I first learned about abortion in church. I was in middle school, in the class on sexuality and reproduction that young Unitarian Universalists take during Sunday school: "Our Whole Lives."
There was a box where students could submit questions anonymously to be read and answered by the teacher at the close of class. These questions were sometimes personal: "How does someone know they're gay?" And they were sometimes practical: "How do you know what size condom will fit?'"
One day the question in the box read: "What is an abortion, and why would someone have one?" The teacher paused. This was a bigger question than she was used to answering.
"Well," she started, "an abortion is the process by which someone terminates a pregnancy. It can be done in the doctor's office by physically removing the products of conception, or at home by taking pills that will make the body expel the pregnancy. Women have abortions because they cannot or do not want to have a baby. Some women are sad, some women are relieved, and some women are both."
I pondered whether I would have an abortion if faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Thinking of the choice in the context of my own life made me uncomfortable.
The explanation was simple and clean. It made sense and levied no judgment against those who chose abortion. In my teenage years, as I became more politically aware and women's rights began to feel relevant to my life, I viewed abortion through this simple, clean lens.
By the time I entered college I was attending rallies and waving signs in support of women's access to health care, birth control, and abortion. I wrote letters and called my representatives and door-knocked for candidates who had woman's rights in mind. In 2008, I cast my first vote ever for Hillary Clinton, a woman who vowed to defend a woman's rights to abortion.
During that election and the next, my anger at pro-lifers grew as politicians and pundits vilified women who have had abortions. They characterized these women as either vindictive baby killers or as so naive as to be tricked by malicious doctors or clinics into killing their babies.
Even in extreme cases of conception by rape, many politicians argued that women should be denied access to abortion. "As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child," said Rick Santorum as he campaigned for the presidency.
Regarding publicly funded contraception, one of the best strategies to reduce unwanted pregnancies and, thus, abortions, Rush Limbaugh said, "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
I saw these comments as patronizing and paternalistic, and they gave me all the more reason to fight to maintain the right to choose.
I pondered whether I would ever choose to have an abortion if faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Thinking of the choice in the context of my own life made me uncomfortable. I resolved to use reliable birth control and hope for the best.
And then, just a few weeks after my 23rd birthday, with a semester left in graduate school and an intermittently empty back account, I found out that I was pregnant. When I confirmed the pregnancy at the same Planned Parenthood from which I obtained my first birth control prescription as a teenager, the nurse asked if I wanted to "discuss my options" — in other words, if I wanted to consider having an abortion.
"There's no need," I responded as I smiled at the prospect of motherhood. Though it wasn't the circumstances under which I had hoped to become a mother, I was excited and hopeful and in love with my baby already.
My husband and I had been married for over a year. We were sure to have the love and support of our families. And we would, hopefully, both be gainfully employed by the time the baby arrived. We laughed and cried as we told my parents and my siblings. We made doctor's appointments. We started planning to be parents.
I began to bleed while I was crafting valentines for my friends, ones with ultrasound pictures taped into lace hearts that read:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
We're having a baby and couldn't wait to tell you!
The bleeding was light. I was told to rest. It stopped, and then it started again. I went back to the doctor, and the ultrasound showed no heartbeat, just a still, white form, stark against the black background of the screen. The gummy bear that had been fluttering around, dancing for us just days before, was dead.
I was devastated. I felt hopeless and helpless, scared and sorrowful. I was scheduled for a dilation and curettage on the next Monday, and that weekend, as the Mardi Gras parades rolled by a few blocks from my home and the bands marched and played, I lay in bed crying and mourning for the baby that would never be born.
When I checked into the hospital that Monday, the stark terminology used during my stay was jarring. Though I knew that "spontaneous abortion" was a medical term, it shook me to see the word "abortion" associated with my much-wanted baby. Later, when the doctor explained that after the procedure they would send the "fetal tissue" for testing, I caught my breath. "That's not fetal tissue," I wanted to shout, "that's MY BABY." I was put under with tears in my eyes and woke up still crying.
The weeks after my miscarriage were hard. I lay in bed a lot and took the pain pills the doctor prescribed, mostly to help me sleep. My husband grieved, too, and together we had many conversations about who our baby would have been.
Though I knew "spontaneous abortion" was a medical term, it shook me to see the word "abortion" associated with my much-wanted baby
Mark Zuckerberg recently shared his experience of pregnancy loss with the world: "You feel so hopeful when you learn you're going to have a child," he wrote. "You start imagining who they'll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they're gone. It's a lonely experience."
I understand the pain behind his words, the difficulty of capturing the grief you feel over an invisible loss. My husband and I too had been hopeful; we had imagined who our child would be, had crafted hopes and dreams for them already. Miscarriage is lonely, perhaps particularly lonely when you're young and your baby was unplanned though very wanted.
A persistent sticking point in my grief was the confusion I felt around a topic I'd always had a clear and strong opinion on prior to my miscarriage: abortion. I realized that I was referring to my miscarriage in traditionally pro-life terms. I talked about "losing my baby" and daydreamed of kicks and contractions. Typically it's pro-life activists who argue that life starts at conception, not pro-choicers like me. But my baby had certainly felt alive to me.
Billboards, featuring pictures of beautiful infants that shouted, "I can hear my mom's voice in the womb!" or, "Heartbeat 18 days after conception!" had always angered me because they're manipulative to women who may be considering abortion. Now I had a new reason to object to them: They made me worry that my baby hurt as it died.
I wasn't shy about telling people about my loss. Though it felt awkward at first when professors asked me why I'd been absent from class or when new acquaintances asked if I planned to have kids anytime soon, I responded with the truth. Their responses seemed to be informed by when they believed that life started and, by extension, their views on abortion. Those who were anti-abortion spoke only of my baby; those who were pro-choice spoke only of me.
Many people told me that my baby was with God now: "A baby angel," said a nurse as she slipped a pocket-size booklet about babies in heaven into my hand as I walked out the door. The booklet explained that some babies were so perfect that God wanted to keep them with him, but that you would meet them in heaven one day. I threw it away when I got home.
At the same time there were those who tried to minimize my grief by minimizing the baby, and the loss, that I felt was very real. More than a few individuals suggested that I simply try again, as if this baby was not unique — was just a blob of tissue no different from how the next might be. One asked if I had even "felt" pregnant at only 10 weeks along. Another would-be well-wisher reminded me that my "baby" was really just a ball of cells that was incompatible with life, and that I should appreciate the sophisticated system within my body that resulted in miscarriage.
As I worked through my grief, I felt guilty both for supporting women's choices to end their pregnancies and for feeling so sad about the end of mine. What made my baby so different from those I was advocating women be able to "terminate"? I felt a great internal pressure to choose between seeing my baby as a baby or as a ball of cells, as a life or as nothing at all. I did not feel entitled to be both sad about my miscarriage and a supporter of other people's abortions.
The questions that kept me up most at night were ones pro-life activists would love for women to have as they consider whether to keep their baby: "Did my baby have a soul? Did my baby know it was alive? Did my baby feel scared as it died?"
Two years later and with a toddler at my feet, I finally feel at peace. I'm at peace with the sadness I felt about my miscarriage — and with my belief that abortion is a fundamental human right. The question, really, comes down to: When does life begin? Is it the moment sperm meets egg? Implantation? The first kick? The first kick that the mom feels? Is it weeks later, when the baby could survive outside the womb? Or weeks after that, when he or she actually does?
I've decided that I don't know when life really begins, and that is okay. My mother, the woman who rewove childhood tales to include strong female leads and who always told me I could be whatever I wanted, had two miscarriages, one before my sister and one before me. As I mourned, I turned to her for support, and I hoped she could answer my questions — about life and pain, beginnings and endings.
Over and over, her response, lovingly, was, "I don't know." Her comfort with uncertainty, with not knowing, helped me ease into being okay with not having the answers.
I don't know when life really starts, but I do know that it's okay for me to mourn the loss of my 10-week-old fetus and for me to simultaneously fight for another woman's right to end hers. In something so personal, so profoundly life-altering as pregnancy, it's silly to think that there is a simple black-and-white answer. It's also silly to think that if you're pro-choice you can't mourn a miscarriage or if you're pro-life you must be devastated by one.
We must defer to the woman and to what feels right to her, to the balance she strikes between the life she carries and the life she has
What's right for me, or sad for me, or joyous for me, may be just the opposite for another woman. In the absence of this knowing, knowing when life begins, we must defer to the woman and to what feels right to her, to the balance she strikes between the life she carries and the life she has.
For me and my baby, life began the moment I knew I was pregnant, and it ended as I watched the dark screen stay still. For another woman life may begin at conception, for another not until the baby is wet and wiggling in her arms. Each woman has a backstory, the things that came before the pregnancy, the things that will inform her feelings and her choices. My backstory — the fact that I was nearly done with my education, that I knew my family would support any decision I made, that I had made this baby with the man I loved and with whom I planned to make all my children — informed my feelings about my loss. A different backstory or a different time in my life might have made me feel differently.
I trust women to know themselves, to know their lives, and to make good choices for themselves. I know now too that making a family is hard, that the beginning of life is ambiguous, part science, part spirit. With something so fragile, so hard, we should do all we can to support women in their journey, to celebrate when they celebrate, to mourn when they mourn. I will always mourn the loss of my unborn baby, and I will always fight to keep women's right to choose, and access to abortion, alive.
Julia Pelly has a master's degree in public health and works full-time in the field of positive youth development. She is writing a memoir on pregnancy, motherhood, and sisterhood. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and son.