Last week Alabama became the seventh US state to enact a ban on most or all abortion. There are only four women in the 35-seat senate, with 25 white, male senators voting for the law, which will be the strictest in the US. It will outlaw abortion in all circumstances, except “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly” (this makes it slightly less strict than the Northern Irish law, which does not allow abortion due to foetal abnormality). A motion to ensure that exceptions be made for rape or incest failed on a vote of 11 – 21. Under this new law, any doctor who performs an abortion will face a prison sentence of up to 99 years. During the debate about passing this law, Democrat Bobby Singleton pointed out that this would mean a doctor performing an abortion on a woman impregnated by a rapist would face a longer prison sentence than the rapist. The law has not yet come into effect, but the fact it has passed at all reflects a huge shift in how abortion is treated in the US.
White evangelical Christians have been at the heart of the pro-life movement. Donald Trump capitalised on this in his election campaign, and it worked! Eighty percent of white, self-identified evangelicals voted for him. Within the UK, evangelical views on abortion are less clear; the Evangelical Alliance’s 21stCentury Evangelicalsreport found that while 49% of evangelicals believed (a lot or a little) that abortion can never be justified; 18% were unsure and 33% believed that there were situations in which abortion could be justified. Outside of evangelicalism, Christian views on abortion vary widely; with some Christians actively involved in pro-choice activism.
As a Christian feminist, and as someone who currently still identifies as an evangelical; I have avoided speaking publicly or writing about abortion. There will be secular feminists and evangelical Christians who would be disappointed about this. Both would say that my making a stand on my views about abortion are an imperative of both my feminism and my faith. I remain reluctant to make that stand, mainly because my views are nuanced and conflicted. Not something that works well within our highly polarised society on an issue where pro-choice and pro-life are such clearly delineated camps. But here I am, not so much making a stand, but rather reluctantly telling my story.
Growing up, we had a jar of dead babies in a kitchen cupboard.
Yes, you read that right. Let me explain…
After becoming Christians, my parents discovered pro-life activism. They had leaflets filled with photographs of aborted foetuses. They were instrumental in the opening of a pregnancy crisis centre in our local town; offering pregnancy tests, counselling, baby equipment and more. Growing up, abortion was a familiar word, though I didn’t know what it meant. When I was about six, I was playing with a friend (whose mum was also involved in the pro-life movement). I remember cradling a plastic doll and declaring that “I’m going to have an abortion of this baby.” My seven-year-old friend look horrified, “You can’t!” she exclaimed. “That’s putting a baby in a plastic bag and throwing it on a fire.”
One time, my parents attended a rally to mourn the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act. As part of the rally, a paper canon shot out thousands and thousands of small paper circles (like floaty paper communion wafers). My parents collected a load of them in a jam-jar. On returning from the rally, they placed the jar in a kitchen cupboard, explaining to us that each paper circle represented a dead baby. And for years, every time we reached into the cupboard to get a tin of beans or tinned tomatoes; there would be the jar of dead babies. Sitting there. Getting dusty.
Fast forward to my teenage years, where evangelical sex education taught me “don’t do sex until you get married to an opposite sex Christian”. I loved Jesus and understood that as a teenage girl in the late nineties and early noughties, no naughtiness should ensue. My virginity was proof that I was countercultural. I would evangelise the nation, or at least my fellow students at my college, with my intact hymen. Which was all going really well, until I met a dashing young man. I told him I didn’t believe in sex before marriage, he said that was fine and then proceeded to coerce and manipulate me into sex. Christian sex education hadn’t prepared me for this; it’s only really in recent years and since the advent of the #metoo movement that evangelical Christian culture has begun to have conversations about consent. A catholic education devoid of lessons on contraception, a mother who believed what the Daily Mailsaid about the contraceptive pill causing cancer, and an abusive boyfriend who told me that “sex isn’t real unless there’s a risk of pregnancy” led to me becoming pregnant at 17.
Reproductive coercion is not a term many people are familiar with, however recent research has found that 1 in 7 UK womenhave been forced into pregnancy or abortion by a man. The methods of forcing someone into pregnancy range from subtle to brutal; pricking holes in condoms, lying about having had a vasectomy or a low sperm count, interfering with contraception, surreptitiously removing the condom before ejaculating in a woman (some men see this as a challenge and call it “stealthing”), rape (including sex with someone while they are intoxicated or asleep). There’s been this long-term myth that women and girls “get themselves pregnant” to trap a man. Do you know who is trapped by pregnancy? The pregnant girl or woman. That’s who.
In 2018, Mormon blogger Gabrielle Blair wrotethat, “all unwanted pregnancies are caused by the irresponsible ejaculations of men. All of them.” She went on to challenge men’s reluctance to use condoms, “Why would men want to have sex without a condom? Because, for the precious minutes when they’re penetrating their partner, not wearing a condom gives them more pleasure. So… that would mean some men are willing to risk getting a woman pregnant — which means literally risking her life, her health, her social status, her relationships, and her career — so they can experience a few minutes of slightly increased pleasure.”
My parents had tried to prevent me having sex, but when I told them I was pregnant they were positive, “We tried to stop it getting here, but now there’s a baby involved that’s something we should be positive about.” The irresponsible ejaculator (my abusive boyfriend) and his family tried to force me to have an abortion. I refused. I had my daughter in 2003, when I was eighteen.
In 2014, the Guardian featured Young Motherhoodby Jendella. I was part of the project, and my photograph and some of my story was shown under the headline “We’re glad we chose to be mothers in our teens”. I was really disturbed by the headline. I hadn’t chosen to be a mother in my teen. I had it inflicted on me. I was ready to ring the Guardian and insist on them changing the headline. Then it dawned on me. I had chosen to be a mother in my teens because I had chosen not to have an abortion. In that moment, something shifted in me. I hadn’t solely been a victim of reproductive coercion. I had made a choice, I had chosen motherhood! But I was only able to choose motherhood because I live in a place where abortion is not illegal.
When people talk about rape and abortion it often fills me with either rage or dis-ease. The men who ignore the horror of rape, the trauma of reproductive coercion and the complexity of raising a child in such circumstances will never have to deal with that reality. Yet, those who exclaim that of course a woman who has been raped should have an abortion do not know how hurtful that can be for those of us who have made different choices. However, this has to be about choices, not forcing women to have children. When people suggest that having a child in less-than-ideal-circumstances will destroy a woman’s life, I am proof that does not have to be the case. Yet, when someone offers blanket statements that abortion is always wrong, I want them to be kept awake at night by the names of women who have died after desperately trying to salvage their life through an illegal abortion.
Abortion is a moral minefield because human beings were created interconnected. No person is an island; a new human is created through a woman and man joining together, with the potential new human sustained in the body of the woman. And in a sinless, perfect world; new life creation would never be tainted by violence, poverty, inequality, fathers raping their daughters, teenage girls not taught about consent, irresponsible ejaculation or other harmful and damaging realities. But we do not live in a sinless world, and so many women and girls are scarred inside and out because of that.
I remain conflicted. It is because of my ragingly pro-life parents that I was able to resist an abuser and refuse to have an abortion. It is because I live in a country where abortion is legal that I was able to choose to be a mother, and that I can tell my children that they were wanted and chosen. My life shows that being pregnant as a teenager after a male had sexually abused me and subjected me to reproductive coercion, in a context of poverty, did not mean that I should have had an abortion. That after everything, life can be beautiful and I am achieving my potential. However, other women’s lives show that having no access to abortion was a death sentence for them and a horrifying reality when they were forced to have children. I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know that many pro-life people (particularly men) do little more than make uninformed, uncompassionate pronouncements and many pro-choice people view crisis pregnancy in ways that are both hurtful and not representative of mine and some other women’s experiences. I don’t have any answers. I’m not here to make a stand. I’m just here to tell my story.