Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
For years I had dreaded the arrival of puberty. The innocence of my childhood would become a memory and I would become a complex thing. I say “thing,” and not person, because I stood to lose my humanity in pieces. At 12 years old I understood, in a limited way, that to my evangelical community my value was principally reproductive in nature. My mind was a secondary consideration. If I showed too much skin, a hint of collarbone or thigh, I would be a stumbling block to the men around me. Not a person at all. An object of desire and of fear, a thing to control. The pulpit was a place for men, and so was the home. At best I could expect to be a middle manager of children, under the authority of a husband. That I might possess some authority over my own body never occurred to me at all. Abortion was thus unthinkable. Each physical development – the start of my period, the growth of my breasts – delivered me closer to a fate that felt like a trap. I lay awake at night, begging God to delay adolescence. He didn’t listen. When my period did begin I hid it for nearly two years.
The beliefs of my childhood were not special to my church. They were shared by thousands of evangelical congregations, and taught as fact in Christian schools and universities like the one I eventually attended. About a decade after God failed to stop puberty, I made an overdue connection in my mind. The Christian right’s treatment of women was bound up with its abortion politics. The same people who didn’t think I should preach, who thought I should submit to a husband because of my sex, also believed I didn’t have the right to control my own reproduction. My wants and needs did not matter. Neither did the health risks of pregnancy. Motherhood did not merely feel like a trap; without the option for abortion, it was a trap. The right’s goal was not the preservation of life, but the preservation of a hierarchy. With this realization, other facts became clear. The right’s opposition to LGBTQ rights, and its specific hostility to trans identities, derived from its commitment to the same hierarchy. The causes of women and LGBTQ people thus overlapped; liberation for one group could not exist without liberation of the other. I realized, then, that I could no longer oppose either abortion rights, or rights for LGBTQ people. Under the thumb of the right, none of us would ever be free.
Reproductive justice advocates have long placed abortion within a broader constellation of moral claims. As they view it, the right to abortion cannot be separated out from the right to food and shelter and health care. That perspective isn’t always shared by liberals in power. On abortion, elected Democrats can be timid, reluctant to alienate voters in difficult districts. On matters like health-care reform, they rarely speak with one voice. The right to abortion gets buried, often, under euphemisms about access and choice; the same is true for the right to health-care writ large. As the Supreme Court’s verdict in Dobbs looms, it is especially clear to me that liberalism lacks the clarity of the right. It is bloodless, and feckless; I have found no succor there. With Roe so endangered, I ask myself: How would the nation change if the party in power wholly embraced abortion as one moral good among many?
The story of my conversion is fundamentally about power in America: the shape and meaning and terror of it, as is now on display with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. The anti-abortion movement had to erase what it could not explain, minimize whatever challenged it, in order for the fetus to take precedence over the person who carried it. A perspective as rigid as ours was doomed to conflict with reality. Conversion is not the loss of belief, but rather its transference. Like myself, other converts found the anti-abortion view is incompatible with the mess and the pain of real life.
Bethany Hellwig is one such person. Not long after she graduated from the same Christian university I attended, a similar process unfolded in her life. For Hellwig, the child of a Southern Baptist minister, it was a deeply personal journey. “I would say one of the first things to change was my stance on LGBTQ people, because I came to terms with my own sexuality. I finally admitted to myself that I was bisexual and that was a part of who I was,” Hellwig tells me. Her position on abortion was among the last she reconsidered, and it was partly due to personal experience. When she and her husband began trying for children, they had difficulty conceiving. When Hellwig experienced a miscarriage, she bled so heavily she went to the emergency room, where doctors performed a dilation and curettage procedure to remove the tissue. While D&Cs, as they’re commonly known, are often performed to remove the remnants of a miscarriage, they can also be part of an elective abortion. “It was an emergency in the middle of the night,” she said. “And I remember thinking, I can’t have a D&C because that’s what an abortion is.” Even though she knew her fetus was no longer alive, she felt “guilty, getting a life-saving procedure.” A friend later suffered an ectopic pregnancy, treated by an abortion. “Things like that really started to change my mind,” she says.
Anti-abortion activists claim personhood for the fetus, but this view can be difficult to sustain. The fetus can be an abstraction, but not the person who has the womb. Josiah Solis found it difficult to oppose abortion once he knew someone who’d had one, though his conversion wasn’t easy. The son of a preacher and the eldest of ten children, told me that his parents were so pro-life that they adopted twins. Once, he planned to follow his father’s example, and left his Michigan home to attend The King’s University, which is attached to the Gateway Church in Dallas, Texas. For a while, Solis even served on staff at the influential megachurch, but over time he grew distant from the church and its conservative ideology. Like Hellwig, Solis is bisexual.
“When the Obergefell ruling came out, it was toward the tail end of my time on staff at church. And we were all told to basically make no comments about it, because this is a bad day for America, which was very conflicting internally for me,” he says. The church’s gun culture also began to bother him, and so, too, did its reaction to Black Lives Matter protests. “I remember thinking, hey, man, I thought we were conservatives,” he says. “In theory, an armed agent of the state shooting a guy 16 times seems bad. And I was like, oh, this isn’t actually about whatever small government or, whatever terms they want to use for their beliefs. It’s about something much larger.” On economic issues, he moved left, too, and voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016. But he still clung to an anti-abortion view, until he learned that a family member had obtained an abortion. It was the first time he’d known someone who’d undergone the procedure. “I knew this person was not evil and did not hate children, and certainly was not some radical leftist by any means, but was in a very difficult situation and made that very hard choice,” he says.
For some, the shift is a radical one. In one of her earliest memories, Sarah Edwards was three or four years old, and she was clutching a sign in her hands down the street from an abortion clinic. Her parents brought her there from their home in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest with their church. “At the time it feels like you’re part of something really important,” she says. Later, when she was about eight years old, she wore a little gold pin with two baby feet on it, pinned to the collar of her dresses. Her church didn’t seem unusual. Nearby congregations erected small white crosses on a lawn to represent babies lost to abortion, which was compared to the Holocaust. “I never heard any other moral crusades really mentioned,” she says. Abortion, she adds, was “the big, urgent moral crisis of our times.”
She started to change her mind gradually, as she gained access to a world outside her homeschool bubble. When her older sister attended college, Edwards began to read her textbooks and learned about the depths of American inequality. Although the books didn’t pertain to reproductive rights, she describes them as “early radicalizing texts” that framed inequality as “systemic” rather than the failings of an individual or the product of a sinful, fallen world. Later, she voted for Barack Obama in 2008, as she agreed with him on almost every issue, especially expanding health care. As for abortion, she adds, “even then, I think I kind of felt like it was more of a private conviction and less of a public one.” On a trip her freshman year of college at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, someone asked her “point-blank” what she thought of abortion. “When they asked me that question, I just realized I couldn’t justify it anymore and that I was too embarrassed to continue,” she says of her prior opposition.
The questions that changed her mind at the age of 18 are questions Edwards believes the pro-choice movement should put to the right: “Who in power is accompanying their calls to end abortion with actionable policy changes that will protect and support pregnant people and their families? Why, amid all these arguments about being pro-family, are men never held to task?”
Her sister, Elisabeth Alvarado, has also changed her mind on abortion, though it was “the last chip to fall” in a broader liberalization over time. Now living in Peru, where abortion is illegal in most circumstances, Alvarado has learned that abortion bans don’t stop the procedure from taking place. “Outlawing it didn’t work,” she says. “There’s a lot of kids living in poverty and a lot of abortions,” though of course they are risky. In recent Facebook posts, Alvaredo has engaged her more conservative friends and relatives directly on the subject. Learning that the average abortion patient is already a mother helped shift her perspective, she wrote, and while her own family and the church community of her childhood did foster and adopt children, “we had to see that these were drops in an ocean of need.” It’s hard to to reach anyone who believes deeply that the struggle against abortion is a matter of good against evil, Alvarado says. She does believe the left could frame its positions as pro-family. “I was on Medicaid with my first two pregnancies, and I had a couple of people commenting on my thread, who were like, well, you say these things about reduction of poverty, but we don’t believe in big government. We don’t believe that that’s pro-family,” she says. She knows better. There was no way, she said, that she could have paid for her births without Medicaid.
Perhaps the most important message anyone can glean from my story, and stories like it, is that power is achievable for anyone. The Christian right is a minority in its own country. With a combination of fervor and elite alliances that handed it key victories like Bush v. Gore, it will likely win the end of Roe. The response from the left should be rage – a passion to match that of the right – and a commitment to organizing. Agree on a goal, in this case the abolition of the hierarchy the right seeks to enshrine. The work of building power will take years, and it will be difficult. There will be setbacks, and failures, as there have been for the right, but freedom is possible.
You’ll never convince everyone. I know that well. My parents still believe the fetus is a person, though I can hear doubt creep in when I tell them that the end of Roe won’t be the end of abortion — the GOP seems to have contraception in its sights. This is further than they had wanted to go; they are becoming outliers within their own movement. It’s hard to know if there will be many evangelicals like my parents. If there are many children like the girl I once was, biding their time for a way out. The world I thought I’d escaped has instead followed me out, and it is everywhere now, an oppressive presence. Sometimes I feel its fingers around my throat. But all is not lost, not yet.