It is monstrous and cruel to force another human being to take serious medical risks and endure pain and violations of their body without their consent. But that is the pro-life position, and they are very proud of holding it—even extending it to their own mothers. It makes me wonder if they'd really be okay with life on such grotesque terms. I sure wouldn't be.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Even though I know what Betteridge’s law of headlines teaches, and I know that pro-life activists probably love their mothers dearly, I still made the title of this column a question. That’s because a recent story in Baptist Press really makes me wonder.

I’m pro-choice, as was my deceased mother, and I can’t even imagine forcing her to go through with an unwanted pregnancy. I could not accept life on those terms. And it’s hard for me to fathom how someone else could do that to someone they supposedly love.

(Author’s note: Today’s post focuses on cis women, who are defined as people assigned female at birth and who identify as the gender traditionally associated with that assignment. I guarantee you that very few people in the pro-life camp ever realize that some people who aren’t women can get pregnant too, like trans men and enbies. Also, in my opinion “pro-life” is a misnomer if ever there was one. These folks are forced-birth, if anything. Their interest in fetuses may stem solely from the fact that fetuses can’t tell them to GTFO. Just for today’s post, though, I’m using pro-life.)

The eternal question: Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-life?

I’ve been asked this one question many times over the years, and it’s always posed with a spiteful sneer:

Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-life?

But my mother was pro-choice. As far as I can tell, she was always pro-choice. When she conceived me, it was a few years before Roe v Wade semi-guaranteed the right to an abortion to all American women. However, abortion had always been an illicit option for women in her precarious situation.

It was simply an option my mother did not choose for herself.

Being pro-choice doesn’t mean you want to force abortions on everyone. It means you think women ought to have a (shocker!) choice about whether or not they will gestate a fetus to birth. Her choice was to do exactly that.

My extremely Catholic grandparents were horrified by her choice. They demanded what is quaintly called a “shotgun wedding” to legitimize the incoming baby. And so a wedding was made.

(And it was miserable, for the few years it lasted).

Yet another pro-life ode to mothers in difficult circumstances

The story I’m looking at today comes to us from Baptist Press. Baptist Press is the official mouthpiece of the ultra-conservative, culture-warrior-oriented Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As you might imagine, they’ve been on a tear lately about abortion.

The way musician Jason Lovins tells it, someone raped his mother when she was 15. She got pregnant from the assault, but she chose to keep the baby. Originally, she’d planned to give the baby up for adoption, but oh gosh, wouldn’t ya know it! She bonded hard with it once it got there, and she decided instead to keep it and raise it as her own.

That baby is now a grown-up Christian singer who talks a lot about how wonderfully his own story turned out. He makes a point of frequently talking about his life to influence young evangelical women who get pregnant out of wedlock.

Very obviously, he seeks to convince them that if they gestate their unplanned pregnancies and give birth just like his mother did, everything will work out for them like it did for him and his mom.

The Turnaway Study begs to differ, unfortunately.

And now, that grown-up child is using the other end of the talking point: he’s so glad his mom chose to bear and raise him!

I can see why pro-life crusaders try this hard to manipulate young women in their ranks

The simple truth is that religious fervor doesn’t have much effect on one’s reproductive choices. That means that super-religious evangelical women seek and obtain abortion care almost as often as nonreligious heathen women.

A 2007 study from Taiwan found “no significant effect of religion in predicting the likelihood of having an abortion.” They suspect that American Christians might be much like Taiwanese Christians, but they wanted more research.

In 2020, Guttmacher Institute found that “people of all religions use birth control and have abortions.” Almost no differences existed among women regarding birth control. (And interestingly, only about 1% of Catholic women reported having ever used “natural family planning,” which is the only sorta-method their leaders officially allow.) Though the largest proportion of women seeking abortion care reported “no religious affiliation,” 24% identified as Catholic, 17% as mainline Protestant, and 13% as evangelical. Interestingly, in 2020 PRRI found that evangelicals made up 14% of America’s population.

So I can safely say: Southern Baptist women avail themselves of abortion care, and/or they help other women obtain it. They just don’t talk about it.

As a result, Southern Baptist leaders try very hard to manipulate their flocks into “choosing life.”

Related: Evangelicals actually made a video full of cis men mournfully telling viewers that they totally had abortions

The pro-choice evangelicals in the pews (are all silent)

In 2015, the SBC’s leaders were absolutely gobsmacked and horrified to discover that many of their members were pro-choice. And SBC women overwhelmingly distrusted their churches and leaders regarding unplanned pregnancies and abortion. They didn’t think churches gave accurate information about pregnancy or abortion, thought their churches were woefully unprepared to help women make decisions about unplanned pregnancies, and didn’t think it was a good idea to talk about their unplanned pregnancies with anybody from church.

They’re right on every count, too, as I discovered myself.

Slacktivist covered the story, summarizing it thusly:

The truth is that LifeWay’s church distrusts women. They distrust women when it comes to abortion, and when it comes to almost everything else.

Their churches teach that women are untrustworthy — that they are incapable of being trusted with decisions about anything, including decisions about their own lives. Their churches teach that women are incapable of moral responsibility. . .

Anyone who says, “How could a third of evangelicals be pro-choice? I’ve never met such a person” is really saying, “I’m the kind of person who has made it clear that I don’t want to hear from or to listen to anyone else, especially women.”

Slacktivist, 2015

It’s not surprising at all that SBC women seek and obtain abortion care. They do so even if they are fanatical pro-life protesters. I mean, all that Jesus blahblah is fine and good when things are going well in any facet of life. When they’re not, fervent Christians are just like anybody else. They do what they need to do, and they rationalize it as best they can.

They just do it without talking about it to those who won’t like their decisions.

All their leaders can do is push as hard as they can on the emotional-manipulation throttle⁠—and hope it works.

This bit of pro-life manipulation is especially tedious

In Lovins’ case, his mother’s own parents got to work. Immediately after learning about the unplanned pregnancy, they didn’t get options from other doctors or seek therapy⁠—not even fake evangelical therapy. Instead, they took her to church to “pray” about the situation. I have no doubt that this prayer session was meant to reinforce the SBC’s and the parents’ staunch anti-abortion message, and it worked.

On a more practical level, this teen’s parents also provided for her financially. This help allowed her more leeway in her decision-making.

And now, her grown-up son is telling people about how he was totally “spared from abortion,” like that was ever any kind of option she had in the first place, and that she decided to “choose life,” like she could have done otherwise.

Really gets the noggin joggin’, though, doesn’t it?

What if Lovins’ mother had decided to get an abortion and was denied it? What if her only option was to gestate against her will? What if she had not wanted to become a parent, even if for a moment before adoption? And what if her own parents had decided not to help her at all, while also making abortion impossible for her to obtain?

Would she still have made the choices she did? And would Lovins’ life have turned out so well?

(After all, adoption is not the alternative to abortion. It is the alternative to parenting. Pregnancy itself is the alternative to abortion.)

When mothers bear children unwillingly, the children tend to suffer

The effects of forced motherhood go far past just the devastating financial impact. These women’s children will also suffer enormous personal pain and psychological damage if they ever find out. And I cannot blame them at all for feeling that way.

I got lucky, and Lovins got very lucky. Even though our conceptions surprised our respective mothers, they still loved us and wanted to be our mothers. My own mother told me this explicitly many times when I was growing up, though I didn’t know the circumstances of my conception till I was in adulthood.

I’ve seen many accounts of children who learned that their mothers hadn’t wanted to have them. These children are almost always absolutely devastated. When a Quora user asked for advice in that situation, respondents overwhelmingly called the mother’s behavior “cruel.” Most other respondents advocated never talking to the mother ever again. A few respondents revealed that they, too, had learned similar facts about their own mothers, and it almost always cut them to the quick.

Other stories make clear that these revelations can have lasting damaging effects on the children who learn the truth. As one Quora user put it:

I think that the worst part, knowing that the people who are supposed to love you forever just consider you a burden.

Snehal Singhal, Quora

It breaks the heart to just imagine it. Living with it must be torture.

Some people are perfectly fine with forcing others to give of their bodies

It’s very easy for pro-life people to think about forcing women to gestate against their wills. They already think women’s bodies are property.

So, let’s shift our gazes to a situation involving a man being forced to do something similar.

Let’s look at the famous 1978 trial of McFall v Shimp.

In this case, Robert McFall needed a bone marrow transfusion to save his own life from aplastic anemia. Even with the transfusion, he had a good chance of dying anyway. But without it, death was absolutely certain.

These transfusions aren’t quick or easy. According to one site specializing in finding matches, they carry a time commitment of 20-30 hours spread across 4-6 weeks. There are risks as well, including back and hip pain and serious nerve damage, along with the usual risks associated with being under general anesthesia. Donors may be out of commission for 1-7 days afterward, as well.

The very definition of pro-life, really

McFall’s family members underwent testing for compatibility. One person came up as a match. David Shimp, McFall’s first cousin, had compatible bone marrow. Of note, Shimp had consented to the matching tests.

But when the time came to actually do the thing, Shimp withdrew consent.

So McFall sued him to force him to donate his marrow.

McFall lost that lawsuit. The judge who decided the case said that forcing Shimp to donate marrow against his will:

…would defeat the sanctity of the individual and would impose a rule which would know no limits, and one could not imagine where the line would be drawn.

Philosophy of Law, cited in Wikipedia’s writeup of the case

Gosh, imagine that! (Human Rights Watch agrees, incidentally. Criminalizing abortion has ripple effects on a whole bunch of other human rights. All of those rights impact all genders. So would forced organ donation.)

This reminds me of a bizarre Christian movie I saw a trailer for years ago. It involved a post-Roe world dominated by evangelicals. Any pregnant woman caught trying to obtain an abortion got imprisoned until she gave birth. This was presented as a wonderful idea that would result in these women converting to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and never, ever being upset about being forced into motherhood.

I couldn’t possibly accept life from an unwilling donor

A couple of weeks after losing his court case, McFall did indeed die. At the end of his life, Robert McFall’s sister claimed that her brother forgave his cousin for not donating the bone marrow he needed. She also said he asked the rest of the family to do the same.

I wonder if he had some second thoughts about getting a reprieve on such grotesque terms.

I wonder that because I could not and would not ever be able to accept a body part from someone who hadn’t completely wanted to give it to me.

I’m not even okay with going to a restaurant that I know my friend or partner doesn’t want to visit. My husband is a lifelong vegetarian, and though he says he’d be fine with going to a barbecue place if I wanted to go, I can’t feel okay with that. There’d be nothing there for him to really enjoy. (The only vegetarian option one place offered: whole dill pickles like you see in Southern gas stations.)

Likewise, if someone in my group doesn’t want to see a particular movie, I can’t be okay with watching it. I’d find something we could all enjoy, at least a little! Or I’d want to find something else for us to do.

So I can’t even imagine the existential body-horror I’d feel forever if I thought my mother had gestated me against her will. Nor can I imagine the mental shift it’d require me to make to be okay with going back in time and forcing her to do so.

My mother was pro-choice, and she chose to bear and raise me

It has always horrified me to know that evangelicals are totes fine with forcing women, even their own mothers, to bear children they don’t want to have. It’s like they’re admitting that they don’t really love their own mothers.

And they talk like this all the time. For years now, anti-abortion activists at all levels have asked, “Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-life?”

You can buy bumper stickers, t-shirts, and countless other products emblazoned with this phrase and similar ones. (A great post from 2011 describes one woman’s visceral reaction to seeing such a bumper sticker in the 1990s.)

My mother chose to have me. I’m glad she did. But if she hadn’t, it’s not like I’d be here to feel any particular way about the matter, anyway. As the saying goes and with apologies to the inimitable Mark Twain, we couldn’t fear death before we were born, because we weren’t here to feel it. After we die, we won’t be here to be afraid, either.

I suspect pro-life activists are simply revealing their own deep fear of nonexistence when they use this talking point. It’s got to be feeding them somehow, because they get few other rewards from using it.

The response desired is not the one they get

When pro-life activists deploy this manipulation, they make a lot of assumptions about their target.

First, they assume that obviously, any pro-choice woman will instantly abort any and all pregnancies she conceives. As my own mother’s life reveals, that is untrue. She supported women’s right to choose, and she did so without hesitation.

Next, they assume that the target would have wanted to be born and grow up in that circumstance. I’m glad to be here, but not everybody is. Some people really do have such miserable lives, or have emotional problems, that they wish otherwise. Life at all costs is an untenable position, morally speaking. It results in some truly ghastly situations.

And yes, of course they all also assume that obviously, every person they try this tactic on will always be taken aback and have to concede that yes, this time around they’re totes okay with the pro-life activist’s position, because they themselves benefited from it. Then, the pro-life activists can point at them and screech J’ACCUSE! THOU HYPOCRITE! And their target will fall to their knees weeping and recanting.

Of course, I’ve never heard of that response actually happening.

Pro-life posturing is like apologetics: it is not for the heathens, but for the already-converted

I guess this bit of emotional manipulation works like apologetics itself does:

It’s not for pro-choice people. Somehow, in some way, it’s for pro-life people themselves.

That’s why I say that using this talking point must do something else for the people using it. It sure doesn’t result in their targets changing their mind, nor even in them being troubled by the idea of their opinion potentially resulting in their own nonexistence. It’s just too hamfisted and full of factual errors to get the results they act like they want.

Clearly, the pro-life people using this beloved talking point aren’t actually thinking through what it means about their own relationships with their own mothers. And that’s a good thing. When push comes to shove, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it. It also bends toward love vanquishing hate and fear. Faced with the anguish and desperation of their own mothers, I strongly suspect all but the most swivel-eyed and inhuman of anti-abortion activists would do the right thing, had they any ability to express a preference.

So ultimately, maybe this talking point really is an expression of its users’ own existential terror.

It sure wouldn’t be the only one in that end of Christendom.

Then again, maybe it’s just another way anti-abortion activists congratulate themselves for their imagined moral superiority over their heathen enemies.

I guess things really could be that simple.

(If so, the sneering really gives away the game there. They might want to watch that.)

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...