Diary of a Delegate: Abortion and the language of abuse

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.

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

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.

Miscarriage sucks.

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.

My scrapbook of cards, notes, words of hope and healing following our miscarriage

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.

26 thoughts on “Diary of a Delegate: Abortion and the language of abuse”

  1. I love you, Becca. I am sorry that you will have to deal with that difficult legislation. I’m glad I’ll be down there to see you during that time. I think that if people really knew what an abortion was and how it affected the mother, they might show more compassion.

    1. Thanks my dear. I can’t wait to see you! I think that if the committee subdivides to work on different topics, I can’t be with the abortion stuff. As painful and gross as the homosexuality language is sometimes, it’s not as personal for me. Ugh. Love you.

  2. I am in agreement with you on this topic. I pray that you may be a powerful “voice of experience” as Church and Society deals with legislation related to abortion.

    1. Thanks Holly. I hope to be a voice of experience, but in truth it is a difficult and painful conversation to engage for me sometimes.

      Thanks for your comments and prayers as always.


  3. My experience was truly idiosyncratic, and I’ve never met anyone who has had the experience I had. I was told that I had miscarried. I knew I was pregnant, but I started spotting blood. I went to the hospital in a panic…my husband and I had really wanted this baby, our first. I, too, had the vaginal ultrasound, and they told me the baby had died. I was seven weeks pregnant.

    I was told to go home and wait for the tissue to pass. So I went home, and my husband and I cried and cried and cried. For twelve days.

    But the tissue didn’t pass. I was supposed to start a new job, and I called up my doctor saying, “what am I supposed to do? It’s absolutely horrible to be walking around knowing I have this dead baby inside of me that I wanted so much.”

    “Sometimes that happens. We call it a ‘missed miscarriage.’ Come in and we’ll give you a D&C,” she said.

    So I went in. It was to be a two step process: on the first day I would have an injection to dilate my cervix, and the D&C would take place the second day.

    When I went in again, the doctor hesitated. “You haven’t seen any tissue?”

    Tears welled up in my eyes. “No. Can we PLEASE get this over with?”

    “Well, I’m going to give you another pregnancy test. Just to be sure.”

    She came back in to the examining room twenty minutes later with a strange look on her face. “Your hormones are up ten times from the point they were twelve days. There are three possibilities: you have cancer. Or you have an ectoptic pregnancy. Or you’re still pregnant. Go back to the hospital for another ultrasound.”

    And THEN we saw the heartbeat. She had been simply too small to be seen on the monitor when I had been to the hospital two weeks before. My normal daughter was born eight months later. My doctor’s care in doublechecking literally saved her life. I would have unknowing aborted my badly wanted baby even while I mourned her, if my doctor hadn’t doublechecked.

    So I went through all the grief of a miscarriage, but ended up with a healthy child. It was a truly surreal whiplash of emotions. My husband had a great deal of difficulty readjusting his emotions, unable to emerge from his depression for months, and I was tormented by irrational fears that I would lose her all through the pregnancy, that I was MEANT to lose her.

      1. Oh my God, Peg. I can’t imagine. The pain and grief of miscarriage is so raw and powerful and to be yanked around like that. Wow. Such a terrible story, yet with such a wonderful outcome. What an amazing woman this world gets to know because a doctor checked and double checked.
        For the record, I think the fears of losing a baby are totally rational, even if they are unfounded, and in this case, you had plenty of reason to be worried, having faced what you thought was that reality already. That must have been eight months of terror.
        Our bodies are so strange sometimes. I spotted with two of my three pregnancies; with my first (Ari) so much in the first month that I thought I’d had my period — twice!, and didn’t take a pregnancy test until I was almost into my third month and just feeling really ill. The ultrasound at twenty weeks revealed I was six weeks further along than they and I thought. With the second pregnancy I spotted as well, at five weeks prompting the ultrasound, and then I of course lost that pregnancy. But with Will no spotting. So the old you don’t have any bleeding when you’re pregnant and if you do it’s definitely bad thing is not so accurate.
        We have much to learn still about our bodies and pregnancy, and again and again we see that we can’t describe any of it in a way that encompasses all experiences.
        Thanks for that amazing story.

  4. Thank you all for sharing your stories. I had an experience similar to Becca’s. Becca, thank you for being willing to stand and speak in the middle of a *debate* that too often sounds like there are no actual human beings involved.

  5. Becca, thank you for sharing this beautiful and heart-wrenching post. I have been praying for you and all the GC delegates, but this story brings more context to my prayers. I really had never thought much about the many petitions that committee must receive about abortion, and how graphic the language could be.

    Knowing that someone as compassionate and honest is on that board gives me hope. Something I’m much in need of, as a UM woman.

    Just a brief word on the technicality of calling the trans-vaginal ultrasound “rape”… I share your concerns about using that word too quickly and broadly. One data point I’ve used in considering the question is that it does technically fit the legal definition of rape in some states, as unwanted and coerced penetration. I’m not inclined to let the legal definition of rape be the final say, but that’s because I find the legal definition of it often too *limiting* rather than too broad. Another data point I’ve looked at is the potential for trauma (“potential” because not everything is traumatizing to all who experience it) but there just isn’t good data on this right now–that I’m aware of. At this point, I remain undecided on the question. Thankfully I live in a state that is very unlikely to ever require this invasive and unnecessary procedure, but if a woman ever comes to me for counseling who has been through it and defines her experience as rape, I would believe her.

    1. Hi Katie,

      Thank you for that perspective on the TV ultrasound and the use of the term rape. I actually feel a little better about that usage after reading your remarks. I hesitate to call it rape because I wouldn’t want people who had been sexually assaulted by a man — um, see how I’m struggling here — I wouldn’t want those who had been the victims of genital to genital sexual assault to feel that I was belittling their experience by saying that a medical procedure that I underwent consensually was the same thing. However, as you correctly point out, the survivor is free to define her experience as she defines it. I would most certainly agree that if a woman identified her experience of TV ultrasound as rape or assault, I would follow her use of language. Furthermore, I can certainly see how and why she would feel that it was rape, and would support her in seeking healing from the trauma that she experienced.

      Thank you for your thoughtful reflections here.


  6. As the mother of a young woman who made this choice and as a Christian, I greatly appreciate you sharing your experience and your views on this. I love my daughter dearly, and experienced my own grief with her decision, but her feelings, her experience, and her choices are hers. She does not have a relationship with God or Jesus and I want that for more than anything. However, because of all the vitriol and vociferous arguments and labeling of people because of this and other issues, she feels rejected, repelled, judged, and condemned by the “church” and people from it and her response is to do the same.

    Your words confirm that we need to care about people, who they are and where they are at in the present moment and let God and His Spirit deal with their behaviors, thoughts, and history.

    Thank you.

    1. You are welcome. Thank *you* for sharing your story and an piece of your daughter’s story. I agree that we (as the church) do a terribly disservice with language that condemns, so that people who have chosen abortion for whatever reason do not experience grace and healing, but instead feel shunned or rejected. This at a time when I imagine a person to be in need of a community of care and love should she be willing to seek it out.

      Many prayers for your daughter that she find peace and healing and grace. And many prayers of confession and repentance for a church universal that has not modeled a way to live out that peace, healing, and grace.

      Peace to you as well, sister.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing on such a very difficult personal matter! Yes, we minister to “just people.” Jesus died on that cross for every single one of them. It is their choice whether to accept the gift of salvation or not!

  8. I am so very proud of you my dear offspring! Your courage, your wisdom and your verbal abilities continually astound and awe me. You have always been a great teacher for me, even teaching me how to deal with the emotions of failed marriage. Your voice has always been and will continue to be one speaking the clear unadulterated truth in words that connect to all those around you. Thank you for being OUR voice, thank you for speaking OUR truth (even though you never lay claim to it as anything other than your own truth), and thank you for showing us all what a fully integrated mind body and spirit can be and do!
    I love you,

  9. Becca,

    I am so grateful that you will be bringing the incredible strength that you have found to bear at General Conference. The humanity of your experience reminds us all that there is much more to this issue than soundbites, political cartoons, and bumper stickers.

    May God continue to bless you with strength for the journey ahead.

    Grace and peace,


    1. Thanks for your supportive comments, Joey. You also get points for being the only man (not related to me by blood) to comment on this post, so kudos.

      God’s wisdom to all of us as we place love of one another over politics and soundbites.

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