The following conversation will be very blunt, and may not be for the faint of heart. Persons having experienced pregnancy loss may want to skip this one.
Being on the Church and Society 2 Committee for General Conference means that, in addition to reading and talking about homosexuality a lot, I also have the privilege of reading lots of legislation about abortion.
I have to say that if I had known how hard this particular part was going to be personally, I might actually have requested a different committee. I’m surprised by how challenging I find this reading and this conversation.
You see, my friends, I’ve had an abortion.
It’s not what you think. I was just as surprised as you might be.
I didn’t choose to have an abortion (although– another topic for another day– a woman over the phone representing my health insurance provider BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, the plan *provided by my employer, the United Methodist Church,* hinted that I might consider one because I expressed that I was not going to be able to afford my copays and coinsurance under their plan, which covers only 80% of prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care. This all turned out to be a moot point). I am pro choice, but there’s an emphasis on choice there. My “abortion” was “spontaneous.”
My second pregnancy was a problem from the start. After a year of trying to conceive, I was thrilled to be pregnant, but felt sick– sicker than usual– right off the bat. Several factors caused my OB practice concern and so I had a transvaginal ultrasound at about six weeks. That’s about as uncomfortable and invasive a procedure as it sounds like. Garry Trudeau isn’t far off in calling it rape, although I object to using that word for anything other than actual rape; here, if one did not wish for this procedure, I imagine it’s pretty much the same thing (I’m linking rather than posting because I found it hard to look at and others might too). All the talk in the media lately about requiring this procedure for women seeking medical abortion is painful for me. As people dryly debate whether or not it’s a violation of a woman’s body, I’m taken back to a little room and a little pink hospital gown, and I’m back up on the table. I’ll leave out the rest. There’s a tiny little flutter on the monitor, though. A heartbeat. A living baby at five weeks, five days.
But at eleven weeks and five days (three years ago this past week), there was a different story. First, mild pain and discomfort, but over the course of an evening and a long night, agony. Physical and emotional agony. Praying for it to stop. Praying for it to be over.
And a week later, it still wasn’t over. Again, sparing the details, my body needed help expelling the rest of what had been inside. I checked myself into the hospital and underwent the procedure of dilation and curettage. I knew what it was because pro life activists had described it in detail; the only difference between this procedure and what we think of as abortion is that the tissue removed from my body was already long dead. I was drugged, but I cried, and only some were tears of relief.
Turns out, the only medical difference between my procedure and what we think of as abortion is… nothing. I received the bill for my outpatient surgery. Abortion: spontaneous. I of course had to pay it. At a higher rate. And retroactively pay higher copays for the preceding twelve weeks of care, since it was no longer considered prenatal care as my pregnancy “didn’t result in a natality.” I had to put it on a payment plan, and get monthly bills, with that little header at the top. Abortion: spontaneous.
Much of the proposed legislation for General Conference concerning abortion deals with trying to proscribe how churches should be in ministry with people who have experienced or are considering abortion, and makes numerous assumptions about what people may or may not be feeling. I experienced a whole range of emotions as I processed my pregnancy loss. I wouldn’t presume to know what another woman and her partner, if any, might need when they experience miscarriage or pregnancy loss, and the decision to undergo an abortion is far more complex when there’s an actual decision. We can’t know the reasons– birth defects and rape and threats to the mother’s health and inability to provide for another life and on and on (here is a powerful and painful story). We can’t know the tears shed, if any, and if they were of grieving or of relief or a mixture of the two and more. It is extreme hubris to assume that we can know what it means to “heal from abortion.” I certainly don’t know.
What I do know is this: if we desire to first do no harm, then we have to enter this conversation with extreme care. We have to be aware of how the language and images we use wound people who have experienced abortion of any kind. Some of the language, particularly in the rationales of the petitions, is horrifying, representing what I can only assume are attempts to sway people’s minds by descriptions of procedures and flip references to babies and blobs and everything in between. No, I don’t want to look at pictures of what a fetus looks like, particularly at eleven weeks. No, I don’t want to discuss transvaginal ultrasounds and whether, in the opinion of a person who’s never had one, they feel invasive. No, I don’t want to discuss cookie cutter plans to help a person grieve because we think they should and in the ways we think they should. As with so many other issues, we’re not talking about issues. We are talking about people, and people have walked roads we haven’t walked.
I promise to not use my personal experience to try to guilt or shame others. But I will speak from it to try to convey how these words come across to some, how they come across to me, and how very powerful words are. The last thing a person who has made a difficult decision– or one who has had a decision made for her– needs is to be told what it means and what she should feel about it, and what a legislative body is going to do about it. If we want to show reverence for the beginnings– and middles and endings– of life, we must treat all aspects of it with compassion and humility, and listen to the persons walking that journey in the moment, holding them where they are. That’s how we must be in ministry with people. Not people who have had abortions, just people.