Living in the Wilderness: Starving for Nuance on the Abortion Debate


Does anyone else believe that the subject of abortion is more nuanced than the broad generalizations that shout, you’re either a murderer or you hate women? Is anyone else tired of the name-calling, the black and white thinking, the social media posts and memes with the sole purpose of shaming, stoking the fire, throwing bigger stones? It appears that gracious, respectful, and honoring dialogue is rare these days, and I’m exhausted as I observe the battles on social media. I am starving for context and nuance in this discussion and yet terrified to start the conversation myself. I don’t have answers. I don’t stand firm in one camp and shoot arrows at the other. I don’t believe half the country are misogynists and the other half are baby killers. I’m afraid to write about my thoughts on this issue. I’m afraid because I don’t cling to one side or the other with an army of supporters to back me up in case of an attack. I’m afraid that no matter what I write, 50% of my friends and family will immediately see me as the enemy regardless of who they know me to be or what they’ve come to know of my heart. I’m afraid, and YET, I have a desire to bring a conversation forward that is void of hate and name-calling. Will you help me? Do you believe we can be respectful, vulnerable, brave, smart, and kind in our exchanges, giving grace to those we disagree with? Are we up for the challenge of leading with kindness? Please join me as I try!  We will do our best and ask the Lord to take care of the rest.

As I wrestle with this complex issue, please stick with me. Please understand that I’m a person seeking love and grace…to give it freely and receive it fully. Please know that I do not claim to be right or to know right or to live right. If I miss a perspective in this post, forgive me and please share your heart, your desires, your perceptions. I want to hear from you. I want to learn from you. I’m doing the best I can to listen to all viewpoints while building bridges between us versus burning them down. I’m doing my best to see both sides from a place of love and grace, so that I can embrace people regardless of our different postures and points of view. I have no desire to plant my feet in cement and scream at the crowd across from me for the rest of my life. There are many amazing, loving, smart, kind, giving people on all sides of this controversy, and I am broken as I watch us throw stones at each other from our glass houses. I don’t want to choose sides on every debate, but I do want to love all people well.

I have never seen good come out of vitriolic rhetoric, healing from hate, salvation from fear, grace from judgement. I truly believe humbly loving and serving one another is the path to restoration, love and healing, healthy community. As a fan of Jesus, I believe love is the path through confusion and darkness…the weapon that defeats the grip of hate. I believe in the redeeming power of love and I feel myself collapsing under the weight of cruel assumptions, bitter accusations, vicious words without an iota of loving consideration. I feel this burden regardless of the side serving the venom.  

My Reaction to the Pro-Choice Rhetoric:

When I hear or read pro-choice advocates claiming that pro-life/anti-abortion supporters don’t care about women’s rights, I wince. I struggle with the idea that someone attempting to protect what they believe is a vulnerable and voiceless human being is equivalent to not caring about women or women’s bodies. Caring about the outcome of a babies life and caring about women’s rights are not binary choices. We can and should care about both. If we see abuse of a newborn, we report it. We report it to protect the baby. We report abuse even with the understanding that the mom may lose her rights to parent that child. This does not make the reporter of suspected abuse hateful or sexist. If I’m someone who believes that the entity within a woman’s womb is a human life, then naturally, as another loving human being, I feel the need to protect that life. If I believe there is a body….a somebody inside a woman’s womb, then doesn’t it make sense that I should care to protect them both? That I shouldn’t weigh one’s worth over the other? That I should support them equally in their right to life? That I would choose to fight for both of them to live regardless of their age? If I believe personhood begins in the womb, then isn’t it imperative that I act as a voice for the voiceless and defend the defenseless, not because I don’t believe in a woman’s autonomy, but because I believe in protecting the unprotected?

It makes sense to me that people who believe a fetus is a life would advocate for birth and fight against abortion. They literally believe they’re saving lives, and in that case, “her body, her choice” doesn’t apply, because they believe there’s more than one body being discussed, and that one choice affects the lives of 2 people. With that being said, of course we can and should have the difficult and nuanced discussion around when the fetus becomes a life requiring protection. This is one of many questions that will have different answers, but different doesn’t mean that those on one side are appalling and those on the other have it all figured out.

My Reaction to the Pro-life Rhetoric:

When I hear or read pro-life/anti-abortion advocates calling pro-choice supporters murderers and baby killers, I cringe. I struggle with the idea that someone attempting to protect women’s rights and privacy due to their belief that the embryo or fetus is not a human being, is equivalent to hating or wanting to kill babies. I disavow the assumptions I see in reality-distorting memes suggesting that there are lots of women waiting until their 3rd trimester to abort a perfectly healthy baby. With abortion being more accessible in the first few weeks of pregnancy, and women understanding the pain, the fatigue, the erratic hormone shifts, the difficult and irreversible changes that happen to her body throughout pregnancy, I reject the notion that there are numerous women enduring all of that while they weigh the decision for 6+ months. I find these presumptions hurtful and harmful, not just to having a productive conversation, but to those dear women who have had to make impossible decisions late in their pregnancy, in the midst of the worst times of their lives. There are many men and women who love children and have, or plan to have children, who also support a woman’s right to choose because they do not believe that the embryo or fetus is a person. It seems clear to me that there aren’t millions of people who desire to execute babies, but rather millions of people who support a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will carry a group of tissue and cells inside her womb to the point of personhood. There are women who are healthy with a healthy embryo who choose to abort for a whole host of reasons (age, financial, mental health, physical environment, timing, hopes, fears, etc.) that are personal to them and their circle of support. There are reasons for abortion that I don’t understand or agree with, however if someone believes the potentiality for life is NOT equivalent to life, then naturally it follows that they would  believe they have the right to choose what to do with the entity inside their own body. It is also important to remember that this issue covers more complex scenarios. There are women who opt for a therapeutic abortion because their baby is not viable for life outside the womb. There are women who opt for abortion due to the irreparable damage of being raped or surviving incest. There are women who opt for abortion because their life is at risk. Regardless of the reason, again, it comes back to the nuanced discussion of when we believe the fetus becomes a person. If I believe the fetus is not an individual until a certain point in the pregnancy, then it makes sense for me to believe that a woman has the right to choose whether or not she will carry the embryo or fetus up until that point.

It is rarely appropriate OR helpful to paint with broad strokes, especially when discussing such a complex topic. There are so many women grieving the unthinkable loss of their baby who are retraumatized by the lack of grace and understanding that explodes onto social media every time there’s a hot button court case. It breaks my heart that so many women are thrust back into pain and shame without a chance to tell their story…without anyone even stopping to ask what their story is.

This dispute has always felt very grey to me, but I have always considered myself pro-life, with exceptions of rape, incest, and the mother’s life being at risk. However, when I was pregnant with my first-born, my eyes were opened to just how personal and murky this debate really is. My brother died in a tragic accident when I was 11 weeks pregnant with my son Isaac. The night before my 12 week prenatal appointment I was suffering from extreme anxiety and panic, as I feared there would be something horribly wrong with my baby, and I knew I could NOT survive another loss. My entire family gathered around my parent’s kitchen table and prayed for me and the life growing inside. After that terrifying appointment, I began to imagine what it would be like to be told that my baby wasn’t viable for life outside the womb, or that he didn’t have a heartbeat, or any number of horrible announcements from a doctor that change the trajectory of a pregnancy…change the trajectory of all the lives involved. Around this time, I received a prayer request for a woman who knowingly and courageously was giving birth to her stillborn baby. It was in that EXACT moment (reading this gut-wrenching prayer request) that I knew I could never live through laboring and delivering my dead son or expose my family to such trauma as we were still reeling with grief over the unexpected loss of my brother. I would never have recovered from this fate. If I had faced that horrible reality, I would have chosen a therapeutic abortion, as I truly believe that I couldn’t have endured the alternative at that time in my life. I would have opted for an abortion and I would have been thankful that it was an option. Contrary to many of the memes and hurtful mud-slinging I hear and see, I don’t believe that decision would’ve made me Godless, faithless, heartless, or a murderer. I believe most of us make decisions based on advanced medicine/science and the intimate knowledge of our own capacity to live with our choices, and doing so we can still walk faithfully with God through it all. It was this experience that gave me a more nuanced perspective than I had ever had before. It made me realize how our experiences so often drive what we’re willing to fight for and that maybe sharing our stories with each other could narrow the divide.

Rather than spreading hate from both sides, I truly believe we could introduce love to one another by taking the time to have a conversation and listen…really listen. Listen to the woman who has lived through rape. Listen to the woman who had an abortion and now wishes she had made another choice. Listen to the woman who labored and delivered her lifeless baby. Listen to the young girl who survived incest and is now carrying her father’s child. Listen to the woman who cannot have children and couldn’t fathom ever choosing not to. Listen to the family that lost their mom, their wife, their daughter, sister, aunt during childbirth. Listen to the mom who struggles to feed her 3 kids and now must make the hardest decision of her life. Listen to the woman who was harassed at Planned Parenthood when she went in for a therapeutic abortion because her very much wanted and loved baby was not viable for life outside the womb. Listen to the woman who chose to be a teenage mom. Listen to the woman who had the abortion when she was 14 and has no regrets. Listen to the couple living through IVF. Listen to the family that loves a child with disabilities. Listen to the fostered child. Listen to the adult who seeks therapy from the trauma of foster care. Listen to the adult who praises the blessings gained from foster care. Listen to the stories of miracles and the stories of loss, the stories of regret and the stories of gratitude. I can only imagine the countless ways this issue affects women and families and I can only imagine the overwhelm that comes with each decision. And, because I can only imagine, I’m thankful for those who have shared their stories with me. I believe it is these conversations that have landed me in a place where I no longer make assumptions about the kind of person you are or the heart that you have based on where you land on this issue.

Where I “Think” I Land

I believe all life has value and should be protected, but I will openly admit that I don’t know where I land on the timeline of a fetus becoming a life. I believe a woman’s body must be treated with honor and respect and if that is violated, she should have the right to proceed in whatever way is necessary to heal rather than perpetuate that trauma. I have always considered myself pro-life AND I believe that a woman should be able to receive a therapeutic abortion if she has been raped, the baby isn’t viable for life, or the mom’s life is at risk. I have always considered myself pro-life AND making abortion illegal concerns me because I don’t want women pursuing life-threatening options or ending up in jail for seeking an abortion as that defeats the entire purpose of advocating for life and family. I believe all life has worth and should be treated with love and respect  including those who disagree with me and/or those who’ve made choices I “think” I wouldn’t make. But, the truth is we have no idea what choice we would make until we’re in those shoes, breathing that air, crying those tears, screaming those prayers. I am thankful I never had to make that choice, but I do not stand in judgment of women who have.

What wakes me in the middle of the night is the thought that some people I love dearly will say that I’m anti-woman for these beliefs and some will say I’m an assassin of innocent life. I stand in the middle somewhere as I try to consider the nuances and it is a lonely place to stand. I don’t belong to a camp because I see good people in both camps, and because I see good people in both camps, none of the camps will have me. The world tells us that we have to plant our flag on one side and despise the other, be disgusted by the other, call the other godless, evil, ignorant, misogynist, and on and on. To Brene’ Brown’s point in Braving the Wilderness, I don’t want to connect with a group or bond with others because we hate the same people with equal intensity. I want to find my relevance in a group that is built on who we can love and how much we can love them. This middle ground, this desert, this wilderness is isolating and scary and I’m hoping that I will eventually bump into others who live here too. I hope that even if we disagree we can commune respectfully and thoughtfully with our hearts and arms wide open for a warm embrace. Brene’ wrote a chapter titled, “It’s Hard to Hate Close Up,” and this is why I believe sharing and listening to each other’s stories is so important in the quest to love each other better and create a space of belonging. I would like to be on this journey with you.    

As I continue to tell my story and listen to others, I want everyone to know that the God I serve loves all of us, regardless of the choices we’ve made. I want everyone to know that God is not up in heaven wagging his finger, shaking his head, and saying “shame on you!” I want every person to know that they are loved and worthy of that love. I hear God saying, “grace on you!” God’s love is the example I seek to follow and I pray that I will connect with others on the same journey for life-giving grace and unabashed love.

If you relate to these struggles I would love to hear from you! I believe we can speak hope and love into each other’s lives. As I mentioned earlier, if I’ve missed a perspective and you would like to share your story and your thoughts, I would also love to hear from you! I believe it’s the sharing of the history behind our narratives that can build bridges. If you think a more nuanced conversation is valuable, please share this so that we can continue a conversation void of hate and hurt and filled with grace and the desire to listen and love well!

A Letter to Mormons

Dear Mormon Neighbors,

Having lived in Gilbert for most of my life, we have been visited by many young, passionate, Mormon missionaries throughout the years. Recently they have been offering their help with anything we may need assistance with. These exchanges always include the typical pleasantries where I thank them for their generous offer, and add that, “no, we don’t need help with anything at this time.” After their last visit however, as the young men pedaled away, I realized that I do have a request. A request that has been bubbling beneath the surface, unspoken for quite some time now. A desire that began formulating in my grade school years and has been refined since having children of my own. The next time a Mormon missionary asks if there’s anything they can do for me, I’m going to humbly and vulnerably reply as follows:

  • Please teach your children to be inclusive of my non-mormon children and please guide them to carry that inclusion past grade school, into middle school, and throughout high school.
  • Please encourage your children to sit with mine in the lunchroom.
  • Please permit your kids to invite my kids to their slumber parties, birthday parties, and weekend get togethers even AFTER my child has made it clear that he or she is not interested in attending fireside, seminary, or church with your family.
  • Please allow your teen to go with mine to school dances, athletic events, and group dinners trusting that just like you, my husband and I have done the best we know how to raise a teenager who knows right from wrong.
  • Please welcome my children into your homes and permit your children to visit ours.
  • Please ask your kids to consider how isolating it must be on “Seminary (extra credit) Days” for those kids who do NOT come to school dressed for church.
  • Please reflect on the fact that adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours comparing themselves to their peers, so when they recognize that it would never be “acceptable” to date your son or daughter or be your son or daughter’s best friend, it is, at best, damaging to their delicate self-esteem.
  • Please call to mind your younger years when your primary objective was to be loved and accepted for who you were without having to pretend you were someone else.
  • Please understand that my families faith also emphasizes the importance of loving others, giving of ourselves, forgiving those who have wronged us and seeking forgiveness when we wrong others, doing what is right and turning from evil, seeking a relationship with God, spending time in prayer, and living a life inspired by Jesus.
  • Please support your children in having open, vulnerable, honest, transparent, loving, kind, accepting conversations with my children about what they believe and why. In fact, while our kids are having that “grown-up” conversation, I also hope to enter into this depth of sharing with you…the Mormon parent.
  • Please know that I hold your child in the same regard as any other child who shares my family’s faith or who prescribes to no religion at all. Your child is special, and beautiful, and worthy of my love and caring regardless of doctrine or theology.
  • Please believe that I see our differences as an opportunity for us to grow together in loving-acceptance. God did not call us to “tolerate” our neighbors. He called us to Love. I love and welcome you, your family, and your faith because we are all children of God made in His image. Your faith is a sizable component of who you are, and you are God’s creation with gifts and beauty and a soul that has the ability to positively transform my life with each encounter.

As these hopes for my children spill out, I realize that these are the same yearnings I had when I was too young to express them and they remain yearnings for me now. I would like to know my Mormon neighbors. I would like for us to share our celebrations and mourn our losses together. I would like to enter into deep relationships with you that allow us to celebrate our differences and lift each other up versus silently judging one another from across the street or the backyard fence. I would like us to hug and share dinners, and text jokes, and go to movies, and have pool parties, and discuss politics, and cry and laugh, and live life together. These desires have never been expressed because I never felt important enough to express them, but now that I have children there is nothing more vital than ensuring they have a deep sense of belonging to this village we chose to raise them in.

For decades now I have felt an invisible yet palpable partition between my family and our mormon neighbors…a silent criterion that has said, “we can’t be that close…we can’t walk this life together too often, we can’t be intimate friends unless we share the same faith.” I want to tear down this barricade and abolish this silent destroyer of fellowship. I fear we are forfeiting valuable friendships and life-changing communion with one another as we allow religion to segregate our lives.

We are not that different. Our children are not that different. We are all living in a beautiful yet broken world doing the best we can with what we have. With inclusion and acceptance we can lighten each other’s burdens and love each other through the brokenness. We are all damaged humans, so let’s be damaged together. As our fractured pieces are assembled together, we will transform into a magnificent and vast tapestry of vibrant hues and unity…we can weave our hearts into a community of “us”…dynamic threads of surviving souls stretching out to reach each other, love each other, understand each other….staying true to ourselves while supporting one another. Loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Sincerely,

Renee’ (your hopeful neighbor)

P.S. I am not proposing that Mormons are the only religious group that could receive a request comparable to this one, or that this applies to every Mormon. I’m also not assuming that I wouldn’t, myself, benefit from reading the same words and applying them to my life with regards to another group or an “other,” an “outsider.” I believe every religion and every denomination could benefit from being more inclusive, but I write this letter in relation to my own experiences and memories and the concerns I have for my children. My Jewish/Agnostic husband could write an identical letter, based on his history, and just change the greeting to Dear Christians or Dear Italian Catholics. We can all admit that it feels good to belong to a group, but too often it’s at the expense of living a life void of those who are different from us, and I believe this is a tragedy. It is exhausting to correctly locate and consistently remain in the good graces of the right “club” these days. Race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, socio-economic status, neighborhood, state, coast, country, profession, and the list of ways we etch the invisible line goes on and on. I find that when I try too hard to belong to a particular group I lose sight of God’s vision for my life, which starts with loving “others” the way He loves me. We are created for community, and I believe our lives will always be richer if we truly follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. I pray that God will give us the courage to knock down walls, the strength to build bridges, and the grace to love with out qualifiers. I pray that my children will grow up loved and loving! Fully belonging!

8 Lessons I Learned From My 2 Year Old

Parenting is a never-ending syllabus of valuable lessons. There are lessons in resilience, in patience, in the paradox of love and anger, in mindfulness and presence, in creativity, in what exhaustion does to the brain, the mood, the marriage 🙂

I had not anticipated what great teachers my kids would be, and although they don’t set out to teach, I am always learning.

When my son was 2 years old he was doing his very best to patiently wait for his older cousin Brayden after a basketball game. I use the word “patiently” from a toddler’s perspective, as he was running the length of the gym, sliding feet first into the mirrored walls on each side, and then licking said mirrors, all while laughing hysterically.

Waiting patiently

Then, sweet Isaac spied his favorite thing….older kids doing something without him (how dare they)! Isaac is drawn to older kids like a moth to a flame, desiring to do everything they do regardless of how complicated or dangerous the activity might be. A 4 y/o boy and 6 y/o girl were playing a game of tag, and Isaac immediately began his attempt to keep up, running as quickly as his little legs would carry him. He was completely oblivious to the fact that he was being ignored and was in no way a part of their game. It took a few minutes before the boy finally acknowledged Isaac. He pointed his finger at my son’s chest and said, “we’re not playing with you. It’s just me and her playing…not you!” I watched from afar as Isaac tried to understand what he was being told. The boy attempted to confirm that Isaac had understood the limits he had just set. He stopped pointing his finger and made the fatal mistake of raising both arms in a shrug to say, “ok? Get it? Understand?” This was the moment Isaac decided that this boy’s shrug was actually an invitation for a hug. Isaac gave both kids an excited squeeze as if they had just nominated him President of their exclusive, “We’re Older and Bigger and Play Better Games Than You” club. Within minutes, the hearts of the older kids visibly softened as they began to make room for Isaac in their play. The boy took Isaac by the hand, guided him to “base” and then taught him how to tag. My sweet son decided that tagging should be hugging instead, which they graciously tolerated. Even when Isaac began tagging his own reflection in the mirror, they laughed with him and then patiently redirected him to their game. By the end of the evening these 3 beautiful children were friends. My heart melted as I watched this loving interaction and I was struck at how 3 young children had innocently illustrated the power of loving-acceptance and kindness. I couldn’t help but think of my own life and the times I have reacted to others in a way that wasn’t at all what I hope to model for my son. I couldn’t help but think of the times I’ve recoiled at someone’s perceived harshness without considering that maybe I was interpreting their actions unfairly and without context. I couldn’t help but watch these kiddos and consider how one kind gesture in the face of possible rejection can lead to openness and belonging. 

Watching these sweet littles taught me:

  1. When we judge, we lose the opportunity to forge new friendships.
  2. We can be loved through and forgiven for our misguided behaviors,  and we have the opportunity to do the same for others.
  3. Inviting someone “different” into our world can teach us a new way to approach, view, lean into life, and this can bring more joy, more freedom, more friendship, more love, more hugs!
  4. Loving someone who has hurt us can heal more than one heart.
  5. We must believe we’re worthy before expecting others to believe the same.
  6. When we are vulnerable we find ourselves loving others before judging them.
  7. It’s easy to love those who are kind to us. It’s courageous to love those who hurt us.
  8. When we love ourselves we can receive and accept love from others.

I’ve hoped to model for my son a love for others that is fearless and authentic and vulnerable, but as I watched that evening unfold, I realized that these qualities already live and breathe in young children. They don’t need adults to demonstrate these virtues, they need us to foster and protect them, as they face the hurts and disappointments that come with growing older. What I thought was my responsibility to teach my son, was actually a lesson I needed to learn from him.

The next time I’m tempted to judge someone, I’ll think of these 3 children and remain open to experiencing a new (and possibly more joyful) way of approaching life. And, the next time someone tells me that I don’t belong, I’ll remember that the most appropriate response is to love them anyway!

Isaac with his cousin after making new friends