Muddled in the Middle Elizabeth Wheatfield (pseudonym)
In recent years, feminists have worked to be more inclusive—to recognize that the needs and life situations of all women are not the same. While these efforts have been successful in many ways, there is one area where, at least in my experience, multiple voices have not seemed welcome: the abortion debate. Every self-labeled feminist I met until recently expected me to be adamantly, unequivocally, unambiguously, unapologetically pro-choice. And I wasn’t. In fact, for a long time, I wasn’t even in what NARAL Pro-Choice America calls the “muddled middle.” For a very long time I was in the pro-life camp. Not just theoretically in it, but really in it. I went to protests, and meetings—even one Operation Rescue meeting. And that is the big secret I was never allowed to tell, mention, or even think around other feminists. The two were unmoveably opposed, and were I to mention my past or even my confused and ambivalent present, I felt I would be quickly cast out. I went to two National Organization for Women (NOW) meetings when I was 22, meetings where I really wanted to be, but I had to stop going because there was no room there for dialogue about abortion. I was on the wrong side of the clearly drawn lines and being at the meetings and being silent made me feel like a fraud.
But recently (almost ten years after those NOW meetings) I went to a local grassroots house meeting on reproductive politics sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice America. There I was shocked and pleased to find that the conversation, the real dialogue, was allowed to include women like me who have traveled from the right on this issue to what NARAL so aptly named the muddled middle. I was relieved to find there were good, strong feminists in the room who were muddled with me. I breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to myself to write down the story of my journey from the radical right to the muddled middle. Because maybe I am not alone. And if I want to see feminists consider multiple voices on this issue, maybe I need to be brave enough to be part of the dialogue.
In the house and church I grew up in, there was no question about where I would stand on abortion.
A fetus was a life.
We opposed taking life.
What conversation can be had when only one question is considered pertinent? I was a chaste, Christian, small-town, pro-life teenager from a happy home with two parents. My most exciting experiences were church camping trips. At sixteen, I hadn’t even kissed a boy. Nothing had ever happened to me to suggest other questions were relevant in the abortion debate. I was sure of my views and sure that my experiences provided enough information from which to make an informed decision about what was right for all women everywhere. Thus, I goaded my girlfriends into attending protests and meetings and starting teenage pro-life groups. No one questioned me. Where we came from, my girlfriends where in the wrong not to have thought of going to the meetings before I did. They admired my staunch, unquestioning sense of what was right and wrong. Frankly, I was pompous, self-righteous, and unbearably certain of myself. I had the total peace of mind that can only come from a world view with no room for gray.
My certainty and peace of mind were not to last, however. College showed me that life is full of gray.
In college I discovered that some people have sex without feeling they have done something dirty, that women get pregnant who are in no position to take care of a child, and that the scariest thing in the world for an 18-year-old from a pro-life Christian fundamentalist family would be to have to tell her parents she was pregnant. If I had become pregnant and I had told my parents, I knew exactly where I would have gone: straight to a home for pregnant teenage mothers (where my mother was once a social worker), to be physically well-cared for and proselytized to for nine months, after which time my child would have been adopted by a good white fundamentalist family dying for a healthy new (preferably white) baby. I would have been shamed. My parents’ biggest concern would have been how to hide my pregnancy their friends. And my situation was not nearly as dire as the situations many of my friends would have faced.
I started to understand why parental consent laws might be a bad idea.
In my women’s studies classes I learned about poverty and racism, about misogyny, about the history of birth control (or rather, control of birth control). I learned that for many women there are several important questions that come before whether a fetus is a life, questions such as, “Will this pregnancy cost me my life? Who will feed this child? Where is one person—anyone—who will provide me with some support if I have this child?”
I let go of a few more of my carefully held certainties.
After my world view took on a few more shades of gray, my friends started telling me about their abortions, and I had to come to terms with the fact that the women I had so emphatically protested against in high school were good people, people I knew, people I would want for my friends. What to do with that? Love the sinner, hate the sin? Fairly easy to say in Christian theory, but my friends didn’t seem like sinners. They seemed like girls who had fallen in love or been taken advantage of or even raped. I started to wonder about sin, and why so much sin in the Christian tradition falls on women, centers around women’s bodies.
By the end of college, my former certainty about abortion had completely deserted me.
I knew I couldn’t be pro-life anymore. But I didn’t identify with anyone I met who called herself pro-choice. I had doubts and uncertainties, not to mention a shady past. So you can probably imagine how I ended up smack dab in the muddled middle.
Or maybe not. Maybe you are wondering how, after all that I had learned, I still was unable to stand with certainty for pro-choice. Older women, women who witnessed or experienced illegal abortions and all the terror caused by them, don’t seem to have any trouble being certain. Maybe that is my problem—while abortion wasn’t an easy decision for any of my friends, they could wrestle with it alone and, having made their decision, quietly have a safe legal abortion and go on with their lives. They never had to talk about it or work for it beyond their own inner struggle. They were free to be emotionally ambivalent because there was no physical or legal danger. Maybe my generation feels the complacency of choice. But what I feel isn’t complacent. It’s really the opposite of complacent. I feel deeply torn, pulled in opposite directions.
On the one hand, I am certain I cannot tell other women what to do. I am sure that there are times when abortion is the only feasible option. I am sure that I don’t want men’s laws to control what I can and cannot do with my body. And I’m damn sure women shouldn’t be dying because of botched illegal abortions.
On the other hand, certain images still haunt me, and certain beliefs stay with me. The pictures of supposedly aborted fetuses that I used to put in the papers I forced my high school English teachers to read haunt me even after all this time and after all I know about how those pictures were probably taken and why that particular rhetorical strategy is an appeal to pathos I don’t condone. But I just can’t let go of the visual. To me, a fetus at a certain point does look like a baby. I don’t know how to get around that. And, for whatever reason, I strongly doubt I could have an abortion and ever be alright with it. I imagine this is my upbringing. And the fact that at bottom, my answer to the only question I used to think was worth asking is “yes.” Yes, I do think a fetus is a life.
So there I am. Muddled up and tied up in the middle. Torn between my feminist beliefs in women and their right to make good, right choices for themselves about every issue and my belief that a fetus is a life. Where do I belong? What am I?
Recently, I have started to feel like I have the right—and maybe even the responsibility—to call myself pro-choice. Because, I reason, I am for choice and laws that allow for choice. At bottom, the one thing I believe in is personal responsibility and choice. Each woman must decide what is right for her and what she can live with. And, given all her options and enough support, each woman can and will make the best choice. I know what my choice would probably be if I had to make it. And I also know that my choice is the only one I need—or have the right—to make.
So I claim the right, as a feminist, to be pro-choice with an anti-choice past. Muddled in the middle, conflicted and torn.
What is the place within the feminist movement for women like me? I can, with certainty, lobby for sex education and better access to birth control. And I can beabout my doubts and my past because maybe there are people I can talk to that my more certain pro-choice sisters can’t.
This is where I am now, and that is going to have to be enough.
Originally appeared in Our Choices, Our Lives: Unapologetic Writings on Abortion, edited by Krista Jacob (iUniverse Star, 2004).
Elizabeth Wheatfield (pseudonym) who is 31 and just began her first tenure-track position teaching writing, uses a pseudonym in order to give herself the courage she needs to write about the issues she struggles with and to allow her to write about issues that involve her friends and family.