Monday, June 26, 2006

Pro-Choice Motherhood

On my last post about abortion, a commenter named Christina asked, "don't you notice any irony between your own love of your born child and your vehement declarations that other children are disposable?"

Now, I can't tell if that was supposed to be a genuine question or an unanswerable drive-by zinger, but I think that a lot of pro-lifers believe, like Christina, that pro-choice parents must be compartmentalizing their parental feelings away from their opinions about abortion. (I am being charitable here, and not dwelling on the ones who claim to believe that pro-choice parents are ready to kill their children at the first sign of inconvenience.) Regardless of whether Christina was really looking for an answer from me or not, I think it's worth addressing the question of how maternal love and pro-choice beliefs interact.

As longtime readers of Respectful of Otters know, my strong support for abortion rights is tempered by personal ambivalence about abortion. I find it hard to imagine a situation in which I would have one myself, and in fact, when I was pregnant, my Significant Otter and I declined prenatal testing for birth defects and genetic abnormalities. But my ambivalence arises from a complex and deeply personal calculus of circumstances, experiences, feelings, and religious beliefs. I don't expect, or want, or have any interest in legislating, that other women come to the same decision.

I didn't ever imagine that pregnancy and motherhood would reverse my opinion on abortion law, but I did wonder if the experience of being pregnant with a child I wanted very much would make abortion seem more awful to me, or make me feel more personally uncomfortable with women who choose abortion. Instead, I found that the opposite was true: my personal experience with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood has strengthened and deepened my conviction that abortion is a valid choice that must remain safe, legal, and available.

I had an easy, healthy pregnancy (even morning sickness was just a mild annoyance, rather than a real problem); a loving husband I trusted to take care of me; a supportive family; excellent prenatal care from knowledgable, supportive, and empowering midwives; an uncomplicated and relatively quick delivery; an uncomplicated physical recovery from the birth; and no postpartum depression. I had, in short, about as easy a time of it as you can have. And yet I was acutely aware of how much of my energy was drained away by the developing fetus, how incapacitated I became as my pregnancy advanced, how vulnerable and dependent on my husband I felt, how crushing the sense of responsibility was. Even the least complicated of pregnancies is a profound burden and a profound vulnerability - physically and emotionally. I never fully understood that until it happened to me.

At the same time, during the first trimester (when 88.5% of abortions occur), I didn't feel much of a connection to my developing fetus. It felt... theoretical, to be honest. Like a great idea that I hoped would come to fruition. The crushing responsibility felt very real, but not the sense that there really was a new life developing inside me. (That didn't come until later, when I first heard the heartbeat at 13 weeks.) Because I wanted a child so much, I spent most of that disconnected time fearing that I would miscarry or somehow turn out never to have been pregnant at all - but it was easy for me to imagine that someone else, desperately wanting not to be pregnant, would find that the same "theoretical" feeling allowed her to have an abortion without guilt.

I took on the burdens of pregnancy joyfully, and I accepted the vulnerabilities trustingly - because I. Chose. Them. But even under the brainwashing power of maternal hormones I felt a deep conviction that a woman who does not choose to be pregnant should never be forced to bear those burdens, and risk that vulnerability. That the pressures and risks and pain and resource drain of nine months of pregnancy and (conservatively speaking) a month of postpartum recovery should never be waved away with the claim that "she can just give the baby up for adoption."

Because adoption exists as an option I am focusing on pregnancy and birth here, and not on the experience of raising a child. But I will say this: as hard as it is to carry and deliver a baby, motherhood is much much harder. Again, my circumstances have been excellent: financial comfort, flexible job, supportive and involved husband, loving family and friends, plenty of childrearing knowledge, et cetera. But still there came a moment, in my daughter's third week of life, that I broke down in hysterical sobs and asked her why she hated me so much. I'm telling you, motherhood is HARD. You have to really, really want it. If you don't, I'm not sure how you get through - but I don't think it's good for either you or the child.

So no, Christina, I don't "notice any irony between the love of [my] born child" and my support for abortion rights. My experience of carrying her, bearing her, and raising her has been a powerful experience of love, and it has only affirmed my belief that it would be an utter perversion to demand that other women go through that experience when love and desire are absent.