Why They Call Us

What I’ve learned at a pro-life pregnancy center
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A woman looks at a picture of her ultrasound at Houston Women’s Reproductive Services, October 2021 (CNS photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.

 

For about twenty years, I’ve volunteered at a pro-life pregnancy center. (The views expressed here are mine alone.) I don’t know how much my experience can contribute to the broader national politics of abortion. Everything I’m about to say is drawn from what my clients have told me, and while I do everything in my power to build trust, I am not in their shoes and can speak only as an observer.

Moreover, my pregnancy center is in the District of Columbia; abortion will likely remain legal here or across the border in Maryland. The women we see are not the ones most directly affected by the court’s decision. I can’t speak to the experiences of women in states where Republican lawmakers compete to “own the libs” by pushing increasingly punitive laws (against the wishes of the biggest pro-life groups in the country, which have all declared that they do not want women punished for seeking abortions). The Dobbs decision will not—at least not immediately—lead D.C. doctors to delay or withhold treatments intended to save pregnant women’s lives out of fear of criminal investigation.

At least for a while, our clients will continue to make decisions about their pregnancies under more or less the same conditions that they have in the past. They will face the same health-care disparities that poorer women and women of color face across the country: D.C.’s maternal mortality rate is well above the national average—and a recent review by the District’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee found that 90 percent of all people who died of pregnancy-related causes in D.C. during the years under review were Black. These numbers increase some of our clients’ fears of pregnancy complications, and their fears about having children at all.

I can know only what my clients choose to share with me: how they choose to present themselves to someone who is nearly a stranger, maybe just a voice on the phone. But I think I have discerned patterns in the reasons clients mention for considering abortion or choosing life.

Many of my clients want an abortion because they believe it is the most responsible choice. This is not vocabulary I’ve encountered often in pro-life rhetoric about women’s reasons for abortion. It’s not hard to find people who think they’re defending the unborn by depicting women who seek abortions as irresponsible, wanting sex without consequences, wanting to lead carefree single lives. And it’s not hard to find pro-life people depicting women who seek abortions as trapped victims. The second image is a bit closer to what I’ve seen than the first, but most of the women who tell us that they intend to have an abortion if they’re pregnant understand themselves to be making a moral choice. This kind of client often understands that other women have had the baby under similar circumstances, and she doesn’t waste time judging them, but she thinks it would be irresponsible for her, right now, to have a baby.

The reasons they think abortion would be the responsible choice are varied. Sometimes they think it would be irresponsible to have a baby before they’re married. (Most of our clients’ sexual decisions are made with the intention of eventually marrying. But not “waiting until marriage”—that, too, is irresponsible, because you risk marrying the wrong person or never marrying at all.) Sometimes they think it would be irresponsible to have a baby before they have their lives in order on an emotional level. Most often they think it would be irresponsible to have a baby before they’re financially stable. For clients who already have children, there’s an extra urgency, since each additional child pushes that stable future a little farther away.

A baby (a first or second or third baby) will always make the snakes-and-ladders upward scramble slower and harder and more uncertain.

Most of our clients believe strongly that they have a moral responsibility to attain financial stability. They feel intense familial and internal pressure to graduate from high school, then college, and then to get a stable job. They want to be, if not homeowners, at least people who live independently from their parents. A baby will never help them do this. A baby (a first or second or third baby) will always make the snakes-and-ladders upward scramble slower and harder and more uncertain. Sometimes the conflict between baby and financial stability is blunt and brutal: last year, two D.C. police officers came forward to say that, when they were cadets, they aborted their pregnancies because a sergeant told them that having a baby would cost them their jobs. But even when the pressure to abort is less explicit, even when it isn’t embodied in a specific employer or supervisor, our clients fear that a baby will drag them back into poverty or prevent them from finally—after years of grueling effort—escaping it. This isn’t new. The hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill captured the dilemma perfectly in 1998 in the song she dedicated to her son, “To Zion”: They said, “Lauryn, baby, use your head” / But instead I chose to use my heart.

To think with your heart is foolish. It often feels selfish. A pregnancy threatens to let down all the people who supported you, who hoped for you, who sacrificed so you could make it. And it takes so long to get stable—so much longer than you thought. Every setback pushes back the day when the baby you long for would be a reward and not a disaster.

We can and should do more to support parents: a baby shouldn’t be a financial catastrophe. It should be easier than it is to attain basic stability. I’m not sure how far that would go, since “stability” or security can always be redefined—the bar can always be raised. But it would be the right thing to do. Meanwhile, there is no way to talk about abortion in America without talking about the suffering, shame, and guilt caused by the belief that it’s wrong to have a baby when you’re poor. When do you have enough money and security to earn the right to have a child? You aren’t supposed to get married before you’re financially stable; you aren’t supposed to have a baby before you’re financially stable. Who, exactly, are poor people allowed to love?

In the face of this intense moral pressure to “use your head,” a pregnancy center can help a little. We may be able to help a woman find a doula, an immigration lawyer, or resources to stay in school. We may be able to help her talk through her conflicting moral beliefs, including the belief that a baby is always a blessing. But one of the most important things we can do is simply help her see what is happening inside her. I would say two things have most often prompted a woman considering abortion to choose life. One is just talking with someone who encourages her to voice her own ambivalence, her own longing for a child, her own fears and hopes. There is a voice inside most of our clients that already speaks for life.

The other thing is exploring the process of fetal development. This is probably about where you are now. This is three weeks from now. There is pain but also wonder in discovering the strange unfurling of the fetus. Even when a client is very early in her pregnancy, simply considering that process shifts things. It suggests that something has already begun, that it is already further advanced than she realizes: before you know it, someone new has come.

There’s a pro-life rhetorical trope that urges us to imagine all the children who would have been born if not for abortion. Empty school desks, swing sets rocking aimlessly in a phantom breeze. I don’t know that our clients would find these images compelling. Our clients almost always either have children already or intend to have them one day. They do picture their children filling those school desks and those swing sets eventually—once they’re married, once they’re financially stable, once they’re ready. What makes a difference is not the dreamed-of, imaginary future. That may be partly because they know a child in the womb may never draw breath or grow big enough to rock a swing set. We hope and pray that the choice for life is a choice for a newborn, a toddler, a tween, a kid taller than his mother, a sweet singer like her father. But our clients know better than I do that none of that is guaranteed just because you canceled your abortion appointment. What they are choosing to protect is not the imagined future child, but the child currently, at this moment, growing and changing within them. The discovery of that child is a discovery that there is more in your life than you know.

The first Letter of John proposes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Against laws and institutions that denied the reality of the child we could not see (and thereby harmed that child’s mother), Dobbs counterposes a new regime. In many parts of the country, the laws and institutions of this new regime will refuse to shelter the pregnant woman we can see. In this way the institutions of the new regime will betray the children they ostensibly sought to protect.

One way to define the good of politics is that it’s how we fight against all the forces that would dehumanize us, and that pressure us to dehumanize one another. My experience as a crisis pregnancy counselor has not given me any special expertise on these politics. It has only taught me the urgency of the task. 

 

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Eve Tushnet is the author of two nonfiction books, most recently Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love, as well as two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story.

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