Reflections on Heartbreak and Choice

Dear Brother Givens,

I came across your post on abortion today.  I confess that I did not read it carefully because I am trying to be kinder to myself.  From what I did read, you quote several writers and statistics, and ultimately ground your opinions in your own visceral reactions to abortion and especially the procedures used in the second and third trimester.  I wonder, though, did you try to speak directly to any women who have had abortions?  Did you read any firsthand accounts of abortions by women who do not regret them?  Did you send out a call to your general female acquaintance to share their experiences with you?  I guarantee that you personally know some women who have had abortions, though, given what you wrote, I am not sure they would have trusted you with their experiences.

Here is what I would have told you.  I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from childhood.  I served a mission.  I have held many callings.  I remained chaste until marriage and remain faithful in my marriage.  And I had an abortion a few years ago on the first day of my fifteenth week of pregnancy.  

I was in my late thirties at the time, a graduate of a prestigious professional school, but no longer working outside the home, because I wanted to be home while my children were young.  I married late, not by design, and therefore started my family late.  At 11 weeks into my second pregnancy, we did some prenatal genetic testing.  The following week, the genetic counselor informed us that the fetus had Down’s Syndrome.  Within the space of two weeks after receiving the diagnosis, we pondered what to do, confirmed the diagnosis with further testing, and decided to end the pregnancy.  The clock was ticking, because we knew if we decided to end it, we wanted to do it as soon as possible.  

I get it.  You are looking for the big philosophical and moral answer. I looked for that answer too.  I read bioethics papers.  I read about Down’s Syndrome and reflected on the children with the condition I have personally known.  I spoke to the parents of adults with the condition.  I read about the abortion procedure.  I pondered my own beliefs about when the spirit enters the body and what God expects of me.  I did as much as I could to find “the answer” in the fog of those two weeks and I kept looking for a very long time.  If I am honest, I am still looking.  I have to agree that the simplest, most intuitive, most coherent answer is life.  Respect all life.  Save the unborn babies.  And also work for the end of the death penalty.  And work for social and economic justice.  And work for a better adoption and foster care system.  And work for more support for working mothers, single mothers, battered mothers, mothers with mental health issues, and just plain mothers. 

But what about now?  You are asking this woman to bring this child into her specific circumstances, which she does not see as conducive for this baby, now.  Not when all of your life-supporting work is done and the utopia achieved.  Now.  You are asking her to take that gamble with her life, with that baby’s life, and with the lives of her partner and other children.  You cannot pretend there is no risk.  There is, to the mother, to the mother’s other family members, to the unborn baby and to the child, adolescent, and adult that baby will become.  Risk of poor physical health or even death, risk of poverty, risk of neglect or abuse, risk of mental breakdown, risk of family dissolution.  But you, Brother Givens, don’t need to weigh those risks, because you are not personally confronted with them and you have put down your blanket rule.  Your coherent, simple, should-be-obvious-to-everyone-because-the-procedures-are-abhorent rule.  Specific circumstances and consequences be damned.

Here were my circumstances.  As I said, I was an older mother and my husband is even older than I.  Adults with Down’s Syndrome now routinely live into their sixties.  That means my husband and I would likely no longer be able to care for this child for 20-30 years of its life, either because we would be too old, or because we would be dead.  We only had one other child, so all of the responsibility of care would fall on that child, assuming that child would be physically, mentally, emotionally able and willing to take on that responsibility.  Yes, we could plan our lives to financially provide for the child’s care, but even in the best case scenario, quality third-party care may not be available.  We have friends going through this circumstance right now.

And what if something happened to me and my husband well before our healthy child could assume responsibility?  Our parents are too old to care for young children full time.  My husband’s sibling only very reluctantly agreed to care for our healthy child in the wake of our untimely deaths.  Our other siblings are not suitable caretakers for various reasons.  There is no one else.

Do you think I took this decision lightly?  Surely not.  Do you think I was selfish?  I was, in part.  I cannot deny that I took into account my own needs and desires.  (Why is that so wrong, by the way?)  But I also cared deeply about the welfare of my husband, my other child, and the possible future awaiting the fetus.  I did the best I could to weigh all of the risks and possible consequences.  Do you think I lacked faith?  Maybe I did, but can you blame me?  With all the work there is left to do to truly support life, as you rightly point out in your piece, can you blame me for not having faith that my disabled child would be well cared for in my virtually guaranteed absence for 20-30 years, some 30 years into the future?  I did not want to take that gamble.  Given our specific circumstances, I deemed it irresponsible.  And though these moments are sacred to me, I will tell you that I prayed to God and I felt understanding and love, not judgment.

As to your assertion that abortion harms the mental health of the woman, I have experience on that front too.  But please believe me when I say it is not the abortion that harmed my mental health.  I have replayed my reasoning for my decision a thousand times, just as I did for you here, and the result is always the same.  I do not feel remorse or guilt.  I do not feel the need to repent.  But I do feel shame. I feel shame because I fear rejection by my community for the choice I made.  I feel shame because a large portion of my coreligionists and my fellow citizens find what I did repugnant without knowing me or my circumstances.  I feel shame because I feel I must carry this secret in order to remain a part of a community I have held dear since childhood.  The secrecy and fear breeds shame, not the decision to end the pregnancy.  I have told a few close friends who are members of the Church, and they have embraced me and reaffirmed their love for me.  I wish I could trust the membership at large to do the same.

I could certainly give you many other reasons to keep abortion legal and to allow the woman to decide, but those are eloquently laid out elsewhere (also here).  I wanted to share with you the struggle of one woman who shares your faith.  I don’t share my personal experience because it is unique or because it is representative.  Each woman’s struggle when confronted with these hard choices is both unique and similar in some ways.  I only want to illustrate that, while the view looks clear to you from 10,000 feet, it’s much messier here on the ground.  I don’t have “the answer” to the morality of abortion and to the question of where to draw the lines.  Maybe someday I will, and maybe I will find that I made a grave mistake.  But I don’t think so.  I made a difficult, heartbreaking choice.  The opposite choice would have had its own heartbreaking consequences.  I am doing the best I can in the messy world.  But ultimately I am glad the choice belonged to me and my family, based on my research, my beliefs, my assessment of our circumstances, not to the government, and not to you.

Yours in fellowship,

Your Sister in Christ