Before I went to Barnard, a women’s college, abortion was an issue completely unrelated to me beyond arguing one side of the topic in social studies class. But when my first-year roommate told me she was pro-choice and took to the streets of Morningside Heights as part of a “Take Back the Night” march to end sexual violence, I started to think more deeply about these issues. It became clear that all of us were working to become the sort of influential women whose voices could make a difference.
I have always been a Feminist with a capital “F,” but from that point on, I strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose — until last year. During the vice-presidential debates, Paul Ryan said something that both bothered me and stuck with me, bouncing around in my brain like a pinball. In his explanation for why he was pro-life, he talked about seeing his daughter on an early sonogram and how he and his wife took to calling her “Bean.” This was what ultimately convinced the Congressman that life begins at conception.
The scary part? Realizing that I agreed with him.
Now, before you call me a traitor to the cause or throw a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves at my head, hold on a sec. I don’t want to see women revert to back-alley abortions. In cases of rape, incest, or when the child would have severe birth defects or the mother’s life is endangered; I wholly support the choice to terminate a pregnancy. I also understand how difficult it must be to face this decision when you’re pregnant with an unwanted child: at age 23, a routine pee test at my gynecologist’s office showed a line that was a little bit darker than the doctor liked. I was in graduate school, unmarried but dating my future husband. For two frantic hours, I waited for blood test results, trying unsuccessfully to choke down a bagel sandwich.
Thankfully, that test turned out to be negative. Would I have gotten an abortion if it had turned out positive? Maybe. But now, years later at age 37, I couldn’t imagine a child being unwanted. Infertility had eaten away at my and my husband’s time and wallets, but it had also forced me to check in with myself each time we took the next, more invasive step. Do I really want a baby? The answer was always the same: Yes, I do.
Two years of drugs and one IVF cycle later, I found myself lying on an exam table on a bright January morning. The nurse had called me days earlier to tell me the miracle: My IVF had actually worked. When the doctor moved the sonogram wand across my still bump-less belly, there they were on the monitor in front of me — my two little beans. Two living things inside my body that were feeding off of me and growing stronger each day. They may have been a stone’s throw from a blastocyst, but to me they already felt like my babies.
Ba-bump-ba-bump-ba-bump! went their heartbeats, strong and syncopated, drumming home the fact that I was about to become a mother. Or was I already one? From that moment on, life never felt the same.
As the weeks passed, I religiously checked my copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting to see what fruit size we were up to. From green olive to prune to plum, the book gave me real perspective on the fact that whatever was inside me was not some amorphous ball of cells, but rather a fast-growing human being with a stomach, kidneys, fingers, and even fingernails.
It bothered me that my new view of when life begins was aligned with the thinking of the same people who would keep my gay friends from marrying and who had “binders full” of qualified women but most likely felt that a woman’s place was in the home. Still, as I walked down the street, not yet showing, I found myself placing a protective hand over my midsection. I thought about my close friends who had experienced miscarriages and seemed to feel the loss so strongly. I think it would be hard to convince myself that what they lost — though not a fully formed person — wasn’t in some way already a member of their family.
But ultimately, while I believe life starts at conception, I don’t want big government in my personal life, telling me what to do with my body. And Texas passing a law that bans abortion after 20 weeks could leave women facing the news of a severe birth defect in the even more terrible position of having no option but to continue the pregnancy. Even though I think abortion should be allowed, however, we are kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that it does stop a beating heart — however defective, weak, or unwanted that heart is. And that’s because the heartbeats I heard that day in the doctor’s office were so rhythmic and insistent, already so full of life.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.