Hope y’all had a lovely holiday! Are you ready for the last leg of my ascent into apostasy?
Once upon a time, evangelical churches didn’t tend to care much about abortion. Some openly permitted it; others at least ignored the creature. Believe it or not, that’s how it was. The story goes that some politicians needed votes, and the Catholics were ready to help–as long as evangelicals joined them in being anti-abortion. From this humble and pragmatic beginning, Christian evangelical churches ushered in a new era of slut-shaming, sex-stigmatizing, ignorance-glorifying, and anti-feminism. In the early 90s, they hadn’t gotten fully rolling yet, but the trends were there to be seen. (As always, don’t take my word for things. See this now-famous summation of the evangelical church’s history regarding abortion. And this one too about the Christian Right’s revisionary take on the matter.)
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, here’s what affects abortion numbers: adequate healthcare options including contraceptive care, comprehensive education including information about contraceptive effectiveness and use, help for those women who toil in poverty, and a culture that is open and accepting of sex between consenting adults, affirming of women’s rights, and generous about supporting families through social nets.
Here’s what doesn’t: pretty much every goddamned thing anti-abortion groups are doing, up to and including criminalization of abortion care and trying to sneak “personhood” amendments into law.
Let’s say you had no idea what their goal really was. Let’s say you looked at their attempts to block healthcare laws, remove social net support from families, shame women who get raped and stigmatize sex and insist on “purity” in girls and women alike, and attempt to define fetuses in such a way as to give them more civil rights than women themselves get. Let’s say you were a space alien looking at all this, and at societies that actually do have low abortion rates that are doing categorically different things that actually work, and you were wondering just what the dealio-io-io really was.
Hang onto that thought, and if you can, wonder why I didn’t wonder that too.
When I was in college, my husband and I got really into the anti-abortion movement. A young white Christian woman had been “legitimately” forcibly, violently raped (by a black man GASP!) and had gotten pregnant from it despite the Religious Right’s insistence that such a thing is all but impossible. She’d decided to keep the pregnancy and now had a toddler, and this heroism on her part made her believe that she now had the right to tell other rape victims as well as all other women how they should handle their unwanted pregnancies. She organized marches of women holding signs with fetuses on them and wrote stirring testimonials in the campus newspaper. By these and other means, she drew control-freaks obsessed with purity and virtue into her circle and convinced us that we were saving babies with her.
Babies. I didn’t even want a baby of my own, but saving babies became my focus for a little while. Biff even joined a Crisis Pregnancy Center as a “counselor” (scare quotes because, like “legitimately,” the word doesn’t mean what anti-abortion people clearly think it means). He was gone several nights a week even though he carried a a full load at college. He was working to save lives, he said, and I believed him. I was too busy to do it myself, but I was happy to support him in doing something we both believed needed to be done. Those poor, ignorant sluts were abusing their god-given bodies and then murdering their god-given babies! They just needed someone to tell them the truth of God’s healing light and his plan for their lives! And who better to do that than blustery, golden-tongued Biff! The man could have sold coals to Newcastle.
These people at the CPC were totally on fire for God. Biff said they prayed every single day before beginning work to ask God to shower them with divine aid and light the way for them. I don’t think a single one of them were trained counselors or therapists, much less doctors or nurses, but nothing was required of a volunteer but time and a “burden” for wicked, ignorant sluts and their poor little doomed babies.
It hurts to type that now. I’m in tears remembering thinking this way. I’m so sorry, so very sorry for the damage I did. I’ll give you kitten pictures at the end of this story. Hang in there. Do it for the kittens if not for me.
What crazy days those were! Biff would regularly come home full of triumphant stories. One woman stands out in my mind; she was apparently a hooker with an abusive pimp. Biff not only saved her soul, but convinced her to have the baby. He promised he’d help her. She needed food, so one afternoon Biff used CPC funds to buy her some groceries. He brought the bag of groceries home on his way from class to the CPC; I remember looking at the lone paper sack of produce and baby stuff while he beamed at me like a little boy wanting his mother’s affirmation for doing a good job cleaning his room (“Isn’t this nice? Didn’t I do well? Aren’t I a good boy?”), and I remember saying, “Nice. So what’s she going to do for food and diapers a week later?”
In response, Biff just stared at me.
You remember the book The Princess Bride, when Buttercup asks the Prince about the four ships he’s supposedly sent to tell Westley about the wedding, and he just stares at her, and right then she knows there are no four ships, he lied to her about sending them, and she finally realizes what she’s gotten herself into? That’s how it went down in my tiny little kitchen. I realized that this was all she was going to get, and Biff didn’t even understand why this was unacceptable or inadequate. I began to feel dubious about this group the more Biff “helped” the women who came through their doors. This wasn’t a clinic; it was a mission field. Over and over again, he’d tell me about some tiny bit of aid the CPC had offered like it was simply this amazing, astounding act of generosity, and then these women would just fall out of the story like wobbly pins that had fallen out of a wall map.
One night, he accidentally left his CPC employee manual at the apartment. Usually he took it with him, but he was a terribly forgetful man and left it right on our shared computer desk. I knew it was kind of eyes-only–I mean, it even said so on the hard plastic cover–but I was really hard up for reading material so yes, I read it.
I began that manual as a firm, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed true-blue Christian. Sure, I had some doubts and problems with the specifics, but nothing was amiss about my general convictions.
I turned the last page of the manual a shattered, stumbling, weeping, furious, and terrified near-apostate.
I know now it was a Pearson’s guide, written by a fellow named Pearson who opened the first CPC in the 60s. By the 90s, it was the manual many such fake clinics used to guide their actions and philosophies. You can find these guides online now; they are as public now as the Scientologists’ fables have become. But back then I had no idea what it was and had never seen anything like it.
All I knew by the end was that it was nothing but a book of lies and manipulation.
Every page had Bible quotes, it seemed, and little pictures of rainbows and babies and crosses. It was hand-typed on mimeographed sheets like a community cookbook, and every page held lies of one kind or another, each page worse than the last.
Look, guys, even in the late 80s we knew there was no such thing as “abortion regret syndrome.” But this book pushed the idea like gospel. Every woman who got an abortion was going to hate herself for it forever, and the CPC had to save her from herself. Even in the 90s we knew there was no link between abortion and cancer or suicide. But this book insisted there was and women were just too stupid to understand the risks they were taking, so every CPC counselor had an obligation to terrify women with these made-up statistics and nonexistent studies. You know me, I try to be charitable, but even I found it impossible to believe that the people in charge of the CPC had no idea these things were untrue. Even I knew they weren’t true, and I was just a drone.
But worse than the lies told as wide-eyed truth was the advice about how best to manipulate and terrorize the women who came through the doors looking for free pregnancy tests. First, yes, the tests were just the kind you could buy at the grocery store for US$10-20 bucks. For that $10-20 bucks, women were preyed upon emotionally from the moment the first whoosh of air-conditioning hit them in the face as they opened the “clinic” doors.
The manual told how to best arrange the reception area (lots of kids’ toys–make them think about their babies playing with them! Lots of parenting and motherhood magazines too! And Christian tracts and pamphlets, of course), what sort of stuff to play on their closed-circuit TV they were all obligated to have (propaganda about chewed-up fetuses and mothers who’d had their babies against overwhelming opposition, and of course lots of happy laughing babies), how to talk to the women who called looking for help (if they ask if the clinic provides abortions, don’t answer that! If they ask if the clinic is anti-abortion, ask them what they mean by the question and avoid avoid avoid!), how to counsel them while the test was running (make sure you keep them there for two hours at least while the test is “completing” because the longer you hold them there, the more likely they are to buckle).
Worse, the manual taught how to promise these women anything, anything at all, to get them to the magic cut-off date for a legal, safe abortion, though at least it didn’t put it in such stark terms.
Do they say they need a place to stay? Send them to the dismal little unwed-mother’s home in town where they’ll be slut-shamed and religiously indoctrinated for months until they finally leave in disgust! Do they say they need food? Get them a bag of groceries and diapers! (I remembered that forlorn little sack of groceries on my table as I read about that–did you think of it too? BTW, I learned later that the women the CPC was “helping” had to perform special tasks for enough brownie points to get any of this “charity”, but that info wouldn’t have made anything worse at this point.) The manual advised against making specific promises, of course, especially regarding long-term care. Once the women were past the cut-off date, they vanished off the CPC’s radar just as they had Biff’s. I don’t remember the manual talking about long-term assistance at all.
From start to finish, the CPC experience was a packaged and slick presentation of emotional predation, untruths, half-truths, and smoking-hot deception. And they had ensnared my husband, who already had only the most tenuous grasp of human rights and truthfulness. And they had almost ensnared me.
I remember closing the book with tears rolling down my cheeks, shaken like Leeloo seeing the atrocities of modern warfare for the first time.
What shook me wasn’t so much realizing that the CPC was nothing but a pack of liars and manipulators. There were lots of liars and manipulators in the world. I was married to one and I knew it.
What shook me was a far more insidious and certain truth that had grabbed me in its teeth and shaken me like a rag doll:
If something’s good, if something’s real, if something’s true, it doesn’t need lies to prop it up.
I’d already figured that out about other things, but hadn’t gone far enough in applying the principle. Now, I saw clearly that not only was the anti-abortion platform unable to make a convincing case without lies, or else it would have done so already, but that its goal wasn’t actually saving babies. That much was painfully obvious. The goal was getting people to convert and then live a life that the CPC’s leaders thought was the correct sort of life. That meant sexual morality as they saw it and an adherence to the happy Mayberry 50s ideal.
But more than that, in that instant as the cover of the manual fell shut, I began to see how I’d compartmentalized my Christianity away from the CPC and away from the apologetics books I’d read and sermons I’d heard. They were the same animal, the same beast, the same exact overlord. They used the same tactics, the same manipulations, the same emotional predation, the same thought control. They lied constantly and used false reasoning and outright deception and manipulation to make their point. They had to do it this way, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do it at all.
There was no way that Christianity could be true if it depended this much on lies. There was no way that Christianity could be real if it couldn’t make its case without such tactics.
So who benefited from these lies and manipulations? Who, ultimately, reaped the rewards of grand deceptions like these? Why was this deception happening this way? These are the questions that destroyed me. Follow the line, follow the money, the laws, and the tactics.
Anti-abortionists wanted to criminalize abortion, but they didn’t want to do anything that actually lowered abortion rates. The goal seemed clear to me: to make sex so terrifying, the penalties and risks so hugely and bizarrely high, that women would finally stop having the sort of sex that drove Catholics (and now evangelicals) crazy.
Want proof? Ask one of these guys about it, and watch the response: “Well, she should just keep her legs closed then.” I was to learn later that many of the most virulent opponents of reproductive rights are also virulently against contraception too, as well as comprehensive sex education for young people and women’s rights in general. Those tactics and the stated goal are mismatches. As long as you consider the anti-abortion movement’s goal to be “saving babies,” their current tactics make no sense whatsoever! But when we consider that it’s “making unapproved sex scary,” their tactics make total sense.
In the same way, Christians said their goal was to save souls and bring the whole world to the objective reality of Jesus, but they didn’t want to do what skeptics and apostates actually needed in order to be convinced: to live like Christ commanded, give all they owned to the poor to follow Him, to love everybody as He loved them, and more importantly to seek and demonstrate the objective and unalloyed truth of their claims. I’d sought for years for truth in Christianity and had not found it, and indeed my very efforts had been repeatedly condemned and my loyalty to the cause questioned. What was valued, I was told over and over again, was obedience and compliance to my pastors and husband. Like many people who pursue big-T Truth, Christians didn’t seem to care at all for little-f facts.
What I thought was the goal in Christianity–saving souls–couldn’t possibly be the real goal at all given the tactics we were using, any more than the CPC’s goal could possibly be saving babies. The real goal seemed more like control and indoctrination with an eye toward garnering and keeping cultural domination.
I realized right then in that eyeblink of time that I had been manipulated, terrorized, shamed, goaded, and flattered for one reason and one reason only: to keep me in line. To keep me from thinking. To keep me from moving forward. To keep me from questioning.
Christianity was false.
My entire life had been based on lies.
Now I had only one thing left. I dropped the manual like a hot potato–it hit the floor, but I didn’t worry about that; Biff would just think the cats had done it–and raced to my bedroom, where I kept my fancy Sunday Bible.
I’d moved way past the huge white leatherette Bible the Southern Baptists had given me long ago. This Bible was gorgeous. It had a dark-red leather cover embossed in gold with a cross and my name. The pages were thin and felt wonderful to the touch; it smelled like all Bibles should smell. I knew it’d cost a fortune. Biff had bought this extravagance for me after, ironically, a fight about money. It had cost easily what our grocery budget was for a month. But it was, I had to admit, a great Bible–it had concordances and prayer guides and footnotes and all sorts of useful features. Even as an ex-Christian, I wouldn’t mind having it back. I’m a bibliophile with a serious book habit, what can I say?
I turned to its pages about prayer. It was finally time for me to go back to the source, back to the Bible, back to God’s word, and get myself grounded again before all hope was lost. I embarked on the last Bible study I would ever make as a Christian that night, while Biff was off “lying for Jesus” at the Crisis Pregnancy Center, and next we’re going to talk about what I discovered that night that finally broke me of my fear and my faith.
By the way, a couple weeks after this little meltdown of mine, Biff and I and another friend (an atheist he was “working on”) were in my living room reading/studying and chatting and someone brought up abortion. Biff said, with a weird glitter in his eyes, that if he only knew where the abortion clinics were, he’d happily bomb their buildings and shoot their staffers. The atheist and I stopped cold. We looked at each other, locked eyes, and with this horrible foreboding in my heart, I told Biff very seriously, “If I ever hear you talking like that again, I am reporting you to the authorities.” The atheist with us nodded his agreement.
Biff laughed it off and said he was “just kidding,” but the atheist and I were still looking at each other in slack-jawed horror. We had never heard this side of Biff before. He’d sounded serious. I would remember this moment in all its shocking clarity a few years later when Biff’s capacity for violence and willingness to use threats to get his way came home in a very personal way for me. At least it told me without a single doubt that I was right to leave the anti-abortion movement; it had produced a convert who believed body and soul that the ends justified the means, even if the means were violence and domestic terrorism.
So I became the only pro-choice Pentecostal I knew for a little while. I’m sure there were others, but I sure didn’t know any. And of course I wouldn’t be Pentecostal for a lot longer. (As far as I know, the atheist never did end up converting, either, and later told me that hearing Biff speak so casually of committing terrorism is a big part of why he didn’t.)
Here are your kittens. We’ve come a long way, and there’s a long way yet to go hopefully. I really can’t imagine better companions than I’ve had on this journey so far. Be well.