In case you were wondering

I mean to write about this every time a new abortion law gets pushed through somewhere, but I always end up chickening out for whatever reason (well. No. It’s not for whatever reason, it’s because I’m tired of discussing it with people who are coming from a position where their sky is a different color than my sky, so we can’t really talk about the conversation on even ground), but I’m tired and I’m headachey because of ragweed and Texas is being terrible, so let’s dive in tonight. This is the story of how I became pro-choice.

Because, you see, I wasn’t always pro-choice. I grew up in a moderately conservative Christian church (i.e., they didn’t make all the girls wear long skirts and prevent women from preaching, but they were Bible literalists and whenever I bring up things about my churched upbringing to people who didn’t share it as if they’re normal, I always get raised eyebrows) in the Nearest Moderately Sized City. Since it was the 90s, there weren’t a lot of major political issues for churches to get up in arms about besides abortion and who Bill Clinton was doing, and the former was easier to protest than the latter. Some subset of people from our church and other area churches would go stand outside the City’s Planned Parenthood and hold signs like “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” and “God Forgives” and things like that. Never anything distasteful like “Abortion is Murder” because they didn’t want to be Like That, and they had to stand a not insignificant distance from the entrance because of the way things were set up, but the protests happened with some regularity.

I never attended one myself. My mom went a few times, I think, but I don’t really remember. I just remember that they happened, and I remember my earliest understanding of abortion was that it was killing babies (my understanding, not necessarily reality), and to my eight- or nine-year-old brain, that was ghoulish at best, and that understanding persisted well into my teenage years.

In high school, I was happy to play the Conservative Christian Girl role wherever I happened to be, though my views most frequently ended up challenged in history/government classes and English class. I went to See You At the Pole and prayed with people before drama club performances and had my purity necklace on and didn’t go on dates until I was 16 and didn’t listen to secular music or read Seventeen magazine, and I was against abortion. I had a little pin on my purse about it, a pair of tiny feet that were supposedly the size of a fetus’s feet at something like 8 or 9 weeks’ gestation. I liked it a lot because it gave me a chance to be like “I believe a thing” without being alienating; if someone asked me about the feet, I could explain it, but it wasn’t the same as having a huge red button on my purse that was like “I AM AGAINST ABORTION IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING.”

College was really where things started to change, though probably not for the reasons a lot of more conservative people would expect (especially in a lot of churches–and other people from super conservative circles can back me up on this–the fear tends to be that higher education will brainwash a person to become a liberal. In reality, you’re just suddenly exposed to viewpoints and backgrounds that differ from your own while simultaneously, your prefrontal cortex stops being underdeveloped and catches up to your amygdala… eventually). I went to a small Christian college, so I wasn’t really confronted with a whole lot of people who were pro-choice there; if anything, most of us existed happily in our little anti-abortion bubble. 

Instead, I was confronted with people who were even MORE conservative than I was, telling me things that I knew weren’t true. I remember one time, a friend spotted my birth control pills (which I’d been on since I was 16 to control severe menstrual cramping, something I didn’t realize at the time was caused by my PCOS) and was appalled that I had medication in my possession that could cause an abortion. I responded that (a) you kind of need to have sex to get pregnant and you kind of need to get pregnant to have anything aborted; and (b) what. Birth control pills, I explained to her (as had been explained to me by my mom, by my doctor, by everyone ever, because it’s how they work), prevent ovulation, and if there’s no egg, there’s nothing to get fertilized and aborted. To which she responded that yes, they usually do that, but sometimes, an egg gets through and SOMETIMES that egg gets fertilized and then it gets aborted.

(please remember this because I’ll come back to it later)

And it’s weird, because I’d been debating religion and politics online and with friends in person for 2-3 years at that point and had been confronted with all sorts of ideologies more liberal than my own, and those had never come close to swaying me. On the other hand, having someone more conservative than I was come along and say something blatantly false about an issue I’d studied in depth made me feel… well, more than a little confused. I can’t say why now, any more than I could then. It just made the whole movement ring a little less true for me, like if they’re lying about this, are they lying about anything else?

Senior year of college, we all had to take a course on ethics that was… well, I’m not sure what it was designed to do in other years, but during my senior year, it was supposed to teach us to form our own ethical opinions outside of what the people around us believed and taught (which, honestly? Pretty good for a small Christian college to teach their students to think for themselves). The final project was to be a ~15 page term paper discussing both sides of one of the ethical issues we’d discussed over the semester and coming to our own conclusion about it. And, like roughly half of the class, I chose to do my paper on abortion (the other half did gay marriage, which had been legalized in Massachusetts the year prior). 

The trouble was that while the school said they wanted us to think for ourselves, they didn’t allow us access to resources that would give arguments for opinions outside the Christian status quo. I don’t know what people doing their papers on gay marriage found, but whenever I tried to search the internet for accurate information on abortions (which should’ve been easy, even in those Wild Wild West internet days), I was blocked from accessing those sites. The school library was no better–they had exactly three books talking about abortion, and all three were checked out well before I even got there. And, yeah, I probably could’ve half-assed a paper about abortion without doing any real research for the pro-choice position, but I wanted to be honest about the other side (I said to myself, remembering the birth control incident), and I couldn’t do that if I couldn’t even access real information about abortion. 

Around the same time, I read an article in one of my parents’ Christian magazines about a young woman who’d gone to a Planned Parenthood and apologized to its workers on behalf of Christians and realized in doing so that, hey, Planned Parenthood wasn’t some awful place where babies were being torn limb from limb and then devoured by a demon in the back room (which, like… that seems like a duh thing now, but when you’re in the thick of it, they tell a LOT of lies about what happens at Planned Parenthood, and demon buffets seemed about as likely as anything else) (also Jemila Monroe, if you ever Google your name again and find this, hi! Hope you’re doing well!). And that basically gave me the skeleton for my own term paper: I would go to Planned Parenthood, get information straight from the source, and come to my own conclusions.

And, well. I didn’t come away from the term paper fully pro-choice, but suddenly, the anti-abortion side of things seemed a little less… right. None of the horrors I’d expected from a Planned Parenthood had actually been there (and I know my experiences aren’t universal, but other than the necessary metal detector, it was one of the nicer medical facilities I’ve visited). They had information on adoption, abortion, parenting, all the options someone could choose. The girls at the front desk were friendly and sympathetic (though I’m sure also skeptical when the friend who went with me and I remarked that no, neither of us were pregnant, we just wanted to get information on abortions for a term paper, and no, we couldn’t just find it online because our school blocked every website that gave accurate information on it). They seemed to have resources there for people no matter what they chose, while the anti-abortion side didn’t seem to have many resources at all and also seemed to be teeming with people who were against social supports and sex education and birth control and all the things that would prevent anyone from ever having to consider an abortion in the first place. 

It made me think a lot. 

The true clincher, though, was my own struggle with infertility and both of my pregnancies. 

When Kyle and I first decided to try and start a family, I had what’s called a chemical pregnancy. It’s basically when an egg is fertilized but doesn’t implant for whatever reason. It’s absurdly common, and the only reason I knew it happened was because we were trying to get pregnant and I happened to take a pregnancy test super early (factoid for you: the most sensitive pregnancy tests can detect the pregnancy hormone, HCG, at about eight to nine days past ovulation, which translates to a little over three weeks pregnant; but that said, nobody is peeing on those tests if they’re not obsessively trying to get pregnant). If we hadn’t been trying to get pregnant, I would’ve assumed my period was just a week late, whoops.

After that, months went by, and I still didn’t get pregnant, and I consoled myself during this period by latching onto conception, pregnancy, and delivery as an autistic special interest. Anyone who knew me at all during that time period knows that I was up to my eyeballs in literature and websites and videos and, hey, did you know that Richard Armitage narrated a documentary about getting pregnant, and hey, did you know that humans form butthole first, and hey, did you know that the natural birth movement really took off in response to the twilight births of the mid-20th century and hey hey hey

Understanding fetal development did a lot of cement my pro-choice position, which I’d casually started to adopt in the preceding years. Since most abortions take place within the first trimester (and, really, within the first twelve weeks, which isn’t even the full trimester), it was kind of hard to argue for personhood when I knew that scientifically, a fetus isn’t all that developed at that point. Up until eight weeks, it’s technically not even a fetus–it’s an embryo–and organ systems aren’t even fully developed until around 12 weeks. The brain itself takes a long time to develop, which makes sense when you consider how big and complex the human brain is; the neural pathways that distinguish pain aren’t even developed until around 26 weeks, so previous arguments I’d heard about fetuses screaming in pain as they were aborted clearly couldn’t be true. 

(never mind that you have to breathe to scream… which you can’t really do when your lungs aren’t developed, which doesn’t happen until ~23-24 weeks anyway!)

Being pregnant myself cemented things even further. I didn’t even have a terribly rough pregnancy with Sam–ICP and elevated blood pressure towards the very end, but I was overall healthy. But BOY was I miserable. I can say confidently that my body is very good at building babies–but that it absolutely cannot multitask while doing so. A lot of the things I’d heard about pregnancy being the healthiest time of a woman’s life also seemed untrue, or at least like things my body hadn’t been informed of (like why was the alleged energy surge of the second trimester more of an “oh, I can stay awake past 9:00 again, but I still want to be asleep by 10, neat” instead of the “ALRIGHT IT’S TIME TO CLEAN YEAH” I was promised?).

And I thought: could I really force this on someone who didn’t want it? Because the usual response to “look, some people don’t want to parent” is to say, “well adoption, duh” (never mind that adoption is not as simple as that, but we’re not going into that right now), but that doesn’t consider that while some people have really great pregnancies where they feel fantastic all nine months, others among us have absolutely miserable times, where this gestational period is nothing but a means to an end that we’d fast forward through if we could. 

(and yeah, cool moments like feeling your kid kick for the first time are cool, but they do not in any way make up for the inability to sleep from about 25 weeks on, the heartburn, the nausea, the aches and pains that are sometimes downright debilitating, the restless legs, and alllllll the complications out there)

AND THEN came my attempts to get pregnant with our second child, attempts that would eventually result in the twins, and I got to experience an abortion procedure firsthand.

See, the first IVF cycle we had was technically a success, but I had a miscarriage, and rather than suffer through the pain of miscarrying naturally, I elected to have a dilation and curettage. 

And admittedly, in my procedure, there wasn’t much of a fetus to remove because I was only about nine weeks along when the miscarriage was confirmed (really, it probably happened closer to seven weeks), but again: most abortions happen around that time as well. There’s not much in there to take out, and in the case of an abortion, medication stops the fetal heartbeat before any procedure takes place, so the whole argument of them tearing a squirming fetus limb from limb doesn’t even work because it’s already dead by the time the lamina are inserted into the cervix for dilation. 

(and like. You can’t really sell fetal organs on the black market because they just aren’t developed enough for it? Like cool, you’ve given me this glob of tissue that may have someday developed into a liver, what am I supposed to do with this)

When we had the fetal tissue tested, we found out that it had a chromosomal abnormality called trisomy 16, which some fetuses can have and continue to develop up to a point, but it’s absolutely not compatible with life. What were we to do with that information, if that fetus had continued to develop and we’d only discovered much later on that it would be born horribly malformed and not survive even a minute outside of me? I don’t think my emotions could’ve handled going through with an entire pregnancy and delivering a still baby. I don’t know how the people who do suffer that kind of unimaginable loss survive it. 

We also had to confront the idea of abortion when it came to the thought of how many embryos we would end up with as a result of IVF. It’s all well and good to sing a song of let’s keep all six sprillion embryos that have ended up implanting (and we were fortunate enough to have very ethical doctors who had a strict policy against transferring more than two embryos at a time… good thing, too, when it came to the cycle where we eventually succeeded because yikes), but doing that runs a very real risk of losing all of them… or losing your own life. 

I’ll be honest: even if I were in a position where I’d have to terminate a pregnancy to save my own life, I would have a really hard time with it. As exhausted as it leaves me sometimes, as stressful as it can be, benign a mom and raising my kids is one of the greatest joys in my life, and if I could do it healthily, I’d gladly have whatever children Kyle and I conceived accidentally or otherwise.

But my life isn’t another person’s life. Kyle and I are in a fortunate and comfortable position (more on that next week) with a lot of support if we ever need it. Not everyone is so fortunate. And just like I don’t want anyone to force something physically, emotionally, and financially difficult on me when I don’t want it, I can’t abide by forcing people to go through with pregnancies when they don’t want them; nor can I see a good, objective, scientific argument for doing so. 

Personhood is not something that can be scientifically proven, and even if it were, it would be difficult to argue that personhood objectively existed in a first or even second trimester fetus, as their brains just aren’t well-developed enough; therefore, you can’t argue that a fetus is a person with rights because that simply cannot be proven and, if it could, would likely be something proven for a time well past what most anti-abortion groups find acceptable. Physically speaking, pregnancy is essentially giving up one (well. All, really) of your organs for 40 weeks, something that’s great to do willingly but not something anyone wants forced on them. It’s kind of like donating a kidney, even if you could get it back after a few months: a lot of people are perfectly willing and even eager to donate an organ for someone else to use, but nobody’s very happy to wake up in a tub full of ice with a huge scar on their side.

I don’t like abortion. I don’t think it’s a position anyone should find themself in, but we know from history that criminalizing abortion doesn’t result in fewer abortions but rather in the same number of abortions, this time performed in unsafe illegal conditions that kill people. Other countries with lower abortion rates aren’t the ones where abortion is illegal but rather the ones with strong social safety nets, universal healthcare, comprehensive sex education, and a general societal value placed on people rather than on control. 

So that’s how I came to be where I am today: I started to realize that a lot of what I’d thought about abortion was simply untrue, came to understand both fetal development and abortion procedures through personal experience, and had rough enough pregnancies that I wouldn’t want anyone who didn’t want to be pregnant to go through what I did. And at the end of the day, nobody has to agree with me or any of this; I just hope some of what I’ve written makes you stop and think for a moment. 

Until next time…

More than a Handmaid


Last night, after putting Sam to bed and catching up with Kyle and Kat about how their days went, I settled in to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my alltime favorite books, not just from a feminist perspective (which is hugely important, and I’ll get to that in a bit), but because Margaret Atwood is a fantastic writer, the kind I dream of being. She has such a remarkable command of the English language, and her prose is rich and engrossing. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books that, even when you just read a chapter or two, makes you wonder what day it is when you finally put it down; you’re that pulled into the world.

The story, for the uninitiated, features a dystopian world in which the abuse of religion in a political setting has led to severe oppression of women, who are seen as nothing more than various appliances, their function delineated by their societal caste, and their caste determined by their age and whether or not they have functioning ovaries.

In other words: their worth is 100% determined by whether or not they can have children.

A lot of other factors go into how women are treated in this society, but it all revolves around their fertility and behavior. If you’re infertile (as many women in this society are; the society doesn’t allow for the possibility of male factor infertility, which is a contributing factor in roughly a third of all infertility cases), your behavior is everything. “Good” women might get to be Wives; “bad” women are designated as Unwomen and sent to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste until they wither away and die.

(I’m sorry, this isn’t funny at all, I’m a terrible person)

That said, a “bad” woman with functioning ovaries has a special role in this society, that of a Handmaid. The Handmaid’s only purpose in life is to conceive and bear children for Gilead’s high-powered men. She undergoes testing to monitor her menstrual cycle and, once a month, participates in a Ceremony, in which she lies on the Wife’s lap while her– well, let’s be honest. Her owner rapes her in the interest of conceiving a child. If she can’t conceive and deliver a living child over the course of two years, she’s assigned to another house. If she fails to conceive over the course of three separate assignments, she’s considered an Unwoman and goes where Unwomen go–to the Colonies, to die a slow, agonizing death.

It’s such a rich world, and I could honestly spend hours on end writing analyses of it, discussing it in its overall societal and historical context, marveling in horror that nothing that happens in the book hasn’t happened somewhere in our world at some point in history… but that’s been done. I wanted to talk about fertility and infertility and struggling to grieve my infertility as a feminist.

(yes, a super light topic for your Thursday; tune in next week when we discuss the nuances and nature of the soul and theories surrounding the nature of man based on readings from Plato and Aristotle that I will assign after class)


Part of the truth that The Handmaid’s Tale is set to remind us of is that women are not their ability to conceive and carry children. Throughout the course of history, in various settings (see: Henry VIII and his six wives, a desperate bid for a male heir that saw his rotation of partners not as individuals but as potential brood mares), the lie that women are only as good as their ability to procreate has been told again and again and again. We are not our ability to conceive and carry children.

We’re not even our desire or lack thereof to conceive and carry children. I have a bunch of friends who are childfree by choice, including Kat the Fantastic. They don’t want to have kids now or ever; they’d have the whole system removed, if they could (admittedly, so would I, if that wouldn’t make it… yanno, impossible to have biological kids). Some of them talk about maybe eventually mentoring or adopting older children and teenagers about to age out of the system, but most of them are perfectly content to live their lives without ever raising a child, and that’s awesome.

So I believe all of that, wholeheartedly. I am not my ability to reproduce or my desire to reproduce or just the person who reproduced (though I’m happy to be that person). I’m so much more (writer with a wry sense of humor, imaginative gamer, traveler who wishes that traveling didn’t cost dollars, eventual collector of many cats, wife and friend). I’m aware of all that. I’m aware that I’m good at my job, and I’m aware of how frustrated I am by how much it defines me. I’m aware that I really love food, and I’m aware that I really love food way too much. I’m aware that I make things awkward in my house when I start singing along with Hamilton while wearing headphones and forgetting half the lyrics.

(we get past about this point and I’m like “I can’t hear that fast.”)

I know who I am, and it’s so much more than a pair of ovaries that don’t know what they’re doing, than a uterus that’s an absolute asshole (how’s that for an anatomical conundrum), than wanting to give Sam a sibling or having wanted Sam in the first place. I know all of that.

But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I’ve been talking with Kat a lot lately about infertility. She’s childfree by choice, as I’ve mentioned before, and she doesn’t get the desire to have kids. I’ve ended up describing it a lot in terms of a good metaphor I’ve found: climbing Mount Everest.

Look, climbing Mount Everest is 100% not for everyone. For the life of me, I cannot imagine wanting to climb it instead of just reaching out of a helicopter and booping the peak during a fly-by. Training to climb the tallest peak in the world is beyond physically demanding, and even if you’re in peak physical health, the climb is dangerous and stressful. People die on that journey so regularly that the various corpses along the trail have become landmarks (if you have a strong stomach for that sort of thing, google “Green Boots”). I look at it, and I’m utterly grateful that climbing Mount Everest is not mandatory, because I will be A-okay my entire life without doing it.

(pictured: not me)

But some people really want to climb Mount Everest, I mean really want to. They don’t just wake up one morning and say, “What-ho, I think I shall climb this mountain and be done in time for lunch.” They train for years, scaling the most dangerous peaks in the world to prepare for the climb. If and when they eventually get to Everest, they do everything they’ve trained to do, everything they’ve learned over years and years, sometimes even decades of practice.

And sometimes, they still don’t make it.

Sometimes, the weather is just too bad to attempt the climb. Sometimes, travel plans fall through and they can’t get to Nepal at all. Sometimes, they make it partway up the mountain but have to turn back. Worst case scenario, they become another body for future climbers to use as a landmark on their journey to the peak (but let’s hope that doesn’t happen). And holy crap, that must suck! These people put so much time, money, energy, and health into preparing to climb Mount Everest, and then something happens that prevents it from taking place.

(can you see where I’m going with this metaphor? Because if not, I don’t know how to help you, I’m sorry)

So in this context, it’d probably be something of a jerk move to tell someone who’s really wanted to climb Mount Everest and tried so hard and invested so much, “It’s alright, you don’t have to climb Mount Everest” or “you’re more than your mountain climbing.” Like yes, this is true, I get it and agree with it, but as the metaphorical climber, I really want to climb Mount Everest and I am extremely bummed that I can’t do it.

(I should emphasize again that you couldn’t get me to actually climb Mount Everest if you dragged me up there like some sort of freaky human backpack)

(pictured: freaky human backpack)

It boils down to another one of those things that’s hard to navigate about infertility, especially looking at it from a feminist perspective. I’m 100% aware and understanding that even though a lot of my life is currently orbiting fertility treatments (largely by necessity), my ability to reproduce and my desire to reproduce are not the only things about me. I’m also aware that I can and do live a full and happy life without having another child; that if we go through all six cycles of IVF and every single frozen embryo we transfer is a dud and somehow we can’t adopt in the (sort of distant because adoption costs more dollars than we have) future, I’ll be okay. I’ll recenter myself and be alright.

But in the moment, I’m sad and frustrated and disappointed, and it honestly boils down to exactly that: having a child (another one) is something that I really want to do. I like being a mom; I like it a lot. It’s not all of who I am, but it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy, like I enjoy being a wife and a friend and a daughter and a sister and myself as not defined by any other human being. I don’t feel like my inability to conceive and carry a child means that I’m worth less as a person or worthless as a person; I know that it doesn’t.

It’s still frustrating, though. The whole world gives you messages of “you can do anything you set your mind to,” and “don’t let your dreams be dreams” and the truth of the matter ends up being that, no, you can’t necessarily do everything you want to, even if it’s something that doesn’t hurt anyone, even if it’s something that everyone should be able to do.

Getting back to The Handmaid’s Tale, and deviating slightly. It was interesting to me how viscerally the show portrayed the emotional toll of the infertility crisis that’s part of the background of the story (tl;dr – pollution and disease have resulted in plummeting birth rates, something that an Aunt–one of the women in charge of training Handmaids–blames on “sluts”). People can’t get pregnant or stay pregnant, and if they manage both of those things, the babies they have end up having such severe birth defects that they don’t survive. In one scene, the main character–Offred, then called June–has just given birth to her daughter. She makes her way to the nursery with her daughter and her daughter’s nurse and finds it empty, where it was full the night before. “Where are the other babies?” she asks, and the nurse sadly remarks, “Two are in the ICU, and the others are with God.”

Later, a woman–I like to think she was the mom of one of the babies that were with God–tries to steal June’s baby, killing the nurse and absconding with June’s daughter in her arms. The scene is fraught with screaming, June and her husband Luke screaming to get their child back; the baby screaming for her mother; the police screaming at the woman to get her under control; the woman screaming for her lost child.

As June goes into the hospital to give birth, protesters stand around the doorways, screaming and praying and doing general protest things. They’re all desperate to have children.

When June finds out that she’s pregnant, she speaks of it in hushed tones with her best friend Moira. Moira is thrilled for her, but June is having a hard time being excited because her chances of miscarrying or giving birth to a baby that eventually dies are so high.

Once the world goes to hell, June is renamed Offred and serves Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. The show hasn’t quite gone there yet, but in the book, Serena is desperate to have a child, so desperate that she breaks the rules entirely and allows Offred to sleep with their driver and Guardian, Nick. Most of what we’ve seen so far in the show is subtler (and I haven’t seen the third episode yet–I started watching too late last night to finish all three, so I may miss the mark here); Serena doesn’t do anything yet that’s so desperate or insidious. But she’s still brokenhearted at the violation of her own life going on during the Ceremony, and she’s still feigning happiness when another Handmaid–Ofwarren, formerly known as Janine–gives birth.

And you know, I really appreciate all of those portrayals. No, that’s not a strong enough word. I love the way the show is treating this. If there’s any show in the world that could be called blatantly feminist, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and if there’s one single thing that anyone could take from the show (please, if you watch it, take more than one single thing from it), it’s that women are more than their ability to reproduce. But the show takes things a step further; it doesn’t just leave this idea of you are not your ovaries and uterus. It shows us that even when you know that, you can still feel pain at being unable to conceive and give birth and raise a child; and conversely, that just because you really want to have a kid doesn’t mean that you’re nothing but reproductive organs and a body that houses them.

(and because I love it, has a really excellent review of the first three episodes here; be forewarned that this stuff is pretty brutal)