Window Into Our Wombs

When I arrived at Union Station on Friday, January 19, I was overwhelmed by throngs of March for Life participants. In the midst of the chaos, I spotted an older white man sheepishly holding a sign, looking really uncomfortable. Averting my eyes, he shifted his sign sideways so I couldn’t read it. Which made me really curious.

A few minutes later, while he was being interviewed by a reporter with a camera crew, I crept closer to read the sign, and snapped a photo of it. It said “Fewer women would have abortions if wombs had windows.” Incredible. There’s nothing more infuriating than a pro-life man.

Creepy. Voyeuristic. Intrusive. Judgmental. Sexist. Clueless. These are just a few of the words that come to mind when I think about it now. I’ve been rolling this around for days, going back and forth, sparking a vigorous abortion debate inside my own head. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole on this issue. I guess that’s why we are still arguing about it 45 years after the landmark Roe V. Wade decision. I think it’s important to reexamine important issues, though, and not assume that we know everything. We may not change our thinking, but might learn something if we keep an open mind.

I was in town for the sequel to the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday, and knew women’s reproductive rights would be one of many topics discussed. But strangely, their march was exclusively about the life of the unborn. For a brief moment, I thought I spotted a kindred spirit carrying a “Defend Planned Parenthood” sign. On second glance, it clearly read “Defund Planned Parenthood.” Sigh. What a difference a letter and a day can make.

They shipped Catholic high school kids in by the busload for the event. They are a captive audience, and primed for this through their schooling. I know – I was one of them, a few decades ago. For a long time, I didn’t permit myself to think too far outside the lines.

It’s easy to see why a young person could have a simplistic view of a complicated issue. When your life experiences are limited, so is your viewpoint. Wrong is wrong. Maybe they saw the photos, too, which I admit are damning, traumatizing and powerful. I think I was about twelve when one of my classmates shared her pro-life pamphlet at school. It contained a disturbing photo of a black trash bag, casually discarding what appeared to be dozens of human fetuses.

When I look back now, it’s hard to imagine how this slipped through the cracks of censorship. Gum, perms, large earrings and some Judy Blume books were all considered contraband in my Catholic grade school. Then again, they weren’t shy about using graphic imagery if it served the “faith.” Stations of the cross and vivid, realistic crucifixes are just a few examples.

The Catholic School system used shame, fear and religion in an attempt to shape our views and exert control over our sex lives. Telling us simultaneously that an unplanned pregnancy would be catastrophic. But, under the “right” circumstances, read “marriage,” children are a “blessing.” The sudden transition of sex from forbidden to mandatory and celebrated was always really confusing to me. Talk about bringing baggage to your romantic relationships.

The “womb window” sign evokes the same shame game. If the most intimate details of a woman’s life were visible, it posits, she can be guilted into carrying a child to full term. Or worse, forced into giving birth against her will.

The religious overtones, and use of dated, pious, biblical language is so manipulative. Holding the Madonna up on a pedestal of purity is never helpful. She’s flat and one-dimensional, like the sign, widening the gap between an impossible ideal and real women. This thinking prevents us from understanding the full breadth of women’s humanity and personhood.

Given the man’s embarrassment and messaging, he probably doesn’t feel comfortable talking about sex either. Which is, of course, a big part of the problem. We need to talk about the broader issues surrounding and impacting sex, birth control, pregnancy and abortion, without rushing to judgment, and pushing to impose blanket regulations and legislation.

There are REAL PEOPLE involved, including, but not limited to, the unborn child. Anyone wishing to gain better insight into a women’s womb must begin by getting to know us, individually, and through a broader lens.

I wish I could have told the sign-carrying pro-lifer that women’s lives, pregnancies and relationships are unique. We have our own stories and experiences that inform us and our choices. An unplanned pregnancy may turn our lives upside down, and challenge what we think we know about life.

We know ourselves, our circumstances and desires better than anyone else,. And must have the freedom to make deeply personal and complicated decisions autonomously, with the support of a trusted medical professional and partner, if we are so fortunate. Our futures can’t be determined by a stranger carrying a sign, or the government – a government that routinely fails to support women in these situations, and their children, once they are born.

Our stories are our own to tell, if we choose to share them. As adults, we insist upon our privacy and dignity. We don’t need our relationships and private lives monitored or controlled.

To encourage a more thoughtful discussion around women’s reproductive choices as they relate to the rest of our lives, I’m including a number of perspectives below. Many of the examples are taken from women I know personally. Their stories burn inside me, and beg to be told.

I plan to expand on many of these topics in future blog posts to bring additional insight, sanity and humanity to this complex, but critical, conversation.

This is probably the most popular, canned response to unexpected pregnancies. Adoption sounds great, and makes people feel better, not unlike dropping clothing off at Goodwill to give it another chance at life. But like the sign that considers only the womb and its contents, it takes a limited view of the situation.

For starters, without knowing the particulars of conception, it’s extremely ignorant and insensitive to suggest or mandate women carry an unwanted child to full term. Pregnancies conceived in trauma, for example, are arguably not a blessing. Read on to learn more about the lives of real women below.

The adoption process is also really complicated in the United States. A wonderful couple I know with the heart and means to be great parents ultimately adopted daughters from China after exhausting their options in the U.S.

The pro-life enthusiasts also fail to understand that childbirth is not without risk to the mother – especially if the woman has her own health issues.

This should be a no-brainer, but never seems to be included in any discussions around abortion. Many women have physical, emotional or mental health issues which would make it difficult for them to complete a pregnancy, or parent a child. These private matters are part of the choice equation that women shouldn’t have to justify to religious leaders or legislators.

My sister, a breast cancer survivor, was required to sign a waiver promising to use birth control while taking Tamoxifen, a cancer-fighting drug associated with birth defects. As a precaution, breast cancer survivors are advised to wait two years after completing treatment to attempt a pregnancy, to ensure the cancer has truly retreated for good.

Other medicines women take to maintain their own health inhibit different types of birth control.

People love to use words like “responsibility,” “morals,” and “consequences” when talking about abortion. It appears they want women to pay, or be punished for presumably having unprotected sex. I believe they have a very specific woman in mind when they make this assumption, making it easier to judge and throw her under the bus.

The reality is, no contraceptive method is 100% effective, even when followed religiously. We live in an imperfect world, and responsible couples in committed relationships can and do become pregnant while using birth control.

All relationships are not created alike. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in three women are physically abused by a romantic partner in their lifetime. In addition, of all total female murder victims, one in three are killed by their partner. It’s always challenging for women to escape abusive relationships, but an unplanned pregnancy can make it even more difficult.

Women may not be emotionally or financially prepared to have or raise a child by herself, for example, or pay for an abortion. In addition, it’s not uncommon for abusive men to use children to control women, going so far as to sabotage her efforts at birth control.

Pro-lifers who wish to shame women should also understand that not all sex is consensual. They should know that one in six women are the victim of an attempted of completed rape in her lifetime. Forcing a woman to complete a pregnancy born of a traumatic, violent act, is unconscionable. Their bodies have already been invaded once against their will.

If you’ve ever known or talked to a rape victim, as I have, you would know how fragile they can be following the assault. They need sympathy and support, time to heal and recover.

But even in the case of rape, we often blame the female victim. Where was she, what was she wearing, did she drink too much?

This is especially true when popular or powerful men or boys are involved. Their status seems to trump their misdeeds, with even other women rushing to defend the offender – especially if he happens to be a football player.

Steubenville is just one recent, disturbing example of the link between rape culture and football. Businessmen like Harvey Weinstein borrow from the same playbook, which brings me to the next topic…

Things can become even more complicated when a woman’s tormentor also happens to be her supervisor or boss. A recent survey, prompted by the explosive #me too movement, showed one in four women have been harassed by men with influence over their careers.

Historically, taking a stand against a powerful man could mean career suicide. Three quarters of women say they experienced repercussions when they addressed workplace harassment. Recently, however, they have become emboldened by rampant stories of misbehavior in Hollywood and Washington, and are finding the courage to speak up.

Originally, the thinking and reality was that most men were breadwinners, so needed to make more money. Things have obviously changed, and there have been improvements. But there’s still a 20% discrepancy between white women and men’s salaries, with a wider gap for minority women.

As we continue to play catch up salary wise, the single mother demographic has mushroomed, with 23% of families  now headed by unmarried women. Even if an unmarried or unsupported single woman opts to put an unplanned child up for adoption, provided that’s an option for her, she’ll have to succumb to a slew of doctor’s appointments which usually means missed work and wages.

The pregnancy itself comes at a much steeper price, with prenatal, delivery and post-partum care costing upwards of $8,000. If an unmarried woman opts to brave parenthood alone, she’s likely to require childcare while working, which can consume up to half of her salary. A recent study shows women got the memo on this, with most saying they had abortions for financial reasons.

There aren’t any easy answers here. But if we truly care about women and unborn children, we must move away from judgement to a place of empathy and understanding. Only then can we take a wider view, and improve the conditions and circumstances impacting women, family planning, unplanned pregnancies and reproductive choices.

End Sexual Violence. Affordable HealthCare Now. Equal Pay, Equal Rights. Worker’s Rights. Stop Sexual Harassment. Planned Parenthood. Make Childcare Affordable.

These are just a few of the powerful messages delivered from the podium, on signage and tshirts at the Women’s March on Washington 2018, the day after the March for Life. But they are more than words. They can be our marching orders, and a checklist for creating a healthier, brighter world for women AND tomorrow’s children. And a climate that supports and empowers women so they can make the best possible choices for themselves and their families.