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    In the Shoes of the Woman Considering Abortion

    Faced with a choice between two unknown futures, it can be hard to let go of one’s dreams.

    By Kirsten Sanders

    March 8, 2022
    • Nicola Netherwood

      Thank you for this article. "So many of our regrets are based on a version of ourselves that never existed." This really speaks to me. I wish I had been able to read this when faced with an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 20 and single, over 40 years ago. In pre-internet days, I stupidly listened to 'advice' given by 'friends' who encouraged me to abort. The staff at the clinic did briefly mention that 'some people regret it', but as my 'friends' had fore-warned me not to listen to anyone who tried to talk me out of it I paid little attention. I have lived with regret every day of my life since then, and constantly imagine the alternative life I would have had with my baby, the life that never existed. Distraught from the experience I barely survived the next few years and suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. I felt like part of my soul had died. A few years later I went on to have 3 children, and still feel haunted by the ghost of the person missing from the family, my first child.

    • M.K.

      The author’s theology stands stalwart against the pursuit of joy and happiness for their own sake as something worth wanting or having. For me, leaving these things behind would have been unbearable. What I have found since in my experiences and relationships have been worthwhile, even if it is different than I imagined. The author clearly believes (even if, as she says, it is impossible to know for certain) that she made the most correct, most sanctifying choice to parent when she did in the circumstances she found herself, and I respect her convictions. I only wish for my own belief (and belief is all it could ever be) that my choice was also correct, and that I will be a better mother now than I could ever have been at 21, to be respected (legally and otherwise) as well.

    • Vjmathis

      Interesting yet, could have used other cultures and countries both modern and ancient traditional viewpoints towards abortion to help cross compare why abortion is necessary for life. When abortion is outlawed, we know domestic violence sharply rises statistically. That's why states like Texas are refusing to release data to the public. The medical reasons abortion has to be a legitimate choice are well documented.

    • Leslie

      I enjoyed this essay. I recently read an essay that was sort of the reverse of this: A woman who'd always assumed she'd have children until she....just never did. She had to cope with the opposite scrambling of dreams. The essay was "On Not Being a Mother" by Sarah Hepola. But this process of having to let go of some dreams and cultivate others is a universal process, I think. And this essay has a rich advice: love what is real.

    • Tr

      I have read this over and over and will continue to read it. Thank you for a perspective on life that helps us understand how deep disappoint and true fulfillment can co-exist. In the end, sacrifice changes us for the better but it can be a rough road. Without belief in God this philosophy may be hard to grasp… but it is still true.

    • Carol Crossed

      This is unique in that it goes beyond our usual response: find food stamps or throw a baby shower. Buy diapers. All those things are easier than what your insight suggests. Thank you.

    • Andrew

      Thank you Kirsten, I hope this article has a wide reading. Although I am a pro life doctor this has challenged me in many ways. It also has implications beyond unplanned pregnancy to how we view our life and what makes it meaningful.

    • Dodie

      Beautiful, insightful, and thought-provoking.

    • Samantha

      This is an article that I will sit with for a long time. Thank you for sharing these important words. I had a surprise baby at 25 and so much of this is what I emotionally experienced and I love the perspective of it from the other end of things.

    • roberta b.

      A moving article, with way to much to grasp in one reading. The viewpoint is certainly different from any other I have read on the subject. "To decide to bear a child is to nurture what might be and to let go of what might have been." That line plus the discussion on self-actualization call for re-reading and much pondering.

    • Don Peterson

      Thank you

    • Nicole

      Beautiful and insightful. Can relate to so much of what you shared.

    • Linda L. Gwaltney

      This is more informative than anything I have ever read about pro-choice and pro-life. I wish everyone concerned with either choice could read it.

    • Christy Nelson

      Thank you, thank you. This is the real truth of the fight to end abortion. It is also the whole truth of life and its meaning.

    • Jay Jamison

      A deeply insightful reflection. I found it compelling.

    • Julianne McCullagh

      "The honor is not in the good thing given up, but in what is made of us through the giving." This is an excellent article. Even for those of us who never considered abortion, the reality, the fear, the grief that comes with the forever life altering reality of pregnancy know we have to let go, or set aside, perhaps forever, the woman we thought we might want to become. When I had my first child at age 23, married, my mother said to me 'well, your life is over now'. I thought this a harsh assessment of motherhood-- but she was right, in part. The me I thought I might become was over. More children showed up, Surprise!, and I had to re-adjust my hopes and expectations of what life was going to look like. Tangled up in the powerful all consuming love for my children there was grief of my other life un-lived, still beckoning me to something else. But we all have to negotiate these things in life. And Ms. Sanders is right, the dream of who we might have become is just a dream, and any number of things could change or destroy that dream from becoming real, pregnancy just one of many course corrections.

    Much discussion of abortion is about the legality of the procedure and the best way to reduce or prevent its use, or about whether personhood is rightly accorded to the unborn and whether their rights are equivalent to those of an adult woman.

    These discussions are useful, but they miss another reality at play when women consider abortion. The fact is that a woman is considering three potential lives. The first is the life she has been living and its present trajectory, which she imagines extending into the future if she has an abortion. The second is her possible life as a mother (or the mother of an additional child), including potential relationships with the father. The third is the life of the child whose fate she holds in her hands, and all the peril and promise it might hold. Women who make decisions about terminating their pregnancies play out these lives. They wrestle with ghosts, with unlived lives, unreached goals, and untapped potential. To decide to bear a child is to nurture what might be and to let go of what might have been.

    We fail, I think, when we attempt to convince women not to have abortions based purely on the fact of biological life in the womb. The simple affirmation that life is good is true, but to say that is not nearly enough. It is also a cheap consolation to say that all things will work out in the end, or that “you will be better for having raised the child” though that may be true.

    Every woman with an unplanned pregnancy faces a life that is not the one she expected to live, one that is now no longer hers alone. The temptation to interrupt this complication and end the pregnancy can be fierce. There are now two competing visions: a future she had imagined for herself, and a future that she does not yet know. It can be easier to choose a hoped-for and planned-for future over an unknown one.

    Imagine a young woman with promise (she is not me, though we share some things in common). She is diligent, hard-working, and disciplined. She made great career plans for herself and dreamed of the day her work would be rewarded. She was on the cusp of beginning graduate study and embarking on a successful academic career. This would allow her to realize the best version of herself: smart, competent, independent, successful.

    Then she finds herself “with child” – though the child she is with is invisible and almost impossible to imagine. Now she must choose between the woman she loved – the one she was and was becoming – and a person she has never met. You’d understand if she found this is quite a difficult choice.

    blurry photo of a woman splattered with yellow paint

    Photograph by JR Korpa

    It helps little to tell her that the aspirations she had for herself were never certain, though that is something to consider. There is a real and understandable longing for a life that could have been, the ship passing in the distance, the dream of a life unlived. In her case, what she stands to lose are in fact many good things – traveling the world as a single adult, a graduate level education at a prominent school, a career that would grant further opportunities and relationships.

    If she has the baby, it seems, all of these things are lost. Like a sandcastle in the tide, the opportunities to make that particular version of herself real – to build that young woman full of promise into an independent middle-aged woman full of experience and resources – will never be hers. The young woman with the slim waistline and many romantic partners and untrammeled career options is gone.

    The choice this woman must make, instead, is to love what is real. So many of our regrets are based on a version of ourselves that never existed. We hoped that we would become this woman, that our path might lead us to a version of ourselves that we loved. But it did not. Children are one common way this path is disrupted, but they are not the only way. We may become ill. Our parents may become ill and need care. Our children may suffer gravely – they may be burdened by depression, anxiety, or chronic illness. The job market might become crowded and not reward our labor. We may be – we likely are – less smart than we imagine. The dreams we had of ourselves are always only dreams.

    I too know the pain of watching my life unfold in ways that escape my plans for it. I had nearly identical dreams to those I have written about, of academic success and career aspirations that for young women also signal power and independence. I also became pregnant at an extremely inconvenient time for my graduate study and my future plans. Though I was married, it was something like shame that I experienced when I showed up six months pregnant to my first doctoral seminar.

    I too spent years significantly depressed, the life I could have lived buzzing in my ears as I went about diapering and washing dishes and being the best mother I could be. I set up cups full of water and finger paint and guided little fingers in scissors and glue. I offered fresh Play-Doh and cleaned up the crusty bits weeks later beneath the table. I read hundreds of books and took trips to the library and outdoor nature walks where we looked for snakes and bird nests. I also yelled on days when the fatigue and deep sadness met each other. I knew sorrow as a friend. The buzzing in my ears ebbed and flowed with the seasons, but it never left me.

    My husband was there when he could be, always kind and always providing but also unable to hold my sadness for me. Others could not see it because the life I had built for my children was so beautiful. They are thriving and attached to me and (I think) have only good memories. But my soul knows, and still it remembers the sadness.

    I also know the weight of wishing I could have been a good mother without all of the sadness, that I could have been present with the beauty in front of me instead of longing for what was lost. I was as present as I could be, but I often wish I knew then what I am writing now. Many of us with rocky starts in motherhood wish our children could have had the mother we are now instead of the mother we were then. But we are only what we are now because they made us that way.

    This might be one of the most universal parenting experiences. Children will make demands and you will not be ready; resources will be sparse and you will not achieve all your dreams.

    Those who support abortion frequently argue that women of all ages deserve the opportunity to choose when they become pregnant, if they become pregnant, and if they can stretch themselves to care for a child. They deserve the opportunity to decide what kind of life they will live, to optimize their lives, to pursue their dreams, to travel and pursue career success. To ask less of them is to deny them a basic human right – the right to self-actualize.

    Those who oppose abortion, including many who are Christian, can make surprisingly similar arguments. Women must carry their pregnancies to term because the babies they bear also deserve the opportunity to have a life – they also have an inalienable right to self-actualize.

    So many of our regrets are based on a version of ourselves that never existed.

    Both these narratives rely on the idea that life exists to self-actualize, that the goal of being alive is to enjoy as many positive experiences as possible and “make something of yourself.” Pro-choice individuals argue that women need the opportunity to self-actualize in the form of career success and personal pleasure; pro-life individuals argue that those in the womb deserve such opportunities.

    The Christian life, however, is not about making the most of yourself, about removing impediments to pleasure and opportunity. To argue that those in the womb deserve life in this sense is simply to move the language of rights from the mother to the child. It is to decide who deserves to suffer. If life is simply about opportunity, abortion politics becomes a very real calculation of whose opportunity can be terminated.

    Christian teaching tells us that the things that are real are given by God, and therefore that all life given by God is good. But it also tells us that life is deeply fragile and marked by sorrow. It promises that the goodness in life is not in what we make of it or how much we enjoy it – the goodness of life is that it is given. Its givenness is what makes it real, what makes it good.

    It is not, then, in self-optimization, in building institutions, or in bringing our creativity to expression that we are living our best lives. It is, I believe, more likely to be found in parenting, where we are given life and must give our lives. We are asked to offer those very first words God spoke at creation: “Let there be.” This is not making, controlling, harnessing, or performing. It is simply permitting another to exist.

    Parenting is more like this than we often admit. We cannot form, train, or shape our children beyond a certain point. The children you bear may have disabilities. They may throw tantrums every day. They may dislike you. You may dislike them. You must simply “let there be.”

    Christians often misunderstand sacrifice. Because of the common use of the word in the English language, we think of “sacrifices” as efforts we make for God: giving up time, deferring personal dreams, giving money to the church that we would rather use for ourselves. Certainly there is an element of this in Old Testament sacrifices, where spotless rams that had great market value were given instead for temple use. We think the goodness of the sacrifice is in the value of the thing given up. We tell women that to sacrifice aspirations for children is a virtue.

    Perhaps this is true. But when we tell them this we miss the meaning of the Christian practice, and place the value on the thing given up rather than the act of offering. It is in giving up something that we desired that it might become something more. It is Hannah’s prayer for Samuel. Surely Samuel himself was of great value, but the mystery of that story is the change in Hannah’s own heart.

    The honor is not in the good thing given up, but in what is made of us through the giving. Given the opportunity, I would be a much better mother now – more settled, more content, more aware of the limitations of what I could achieve. I might have been happy – I also might not have been. But the mother I was then made a weighty offering. She gave all of herself, both what she had and also what she could not have. But she gave it, this gift of the best she had. My youth, my potential, my hopes – I had to offer it up.

    The biblical narrative suggests that it is not the sacrifice itself – the spotless ram, the pure white doves, the life dreams unfulfilled, the independence lost – that is good in God’s eyes. It is the offering, and the heart that makes the offering, and what the offering makes in that heart. It is to give this gift of years that will never be returned to us.

    “Without an abortion I would never have become the woman that I am.” Many a woman repeats this sentiment, with the unstated assumption that the woman she became is better than who she would have been otherwise. Who knows how to value such things? I know only that the woman I am now knows that those dreams were only dreams, that they might never have existed and that even if they had, they might not have made me happy. I know something of what it is to make a holy offering. I know now something I never knew then, which is that the only things that can be loved are the things that are real.

    Contributed By KirstenSanders Kirsten Sanders

    Kirsten Sanders is a theologian and writer. She writes from her home in Massachusetts, where she enjoys outings with her kids but also writing quietly in her study while they are with a babysitter.

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