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To Change My Mind: Catholicism, Abortion, And Choice

I now question the stories that convinced me I was right in turning my back on a friend in desperate need.

September 5, 2019

Kelly Mullan
Photo by Jon Tyson // Unsplash

hen *Diana asked me to drive her to an abortion appointment, I said no. She explained that she had been drunk and hooked up with this guy in our hall who, for the first time since we had started college that September, made her actually feel seen, worthy and desirable. Like most of us, she suffered from the low self-esteem of being both a young woman and a college freshman.

Within weeks she found herself pregnant, and desperate not to be. She would have told him — asked him for the ride to the clinic — except that he’d stopped talking to her entirely after the night they slept together.

She spent the days between our conversation and her procedure drunk, tripping on acid, and figuring out how to come up with enough cash to pay for her life back. My roommate drove her the day of the procedure, brought her back to the dorm, fed her soup and ibuprofen and checked in on her until morning. I sat in my dorm room rolling my eyes and shaking my head in judgment of her irresponsible choices.

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My first week of college, I accomplished what my parents told me to do for as long as I could remember. I went to the Newman Center on campus right away to find the other Catholic students and establish relationships. I quickly became friends with *Jessica. Like me, she was from a small town, a large family, and a history of intense teen church retreats. She was also the head of the pro-life group on campus. So many of our stories matched up, I immediately felt validated by knowing there was someone else outside of home that understood the world the same way I did. We met up regularly to talk about the cause, and though we didn’t do much else together, I never really noticed.

As time went by, she began to share with me more and more disturbing stories and images of abortions. She gave me a manila folder of information so that I could show it to others in the hope of letting them in on the truth of this barbaric and murderous procedure. None of this was brand new information for me, as my parents had made clear they didn’t “believe in pre-marital sex” and there was certainly no reason — ever — for someone to commit the mortal sin of murdering a baby through abortion.

It felt good to talk with Jessica, who also knew these things to be true. It felt so good that before long I was actively protesting outside the very clinic that had performed Diana’s procedure. The group of protesters would gather at Perkins early on Saturday mornings, indulging in weak coffee and giant muffins while we amped each other up to get out there and prevent the slaughter of innocent babies for God. Nothing could have felt more righteous.

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Over the next few years I developed a wider circle of friends, took some classes, and had experiences that would cause me to question if the way I understood the world at 18 really held up as truth for me. Just after college ended I would find myself unexpectedly pregnant as a result of some of that pre-marital sex my parents had warned me about. I made the decision to carry and to parent that child. She’s an adult now. Maybe it comes as a surprise based on my history, but I do not feel victorious over Diana from freshman year, or any other woman who made a different choice.

While I’m glad that I’ve lived the path that lead me and my daughter to where we are today, I also know that if she came to me tomorrow, unhappily pregnant, I would drive her to that clinic, hold her hand if she wanted me to, and pay the bill without a second thought in the world. I’d do the same for your daughter too, with or without your support. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the exact shifts over two decades that have brought about this sea change. I’m still digging.

The years in between college and now have shown me the many ways in which those assigned female at birth are disproportionately impacted by pregnancy, intended or not. I’ve seen firsthand how our lifelong outcomes can be altered. We are held responsible for chastity, birth control, and warding off sexual advances and assault. We are judged on what we wear, where we hang out, how much we drink, and who we surround ourselves with. This all happens concurrent to being encouraged to be cute:sexy:flirtatious:available.

It is a double-bind scenario where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. In the end, sex ending in pregnancy is a burden often left to women to shoulder alone.

Upon becoming pregnant, we are subject to either carrying a child and facing the enormous impact of that decision — the hugely foundational pieces of life, emotional and financial stability — or we are deemed irresponsible, heartless and immoral for choosing abortion. From where I sit, the driving factor behind such judgments of women’s choices is an imposition of religion couched as moral obligation.

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It is often reported that the generation coming of age now is the least religious in all of history. According to faith and culture researchers at the Barna Group, “More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity.” If my own three kids are any indication, the statistics are certainly true.

My life has evolved a lot in the years since I decided to raise my daughter. I’ve been married, divorced, and married again. I’ve chosen to have a total of three children—all of them proved to be daughters. My husband and I have focused the upbringing of these girls mainly on issues of ethics and justice, and less on adherence to a specific religious tradition. For us, it feels like it has worked well in guiding them to be kind, inquisitive, and thoughtful individuals.

I’d argue that most of what happens with any generation doesn’t start from within, but rather from their parents’ realizations as they progress into and through adulthood. I know for me the safety, acceptance, and belonging I’d once felt from my church dissipated when I felt the sting of its rejection.

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Divorce is unacceptable in the faith I was raised in. Even if you don’t want it. Even if your husband took up with some 22-year-old or some other such transgression. And that rejection by my faith group, based on my own divorce, made me question other things too, like why the man was supposed to be the head of the house in the first place. It had never been true, in my experience. Not in my home of origin and not in the home of my making.

It had me wondering what other stories I’d been taught as truth that didn’t exactly match up with people’s actual lived experience. For instance, nobody I’ve ever known has practiced sex purely for procreation. Also, over the years I’ve known so many women with various reasons who wanted and needed abortions, even those whose faith condemned them for it. I could make you a running list, and no two stories would look the same.

I also questioned the stories that convinced me I was in the right turning my back on a friend in desperate need and chanting in front of that abortion clinic. If I think about it deeply, they were stories rooted in guilt and shame and patriarchy. I acted on the messages those stories told because I truly wanted to do what was right and just.

In looking back it’s difficult not to judge 18-year-old me. But if I try to look at her the way I look at my own daughter of the same age, I’m able to use a lens of compassion. My beautiful child has got all kinds of untested ideas. It’s going to take her some time to weigh them against the world. We don’t know what we don’t know.

As kids we seek guidance from those we love and trust, and sometimes, as I did, we make mistakes. When we know better, we do better. It is my hope that my daughter learns, in the way I now know, that you can always change your mind.

*names changed because: privacy

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