The other day we got together with a friend of mine from high school named Andrew*, and his boyfriend, Tom. They moved out of state earlier this year, but a business trip brought him and Tom back through town recently, and we jumped at the chance to go out to dinner with them. This was one of the first times in a long while that we’d had a chance to sit down and talk with them, just the four of us. We caught up on life and work, Andrew and I clicking as well as we always have. I wore waterproof mascara because I knew I’d end up laughing to the point of tears, which, in fact, I did.
Then, when my husband and Tom went to pick up a round of drinks at the bar, Andrew had a question for me.
“So,” he said, grabbing a tortilla chip from the basket in front of us. “What do you think of gay marriage?”
The last time we hung out, this unspoken topic was not as palpably present as it was now. Even though our gay friends knew that we’d converted to Catholicism, nobody cared enough to bring up potentially controversial issues. But now, the mood in the world around us had changed. Throughout our country the issue of same-sex unions was being debated furiously; it had become a defining issue of our generation, and thus the average person was no longer allowed not to have an opinion about it. It was too weird to sit at the table, two orthodox Catholics and two men in a gay relationship, and not bring it up. We could no longer ignore the storm that raged outside the cloister of our friendship; the doors had blown open, and the rain had come inside.
I shrugged, trying to keep it casual. “I don’t think that same-sex couples getting married is the same thing as traditional marriage, if that’s what you mean.”
Andrew didn’t look surprised, but he seemed annoyed. “I didn’t realize you were a homophobe,” he said, only barely kidding.
“Oh, yeah, I’m terrified of you. I only hang out with you because you make the best dry martini in the world — but I’m trembling the whole time!”
“How can I hear your statement as anything but anti-gay?”
“I worry about what will happen to our society if everyone starts thinking that marriage is about any two people doing whatever they want. But that has nothing to do with being anti-gay.” I was afraid he was going to incur ocular damage from rolling his eyeballs back into his head so far, so I added, “Want me to explain?”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Sure.”
I immediately regretted my offer, wishing I’d promptly changed the subject to the weather, celebrity gossip, or any other subject inane enough that I could speak intelligently about it. I’m proud of being Catholic, and proud to stand by what the Church teaches. I converted to Catholicism in large part because I think that, through its moral code, it gives all humans a prescription for living a life of peace, in harmony with one another and with our Creator. I could not have converted to a religion that had doctrines that singled out one group of people in an unfair way, since it would seem illogical that an all-loving God would create such a system. But I knew I was going to have a hard time making my case; Andrew and I had such utterly different worldviews, it would be as if I were speaking through a distortion microphone that warps your voice and replaces every other word with random offensive phrases.
Before I could begin, the man and woman next to us caught our attention by gesticulating wildly in an animated conversation. They chatted happily over a shared plate of enchiladas, and each was wearing a wedding ring.
Andrew motioned to them. “You don’t think Tom and I are good enough to have what they have?”
“‘Good enough?’ It’s our insane culture that says that your entire life and personhood and soul are defined by your sexual attractions, not the Catholic Church. The Church articulates boundaries for behavior, not people.”
Andrew was still looking at them. They were in their late 20s, stylishly dressed, with golden summer tans. We could hear some of their conversation, and they seemed to be talking about a recent vacation. “I look at them, and I don’t see how what Tom and I have is all that different.”
“What do you see when you look at that couple? You see two people who really like each other, who decided to get married as a statement of lifelong commitment?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“You’re imagining that they’re living life out of that Khalil Gibran poem, right?” I asked, referring to the famous verses that were read at a commitment ceremony we’d attended years ago. “The man and the woman each plan to do their own thing for the rest of their lives. There are no obligations on them outside of respecting one another and having fun. Is that about right?”
“Close enough. What is marriage if not a commitment? What else could it be about?” With that statement, Andrew had gotten to the core of the issue. This was the bulging pressure cooker where almost all of our culture’s misunderstanding roiled. I hoped I wouldn’t say anything that made it explode.
I tried for a silly analogy. “Have you ever looked backwards through binoculars?”
“That’s how I see our culture’s understanding of marriage: They’re looking backwards through the binoculars. They’re kind of getting it right, but because they have the thing flipped around, it’s going to entirely distort their view of things.”
Andrew sipped his drink. “How so?”
“Marriage is about new human life. All sexual morality is about new human life. From time immemorial, societies understood that people only respect human life to the extent that they respect the act that creates human life.” But when our culture embraced contraception, I continued, for the first time in human history, the sexual act was severed from its life-giving potential in the societal psyche. People began to feel like they had a right to the pleasure of the sexual act, without having to give a second thought to any new life that might be created. Not surprisingly, this tempted us to dehumanize those inconvenient lives that kept popping up out of the blue, and the destruction of newly conceived life became necessary in order for the “truths” of contraception to be upheld. As Pope Paul VI predicted back in 1968, the idea that we can and should exercise complete control over when new people come into the world could not be contained the realm of pregnancy alone, and an entire “culture of death” erupted as a result.
“Great soliloquy,” Andrew deadpanned. “So, umm, why is it that you don’t want Tom and I to get married?”
“Because marriage is about new human life. That’s what the binoculars analogy was about: Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”
“So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”
“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”
“Okay, but for fertile couples, that sounds barbaric to say that they have to be trying to have babies all the time. Not everyone is as crazy as you guys.”
“That’s not what Catholics believe. Child spacing is perfectly fine, if done with natural methods. And the reason that natural family planning doesn’t lead to the same kind of cultural insanity as artificial contraception is because it’s a sacrifice-based system.”
“I’m not following. I don’t see why there’s any more sacrifice than with contraception — or, frankly, why it matters.”
I offered a brief overview of how NFP works, trying to avoid scarring Andrew for life with too many details about the signs and symptoms of a woman’s fertile time, and bumbled around to convey why abstaining during fertile periods is fundamentally different than artificially sterilizing the sexual act. “You don’t get to do whatever you want, whenever you want, even as a married heterosexual. All sexual activity must be ordered toward new human life, so there’s no, umm…” If there had been an awkwardness meter on the table, it would have exploded as I tried to elucidate this point without naming specific sexual acts ending in specific ways that aren’t licit in the Catholic worldview. I skipped it and moved on.
“Anyway,” I continued, “in this view you are constantly having to make sacrifices out of respect for what this act is all about: If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”
“So you’re saying that gay men should never have sex?”
I hesitated. The way the question was phrased, to answer would make it seem like I see myself as some kind of moral authority. “I’m saying that every human being is called to make sexual sacrifices in the name of respect for human life. So, yeah, that would mean that a gay man would not act on his attractions. And would that be harder for him than for a single Catholic who hasn’t found a spouse, or for a person whose spouse has left him, for a married couple with a medical condition that’s not compatible with pregnancy — even for the average, healthy married couple who abstains regularly to space their kids? Honestly, I think it depends on the people. You’d be surprised at how much everyone sacrifices — not just people with same-sex attraction.”
“Great belief system you have there,” Andrew said. “Sounds like a barrel of laughs.”
“Andrew, you know me. You know how lazy I am, right?”
“And how weak I am? And how little fortitude I have in any area of life? Remember how I could never meet you guys for brunch because you met at eleven-thirty, and it was just too early to ask me to get up?”
“I have had to make plenty of sacrifices for this concept.” I told him about the DVT, my blood clotting disorder, the never-ending medical bills. “I’m not Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta or anything. A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do — ”
Andrew was laughing at me having used “me” in the same sentence with “Mother Teresa,” agreeing under his breath that, indeed, I am not Mother Teresa. I ignored him and continued. “Listen. Do you think that I would have gotten myself into a belief system that involves sacrifices if there weren’t a huge payoff?”
“What, does the Pope give you a pot of gold?” Andrew was on a roll.
“Ha, ha,” I said dryly. “Look, I can’t tell you what it would be like for you or any other gay man to live a chaste life. I have no idea what your sacrifices would be, and would never for a moment dream to tell you that it would be easy. But based on my own small experience, I will say this: When you get your sexuality in line with respect for human life, you get your soul in line with God, who is the Source of human life. And there is more joy there than you could imagine.” I told him about all the priests and nuns and monks who are some of the most joyful people I’ve ever met, pointing out that for thousands of years there have been large segments of society that live awesome lives without sex. I described some of the chaste single people I know who do more good for the world in a day than I do in a year. “Our society has forgotten entirely that it is perfectly possible not to have sex. Not only possible, but can even be a great thing.”
“I need a drink,” Andrew sighed, craning his neck to see if Tom and my husband were back from the bar.
“You’re not convinced?”
“You mean am I all anti-gay-marriage now after listening to your little speech?” Andrew look to the ceiling, as if appealing to the gods to help me with my ignorance. “Uhh, no.”
I didn’t expect that he would be; it certainly would have made for a weird dinner if Tom had returned from the bar to have Andrew say, “Tom! I just spent five minutes talking with Jennifer, and have decided that our love for one another would be most perfectly expressed in a chaste way! Let’s be celibate!”
“Do you at least believe that when I say that I don’t think gay marriage is a good thing, it’s not coming from a place of homophobia?” I hoped that my face expressed the depth of my concern for our friendship.
He didn’t respond right away. The silence that passed between us was palpable and heavy, as if the culture wars over human sexuality had become a physical thing that stood between us. Finally, a smile spread across his face. “You’re not homophobic. You’re just crazy, and have evidently joined an anti-sex cult!”
I laughed. “Okay. I’ll take that.” I started to make the case that Catholicism is actually quite pro-sex – so much so that it’s the only organization left in the world that demands that we respect it — but it seemed time to let the conversation drop.
The guys returned from the bar, and Andrew and I turned our attention to them. “What were you two talking about?” Tom asked.
Andrew didn’t miss a beat. “Jennifer was just agreeing with me that that shirt makes you look like you got drunk and raided Barbara Walters’ closet,” he quipped. This prompted a long and loud debate about Tom’s sartorial preferences, which would eventually end in our server announcing over our shouts and howls of laughter that the manager had asked us to please keep it down.
At the end of the evening — way too late, as always — we all exchanged hugs and promised that we’d do this more often. I watched Andrew and Tom walk away, holding hands, and prayed that I hadn’t done a totally terrible job of articulating my beliefs. I hoped that, if nothing else, he understood that there is no contradiction between me being a faithful Catholic and a close friend of his. I have converted to the religion of the crucifix, a belief system that promises joy in exchange for losing it all. Most people don’t want to sign up for that. I get that. I hope they consider it, for their own sake, since their lives would be better if they did — but it doesn’t change how I feel about them if they don’t. As the guys disappeared down the street, I hoped Andrew knew how much I loved him and Tom, and I hoped they still loved me too.
* Andrew and Tom’s names have been changed. Also, to save you from having to read thousands of words of hemming and hawing and talking around the issue, I have condensed our conversation, made both of us sound more articulate than we actually were at the time, and included elements of discussions I’ve had with other gay friends. In other words: This is meant to convey the gist of my recent conversations with dear friends who are gay, and is not meant to be a piece of journalism with precise accuracy as to how every word was spoken.
Oh, and I’ve done my best to express Catholic thought on these issues, but keep in mind that I’m a random woman with an internet connection, not the Pope. If I accidentally wrote anything that disagrees with what he would say, go with him, not me.
I’m excited to report that I was able to make it to the West Coast Walk for Life while I was in San Francisco this weekend. I came really close to confining myself to the comfort of my hotel, but I’m so glad I went. Some pictures and observations:
I’ve never seen so many people in one place.
I couldn’t make a rough estimate of how many people were there, because I could never see them all at once. Even when I found higher ground, the crowd stretched over one horizon to another. This video is the closest I could come to capturing it:
What you see there is only about 20% of the people in attendance. One man said he stood in one place and waited for the entire line of marchers to walk by, and it took an hour. I heard someone say that an estimated 40,000 turned out, but that seems a little low.
I didn’t see a single media outlet there, which was odd given the enormity of the turnout. It basically shut down part of the city.
Overall, it was a young crowd.
There were tons of people there aged 16 – 25, and they were full of energy for the cause. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that they all grew up in the age of ultrasounds, where we have a whole lot more information about what really goes on in the womb.
What I found most interesting was the counter-protestors. I was surprised that there were so few of them — they were like a drop of water in the ocean compared to the marchers. Also, their average age was older than that of the pro-life crowd.
The most striking thing was how many of them wore some sort of disguise.
I’d estimate that 30 – 50% of the counter-protestors wore some kind of costume or obscured their faces in some way.
Also fascinating was their heavy emphasis on the sacrilegious. Notice the upside-down cross on the face of the girl below. (I obscured part of her sign because it was really vulgar.)
A focus of many of the signs was graphic, unbelievably crude sexual insults involving Jesus and Mary. This disgusting sign below is one of the few I can post a picture of, as it was, amazingly, one of the milder messages.
Some of them put on little impromptu plays where they’d pretend to be Jesus or Mary and pantomime lurid sexual acts, shouting profanity-laden narration all the while.
The highlight of the day was listening to the testimonies of the courageous women of Silent No More. There wasn’t a dry eye on the field. God bless these women.
It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city.
After seeing the turnout of this Walk and others like it, I have no doubt that the tide is turning. As I walked back to the train station, through crowds of awed onlookers, many of whom were whispering things like “Can you believe this?”, I felt filled with hope for the future of unborn life in this country.
- How I became pro-life
- My friend Abigail’s story of how she went from a pro-choice feminist at Smith College to a pro-life housewife
- St. Blogustine’s great pictures of the Washington March for Life
- The Anchoress’ link-o-rama roundup of pro-life marches
Sometimes my pro-life friends express bewilderment at how someone could advocate for animal rights — going so far as to become a vegetarian — while having no problem with killing unborn humans. That viewpoint used to make perfect sense to me. And while I certainly don’t agree with it now, I find it to be a intellectually consistent (if chilling) way to look at the world. If it’s of any interest to others, here is why I used to be a pro-choice vegetarian.
For me, being a pro-choice vegetarian was a direct result of my atheistic worldview.
The way I saw it, all life on earth is just chemical reactions, therefore the only thing that makes a human more valuable than, say, a gnat or a squirrel is that we’re more complex. One of the main signs of our complexity is our intelligence, so I began to associate evidence of intelligence with value. I don’t think I ever made a bold, conscious decision to adopt that viewpoint, it just seemed to be obviously true — for example, we don’t have a problem with killing a simple bug like a spider, but most of us would be opposed to killing a more advanced lifeform like a dog.
I would think of this sort of thing whenever I ate meat, imagining the fear the pig must have felt before it was slaughtered for my BLT sandwich. I did a little bit of research about modern-day slaughterhouses and was disgusted to hear about the suffering that these animals endured. I decided that I would no longer eat meat. In particular, I would avoid the meat of higher animals who were more aware of their own suffering such as pigs, cows and chickens. I did continue to eat fish (particularly shellfish), however, on the grounds that as less intelligent animals they didn’t experience the range of suffering that the higher animals did when they were killed.
Seeing the world through this atheistic idea that there is a spectrum of worthiness of life with the least intelligent creatures on one end and the most intelligent on the other, and that all life on earth was to be judged by this same standard, had chilling implications when it came to human life.
While I donated money to PETA and other animal rights organizations to help save pigs and cows, I also donated money to Planned Parenthood to support the abortion industry. I had not the slightest qualm about the idea of an early-stage abortion. On my spectrum of worthiness of life, young human fetuses were way to the left — right down there with mollusks and worms — because they could not display any intelligence. As I detailed more in this post, I could not imagine asking a woman to turn her life upside down and devalue herself for a lifeform that had all the value of a crustacean.
Occasionally, however, I would get a glimpse of the reality of just how cold my worldview really was. For example, one time in college I heard a professor make the statement that it would be more ethical to kill a newborn baby than a pig since pigs are more intelligent and aware of their surroundings. I scoffed at the absurdity of such a notion. Yet when I tried to argue with his position, I realized that he was actually using my worldview to justify his position.
Also in college, I heard a classmate (who had a reputation for doing a little too much LSD) make the statement that it would be more ethical to use severely mentally disabled humans as a food source instead of the higher animals since those humans are less intelligent. I thought it to be one of the most ridiculous, offensive, disgusting statements I’d ever heard. I was even able to come up with some defense about it being wrong because we’re evolved to protect members of our own species…but such a coldly scientific argument sounded somehow lame and hollow. There was absolutely nothing in the atheist lexicon that could articulate just how morally repugnant such an idea really was.
It wouldn’t be until years later, after my conversion to Christianity, that I realized that my heart had always known something that my head did not: that humans are infinitely valuable and dearly precious — every one of us, at any age, our ability to display intelligence notwithstanding. Somewhere inside, a part of me knew it all along, which is why I was so horrified at the professor’s and the classmate’s statements.
One of the many things that fell into place when I began studying Christianity was its view of the dignity of man. Reading sections in the Catechism about the inherent value of each and every human being was like reading an articulation of something that had been written on my heart all along. Through the Christian worldview I was able to maintain empathy for animals while understanding that human beings, who posses God-given eternal souls, are in an entirely different category than other lifeforms.
These days I have gone back to eating meat, although I still don’t eat pork and am trying to move our family toward only buying meat products from companies that treat their animals humanely. More and more I see the mentality creeping into our culture that intelligence = worthiness of life, that human life is no more valuable than intelligent animal life, and it frightens me. Because, as I know from personal experience, the fruits of that worldview are chilling indeed.
Who is human?
Back in college I remember reading about how in certain societies throughout history (I believe in this case it was the Greeks) it was common for parents to abandon unwanted newborns, leaving them somewhere to die. It was so deeply troubling to me, and I could never figure out what was going on there: how on earth could this have happened?! I mean, I knew lots of people, and nobody I knew would do that! In fact, in our society you only hear about it in rare cases of people who are obviously mentally disturbed. How could something so obviously evil, so unthinkably horrific be common among entire societies?
Because of my deep distress at hearing of things like this, I found it really irritating when pro-lifers would refer to abortion as “killing babies.” Obviously, nobody around here is in favor of killing babies – and to imply that those of us who were pro-choice would advocate for that was an insult to the babies throughout history who actually were killed by their insane societies. We weren’t in favor of killing anything. We simply felt like women had the right to stop the growth process of a fetus if she faced an unwanted pregnancy. It was unfortunate, yes, because fetuses had potential to be babies one day. But that was a sacrifice that had to be made in the name of not making women slaves to the trauma of unwanted pregnancies.
I continued to be vehemently pro-choice after college, and though my views became more moderate once I had a child of my own, I was still pro-choice. But as my husband and I were in the process of exploring Christianity, we couldn’t help but be exposed to pro-life thought more often than we used to be, and we were put on the defensive about our views. I remember one day when my husband was in the middle of reconsidering his own pro-choice ideas, he made a passing remark that stuck with me ever since:
“It just occurred to me that being pro-life is being pro-other people’s-life,” he quipped. “Everyone is pro-their own-life.”
It made me realize that my pro-choice viewpoints were putting me in the position of deciding who was and was not human, and whose lives were worth living. I (along with doctors, the government, or other abortion advocates) decided where to draw this very important line. When I would come across Catholic blogs or books where they said something like “life begins at conception,” I would scoff at the silliness of that notion as was my habit…yet I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with my defense:
“A few cells is obviously not a baby or even a human life!” I would say to myself. “Fetuses eventually become full-fledged humans, but not until, umm, like six months gestation or something. Or maybe five months? When is it that they can kick their legs and stuff?…Eight weeks? No, they’re not human then, those must be involuntary spasms…”
I was putting the burden of proof on the fetuses to demonstrate to me that they were human. And I was a tough judge. I found myself looking the other way when I heard that 3D ultrasounds showed “fetuses” touching their faces, smiling and opening their eyes at ages at which I still considered abortion OK. I didn’t have any interest in reading the headlines at Lifesite. Babies — I mean, fetuses — seen yawning at 12 weeks gestation? Involuntary spasm. As modern technology helped fetuses offer me more and more evidence that they were humans too, I would simply move the bar of what I considered human.
I realized that my definition of how and when a fetus became a “baby” or a “person,” when he or she began to have rights, also depended on his or her level of health: the length of time in which I considered it OK to terminate a pregnancy lengthened as the severity of disability increased. Under the premise of wanting to spare the potential child from suffering, I was basically saying that disabled fetuses were less human, had fewer rights, than able-bodied ones. It didn’t sit well.
The whole thing started to get under my skin. At some point I started to feel like I was more determined to be pro-choice than I was to honestly analyze who was and was not human. I started to see it in others in the pro-choice community as well. On more than one occasion I was stunned to the point of feeling physically ill upon reading of what otherwise nice, reasonable people in the pro-abortion camp would advocate for.
In reading through the Supreme Court case of Stenberg v. Carhart, I read that Dr. Leroy Carhart, an abortion advocate who actually performs the procedures, described some second-trimester abortions by saying, “[W]hen you pull out a piece of the fetus, let’s say, an arm or a leg and remove that, at the time just prior to removal of the portion of the fetus…the fetus [is] alive.” He said that he has observed fetal heartbeat via ultrasound with “extensive parts of the fetus removed.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which presumably consists of well-educated, reasonable, intelligent men and women, opposed this procedure. Not for the reasons I thought — because it was plainly obvious that this was infanticide in its most grisly form — but because dismembered babies inconvenienced their mothers, and it was better to kill them outside the womb in a procedure they refer to as “D&X”. In the College’s words in its amici brief:
D&X presents a variety of potential safety advantages over other abortion procedures used during the same gestational period. Compared to D&E’s involving dismemberment, D&X involves less risk of uterine perforation or cervical laceration because it requires the physician to make fewer passes into the uterus with sharp instruments and reduces the presence of sharp fetal bone fragments that can injure the uterus and cervix.
There is also considerable evidence that D&X reduces the risk of retained fetal tissue, a serious abortion complication that can cause maternal death, and that D&X reduces the incidence of a ‘free floating’ fetal head that can be difficult for a physician to grasp and remove and can thus cause maternal injury.
I read the Court documents from Stenberg v. Carhart in a state of shock. A few years ago a friend of mine had her baby very prematurely, and I had visited him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He was so beautiful, just like the full-term newborns I’d seen, only a little smaller. Seeing him and the other babies lying there so peacefully in their incubators (some of them with cute little notes written on their incubator tags like “Aiden — mommy’s big boy!”), I was overwhelmed with feelings of wanting to protect these precious, innocent little babies. I was thrilled to hear the my friend’s son and all the other preemies who were in the NICU at that time did survive and go home with their parents. So I found myself in a state of cold shock and disbelief that I was reading of people — not just fringe crazies, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and some Supreme Court Justices — casually speak about the inconvenience of the skulls and bone fragments of dismembered babies (“fetuses”) the same age as those babies in the NICU. The horrors continued when I read Gonzales v. Carhart [some excerpts here...warning: no photos, but the descriptions are extremely disturbing].
It took my breath away to witness the level of evil that normal people can fall into supporting. They were talking about infanticide, but completely refused to label it as such. It was when I considered that these were educated, reasonable professionals who were probably not bad people that I realized that evil always works through lies. I also took a mental step back from the entire pro-choice movement. If this is what it meant to be “pro-choice,” I was not pro-choice.
Yet I still couldn’t quite bring myself to label myself pro-life.
I started to recognize that I was no better than Dr. Carhart or the concurring Justices or the author of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ brief, that I too had probably told myself lies in order to maintain my support for abortion. Yet there was something deep down inside, some tremendous pressure that kept me from truly, objectively looking at what was going on here. There was something within me that screamed that to not allow women to have abortions at least in the first trimester would be unfair in the most dire sense of the word. Even as I became more religious, I mentally pushed aside thoughts that all humans might have God-given eternal souls worthy of dignity and respect, because it got too tricky to figure out when we receive those souls, the most obvious answer being “at conception” as opposed to at some arbitrary point during gestation.
It wasn’t until I re-evaluated the societal views of sex that had permeated the consciousness of my peer group, took a new look at the modern assumptions about the act that creates those fetuses in the first place, that I was able to let go of that internal pressure I felt, and to take an unflinching look at my views on abortion.
The contraceptive mentality
Here are four key memories that give a glimpse into how my understanding of sex was formed:
- When I was a kid, I didn’t have any friends who had baby brothers or sisters in their households. One friend’s mom was pregnant when we were twelve, but I moved before the baby was born. To the extent that I ever heard any of our parents talk about pregnancy and babies, it was to say that they were happy that they were “done,” the impression being that they could finally start living now that that pregnancy/baby unpleasantness was over.
- In sex ed class we learned not that sex creates babies, but that unprotected sex creates babies. After we were done putting condoms on bananas, our teacher counseled us that we should carefully decide when we might be ready to have sex based on important concerns like whether or not we were in committed relationships, whether or not we had access to contraception, how our girlfriends or boyfriends treated us, whether we wanted to wait until marriage, etc. I do not recall hearing readiness to have a baby being part of a single discussion about deciding when to have sex, whether it was from teachers or parents or society in general. Not once.
- On multiple occasions when I was a young teen I recall hearing girls make the comment that they would readily risk dangerous back-alley abortions or even consider suicide if they were to face unplanned pregnancies and abortion wasn’t legal. Though I was not sexually active, it sounded perfectly reasonable to me — that is how much we desired not to have babies before we were ready. Yet the concept of just not having sex if we weren’t ready to have babies was never discussed. It’s not that we had considered the idea and rejected it; it simply never occurred to us.
- Even recently, before our marriage was validated in the Catholic Church my husband and I had to take a course about building good marriages. It was a video series by a nondenominational Christian group, and in the segment called “Good Sex” they did not mention children or babies once. In all the talk about bonding and back rubs and intimacy and staying in shape, the closest they came to connecting sex to the creation of life was to briefly say that couples should discuss the topic of contraception.
Sex could not have been more disconnected from the concept of creating life.
The message I’d heard loud and clear was that the purpose of sex was for pleasure and bonding, that its potential for creating life was purely tangential, almost to the point of being forgotten about altogether. This mindset laid the foundation of my views on abortion. Because I saw sex as being closed to the possibility to life by default, I thought of pregnancies that weren’t planned as akin to being struck by lightning while walking down the street — something totally unpredictable, undeserved, that happened to people living normal lives.
Being pro-choice for me (and I’d imagine with many others) was actually motivated out of love and caring: I just didn’t want women to have to suffer, to have to devalue themselves by dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Because it was an inherent part of my worldview that everyone except people with “hang-ups” eventually has sex and sex is, under normal circumstances, only about the relationship between the two people involved, I got lured into one of the oldest, biggest, most tempting lies in human history: to dehumanize the enemy. Babies had become the enemy because of their tendencies to pop up and ruin everything; and just as societies are tempted to dehumanize the fellow human beings who are on the other side of the lines in wartime, so had I, and we as a society, dehumanized the enemy of sex.
It was when I was reading up on the Catholic Church’s view of sex, marriage and contraception that everything changed.
I’d always thought that those archaic teachings about not using contraception were because the Church wanted to oppress people by telling them to have as many kids as possible, or something like that. What I found, however, was that their views expressed a fundamentally different understanding of what sex is, and once I heard it I never saw the world the same way again. The way I’d always seen it, the standard position was that babies were a horrible burden, except for a couple times in life when everything is perfect enough that a couple might temporarily see new life as a good thing; the Catholic view is that the standard position is that babies are a blessing and a good thing, and while it’s fine to attempt to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons, if we go so far as to adopt a “contraceptive mentality,” feeling entitled to the pleasure of sex while loathing (and perhaps trying to forget all about) its life-giving properties, we not only disrespect this most sacred of acts, but we begin to see new life as the enemy.
To use a rough analogy, the Catholic Church was saying that loaded guns are not toys, that while they can perhaps be used for certain recreational activities, they are always to be handled with grave respect; my viewpoint, coming from contraceptive culture, was that it’s fine to use loaded guns as toys as long as you put blanks in the chamber. Thinking of that analogy, expecting to be able to use something with incredible power nonchalantly, as a toy, I could see how that worldview had set us up for disaster.
I came to see that our culture’s widespread use and acceptance of contraception had led to the “contraceptive mentality” toward sex being the default position. As a society, we’d come to take it for granted that we’re entitled to the pleasurable and bonding aspects of sex even when we’re in a state of being vehemently opposed to the new life it might produce. The option of abstaining from the act that creates babies if we’re in a state of seeing babies as a huge burden had been removed from our cultural lexicon: even if it would be a huge crisis to get pregnant, we have a right to go ahead and have sex anyway. If this were true, if it was indeed a fact that it was morally OK for people to have sex even when they believed that a new baby could ruin their lives, in my mind, then, abortion had to be OK.
I realize that ideally I would have taken an objective look at when human life begins and based my views on that alone…but the lie was just too tempting. I didn’t want to hear too much about heartbeats or souls or brain activity…terminating pregnancies just had to be OK, because carrying a baby to term and becoming a parent is a huge deal…and society had made it very clear that sex is not a huge deal. As long as I accepted that for people to engage in sex in a contraceptive mentality was morally OK, I could not bring myself to even consider that abortion might not be OK. It just seemed too inhumane to make women deal with life-altering consequences for an act that was not supposed to have life-altering consequences.
So this idea that we are always to treat the sexual act with awe and respect, so much so that we should simply abstain if we’re vehemently opposed to its life-giving potential, was a totally new and different message. For me, being able to honestly consider when life begins, opening my heart and my mind to the wonder and dignity of even the tiniest of my fellow human beings, was not fully possible until I understood the nature of the act that creates these little lives in the first place.
The great temptation
All of these thoughts had been percolating in my brain for a while, and I found myself increasingly in agreement with pro-life positions. Then one night I was reading something, and a thought occurred to me, and from that moment on I was officially, unapologetically PRO-LIFE. I was reading yet another account of the Greek societies in which newborn babies were abandoned to die, wondering to myself how normal people could possibly do something like that. I felt a chill rush through my body as I thought:
I know how they did it.
I realized in that moment that perfectly good, well-meaning people — people like me — can support very evil things through the power of lies. From my own experience, I knew how the Greeks, the Romans, and people in every other society could put themselves into a mental state that they could leave a newborn child to die: the very real pressures of life — “we can’t afford another baby,” “we can’t have any more girls,” “he wouldn’t have had a good life” — left them susceptible to that oldest of temptations: to dehumanize other human beings. Though the circumstances were different, it was the same process that had happened with me, that happened with the concurring Supreme Court Justices in Stenberg v. Carhart, with the abortion doctors, the entire pro-choice movement, and anyone else who’s ever been tempted to dehumanize inconvenient people.
I bet that as those Greek parents handed over their infants for someone to take away, they remarked on how very unlike their other children these little creatures were: they can’t talk, the can’t sit up, and surely those little yawns and smiles are just involuntary reactions. I bet you anything they referred to these babies with different words than they used to refer to the children they kept. Maybe they called them “fetuses.”