately died on her fifth day in hospital. This case shocked me because I felt like I understood her. This student was afraid to discontinue her education, she was afraid of the stigma of being pregnant, and thus, by hook or by crook, she had to rescue herself from that ordeal. I still say that she did not deserve to die.
I am prochoice because, firstly, I believe in human autonomy and human rights. No human being can realize their full dignity and potential until their human rights are protected and respected. Secondly, I believe in equality for men, women, girls and boys. I have witnessed young girls and women suffer diseases, mutilation and even death due to restrictive laws and the stigma that surrounds sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion. The fact that only women and girls become pregnant means that these laws constitute discrimination and a setback to gender equality. Thirdly, I have seen women and girls carry unwanted pregnancies to term and know that this does not contribute to child welfare. I believe children should be born to parents who are ready, able and willing to feed, clothe, educate and love them.
No human being can realize their full dignity and potential until their human rights are protected and respected.
I cannot sit by and accept a world in which childbearing is a woman’s destiny, not her choice; where women are trapped by absolute poverty, pregnancy and disease; a world in which desperate women and girls, with no other recourse, are compelled to resort to unsafe abortions and are injured or die in the process, thus, robbing them of their full potential for economic, social and political progress. I can make a difference and that is why being prochoice is an essential part of my professional commitment.
I am from a Catholic family. It is my firm belief that there can be no prescription for how women should lead their lives. Research has shown that if women are healthy and educated, their families will thrive. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will thrive. Consequently, when families prosper, communities and nations will prosper. That is why we must respect the reproductive healthcare choices that each woman makes for herself and her family. Every woman deserves to be listened to and the chance to realize her God-given potential.