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An Impossible Life Choice
I was 23 years old the first time I ever read about a woman who killed her own child.
I was in the middle of reading Tony Morrison’s Beloved. In this story a former slave is on the run, and upon being threatened by slave-catchers with her children’s capture and subsequent enslavement, kills one of them, an infant named Beloved, without hesitation. In the aftermath, the woman is deemed unfit to be a mother, her home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, and her other children are taken away from her.
Though this story was fiction, the plot was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, who according to Morrison, was “a young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children (and trying to kill the others) rather than let them be returned to the owner’s plantation.” For Morrison, the development of the heroine in her pages represented “the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror…the consequences of choosing infanticide….the repellant landscape [of slavery]….her own freedom.”
I was drawn back toward Beloved in search of a literary masterpiece that could provide me with a sieve through my dizzying and scattered thoughts on the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, the various commentaries from right and left alike, and a burning desire to develop my own informed opinion on the debate, a debate which is neither frivolous nor fickle but fundamentally sacred and deserving of an analysis in kind.
Though Beloved is not a one-to-one comparison to our contemporary culture wars, it feels close enough. The conditions that a child is born into will heavily influence a mother’s decision to go through with her pregnancy, and this has been true since time immemorial. This may seem cruel to the naked eye, but even our founding father Patrick Henry declared, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ when persuading the Virginia legislature to contribute troops to the Revolutionary war.
This basic choice — death over slavery — has not only been preached from the American pulpit but has been an ethos in the hearts of men since the dawn of time. The same is no less true for women who have the power to create life in ways that men do not.
This choice is an impossible one. It creates a wreckage of absolute grief and turmoil, and there are no easy resolutions. Despite some of the glib, usually far-left (absolutely deranged) takes I’ve seen on social media, no one actually wants an abortion. Even Morrison names her book after the child, “who lost everything and had no say in any of it.”
But it is precisely the exasperating quality of this choice that ought to force us to sit with the tension inherent in it — and to extend compassion to the women who make it.
Perhaps it is easier to extend compassion when thinking of Masada, the Jewish revolt against the Romans that ended in a mass suicide by the defenders in AD 73; According to reports, this included children, presumably since parents saw children as extensions of themselves, and consequently, enslavement of children as enslavement of their own lives.
Or maybe the tinge of compassion rings with a more triumphant note when we read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ a poem that cheered on “six hundred”, soldiers in the Crimean war who knew they would die in battle but went on their suicide mission anyway.
There is nothing triumphant or easy or victorious about these decisions. There are no Sorkin-style Hollywood endings in real life. These men faced impossible, painstaking choices, and were honored for choosing death instead of bequeathing a life of slavery to their progeny in ways that women who have made the same choices have not.
For many women who seek out abortion and who no longer have access to it, these are the stakes they face: Liberty or death. In fact, in many ways, the very states that have celebrated the overturning of Roe haven’t exactly been “pro-life” for a while, neither for mother nor child. And the overturning of Roe exacerbates that fact; it does not eliminate it.
Consider that many of the red states celebrating the overturn of Roe are also states with high rates of domestic violence against women.
A woman in such a situation must seriously grapple with the decision to give birth in such a brutally lifeless environment. She must make the conscious decision to bring new life into a home full of people who will persecute and denigrate that life. The overturning of Roe makes that decision for her.
Some of these states are also states that suffer from high rates of maternal mortality, with Missouri being a notable example of this, having just eliminated abortion for all, with no exceptions for rape or incest. And across the board, according to one statistic, “nearly half of all counties in the United States do not have a single obstetrician providing maternity care.” As a result, “a woman is twice as likely to die from complications of pregnancy and birth than her mother was a generation ago.” In fact, the U.S. is the only developed country with a consistently rising maternal mortality rate, and six states “with the highest maternal mortality rates in the country” just banned abortion.
These data points don’t even begin to take into account the recent spates of violence popping off in our cities and towns, with this past 4th of July marking the 309th mass shooting in the U.S. in 2022.In New York City alone, 50 people were shot over the holiday weekend. This followed tragic incidents in Buffalo, New York, and Uvdale, Texas, and has proven to be the rule not the exception.
The assessment of this data — abortion access, maternal mortality rates, domestic abuse against women, and gun violence in general — is important because it helps reveal a more distilled snapshot of American society and what I see as some of the follies in today’s pro-life movement.
Some 25% of women in America experience domestic violence every year, and 5 million acts of domestic violence occur annually to women aged 18 years and older. According to a six month report conducted by NPR and ProPublica, “federal and state funding show only 6 percent of block grants for ‘maternal and child health’ actually go to the health of mothers.” Moreover, “every year in the U.S., 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and some 65,000 nearly die — by many measures, the worst record in the developed world.”
What about adoption agencies? Surely they will be able to carry this burden, right? Well, if the number of children available for adoption jumps up to pre-Roe levels – and some studies show this may very well be the case – this 20 fold increase would be astronomical. Many agencies will have to pursue grants and outside funding to support this increase. As it is, foster care systems in the US are already underfunded and overstressed, and often have to send children “to emergency shelters, hotels, out-of-state institutions, and youth prisons.”
In other words, America isn’t exactly the best country when it comes to health, and many states that have just banned or restricted abortion are simultaneously states that have poor healthcare for mothers and children.
I would ask pro-lifers to seriously contend with the bleakness of this picture. I am deeply moved by the conservative aspiration to create an American culture conducive to sustaining life. I had the pleasure of speaking with David French about this a few weeks ago in Colorado. David is a man of honor and integrity, and I appreciate where he is coming from.
But for me, “pro-life” is a systemic category and it is incoherent to overturn Roe without having first created the basic conditions that can sustain life in the first place. This is like, as Peter Beinart tweeted, “throwing someone from a window and then promising to build a net.” Unfortunately, in many pockets of the country, conditions are dilapidated, decrepit, and derelict, and have left too many Americans in freefall without anything to catch them.
There are some signs for hope: Even though many red states now ban abortion after six weeks, according to a Dobb’s poll, 72% of Americans support abortion bans after 15 weeks with limited exceptions.This suggests that there may be some political willpower to soften some of the laws in red states in the future. Also, the “Family Security Act 2.0” was introduced by Senators Mitt Romney and others in May and sought to provide parents with “$350 a month for each young child and $250 a month for each school-age child 6 to 17.” There seems to be some overlap and a convergence of interests between this push and those by democrats like Bernie Sanders who have moved to expand child tax credits this year as well. Time will tell whether these potentially bipartisan initiatives will come into fruition or result in stillbirth.
In the meantime, it is fundamentally unfair to ask women — especially women who are already languishing in oppressive environments — to physically carry children into a world that cannot sustain them. Way too often, our very bodies cannot sustain life and our nation’s maternal mortality rates tragically bare that out.
This reality is what I would ask pro-lifers to contend with. As much as I would like to live in a fantasy land where the overturning of Roe magically results in a sustainable environment for mothers and children alike, that is not the case today. Failure to come to terms with this reality – and to heal it – will result in less life, not more.