Toward Better Abortion Conversations: A Play, a Poem and a Fragile Forward Path

As the Supreme Court was pondering the landmark case Roe v. Wade, my generation came of age.

“Abortion? What’s that?” I asked my dad, who seemed to always have an informed opinion on the news. After explaining the basics of abortion to me, my father sent me to the high school library to research the topic and consider the arguments for restricted abortion with possible rare exceptions for “rape, incest and life of the mother.” (I understand the complicated nature of exceptions. Bear with me.)

A few years later when I was newly married, an assistant manager of the Osco Drug store where I worked influenced me toward a stronger pro-life stand by encouraging me to read up on fetal development before insisting that abortion was a morally neutral matter of choice.

The pictures made his point.

It didn’t seem right that only the “perfect, the privileged and the planned” should have a right to life.

Times were fast changing. A high school friend found herself pregnant and while her mother tried to convince my friend that her life would be ruined if she became a single mom, she refused abortion. She’d send me pictures of the little guy she was raising and she eventually married a man who accepted her, kid and all.

A young woman who lived next to us confided to my husband and me that she’d had an abortion a few years before she knew us and that she always thought about how old the baby would be if she’d “kept it.” She wished there had been a way.

We wished that for her, and after we’d moved to a community with a center that supports women in crisis pregnancies, we backed them and we still do.

Politics isn’t the only way to address a problem.

Who would have thought that 50 years after Roe v. Wade, crisis pregnancy centers, mostly funded by the after-tax dollars of donors who want to help women, would outnumber abortion clinics in many places across the nation, including in New York City?

And who, in those early years, would have imagined that a court would ever overturn Roe, return responsibility for abortion regulation to the people and open a new conversation about abortion in the US?

Who would would have imagined that Roe’s reasoning would eventually be used to make any abortion restrictions so unimaginable that defenders of unborn human life would be portrayed by political opponents as monsters out of The Handmaid’s Tale and that pro-lifers and pro-choicers would doubt whether any conversation between them was possible?

So much has changed in those fifty years.

But now, no matter how our opponents choose to misrepresent our intentions, we must be brave enough to have new conversations about abortion, not on social media, but with real people, face to face, with humility and love.

It’s more difficult now than ever because in any group of friends you may have, it’s likely that one or more of the women has had an abortion. These women feel judged before we open our mouths because of the cruel way they’re portrayed by some prolifers.

Some of these women may regret their abortions but others do not. All are loved by God and must be valued rather than condemned. Our conversations must aim to seek understanding and follow up with pathways that support vulnerable mothers, willing fathers and the hidden children they conceive together, whether in happy or tragic situations.

Literature can provide a place to start.

If you have trouble relating to women who have had abortions, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun is a must-read.

In this play we meet Ruth Younger, a poor, black woman whose school-aged son must sleep on the sofa because the family doesn’t have enough space in their apartment for him to have a bedroom of his own. Soon she’ll discover that she’s pregnant.

By the time we learn this, we’ve already had enough of Ruth’s abusive, alcoholic husband and we know he’ll blame Ruth for making his life harder. He’s not only supporting Ruth and their son, but his mother and college-age sister also live with them in the tiny apartment with threadbare furniture and a common bathroom in the hall.

In a scene cut from the excellent film version of Hansberry’s play, Ruth returns home after visiting the “doctor.” It’s obvious from the dialog with her mother-in-law that Ruth hasn’t seen the family doctor but has consulted a woman who will accept payment for an abortion. Ruth has already put five dollars down.

“Mama,” the religious member of the family, disapproves of abortion and lets Ruth know it. But she also helps her son to see that he must treat his wife with dignity. Mama then takes action that provides the family with fresh hope in a new home.

Despite A Raisin in the Sun’s rather ominous but “happy” ending, we get how desperate Ruth feels and we understand how seldom a solution like Mama’s is offered to inner city women.

If we’ve been sheltered from the harsh realities that drive some women to seek abortion, works of art like this can open our hearts and help us grow in empathy, and that prepares us for better abortion conversations with those who fear how abortion restrictions will affect desperate women. We’re shallow indeed if we can’t understand their difficulties.

On the other hand, there’s a certain eloquence in the way science fiction novelist, essayist and poet Brian Aldiss (whose short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” was the spark behind the Speilberg-Kubrick movie AI) begins his poem “Progression of the Species” that is also etched in my heart when I think about abortion.

“Progression of the Species,” published in 1972, is about genetic engineering, about the ways technology may one day make possible the creation of “perfect people” in a “DNA utopia.” That’s why its opening lines touch the scientifically-minded heart:

Long before a woman knows she’s pregnant
And greets the news with fear or smiles
The news has head and heart and heart beats.

The poet separates “heartbeats” into two words, the better to hear the tiny heart already beating within the mother whose pregnancy is yet unconfirmed.

“It’s then no bigger than a tadpole,” the poet continues. “The cells are working on that…”

Those cells are programmed with the stuttering messages
Called life.

They are. And considering the hidden reality with its “head and heart and heart beats,” we know this is a developing human, with unique DNA, a being dependent on the mother’s body, yet not identical to her. Perhaps a better abortion conversation could start there.

But what about a post-Roe pathway forward?

One of the best models I know for having abortion conversations is Leah Libresco Sargeant, a Yale graduate, data scientist and former atheist with a remarkable gift for hospitality (her book Building the Benedict Option is full of ideas for increasing in-person contact with friends who do and who don’t share the faith).

Leah didn’t wait for Roe’s overturn to engage her friends in difficult conversations about abortion.

“In 2016, I opened my doors for what I expected would be the worst event I would ever host,” she wrote in May. “In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, my husband and I invited about a dozen pro-choice and pro-life friends over to eat cookies and talk about abortion:

I had friends on both sides of the abortion divide, and it was surreal to be in a position where we all thought the other side was complicit in grave evil.

Leah isn’t merely out to reduce the statistical number of abortions, she urges everyone go to the root of the problem and find solutions that would create a more supportive environment for women and children. “Abortion is a crutch that lets us navigate that hatred of dependence that’s pervasive in our culture,” she says.

This seems to me to be the best way to move forward in post-Roe’s fear-filled atmosphere: talk to people whether they agree with you or not.

Leah was featured in this post-Roe New York Times abortion roundtable discussion. As a woman who has changed her mind on abortion, she presses for a more hospitable society for both women and children, one that will not leave women in a situation so vulnerable that the only solution to a difficult pregnancy they can imagine is abortion.

“In the long term,” she reflected in a substack piece written after the roundtable:

the goal isn’t to have over 600,000 attempted abortions a year, with police tracking down and confronting practitioners. The goal is to change hearts and minds, and to expand what feels possible for parents (through cultural and material support), so that abortion isn’t stopped because it’s illegal or too difficult, but because it is unthinkable.

“That may sound impossible,” she concedes, “but it would have sounded ludicrous if you told the ancient Greeks and Romans that the practice of infanticide would stop. It is not primarily laws against infanticide that prevent it from being practiced after birth now. Infanticide isn’t thought of as routine, prudent, even necessary.”

Leah’s substack Other Feminisms suggests long-form essays and books you won’t find hawked on your favorite media outlet, whether you lean left or right, and it seems to me that reading beyond the typical “talking points” is the only way to form questions that will engage friends who believe differently than we do.

On every issue discussed at her substack, Leah reaches out to readers, asking what they would recommend to a friend willing to discuss the issue in good faith. Other Feminisms is free, but I’m a paying subscriber because I believe in Leah’s work. Her writing pushes me to reflect rather than react. We need more of that right now.

While the states debate what abortion restrictions the people think best, and the most rare but gut-wrenching cases are aired to keep us bound to fear, I hope many caring Christians will listen with love, back their compassion with concrete support and become more informed about what sorts of services women in crisis really need, in the hopes that “abortion isn’t stopped because it’s illegal or too difficult, but because it’s unthinkable.”

Better abortion conversations may help us forge the fragile path forward. Leah cites Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen as reason for hope.

Moral revolutions don’t happen by legal means (our cultural go-to), but by cultural transformation.

That transformation is within our grasp when our conversations revolve more about removing roadblocks from vulnerable women and making a stronger effort to understand and respond to their honest fears.

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You might also like When Defending the Right to Life, Choose Beauty, Choose Love and The Extremists We Need Right Now.

This ultrasound compilation from Pregnancy Chat tells the story of why we want to protect vulnerable women and babies. What works of art or other resources might help us forge the fragile path forward? I’d love to hear from you!

Photos by Edward Cisneros, Christina @ and Mimi Thian on Unsplash.