When my son was eighteen months old I discovered I was pregnant again.
Those two tell-tale pale intersecting lines, such a joyful and welcome sight for many, for me was a verdict of a different kind. We had used contraception faithfully. In the marrow of my bones I knew that I did not possess the resources to be a good mother to two small children. I called my local Planned Parenthood and took their next available appointment, two weeks out.
“Reason for your visit?” they asked.
“Pregnancy termination.” I said.
It’s not the story I wanted or dreamed of. It’s not a decision I ever thought I would face. But not a day goes by that I am not grateful that choice was mine.
As the fog of the first year motherhood was lifting, I looked back over my shoulder at a trail of sweat, tears and broken, bloodied fingernails left behind as I had clawed my way inch by inch out of a chasm of postpartum depression. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act I was finally able to seek treatment for a traumatic birth injury. I had begun seeing a therapist to help me with symptoms of depression and PTSD.
Staring at the test I held in my hand, my body recoiled, still not yet fully healed from the birth of my son. Despite being in significant daily pain, I had nursed and cared for a colicky baby and worked two part-time jobs. My partner worked but too but there was still not enough money to cover bills. Rent kept going up, cars kept breaking down. Our life hinged precariously on paychecks that arrived just in time. I lived with ever-present dread that at any moment the slightest shift in the breeze would send our house of cards toppling; an unexpected bill, illness, job loss… or another baby. My son’s father was emotionally unavailable and I had begun to suspect that our threadbare partnership may not survive.
While there are as many different stories as there are women who seek out abortions, the statistics are compelling: abortion rates are five times greater among women with a family income at or below the federal poverty threshold. In 2014, it is estimated that 75% of abortions in the US occurred among low-income women. 1 Even more telling is that 60% of abortion services are sought by women who already have one or more children and since the 2008 financial crisis this number has jumped to an estimated 72% of procedures nationwide according to the National Abortion Federation.2
This is hardly new. Women have always sought to control their fertility, especially when faced with economic hardship, political turbulence, limited employment or access to resources. In the mid to late 19th century, an estimated half of all pregnancies in the US ended in abortion.3 In 1873 the Comstock Laws outlawed the “circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use” which included the distribution of contraception or any information regarding birth control practices. No doubt, Andrew Comstock’s move to gain political support by claiming to protect children from obscenity and uphold “family values” contributed to the rate of women seeking abortion during the course of the following century holding steady at over 1 million per year.2 Prior to the Civil War, black women slaves who were caught using abortifacients and herbs to control their fertility were severely punished, as more births were seen as a boon to the slave-owner, increasing his workforce.
However, after African Americans gained citizenship in 1865, the integration of families of color was viewed by some political figures to be a threat to existing social structures and so in the second half of the 19th century, state legislation turned to criminalizing Anglo-Saxon Protestant women for seeking to limit their own pregnancies in order to mitigate the infiltration of foreigners and people of color into white communities as more and more immigrants arrived from Eastern and Central Europe, Mexico and Ireland.4 Unknown to most, by the time that Roe v. Wade granted safe access to abortion in 1973, federally funded sterilization programs had been underway for over half a century in 32 states across the nation. Forced tubal ligations were being performed on women of color, immigrants, the mentally impaired, prison inmates and (especially black) women receiving welfare. (This practice has continued in some places as recently as 2010.) Under the Nixon administration eugenics programs intended to control “deleterious genes and the social and economic costs of managing ‘degenerate stock’.” (Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in America, Alex Stern)
The anti-abortion rhetoric that has for so long claimed to be “protecting innocent life” has always been about social, political and economic power; the control over who has the right to reproduce and the autonomy of women in the home and in society, especially that of the poor, disenfranchised, and in communities of color.
The term “pro–life” is long overdue for reexamination.
Fast forward to 2017: the poorest women in the US today, whose social and economic conditions are the most impacted by carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term, continue to have the least access to contraception and abortion services. In 1994 the Hyde Amendment limited federal reimbursement for abortion (with strict exceptions) in 35 US states, leaving 60% of women who are enrolled in Medicaid without coverage for abortion although abortion has been legal for over forty years – that’s 3.5 million low income women, a disproportionate number of which are women of color. Some may be able to scrape together the money to pay out of pocket though it may take months, delaying the procedure into the second trimester and may also include hefty travel expenses in the cases that there is not a clinic nearby or even in state. Others will attempt self-induced abortion or submit themselves to procedures performed by someone without the proper knowledge or training. More often than not though, a mother will carry her unplanned pregnancy to term and motherhood will dictate the course of her life for better or for worse. It will determine her economic viability, her options for education, employment, housing and healthcare and therefore the choices available to her children as well.
From the time I was a little girl I dreamed of being a mom. Growing up, my father was an evangelical Christian minister. I grew up believing that abortion was murder. But by the time I became a mother at the age of 31, I had abandoned my childhood faith and with it the idea of a woman’s sole devotion to her husband, children and household. I sought education. I wanted to do work that made an impact out in the world, I wanted financial autonomy. The reality of pursuing the work I was most passionate about, however, soon dissolved the naïve sentiment that diligent effort and a college education would automatically grant me economic stability, the possibility of home ownership. Along with many of my peers, I soon became acquainted with the Great American Mirage: that “good old fashioned hard work” could get you the life you wanted.
But emerging from the wreckage of the first year and a half of motherhood, I nursed even more profound disillusionment. Shell-shocked from delivery and nursing a colicky newborn, I returned to work much sooner than my body was ready. I shudder recalling the bleary-eyed days and nights spent back at my work desk with a breast pump in one hand and hammering out work emails for the 45 minutes my son ever slept at one time, wondering when I last ate, when I would ever sleep, wondering how I could possibly keep going another 24 hours and how this could possibly be what we expect from new mothers. Like millions of US families, we fell into that sweet spot – not earning enough to be comfortable but not “poor enough” to receive financial assistance. With the expense of childcare beyond our means, we staggered our work hours so one of us could care for our son. Somehow we survived. Our partnership however did not.
My eyes were opened to how few options there are for low-income moms to get quality care and support leading up to and following delivery, the extraordinary repercussions of being forced back to work too soon and the superhuman task of trying to be both a full-time employee and a full-time mother on little sleep and limited outside support. It is no wonder the rise in maternal mental health issues (1 in 4 mothers experience postpartum depression and anxiety in low-income populations), the statistics of failed partnerships, even the rates of child abuse and neglect. With the absence of extended family nearby or engaged, the extraordinary task lands on parents to provide what once the communal job of childrearing. And inevitably the bulk of this task lands on mothers.
As long as birth control remains solely a “women’s issue” we will continue to absolve ourselves from the responsibility of looking at the factors that create unsustainable life to begin with and lead a woman to believe that abortion is her only viable option. In 2012 the US Census Bureau reported that 5 million more women than men lived in poverty. Among single parent households, nearly 31% of households of single mothers are below the poverty line compared with 6% of two-parent households.6 Where 80% of single-parent households are headed by women, approximately half of children living within those homes are in poverty.7
It is impossible to discuss abortion without talking about socioeconomic injustice. We cannot engage on women’s reproductive health care rights without acknowledging that infant mortality rates and maternal mental health crisis rise in direct relation to class and race. We cannot begin to have productive conversation about changing the role and rights of women in society without conceding that the patriarchal system in which we live is built on the very statute of women as dependent and secondary. By holding a woman solely responsible for the repercussions of unintended and economically unviable pregnancy we force her into a lifetime contract which she will most often bear in disproportionate amount to her counterpart.
“Abortion exemplifies political control of the personal and physiological. On every level, to talk of abortion is to speak of power.” Carrol Smith-Rosenberg
Absent from the abortion debate is the number of women who come in for abortions due to pressure from their partners. Also absent are the voices of women who were not taught that they can say “no” to sex or that they have a right to be protected. Missing from the statistics are the number of women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term and never see child support payments from their child’s father. And further removed from the conversation is the unquantifiable number of women who stay in abusive and unhealthy relationships because they see no other way to support themselves and their children.For countless women, making the choice to single parent children is resignation to a life of destitution or constant struggle and yet a woman who aborts her unborn child is a heretic and a criminal and a woman who relies upon government support is an enemy of the state and a burden on society. And what of the children raised in dysfunctional or abusive homes with parents stretched too thin and riddled with resentment and exhaustion? As long as abortion is only about “women’s rights” the lives of her existing children are overlooked and suffer as a result of her being stretched beyond her capacity to care for them adequately.
“I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed…That’s not pro–life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro–life is.”~ Sister Joan Chittister
If the status of women in our country was vague before now we need look no further than the last six months of presidential action. While the crusade to defund the primary source of reproductive healthcare for millions of women rages on, protections for women in the workplace have been revoked and proposed is the eradication of federally funded grant programs (authorized by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994) that provide safe housing, childcare and legal help to women victims of domestic violence. Trump’s overturning of the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces has also made it clear we won’t be seeing paid maternity leave up for discussion again any time soon. The repeal of the ACA would leave millions of women not only without access to contraception but without options for maternity care, care following sexual assault, mental health support, mammograms, STI and cervical cancer screenings.
Shortly after the Women’s March on January 20th, 2017, I stumbled across a host of women on the internet taking selfies with signs stating why they “don’t need feminism”. One white, blond woman with cute trendy glasses holds up a handwritten sign that reads “I don’t need feminism because I made my own choice to be a stay at home mother.” Simultaneously she exemplifies her own privilege while missing the mark entirely on what the feminist movement is all about. If feminism leaves a bad taste in the mouth we can call it equality, human rights or civil liberties, but we won’t get any closer to it without looking at our own blind spots. I don’t entertain any illusions about the privilege I also have being a white, cisgender, college-educated woman in one of the most progressive states in the nation. Though I may be categorized as “poor” I realize that at any given time these things afford me significant options and advantages compared to women of more disenfranchised communities. My objective is not to highlight my particular story but to lend a real woman’s voice to a debate more often abstracted by percentages. It is impossible to talk about abortion without talking about power and it is impossible to talk about power without talking about race, privilege, sexism: the die-hard relics of patriarchy. It’s impossible to examine our own choices honestly without looking at whether those choices are available to all.
Do I ever wonder, what if I had chosen differently?
It’s been three years since my abortion. My son is four years old now and I love being his mother. I am also a full time single parent with an annual income under $20,000. And I do think about what my life would be like if I had a toddler in tow as well. I wonder what work options would be available to me if I weren’t able to afford childcare for two young children. I wonder how I would be able to pay for medical care my kids required if my access to healthcare is revoked. I consider what it would be like if I were unable to get the mental health resources I would need to be a good mother and cope with the overwhelming task of parenting two kids under five by myself. I wonder how it would feel to have a child with special needs who and behavioral support services had been eliminated from our public schools? Is this pro–life legislation? Would the same people who lobby against my reproductive rights offer to watch my sick kids when I have missed too many days of work? Would the same people who would condemn me for receiving government subsidies help cover my rent when we come up short again? What about the cost of my $300 prescription? Or my son’s antibiotic?
When it is more important to punish a woman for having sex than it is to put food in the bellies of the children she already has or fight for their rights to breathe clean air and drink clean water, it is time we examined the meaning of “pro–life”. When it is more imperative to control a woman’s body than it is to protect her or her future unborn daughter from violence, rape and harassment, the term “pro–life” is deeply problematic. When it is more important to hold up a sign barring a woman from entering an abortion clinic than it is to offer a safe and loving home to one of the 428,000 children currently in the US foster care system, it is time we redefined pro–life.
I am pro my life. I am pro my son’s life. And I am pro the life of the second child I may one day welcome into this world when I know I can provide for his or her needs unequivocally. I am pro the lives the already existing children across this country that will not have adequate food to eat tonight because there are too many mouths to feed and not enough to go around. I am pro the lives of mothers who are exhausted, overworked, underpaid, who lack access to mental health care and healthy support systems and are doing what they can to survive. I am pro the lives of the children who grow up in homes with abuse, crime, neglect and generational poverty because their parents grew up in homes of abuse, crime, neglect and generational poverty.
This is not a women’s issue but a societal and human rights issue. When it comes to supporting families, America has a devastating track record. Abortion rates in the US are a natural reflection of the least “pro–life” country in the first world. No child deserves to come into a world without the opportunity to be welcomed, fed, clothed, and cared for. No child deserves to enter life without being given the basic tools to grow up healthy and strong and with the chance at a happy, fulfilling life. And no mother deserves anything less.
My uterus is not a political statement. My life is my pro–life statement. For fifteen years I have worked with families, mothers and children through the nonprofit sector and in social service programs in my community. I am devoted to advocating for disenfranchised and underserved populations and specifically for the empowerment of women and mothers. When we support mothers we benefit human beings at every stage of life. When we begin to shift the way we support mothers in this country we will see the positive repercussions on every other societal ill from poverty to crime, from drug use to homelessness and mental health because when we support mothers we support all of life.
Pro–life advocates dispute whether life begins at conception or with detection of the heartbeat in utero. But neither is true. Life always begins with a mother.
What is pro–life?
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not pro the lives of women, only their unborn children.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not for the lives of the children who are already here; for the children in Flint, Michigan who have been poisoned and have suffered permanent damage at the hands of the very structures that should have protected them.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not for the lives of Syrian babies dying in their parent’s arms for lack of food and water.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not for the children of Mexican immigrant families whose parents cross the US border seeking a better life for their kids.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if is not pro Muslim lives and the protection of Muslim children from tyranny and violence.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not for the lives of 70% of women in the US who will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it overlooks the lives of black men lying dead in the streets and the mothers of their children who will raise her black sons alone, praying every single day for their safety.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not pro Native American lives and the rights of Native children to clean drinking water and to live on their own land.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not pro the lives of the men and women who fought bravely for the very country that now denies them access to adequate medical care, housing and mental health services.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it will not defend the lives of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not for the lives of the poor, the homeless, the drug-addicted and the felons.
The pro–life movement is a contradiction if it is not pro the lives of the animals that walk this earth who cannot defend themselves against our destruction of their natural habitat or the pollution of their water, soil and air.
Pro-choice does not equal anti-life. Pro–life is working together to create systems that sustain all living things.
1. Boonstra, Heather D., The Guttmacher Institute. “Abortion in the Lives of Women Struggling Financially: Why Insurance Coverage Matters”. July 14, 2016. https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2016/07/abortion-lives-women-struggling-financially-why-insurance-coverage-matters
2. History of Abortion, The National Abortion Federation. https://prochoice.org/education-and-advocacy/about-abortion/
3. Smith-Rosenberg, “Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America”, Oxford University Press, 1986.
4. Lisa, Ko.“Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States”, January 29, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/
5. “Poverty in the United States: A Snapshot,” National Center for Law and Economic Justice, November 4, 2015. http://nclej.org/snapshot/poverty-in-the-united-states
6. Zolna, Mia R. and Lindberg, Laura D. “Unintended Pregnancy: Incidence and Outcomes Among Young Adult Unmarried Women in the United States”, April 2012. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/unintended-pregnancy-incidence-and-outcomes-among-young-adult-unmarried-women-united-states
7. U.S. Census Bureau – Table FG10. Family Groups: 2016
Annabele Grace is an artist, writer and activist residing in Northern CA. She blogs at www.myunchartedground.com.
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