A staunchly pro-life critique of the recent flippancy of abortion rhetoric by pro-life candidates Joe Walsh, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock.
I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t, until now, told many people. Between my two pregnancies, I had a miscarriage. I was not trying to conceive at that point, but one week I started feeling more tired than usual, and I started vomiting at regular intervals throughout the day. I wasn’t sick, per se, but every day at 10am, I puked. I tried to go for a walk with a friend, and ended up throwing up all over the side of the road while she attended to my toddler. She’s a really good friend.
“Erin,” she said, “You need to take a pregnancy test.” I knew she was right, the fact that’s she’s a doula and childbirth educator notwithstanding. I took a test, but it was too early to detect anything, so I kept up with my routine of vomiting and then returning to my business.
Before I got the chance to test again, my husband and I both caught flu bugs—complete with fevers, chills, and, you guessed it—more puking. I can safely say that was the hardest night of my marriage to date. And truly disgusting. By the next morning, my husband was tired but mostly recovered, and it quickly became clear that I was not all right. I drove to the doctor’s office in a fog and collapsed outside the door. They called my husband to come retrieve me and take me to the hospital, where I was admitted for severe dehydration. (Meanwhile, the same friend watched my kid. Seriously. Really. Good. Friend.) After being released, I made a follow-up appointment with my doctor, who explained that the initial sickness was not just a viral preview but a pregnancy. Apparently my body couldn’t handle the early stages of pregnancy and the virus, and I miscarried a couple of days later.
A few months later, I started trying to get pregnant again. It started the same way, vomiting like clockwork, exhaustion. This time, I carried my second daughter to term. Now, I have chronicled that pregnancy ad nauseam (sorry, I like humor about bodily fluids), but after my child was born, I was told that the problems I encountered in that pregnancy would only be worse in subsequent ones; ultimately, my mid-wife warned me, future pregnancies would put my health in danger. That is a warning I take seriously, not least of all because I happen to value my health, but also because of how many other people depend on my health and well-being: primarily, my husband and my two daughters.
Now, my life was not at stake in either of those instances. But I am telling you this story to demonstrate that even behind the birth of healthy children like my daughters, there are complications that most people simply never see. Would I consider an abortion in the event of future pregnancies? No. I’ve stated before that I am staunchly pro-life, but I am bothered by the political climate surrounding abortion and the terms of the debate. Calling myself pro-life does not mean that I am anti-freedom, nor would I presume to suggest that those who identify as pro-choice are somehow also pro-death.
I want to show you what our current political discourse does not—that pregnancy is complex, sometimes dangerous—and that lost in the election frenzy are the actual women and children whose lives depend on these decisions. Perhaps you can see why I’m so troubled by the political conversations circulating today, where male politicians flippantly play fast and loose with real women’s health, real women’s lives, real babies.
Take, for instance, the recent remarks by Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois. During a debate with his Democratic opponent, Walsh claimed to be pro-life “without exception,” citing no medical scenarios where abortion would be necessary to save a mother’s life; “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance,” said Walsh. There are, in fact, several instances, including: uterine infections, preeclampsia, complications with diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, cancer, and ectopic pregnancies. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), “Contrary to the inaccurate statements made yesterday by Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health. Unfortunately, pregnancy is not a risk-free life event, particularly for many women with chronic medical conditions. Despite all of our medical advances, more than 600 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related reasons right here in the US. In fact, many more women would die each year if they did not have access to abortion to protect their health or to save their lives.” The ACOG further urged politicians to “Get out of our exam rooms.” Representative Walsh’s comments did not account for those 600 women—600 “instances” where the modern medicine of which he is so woefully ignorant could not save mothers’ lives. And that’s not counting all of the complications pregnant women faced that didn’t result in maternal death.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Walsh later backtracked on his initial statements, asserting “Let me be very clear that when I say I am pro-life, I mean that I am pro-life for the mother and I am pro-life for the unborn child. For me, there is no distinction between the two.” I don’t know how to interpret the claim that “there is no distinction between the two.” The distinction forms the central paradox of pregnancy and pregnancy-related legislation: the irony of two humans within a single body, the weaker dependent upon the stronger, the host. To say that both mother and unborn child are equally valuable, of equal worth is to express the sanctity of life. I uphold that value, but that does not erase the distinction between mother and child, nor does it grapple with the reality that in medical emergencies, medical professionals cannot always achieve the ideal of care to save them both. I would suggest that the failure to distinguish between mother and child is a significant problem in the abortion debates; one side seems to prioritize the mother, one the child.
Then there are the examples of politicians discussing abortion and rape. Back in August, Todd Akin, Republican senatorial candidate from Missouri, tried to define “legitimate rape,” and argued that rape victims rarely get pregnant because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Jennifer Tucker of The New York Times explains how Akin’s ideas about human reproduction—as expressed in this definition of “legitimate rape”—hearken back to Medieval theories where conception was thought to require female orgasm . In addition to being medically inaccurate, the effort to distinguish “legitimate rape” from any other sort shows an effort to blame rape victims. She was asking for it. She liked it. Probably she was wearing sexy underwear. Such statements reflect a persistent culture of disregard for violence against women—even at times glorifying sexual violence. And yes, of course rape victims can get pregnant by their attackers.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimated 64,080 rapes between 2004 and 2005; they calculate a 5% chance of conception for a single act of unprotected sex, projecting that there were 3,204 rapes resulting in pregnancy during that year. Dr. Dean Kilpatrick considers the RAINN figures low, because those statistics are based on rapes reported to police; Kilpatrick says about 80% of rapes go unreported, which, if correct, also projects a significantly higher number of rape-induced pregnancies. PBS’s Frontline Documentary “The Last Abortion Clinic” cites “approximately 13,000 women have abortions after being the victims of rape or incest.” Pregnancies resulting from rape and incest are not anomalous; they are significant in the grand statistical scheme and certainly more so within each survivor’s life. To claim a position of pro-life with regard to rape and incest must go beyond the carrying and birthing of a baby; valuing all life as sacred means more than getting a child through the birth canal. What about the mother, the family, the lifelong relational repercussions for a mother to look at her child and see beyond the trauma of the conception?
And, most recently, there is Richard Mourdock (an Indiana senatorial candidate), who also adheres to a “no exceptions” anti-abortion policy: “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock modified his statement amidst the ensuing controversy, telling The Indianapolis Star “I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.” As much as I appreciate Mourdock’s apology, I take serious issue with the idea that God intends rape; rape and incest alike are horrific crimes, not intended by God but products of a fallen, sinful world and the workings of fallen, sinful humans. That a child could be conceived and carried to term from such beginnings is miraculous, and illustrative of God’s ability to redeem even atrocities. But precisely because Mourdock is right in saying that life is precious, a belief in the sanctity of the whole life cannot stop at conception or birth.
Considering the sanctity of whole lives means looking at the totality of women’s lives, not merely their reproductive functions. It means acknowledging that more than 40% of women having abortions live below the federal poverty line and more than 60% of the women having abortions are already mothers. It means transcending the divisive rhetoric of pro-life and pro-choice, winning and losing, to care about the emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial well-being of mothers and children alike. It means not ignoring children born into poverty, children born of trauma, and not forgetting the mothers who bravely carried and bore them. It means choosing our words carefully, to heal rather than wound. It means making a commitment beyond a bumper sticker, not to a cause, but for a lifetime, because no politician can quantify the worth of human life.
It means recognizing that the God who created all things for His glory can also redeem all things—so that the cruelty of the cross transforms into the hope of heaven. That hope of redemption, that unmerited and unfathomable grace, does not free us from responsibility in the here and now but calls us to account. We who serve as God’s hands and feet in this world must affirm whole lives not only with our votes but with our very lives.