The Evangelical Church Taught Me Abortion Was Murder. I Changed My Own Mind.

I am speaking out so others feel empowered to dismantle the "pro-life" indoctrination.

In Depth
The Evangelical Church Taught Me Abortion Was Murder. I Changed My Own Mind.

The summer after I turned 21, I had an annual check up with my gynecologist. As I sat on the crinkled paper on the examination table, she asked how many sex partners I had. I confidently answered zero. After we finished going through the checklist and she was about to start her exam, I threw in offhandedly that I thought I might have a bit of a yeast infection. “If I can get a prescription for that, it would be great,” I said. She nodded and smiled as she motioned for me to put my legs in the stirrups for a pap smear and a few STI tests, “just to be safe.”

A week or so later, the yeast infection treatment wasn’t working, and I got a call from the doctor. “I’m just calling to let you know one of your STI tests came back positive,” she said. “You have gonorrhea.”

I was floored. For all my intents and purposes, I was still a virgin, and I thought this had kept me safe. By then, I had a fever of 101 and felt pain in my lower abdomen. I went to the emergency room, which delivered worse news: The gonorrheal infection had spread throughout my reproductive organs into pelvic inflammatory disease, and my body was losing the ability to control it. I had to be admitted for five days of IV antibiotics. As I sat in the emergency room, waiting for admission, a nurse said, “I’m going to need some urine for a pregnancy test.” Completely flabbergasted, I responded, “I can’t be pregnant, I’ve never had sex.” Without looking up from my chart, she responded in a curt monotone: “If you can get gonorrhea, you can get pregnant.”

What worried me most in that moment was not this serious infection threatening my body. It was the pregnancy test. Because if I was pregnant, that was it—I had to have the baby.

When I was “pro-life,” the logic of those under the banner of “pro-choice” was entirely incomprehensible to me. Similarly, I’ve heard from many of my friends raised in a liberal environment that they do not understand the anti-abortion movement at all. I am one of the comparatively few—or, at least, comparatively silent—that have seen both sides.

I had my first “sex ed” class at 16 years old, in a private, Evangelical Christian high school outside of Seattle, in a classroom of girls only. The teacher, whose qualifications were unclear except that she was the mother of a few of the students in the school, held up a red construction paper heart at the front of the room. Dramatically, piece by piece, she tore off a little at a time. “You give a part of your heart to someone every time you have sex with them,” she told us, before showing us a final jagged scrap, “which means there’s little left once you finally find the man God has destined for you.” We learned about how God had designed men and women differently to fulfill different societal roles—something about women’s brains working like spaghetti and men’s like waffles. And, of course, we had all signed commitments to “purity” as a part of our student code, with infractions liable to result in detention or suspension.

“Sex ed” is a misnomer for what we received, as actual knowledge about sex didn’t factor into the abstinence-only lesson plans. But it wasn’t just about sex being risky and impure; no, this education included a heavy dose of political indoctrination into the “pro-life” and anti-homosexuality movements, to the point that our field trips involved protesting at an anti-gay marriage rally at our state capitol. Biology textbooks discussed how God creates each life, how life and personhood begin at conception, and how abortion is murder. We were shown carefully detailed images, even photographs, of fetuses throughout the life cycle, and quizzed on the dates they can feel pain or have a heartbeat. Not once did I ever see a condom or learn about STIs. I only understood, vaguely, that those diseases were a consequence of sin.

Many of my peers had been wearing purity rings since middle school; my deeply religious dad and step-mom hadn’t gotten me a ring, but I’d verbally made the commitment not to have sex until marriage. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a common read amongst church youth groups, and True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing were organizations that brought awareness to purity pledges. Even masturbation was cautioned against in my church, thanks to an Old Testament verse in which God kills someone after he jerks off on the ground and not into a woman to avoid impregnating her. Being a teenager, I masturbated anyway, but the shame was so all-encompassing that I developed obsessive compulsive disorder. Haunting thoughts plagued me, and I’d take excessive showers each time, scrub my hands until they were raw, and feel dirty until I’d washed every inch of myself, in a particular order, with soap. It was a torturous ritual, a way to try to cleanse my dirty self.

By age 18, I was fully committed to Evangelical Christianity and spreading it as far as possible. I turned down a promising college career, and after several mission trips to Europe—in which a bunch of American teenagers, including me in my Roxy hoodie, absurdly tried to proselytize to French citizens—I’d definitively decided that I wanted to be a missionary and serve God abroad. I enrolled in Calvary Chapel Bible College in Seattle, was hired as an intern at my church, and was viewed as a shining example of service to “the Lord.” I had a knack for public speaking, so I started sharing my testimony to the women’s bible study group at church and did exceptionally well in our preaching class. Fascinated by deep theological questions, I would debate my professor on whether or not humanity’s free will necessitates the presence of a hell in light of God’s omniscience (my argument was, even though it’s our choice, God knows in advance what any person would choose—so why can’t God create only people who he knows will choose to go to heaven?).

When I was “pro-life,” the logic of those under the banner of “pro-choice” was entirely incomprehensible to me.

I felt like I was flourishing. But as time went on, I started to feel held down, held back by those around me. My paid internship was “delayed,” my public speaking curtailed because “women aren’t meant to preach to men,” and my desires for church leadership called selfish. I had been taught for so long that God ordained men and men only to lead in church but also at home and in communities. My role was to submit to God’s will, and thus, as a woman, to man’s will. As much as I might feel equipped for a leadership role, that was just my sinful ego at play. And as much as I wanted to have intellectual debates to solidify what I believed, I was told I was creating doubts in others and potentially leading them astray. I was being gaslit into distrusting my own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

By 20 years old, I was finally disillusioned enough with my church to leave, though I still considered myself a Christian. I enrolled in the University of Washington’s photography program, where I felt confused, aimless, and out of place in my first experience in the “secular” world, never having even kissed someone nor had a drink of alcohol. As I was paying for my own college bills (scholarships having been turned down when I went to Bible college), I dropped out to figure out what I wanted to do with this life that now made little sense.

I began working in fine dining restaurants and tried to wrestle through who I was and what I believed. At one heady, late night summer party, lying in a crammed-full bed half asleep with four people, I drunkenly kissed a friend. This little dalliance quickly slipped further and further towards that most tempting of sins, and I spent the next month or so quickly getting up to speed on what I had missed in sexual exploration. Still, I held back a little bit: I said we weren’t going to have sex, which I understood to be insertive, penis-in-the-vagina sex. I was too afraid of pregnancy, and I decided I’d waited this long, so I at least wanted to hold out for someone who I wanted to be my boyfriend. Still, in the meantime, having shed my shame (and OCD) around sex, a little fun felt totally guilt-free. But, with complete obliviousness to the transmission of STIs, I had no idea a little fluid-to-fluid contact could leave me with gonorrhea, sitting on an emergency room bed waiting for the results of a pregnancy test. I confided in a friend who still was a part of the church I grew up in. “This is God’s punishment,” she told me.

I fully left Christianity by age 21, pregnancy scare behind me, and while I accepted many liberal view points rapidly—the role of women and LGBT rights, for instance, aligned with my innate sense of kindness and humanity—the dismantling of my beliefs around abortion went slowly, with difficultly, as the concept of abortion as murder was so drilled into my head. There wasn’t a guidebook for this process; I’d never known anyone who had changed from pro-life to pro-choice, and I didn’t know if I would ever make the switch.

The first argument that got through to me was one that will be familiar to most everyone else: Banning abortion doesn’t end abortion—only safe abortions, and many women did not have the opportunities or resources I did to handle an unintended pregnancy, especially in a society with poor social support systems. Stories about women in dire circumstances who would die from unsafe abortions (this was before I learned about access to medically safe abortion pills) or who were in abusive relationships spoke to the values I still clung to. I wanted them to be okay, more than I cared about an embryo I saw in a textbook.

Then, of course, considering one in four women will have abortions, I also began to interact with individuals who had had abortions and were open about it—beyond the one or two women I’d heard “testimonies” from in youth group or at school who spoke of the immense, lifelong regret they felt after abortions. One day, a friend confided in me she’d had one. She explained her reasons: She was in a challenging program at school and wanted to dedicate herself to that; this was not a partner she wanted a kid with. It wasn’t a particularly tragic story, but I knew this woman’s character; she was an outstanding, loving, giving person. She was incredibly intelligent. She did not feel bad, and I believed her. If someone I knew to be a good person could have an abortion, maybe there was a logical way to view it as something other than murder? I still felt like I probably couldn’t get one myself, but she told me: “You don’t know what you would do until you are in the situation.”

Around the same time, I confided in a partner that I probably wouldn’t get an abortion if we were to fall pregnant. I explained that I even felt conflicted around Plan B, because the messaging I’d received was that it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting (when, in reality, this is the least common way it works). I didn’t want to risk even maybe, unintentionally having an abortion. I was told the same about birth control pills—that they might make the uterus “inhospitable,” leading me to the excessive measure of using birth control pills to control ovarian cysts while also getting a copper IUD.

He was respectful of my beliefs, but confused at how I took a fertilized egg so seriously. “How is that freshly fertilized egg at all the same as you or I?” he asked. I’d never quite thought of it that way. It was so ingrained in me that once a new, unique DNA had been created, that was human life in the same way I was. He felt that it was not; there was no consciousness, pain, sensation, or even physical resemblance to a baby at this point—to have a fertilized egg not implant was not an abortion. Was this incessant focus on individualized DNA as the start of life the right way to look at it, or were there other ways to distinguish between the personhood of myself and an embryo and all the other stages along the human continuum?

A few years later, now around 27 or so, I went on a beach vacation in Kenya, where I lived at the time, with someone I was casually dating. At one point, after sex, he realized the condom he’d been wearing was nowhere in sight. My stomach dropping with a familiar anxiety, I went into the bathroom to fish it out. Now only on the pill, I had missed a few pills that month while traveling. I didn’t know how likely it was, but the risk of pregnancy was not zero.

The clarity and ease with which I went to the pharmacy to purchase the Kenyan equivalent of Plan B (less than $10 out of pocket) and take it as soon as possible was an important data point. It would have been a small act for many women, but for me, it represented how far I’d come. I knew this was not a man I wanted to be tied to forever, I was very invested in a career that had me traveling in intense, conflict-affected, remote environments, and I just didn’t want to be a mother.

So many of my experiences likely come across as incredibly mundane; Plan B and pregnancy tests are not particularly pivotal moments for most of my friends. But that is the point: to me, and to many with my background, they were not. The indoctrination I received meant I had never heard from anyone who had an abortion, never had reason to question what life or personhood really entail. I’d been given a clear, concise parameter: Life begins at conception and thereafter abortion was murder. My ability to critically reason was so hamstrung by the manipulation of the church I was raised in, where the very act of questioning meant I was failing God, that allowing myself the permission to revisit these ideas without guilt or shame felt remarkable in itself.

I have embarrassment for the naïveté with which I viewed the world as an Evangelical Christian. The guilt I once had about having sex before marriage or Plan B is replaced by far worse guilt for the way I was part of a movement that is oppressive to many. It’s still hard to not feel personally responsible for the views I held, and distrustful of my own reasoning abilities, rather than understand that I was indoctrinated as a child.

It also is astoundingly difficult to be left with the vacuum that was once filled by a meaning-making religion. Those in the Evangelical community seem to think leaving is an easy decision made so that we apostates can live sinful lives. The courage and difficulty it takes to leave is immense, and it’s not something we slip into out of temptation. At once, I lost my social support, a career, many friends, my sense of what the purpose of life was, and an entire worldview. In the past 10 years, psychology has started to recognize the existence of “Religious Trauma Syndrome,” which is very real. Alongside being raised around ideas such as the inherent sinfulness of humans and hell, two core messages are imbued: You are not good, and you are not safe. The symptoms can closely mirror post-traumatic stress disorder.

To the Evangelical Christian world, this struggle I went through in the years after departing can be framed as a consequence of my sin, as the ramifications of turning from the truth. But all of the “consequences” are suffered because I was set up to fail—set up not to have the tools to practice safer sex, because I was taught not to trust my own body or intuition or even my mind.

Today, I’m 33 years old, and I know there are situations in which, were I to fall pregnant, I would get an abortion.

I’ve feared to speak on this issue because I have often existed in a liminal space that opens one up to criticism on either side. I can imagine what some who knew me when I was younger might think as they read this: “What a shame that she’s become ‘of this world’ by rejecting God.” “She’s too tempted by sex outside of marriage and so is now anti-life to make that feasible.” “She’s alright with babies being murdered!” “She’s just ‘going with the crowd’ of the woke liberals she surrounds herself with.” Or, somehow worst of all, “I’m praying for you that you’ll see the light.” This is something I have constantly feared—am I just participating in self-delusion, a sort of internal preference falsification to fit in? The messages that punished me for questioning and making my own determinations still have a sting.

all of the ‘consequences’ are suffered because I was set up to fail—set up not to have the tools to practice safer sex, because I was taught not to trust my own body or intuition or even my mind.

But on the other hand, I have often felt I am not “enough” pro-abortion rights, apprehensive that any doubts or gray areas I express could easily be manipulated against the pro-choice movement. You can feel a bit like an alien when you are surrounded by many people who have always had liberal upbringings. I had to journey on this path alone without an ability to see how someone else ahead of me grappled with the same issues. It’s been slight steps forward, and even slight steps backwards.

I struggled, in particular, with the “Shout your Abortion” movement when it first rose to prominence. I saw abortion as necessary and important and valuable, but still as a difficult and overall less preferable option to many family planning tools. In general, I agreed with the idea of “safe, legal, and rare.” Then again, I agree completely that abortion should be normalized and free of shame, no matter the reason. I still don’t know how to quite reconcile this discomfort with my belief that the movement is doing an important thing.

I want to be able to leave for all of you a clearly packaged, coherent, personal view on how I would handle any specific personal abortion decision to demonstrate the consistency of my logic and protect myself from criticism. I’ve realized I can’t. That’s one of the things that was easier about being pro-life. The extremity of the viewpoint makes only one decision correct: Fertilization means a child, so abortion means murder. The Evangelical Christian world is very black and white, and struggles with shades of gray. The decision for an abortion is so unique to every circumstance; the simplification of when unique DNA is created by the merging of an egg and sperm is, I think to many, intuitively not the only nor far from the most important factor. This is why I don’t believe in any abortion restrictions. And it’s why, when I try to prescribe what I would do in given contexts, I go back to the wise words of my friend: “You don’t know what you would do until you are in the situation.”

The term “Exvangelical” cropped up in 2016, and I’m relieved that there appears to be a more robust social network of people who have departed Evangelical Christianity to provide support and validation to each other. My journey may have been easier or quicker if I had more people like me to engage with. And yet I still feel like there is much of a culture of silence on the issue of abortion.

This moment of publicly breaking my silence has been building in recent months. Admittedly, fear held me longer than it should have. But the day Roe v. Wade was overturned, I sat in a stupor for 20 minutes before hydrating, scribbling a sign, and heading to protest at the Supreme Court. As I stood, sweaty in the D.C. humidity and yelling alongside others, I couldn’t help but drift closer to a small group of counter protestors on the corner to try to hear what they were saying. With a few different decisions, I could have easily been the women speaking with fervor into a bullhorn about how “God knits together children in your womb” and offers forgiveness for the sin of abortion. In many ways, she was the pinnacle of where I had been headed: a bold, brave leader for the Evangelical Christian community.

It struck me how, unlike her, as pro-choice advocates heckled her, I was letting my fear get the best of me. I was preventing someone else, who is now on the same path I was but a few steps back, from knowing they are not alone, from knowing the pro-choice community needs everyone we can get. How much I could have used that voice in my life. I can’t stay silent any longer.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin