A marked transformation is under way in the public conversation about abortion, one in which pro-choice advocates are up to something really quite unexpectedly wonderful: promoting the post-abortive testimony.
Recent initiatives like Advocates for Youth’s “1 in 3” campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s “Stories about Abortion,” the Exhale Pro-Voice project, the Sea Change Program, the International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma (inroads), and “the abortion diaries” podcast all focus on encouraging post-abortive women to go public with their experiences.
These story-telling campaigns are promoted as a direct response to what has been termed “abortion stigma,” or what is perceived to be the culturally-shared “understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable” (according to the Sea Change Program), a stigma that pro-choice activists believe is fueled by media depictions, public policy, institutional settings like hospitals, and faith communities.
President of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards, in an article for Elle in which she shares her own abortion story, succinctly captures the purported value of these story-telling campaigns:
How can something that one third of women in the United States experience be the focus of intense public debate for decades, with hardly any real firsthand experience at the center of the discussion? One word: stigma. . . . It’s important that women be able to share their stories and experiences openly if they choose to, so that they can connect with each other and begin to end myths and misconceptions about both the procedure and the women who have it.
These campaigns are, to put it mildly, working marvelously. More and more women are coming forward with their abortion stories: Toni Braxton and Nicki Minaj are recent celebrity examples; hundreds of written and video testimonies have been uploaded to the “1 in 3 campaign” website; and “the abortion diaries” podcast is nearing its 100th episode.
The church could be this safe haven. Jesus is the ultimate and perfect safe haven. We should not miss this moment.Evidence of the extent to which it is now possible to talk casually about one’s abortion was revealed perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in a recent episode of HBO’s Girls in which a character offhandedly turns down her boyfriend’s offer to go on a jog because—as she notes with a mixture of nonchalance and confidence—she’d had an abortion the day before. In response to her boyfriend’s surprise and irritation, Mimi-Rose replies with the flippant “It was a ball of cells.” The “no big deal” way in which abortion is depicted in this scene was highly lauded by a diversity of media outlets as exemplary of an ideal achieved: here we have a woman who made a choice, for herself and by herself, and spoke about it without fear of guilt or judgment and without any apparent shame.
Christians, we need to pause and recognize this moment.
We need to pause because it is very tempting to view celebrities’ repeated and public insistence that their abortion was the “right choice,” the tidal wave of women online responding to story-telling calls with gratitude for access to Planned Parenthood clinics, and Mimi Rose’s “so-what” attitude as a horrible cultural turn towards public endorsement of and numbness towards abortion. Instead though, is it possible that having access to these new voices—the voices of those whose abortion stories are troubling, not-tortured, or even apparently de rigueur—is an opening for some really good, honest, and groundbreaking conversation to take place?
To be entirely truthful, isn’t ignoring these voices the worst thing we could possibly do?
Perhaps more than most, Christians have a deep understanding of the value of testimony. The Bible pushes us to view our lives as our sermons to the world. We share our stories as evidence of the truth of God’s transformative Spirit. Additionally though, Christians are called to respond with non-judgment and love to the testimonies of others, to see their actions and hearts—no matter how apparently sinful—as equally redeemable by grace as our own.
Within the pro-life movement, we have done a decent job of valuing stories, though the stories we have made “space” for are distinctly limited: we have, for example, given many a public platform and lent many an ear to women who are survivors of attempted abortion and women who have found healing after abortion. Of late, we have additionally begun to open space for the voices of fathers whose lives were touched by abortions (Lecrae’s testimony is one powerful example).
But the reality is that abortion, while perhaps simple theologically in its clear status as sin, is complex in many ways: the reasons and circumstances for women choosing abortion, the feelings and coping mechanisms women experience post-abortion, and the “ripple effects” of abortion (the lives beyond the woman and child’s that are touched—fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) are complex. And this complexity leads to a diversity of testimonies, many of which are entirely unresolved and likely, to our ears, uncomfortable. We could be doing more to hear these voices.
The pro-choice movement’s push for storytelling is a mission we can share. Abortion stigma is not merely a political construction, a term designed to demonize conservative policy makers and institutions. It is a real burden experienced by post-abortive women: one recent study indicates that a third of women who have had abortions keep it a secret from even their closest confidants.
The pro-choice movement’s new-found interest in the testimony powerfully reveals the truth that everyone is longing for a place that feels like home, a place to be validated, known through and through, and loved unconditionally. By opening conversation space for post-abortive voices, they have acknowledged that those impacted by abortion are, perhaps especially, in search of such a safe haven.
The church could be this safe haven. Jesus is the ultimate and perfect safe haven. We should not miss this moment.
Whereas the purported goals of the pro-choice story-telling campaigns are to create solidarity among post-abortive women and to grant women the freedom to tell their abortion stories without fear of judgment, to be a truly satisfying safe haven for those impacted by abortion, they will need to do more than simply offer a platform from which to be heard and a cause to support. They will need to offer a vision broad enough to include and find support for a true diversity of stories, including those of women who do not feel liberated, relieved, or recovered from their abortions. They will need to find a way to love the women behind even these “inconvenient” stories.
What Christianity can offer that secular organizations or campaigns cannot is a worldview within which post-abortive experiences of all kinds can be understood. We are not limited by political or social agendas. We are much more in tune with what unites humanity as simultaneously created in the image of God and fallen from His grace than interested in how we might be categorized or how our stories might be used to promote a worldly agenda. We have the sense of mission to drive us to love, listen, and provide.
We know there is room for the voices of women who don’t regret their abortions—the Mimi Roses of the world—but there is room as well for the women who expected abortion to be easier, women who don’t realize the impact of abortion on their lives until many years afterwards, fathers or extended family who encouraged the abortion decision or who are mourning having lost a loved one to abortion. There are so many voices that have yet to be heard. And there are so many unique and individual and personal responses that God can provide for each of these hearts. But if we, the Church, are not the ones with open ears, we should now be acutely aware that there are other “safe havens” to which these voices can turn.
Here are some ways we can be an even more compelling alternative:
- Tell our own stories. Stop being squeamish around discussing “issues of reproduction.” Stop ignoring or sequestering our pasts of sexual sin, our own abortions. The truth is that, statistically, and tragically, abortion is “normal.” One in three women have had an abortion. Many of those women are Christians. It is in contrast to the darkness of our sin that our forgiveness in Christ shines most brightly. Share boldly.
- Stop pretending. Stop pretending that pregnancy and motherhood are free of challenges or complexities. Stop assuming adoption is an easy alternative. And work to make carrying a pregnancy to term an easier choice for women. Many Crisis Pregnancy Centers could use your hands, heart, and financial support.
- Look boldly. Look boldly at the facts of abortion—the frequency, the frequency among Christians, the reasons women choose to abort—and do not be overwhelmed.
- Welcome the stories. Pray for a tidal wave of stories. Hold seminars, study groups, conferences to encourage these stories. Work under the assumption that the stories will not look “pretty”; that not all of the women will be ashamed; that many of these women will be women we have known for many years.
- Welcome the OTHER stories. Acknowledge the extended network of family members and people who are impacted by abortion and welcome and acknowledge them as well. Emphasize that there is healing.
What storytelling does is not—as pro-choice advocates hope—normalize the sin. Just because abortion is “common,” does not mean it is or will ever be “normal.” No matter how rampant sin is, it is still a divergence from God’s original plan, and we have no need to fear that stories glorifying access to abortion or stories from women who are proud of their choice will ever ultimately “normalize” abortion.
What storytelling does do though is give us insight into the contexts and circumstances, the mindset and needs, that lead to abortion. Storytelling can prepare us to intervene and assist in the crucial moments before a woman’s decision. And storytelling helps us better understand the post-abortive reality and how we can speak the truth and healing of Christ over these lives.
Wherever Christians choose judgment or the promotion of abortion stigma, wherever we approach those touched by abortion with anything short of the grace and truth of the Gospel, we truly do risk driving women directly into the circles of those who will condone, legitimize, praise, and ultimately perpetuate abortion as an acceptable “solution.”
It is no coincidence that the term “stigma” and “stigmata” share an etymology. The stigmata voided our stigma, and one way we can bring this healing truth to the “issue” of abortion is to welcome—as Jesus did—to encourage, to seek out, and to delight in the arrival of as many post-abortive storytellers as possible.
Stories are the beginnings of conversations.