I’ve written in the past about my 3 near-death experiences, one of these from a water moccasin bite and two from explosions. These aren’t the “bright light at the end of the tunnel and all my relatives were there” type of near-death experiences. These are near-death in the sense that they could easily have, no, make that should have, killed me. These are experiences where I never lost consciousness like the classic NDE’s that you read about, but I wished like hell at the time that I had. Very recently I realized that, assuming the family history I’ve been told is accurate, I’ve actually had 4 near-death events. I was just too young to remember the first one.
I’ve also written in the past about my being adopted, but I haven’t shared many details. However, it’s necessary to know what happened before I can tell the rest so please bear with me. Here is the story as it’s been handed down in my family.
After having her first baby, my natural mother was diagnosed with an inoperable and aggressive brain tumor that doctors said would take her life in a matter of months, at most. She quickly set about putting her affairs in order, including arranging for her sister and brother-in-law to adopt the boy. Her husband, rat bastard that he was, didn’t stick around for the end and left her to fend for herself. At least, that’s the family story. In fairness, it might have been easier on their Catholic sensibilities to frame it that way.
Not being one to go quietly, Dawn decided to make the best use of whatever time she had left. She started a business. She did some modeling. She became a champion water skier. She had an affair with the guy next door. She had another baby.
Yes, that’s right. I’m a bastard. But in the descriptive rather than the pejorative sense of that term. Or maybe both, you’d have to ask my wife or kids. Anyway, here’s where it gets interesting.
This was a decade before Roe v. Wade but Dawn, my natural mother, was the quintessential example of the class of privileged women to whom safe and legal abortion was available and, in her case, probably was recommended. She was a middle-class white woman living in New York and who was terminally ill. The pregnancy would have jeopardized her life and the brain tumor and chemotherapy certainly jeopardized the pregnancy. It’s a miracle either of us survived. The topic of abortion had to have come up at some point.
But Dawn was raised Catholic. I don’t know what her personal views were but her mother, my grandmother, would never have spoken to her again had she aborted the pregnancy, nor would most of the rest of the family. That had to weigh heavily on her decision. Her religious upbringing and the opinions of the community undoubtedly did as well. I will never know whether bringing me to term was a choice she embraced or struggled with.
When people say that Jesus saved them, I usually get the feeling this is meant in a spiritual or emotional sense. In my case, Jesus saved me in the most literal sense. Had Dawn placed more faith in the doctors than in her priest, I would not be here today to write these words.
What is awkward about all of this is that I’ve been pro-choice as long as I can remember. It never made sense to me that where religious and medical opinions conflict, the religious one should prevail. Certainly religion should be a factor for a person’s own individual choice, but not to pick one religion from among many and give its values the weight of law. The US Constitution guarantees Americans the freedom to practice their religion and even at a young age it seemed self-evident to me that no religion is safe so long as any one religion succeeds in shaping public policy or ascending to elected office. If you remove religion from the debate and look at abortion by the numbers, it’s a no-brainer. Maternal mortality drops dramatically when abortion is legal and available. Fetal mortality not so much, because women desiring abortions can and do get them regardless of whether the procedures are legal. The main difference is that in one case the procedures are performed safely and in the other the government, guided by the church, makes a character judgment and imposes a sort of random death penalty.
This is the same character judgment my grandmother would have made on religious grounds. Dawn would have been banished and her mother and most of the family would never have spoken to her again. But at least they were Christian enough that they would not have endangered her life over it. This I’m confident of because I had that conversation with my grandmother before she died. While I don’t approve of it, I do not object to a religious community choosing to exclude a member who they feel has committed an unforgivable act. I do however take exception to the notion that government would punish that person on behalf of that religious community for the same decision. Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol, continues to fail miserably with drugs and never worked with abortion either. It only makes these activities riskier and the unintended consequences always outweigh any intended benefits. These policies net to more harm than good so it is ironic that most of them are enacted on moral grounds.
Which is all well and good until coming to the realization at fifty years of age that I’m probably only here because my birth mother was Catholic and had strong family ties. How do you reconcile that against pro-choice views?
This is a religious question and I believe the answer rightly goes back to the example that Jesus set. If the Bible is to be believed, it was certainly within Jesus’ power to force the people and the government to accept his teachings and cease their sinful ways. He could even have intervened to prevent his own death. He needed do nothing other than to simply will these changes into existence.
But he didn’t do any of those things.
The reason is obvious if you think about it a bit. Righteous behavior is meaningless in the absence of choice. Slowly dying of hunger in a jail cell probably gets your jailer sent to Hell but it doesn’t get you any closer to Heaven. Slowly dying of hunger rather than steal food from your neighbor does get you closer to Heaven.
It isn’t the dying of hunger that counts here.
It is the ability to choose and the specific choice that you make.
Similarly, my being here today is no moral victory if there was no choice for my mother to make. You don’t get to Heaven by having the option to abort a pregnancy taken away from you and you don’t win any victories for God by being the one to take that choice from someone else. If abortion matters at all in getting to Heaven then it is the ability to choose and the specific choice you make that counts. The only way that removing the choice even remotely can be said to get anyone closer to Heaven is that doing so kills people early. Even then it doesn’t factor into where they end up, it just hastens their judgment, good or bad.
So the realization that I’m the product of a medically complicated pregnancy doesn’t at all shake my pro-choice views. In fact, it only strengthens them. If Christians had the courage of their convictions, then instead of seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, they would be seeking to make all medical procedures as safe as humanly possible including, and perhaps especially, things like abortion and assisted suicide. Then perhaps through leading by example, by arguing a convincing case, and by adopting children outside the pool of healthy, white newborns once in a while, they could claim some moral victories.
But there is no victory to be had in taking away the ability to make a choice, and only tragedy when doing so results in increased rates of death and disfigurement of young women. What would Jesus do? The Bible tells us that he went to his death rather than take from the people their ability to make a choice, even if it was the wrong choice. He led by example. He certainly would not have killed women by the thousands to make his point. And for all the people who claim to be a “soldier of God” or “in God’s Army” consider this: Jesus could easily have raised an army. He didn’t want one then and doesn’t want one now. If anything he’d be turning over in his grave (had he stayed there) at the thought of his followers taking away the choice of others since it is only through the ability to make that choice that one reveals their character and earns their place in Heaven or Hell. Diminish the ability to make a choice and you diminish the number of paths to heaven. Christ doesn’t want you in his Army. He wants you in his Diplomatic Corps.
Speaking as the former fetus of a terminally ill mother, I’m glad she carried me to term. Not only did she live to give birth to me, but she outlived all the doctor’s most optimistic predictions by several years and I actually got to meet her when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I wasn’t told for years after that meeting that she was my mother, and it was some years after that before I learned that my brother is really my half-brother by blood. Nobody ever mentioned whether Dawn considered having an abortion, nor would they since as a Catholic family it was never a real option as far as they were concerned. I had to work that bit out on my own. But being terminally ill and on chemotherapy, the topic of abortion had to have come up and, like the explosions and the snake bite, by all rights it should have killed me. Sometime during Dawn’s first trimester carrying me I had my first near-death experience and didn’t know it for 50 years.
In spite of all this, I remain firmly pro-choice. If anyone in 1963 had a choice available it was my birth mother, and she chose me. Maybe she decided against abortion only because she knew her mother and most of the family would never have spoken to her again as long as she lived had she chose otherwise. But I prefer to believe she had options and came to her decision on her own terms. She knew she was living on borrowed time. Any scenario in which at least one of us survived the pregnancy would have been a medical long shot but was better than the most likely alternative. Perhaps she figured she had nothing to lose and everything to gain in attempting to carry me to term.
I also like to believe that I do not compromise my principles for personal gain, even when I’m the pregnancy in question. If I have the courage of my convictions and the ability to go back in time to speak with her, would I let her come to her own decision without punishing her if she chose to terminate? In all honesty I have to admit that’s not possible. Had she aborted the pregnancy, I too would never have spoken to her as long as she lived. And I feel a bit conflicted about that.