I have a confession: I used to be a pro-life activist. I stumbled into the pro-life movement in 2006 when a friend invited me to attend a pro-life meeting at a social-justice-oriented college.
My freshman year was one of growth and challenge regarding the dignity and value of human life. I learned about the biology of the developing human in utero, the unfathomable cost of capital punishment, the injustices of inaccessible healthcare, and the massive human costs of a broken immigration system. I was brought into the pro-life consciousness with a broad understanding of what it meant to be pro-life. Like so many freshman, I felt as though my window to understanding the world had been opened. It did not take me long to realize that this was my most naïve moment.
In my first sociology class, my class partner (who is openly gay) and I selected the topic of gay rights for our final project. The professor approached me after class to tell me, “I respect you for being willing to work with Jeff on a topic you disagree on.”
I was utterly confused, until she explained that she understood I was opposed to gay rights based on an earlier position paper I’d written on abortion. I was livid.
A semester later I participated in a seminar on immigration and border issues. During our culminating trip to the US-Mexico border, our leader remarked to me, “I’m surprised you hang out with the pro-life group, you seem like you care about human rights.”
Again, I was confused. I DID care about human rights — that was why I was in a pro-life group and why I was taking a stand on border issues. Occasionally in office hours while talking about non-abortion subjects, professors would say things like “I know your faith tells you that [insert belief about non-abortion issues here].” This was confusing to me. What faith? Never once in a college paper or in office hours did I talk about religion.
In 2008, I got on a bus to Washington D.C. for the March for Life with 50 other college anti-abortion activists. I was fired up and ready to raise awareness. To my surprise, there were no talks on advocating for healthcare or childcare access. Instead, we heard a series of lectures on how chastity was important in promoting a “culture of life.” They urged that if we had committed this grave mortal sin that we should repent. I had a hard time understanding how me personally not having sex was directly tied to saving lives.
Throughout college I worked in leadership roles with six major pro-life organizations. Consistently and to my extreme frustration, the other leaders seemed far more interested in promoting chastity than in doing anything that would actually result in fewer abortions.
Through my involvement with other social justice issues, I inquired of several leaders about their history with activism. Two stated that they had begun their careers in the pro-life movement, but at some point realized that “it wasn’t where I could have the greatest impact.” While applying to graduate schools, a prospective advisor gleaned from my curriculum vita that I had been involved in Students for Life. I learned that he too had previously taken a pro-life stance, but that a professional organization in our field had suggested that he keep his research on this issue silent for political reasons. He stated that his previous pro-life stance had not affected his ability to get a job, and that his current institution “graciously has not brought that up with me.”
With that conversation, I went from being annoyed at being misjudged to being scared of risking my professional reputation. After five years of arguing with “pro-life” leaders about why chastity is not a pro-life issue, and defending my pro-life involvement among friends, professors, and human rights activists, I was exhausted. Truthfully, I could not admit my cowardice at being mislabeled as overly religious/anti-gay rights/anti-reproductive health, so I convinced myself that I too could have the greatest impact elsewhere.
It’s been several years since my retreat from the pro-life movement. In the wake of the Planned Parenthood undercover videos, I’ve felt an overwhelming flood of emotions. I am outraged at those who have hijacked the abortion issue as a means to deny women reproductive health services. I am appalled that my tax dollars support an organization that advocates for the grisly abortion practices so callously described in those videos. Far more strongly, I feel embittered that my voice has been implicitly silenced.
I recently felt this acutely when I found myself doing what trendy late 20-somethings do on weekends – game night. During a round of Trivial Pursuit, a male friend casually brought up the Republican debates and remarked, “I just can’t get behind male candidates who don’t support reproductive health.” There was nothing I could say in response. I could not jump in and agree, because that would imply that I am pro-choice.
It would also be inappropriate game night conversation to respond, “I know! I can’t believe that those candidates want to de-fund Planned Parenthood, which would reduce women’s access to contraception without re-routing those services. However, I do agree with them that we shouldn’t give tax dollars to an organization that supports abortion, which is a scientifically unjustifiable practice. By the way, I’m a liberal democrat on all other issues so please don’t judge me or assume I only said this because I’m religious.”
To demonize an entire organization is to miss the nuances of Planned Parenthood’s role in reproductive health. However, I’ve found little appreciation for nuance on either side of this issue. As such, I would like to direct a “shame on you” to the “pro-life” movement as well as to Planned Parenthood. Shame on you “pro-life” leaders, because you have put your religious beliefs above the well-being of unborn children and their mothers. You have alienated activists such as myself by insisting that we adhere to your narrow version of what it means to be “pro-life.” Shame on you to those who advocate for Planned Parenthood while refusing to consider that the issues of reproductive heath care and abortion may not be one and the same. In the wake of calls to de-fund Planned Parenthood, this jeopardizes our access to contraception and health screenings because you cannot consider options for re-routing these services untied to abortion providers. Shame on you for labeling me as a million things I am not because you do not want to hear my voice.
I know that I am not alone in my beliefs or my silence. I know many young, former pro-life activists who have found that taking this stance is unsustainable and incompatible with their professional careers and relationships. I would like to advocate for both women and for humans in-utero, and I don’t particularly care whether I do that on the pro-life or pro-reproductive health side. In the meantime, I’m ashamed to confess that I’ll be waiting embittered on the sidelines until I’m invited by either team to play.