“I love babies, born and unborn” read the button I proudly displayed on the corkboard in my childhood bedroom. It was large, round, and dark blue, with a red heart and a white silhouette of a fetus on it. And I loved it. I was no older than seven and had already been indoctrinated with a distinct sense of self-righteousness. How could anyone NOT love babies, I wondered. Why would they want to kill them?
I was raised in a home with very progressive values. My mother took advantage of every opportunity to teach my sister and I lessons on topics like sexism, racism and homophobia. We were shopping at co-ops long before “slow-food”, “organic”, and “locally sourced” had entered the general lexicon. Paper, plastics, and glass were driven to the recycling center; there was no curbside pickup in those days.
I also happened to be raised in a very Catholic family. We went to mass every Sunday; I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and we even volunteered for the church. Most of the time it was helping out with spring cleaning or miscellaneous administrative tasks, but occasionally it meant tabling at fairs for pro-life organizations. I still remember the progressive gestational models on display and the baskets of tiny pink plastic fetuses that we passed out to any hand that would open. I couldn’t read yet so I can only imagine the shame and misinformation that filled the literature they provided.
My mother would eventually give up on dragging us to church every week only to watch my sister fall asleep and me get up for a drink of water every ten minutes. The rest of my childhood was spent attending only on Christmas and with the reminder to “tell your Grandmother we went to church today!” on the way to my Aunt’s house for Easter Dinner. But one family value never changed–abortion was a mortal sin.
My mom surely would have self-identified as a feminist back then, as I’m confident she still does now. I know I always have and that’s thanks to her. Somehow the idea of being a pro-life feminist didn’t seem to contradict itself. I had an awareness of how complex and nuanced gender politics could be but abortion, as the billboards say, was a “black and white issue.” Babies (zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, really) are people, abortion kills them, and killing people is wrong. I never had any reason to question this as I got older; it seemed pretty straight forward. It wasn’t until one day that my sister, mother, and I found ourselves in a conversation on the topic that I started to question what I’d been taught. I distinctly recall my sister saying, “You’re never going to get rid of abortion completely; if people want to do it they’re going to find a way. Why not give them the respect to do it safely and legally? Better in a clinic under the care of a professional than in an alley with a coat hanger.” Right then my idealistic, us vs them, right vs wrong mentality began to unravel.
From then on I could at least concede that abortion should remain legal, safe, and accessible, but it would be some time before I would drop the pro-life label. I still thought of abortion as a selfish act; why not just carry the pregnancy to term and give it up for adoption? Why weren’t you more careful? If you didn’t want to get pregnant you shouldn’t have had sex, and all those other wonderfully misogynistic, sex-negative condemnations. Abortion was for young, slutty, reckless girls. It wasn’t until I became a frequent reader and commenter on feminist pop-culture websites like Jezebel and The Hairpin that I was given pause to consider any other circumstances that might lead someone to choose to have an abortion. Force them into it, even.
Things like rape, incest, and health of the mother were mere footnotes where I came from. Reproductive coercion was a concept unfamiliar to me. Hell, even with the comparatively adequate sex ed I had in school, the failure of birth control wasn’t a credible “excuse” in my mind. Abusive relationship? Still your fault; why not leave? It’s just that simple, right? Are you in poverty? Refer back to Dismissals A and B; you should have never had sex to begin with. Also, public assistance is available. How hard could that be to access and navigate? (Very). Surely it provides enough! (It doesn’t).
The quick and dirty Women’s Studies education I received through those internet communities was the final blow to my alignment with the pro-life movement. Once I was able to see how abortion fit within the broader context of women’s rights, sexual oppression, and reproductive justice (DUH) there was no looking back.
Not too long after I adopted my new pro-choice identity the 2010 elections took place. Almost immediately the Republicans that now dominated The House of Representatives and state legislatures all over the country took to attacking access to abortion, birth control, and funding for Planned Parenthood (yep, it’s been FIVE straight years of this shit now). I had never been more engaged in or frustrated by politics and felt the need to do something proactive as an outlet, so I began volunteering for Planned Parenthood. My assignment? Tabling at those exact same fairs I went to as a child. This time it was for the right side, promoting actual medical clinics that provide comprehensive, non-judgmental education and care to those seeking it, and where patients are supported in whatever informed decisions they make. After Planned Parenthood came Family Tree Clinic, NARAL, and Pro-Choice Resources. I tried to help out wherever I could.
I didn’t hide this fact from my mother; no matter how much her opinions might differ from your own she’s always been able to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discourse on controversial subjects. She wasn’t exactly enthused when I told her about my new hobby but she didn’t condemn me for it either. All I got was that all-too-familiar warning that, “Maybe it’s best if we keep this from your grandmother.”
The cat was out of the bag by the time I began speaking at Planned Parenthood events and training their new volunteers. If there were any lingering doubts about my personal feelings or extracurricular activities they were eliminated once I decided to go public with my own decision to have an abortion. In order to ease the blow I composed an email to my mom and grandma informing them of what was about to take place, both the abortion and the fact that it would be plastered all over Facebook. I wanted to choose my words carefully and give them the space to react privately, with time to consider how to respond to the news. Instead my mom immediately called and left a voicemail questioning my judgment entirely, and I never heard a word from Grandma aside from a comment on the post apologizing for my “loss.” Neither seemed to quite get it. Over time, and with a good bit of prodding from my sister and me, the family seems to have come around a little bit. It felt like a huge victory when my mother finally conceded that abortion needs to be a legal option. Whether or not they’ll actually vote in accordance with their newfound perspective on the issue is uncertain, though I’m not optimistic.
However we now have documented evidence that personal stories and connections can have dramatic influence on public opinion and policy. Appealing to our collective sense of humanity is precisely what propelled Minnesota to become the first state to legalize marriage equality by a ballot measure. Every one-on-one conversation had about the individual impact of such discrimination moved the needle that much closer in our favor. Movements like the 1 in 3 Campaign and #ShoutYourAbortion seek to do the same thing for reproductive rights and we should be throwing all the support behind them that we can. Even though it’s tempting to see this fight as a never ending tug-of-war between two firmly entrenched and diametrically opposed value systems, the majority of Americans are able to acknowledge abortion as necessary health care and believe it should remain legal. Currently the approval rating of Planned Parenthood exceeds that of any presidential candidate AND both political parties. The labels “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” alienate too many people, and we need to give them for credit for being able to see that this topic is far more nuanced than some would have you believe.
My sister was able to change my mind. I changed my mother’s, and maybe even those of people I’ve never met. A friend told me she used my story as an example in an argument over abortion access with her mother and that the response she got was, “Well, I don’t have the answer for everything.”
I’m counting that as a win. Opinions rarely change overnight; the best we can do is give people reason to reconsider.
So even if you feel like you’re only preaching to the choir, or shouting in to an echo chamber, keep talking. You never know how far your voice will reach, and who might be listening.
Angela Hershberger is a “writer” living in Saint Paul. She spends her days pushing paper for The Man and her nights throwing balls for the dog. In between catching up on TV and naps, she volunteers to care for injured wildlife and promote healthy sex lives for all. If you would like to pay her for either of those things, that would be swell. Her ultimate goal in life is to be made into an action figure and/or cartoon. She likes swears and is sorry for what she said when she was hungry.