When we think of the women in this country seeking abortions, we often call to mind the image of the young single woman–possibly college-aged or even a little younger–at too delicate a stage of life to take on the responsibilities of motherhood. Turns out that the majority of abortions in this country do not fit this image. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the research agency for Planned Parenthood, 61% of women in 2008 who procured an abortion were already mothers. A recent article in Slate Magazine provides a glimpse into the hearts and minds of this demographic:
A few months ago, I was late. You know what I mean: My usual period day came and went without a spot, and suddenly every wave of exhaustion, every twinge of anxious nausea, became a harbinger of a very unintended pregnancy, a sign that my NuvaRing had failed me. I’m married, happily at that. And I’m a mother, happily as well. But our family feels “complete,” as demographers put it, at one child. And so my husband and I had to make a choice—or so we thought, for a very tense week before my body made the choice for me. As we lay awake at night whispering pros and cons for continuing the pregnancy, stopping only when our daughter padded in to snuggle under our covers in the predawn hours, I wondered if our mere deliberating might call into question my soundness as a mother. If I, already happily immersed in parenting, chose to terminate, wouldn’t I be unusual for doing so, maybe even stigmatized as a sort of prenatal Medea?
A qualitative study examining why mothers are having so many abortions found they are motivated primarily by the desire to be a good mother to the children they already have:
“The women believed that children were entitled to a stable and loving family, financial security, and a high level of care and attention. One fourth of the women had considered adoption but regarded it as being emotionally distressing. The findings demonstrate reasons why women have abortions throughout their reproductive life spans and that their decisions to terminate pregnancies are often influenced by the desire to be a good parent.”
This, the Slate article argues, is a hard demographic to demonize. And while we certainly shouldn’t demonize women who seek to abort, there is something deeply disturbing in the motivation of those who want to abort because their family feels complete and financially secure. These are by and large not women in danger of poverty or anything close to it. These are women who have created a life for themselves and for their families that they do not want disturbed.
The desire to provide a good life for your children is laudable indeed. It is perfectly reasonable to want your children to experience a certain level of parental attention, financial stability, comfort, and even luxury. No parent wants to tell a child that she can’t take piano lessons because they “can’t afford it” or that she can’t go on the church ski trip because it is “too expensive.” But how much of this reflects our desire to be good parents and how much reflects our own desire to live in relative comfort and stability?
Parenthood is a great gift and a vocation. But it also requires an awful lot of self-sacrifice and even more relinquishing of control. When one becomes a parent, one’s life (including life goals and desired standards of living) are no longer one’s own. The Slate article reflects a much broader assumption in our western middle-class culture that we are in control of our own lives, our own families, our own reproduction, and our own destinies. But this is the big lie. Families and children are reminders that as social creatures we are already everywhere in relationship, and whenever we act on our own desires, others, for good or for ill, are always impacted.
Lauren Sandler, the author of the Slate article, writes that she could have afforded another child if “only I moved to a less expensive ZIP code and got a job with a steadier paycheck.” But isn’t this exactly what she should do when faced with a surprise pregnancy? Shouldn’t she be willing to re-prioritize and scale back in order to welcome a new (surprise) child into her and her husband’s life? Should we heartily and sympathetically support her decision to abort because she likes her standard of living and doesn’t want to change?
Gilbert Meilaender puts it well in his Bioethics: A Primer for Christians:
We do not, ultimately, fashion the conditions of our life; rather, we live under God’s mysterious but providential governance. The unexpected–and even the unwanted–events of life are occasions and opportunities for hearing the call of God and responding faithfully. Sometimes, perhaps often, this will mean that we take up tasks and burdens we had not anticipated or desired, and they in turn may bring a certain measure of suffering. . .
To counsel the acceptance of the unwanted–acceptance even of the suffering it brings–is not to encourage mothers or fathers to be ‘victims.’ Rather, it is to call for the strength that virtuous action requires. One need not be a Christian to agree with Socrates that it is better to suffer evil than to do it, but certainly Christians should understand such a claim. If we seek to save ourselves by doing away with the child who is unwanted, we hand ourselves over to the destructive powers of the world in an attempt to avoid them, and we act as if those powers are ultimately worthy of our worship, as if they could save. . . That is not, I think, where finally we want to be (36-7).
When we read Lauren Sandler’s article, we should indeed conclude that if this is who we are, people who have come to see abortion as a matter of convenience and support for the middle-class way of life, this is indeed not who we finally want to be.