Sharon Long: My Personal Pro-Life Journey
by Sharon Long
I am a liberal. I believe in a comprehensive government funded social welfare network, national health insurance, more spending on foreign aid, a reduced military budget. I am also a liberal Jew. I believe in a symbolic interpretation of the Bible and support women’s equality within Judaism.
I am also a right-to-lifer and have been very active in fighting to make abortion illegal and to prevent women from having abortions for close to thirty years.
My opinion of abortion first developed in my 10th grade health class, about a year after the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide. After learning inaccurate information, I decided that a fetus became a human being at about 12 weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, abortion on demand should be permitted before then. I could not understand why I saw “Abortion is murder” bumper stickers or why another student wanted to start a pro-life group in my high school.
However, I began doing some volunteer work in a local veteran’s hospital and I began to think about what gave life meaning and purpose. Did I believe that the people for whom I was caring, so debilitated mentally and physically, as well as so dependent, truly had lives worth living? Later, I worked summers as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home and continued debating these questions within myself.
In the summer after my sophomore year in college, while working at a nursing home, I was fortunate to find at my small town library two of the books that have made the most impact on my life. One was In Necessity and Sorrow by Magda Denes, a psychologist observing what went on in an abortion clinic. The book provided graphic descriptions of aborted fetuses as well as interviews with the women having abortions, most of whom felt forced into the abortion because of circumstances. The other was Aborting America by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, an atheist gynecologist of Jewish ethnicity. He was the medical director of one of the first free-standing abortion centers in the country and had also been a leader in the abortion rights movement. He described how he had become pro-life through his study of fetal development and ultrasound in a very dispassionate and rational way that made sense to me. I continued to wonder where the line could be drawn in fetal development as to when a human life became a person. I also wondered when in the continuum of human life did a human being stop being a person?
I viscerally knew that the lives of my nursing home patients had meaning and purpose. My patients, regardless of how “useless” they might be in the eyes of society or even their own eyes, were of infinite value and worth, that is, they were sacred by virtue of being human.
I asked myself, if I believed in personhood at the end of life, then logically what should my belief be as to the value of the fetus?
The answer was clear. If life that was debilitated and dependent at the end of life was sacred then human life at its beginning must also be sacred. A fetus, regardless of the value conferred upon it by others, had to be a person.
I became a reluctant pro-lifer.
I could hardly believe it myself. I was liberal and hip. I went to a feminist women’s college. How could I not believe that a woman had a right to control her own body under all circumstances, and that the right to control one’s own body was the right on which all other rights were based, as I was told over and over? How could I be so politically incorrect?
In my junior year of college 1979 I went to Costa Rica where I first heard about liberation theology, which combined Catholic theology with a Marxist economic analysis. I will never forget the college debate between the feminist group on campus and the Catholic group. The Catholic debater said immediately that this was not about theology. The issue to be debated with feminists was not about whether fetuses had souls.
Instead, the issue was about whether abortion helped women advance in society. The debater explained that abortion does nothing to solve any social problem or advance the rights of women in any way. What it does do is enable society to maintain the status quo by forcing women to kill children rather than require social, economic, and political change to enable society to support them.
I thought, “That makes so much sense!”
While in Costa Rica I worked in a refugee center during the Nicaraguan civil war where I saw pregnant women who would not consider abortion. They considered having a baby as an act of defiance against oppression– that although they were refugees, they were still entitled to have children and extend their legacy.
Although it may have been more politically correct to be a pro-life progressive in Costa Rica it remained a problem when I returned to the U.S. I stayed in the closet about my pro-life beliefs until I was 25 and saw what abortion was doing to my friends. I saw how trapped they felt into having abortions and the lingering grief afterwards.
After this happened several times I decided that I was through with being politically correct. I called the National Right to Life Committee and said that I was a liberal but I was pro-life–was there anything out there for me? The person on the other end of the line chuckled as she referred me to Feminists for Life.
FFL sent me pamphlets that blew me away, especially those by Rosemary Bottcher and Elise Rose explaining how abortion maintains women’s oppression in society and does nothing but maintain the status quo. Rather than meeting the real needs of women and children we offer abortion. I asked myself, “Where have you, that is, Feminists for Life, been all my life?”
I also went to volunteer at the city’s crisis pregnancy center. I said to the middle-aged rosary-toting ladies that I lived with my boyfriend and used birth control but that their cause was my cause and I was with them. After some discussion among themselves (I later found out) they said, “Welcome aboard,” for which I will always be grateful.
Soon the right-to-life movement and pro-life feminism became the center of my life. I involved myself with many pro-life organizations, some progressive, some not. I wrote and spoke on pro-life feminism at every opportunity. I traveled all over the country attending conferences. I joined the executive board of Feminists for Life. I volunteered at crisis pregnancy centers. I contributed thousands of dollars and hours to the pro-life movement. Most of my close friends were pro-lifers. I bored my family by talking about it so much.
I also became a caseworker in child support enforcement. Although I could have earned double the salary as a nurse, I believed that I was preventing abortion. In addition, I was empowering women by enabling women to fight for the resources they needed to care for themselves and their children.
I frequently felt culturally alienated in many pro-life circles, sometimes very painfully so, but I have found in general that pro-lifers are more tolerant of progressives than progressives are tolerant of pro-lifers.
My romantic life was another story. I felt compelled to tell men immediately that I was pro-life. I knew that this was not just theory. My refusal to have an abortion should I be faced with an unplanned pregnancy would have very serious implications in a relationship.
Needless to say, I had many boyfriendless times in my life. Men with whom I might otherwise have a lot in common were frightened by someone who would not consider abortion as a backup. Even the few who were privately sympathetic did not want to be associated with a public right-to-lifer.
Why was I willing to make such sacrifices? Why did I stay so involved in the movement? I was angry. I became furious at ads for abortion that I believed preyed on the panicked and the vulnerable. I saw the genocide of the unborn that was happening in my own country and how it was directly caused to the exploitation of women and the impoverished.
However, through the years my anger slowly began to cool. Maybe it was my weariness with the constant stories I heard about women’s economic and relational oppression in my child support enforcement job. Maybe it was the lack of success pro-lifers were having in the political arena of my state (New York). Maybe it was that on the national level we seemed to be only putting out fires and treading water. Maybe it was the shift to the right of some of my beloved pro-life organizations. But eventually my anger turned to resignation.
Although I had known all along that pro-lifers’ only real enemies were the economy and the culture, I had believed that the law would act as teaching tool. A change in the law would help change the culture and force economic and social welfare policy changes which would empower women to have and raise their children.
Initially I, along with many others, had fought like crazy because I believed that time was running out. I knew that the longer that abortion remained legal, the longer it would become entrenched in our culture. It would therefore become difficult to decrease abortion even if it did become illegal.
I believe that time has now run out, at least in the northeast United States. Making abortion illegal will not make it unacceptable in the short or even in the long run anymore. Just changing the law at this point in time will not substantially decrease abortion.
I now believe that the abortion fight should be handled like the fight against smoking, also another important pro-life issue. It took a massive thirty-year advertising campaign, still ongoing, along with every possible support, such as free smoking patches and support groups, as well as gradual legal restrictions, to reach the point where smoking has become abhorred in our culture. The only way to end abortion is to follow the same strategy.
If we enabled women to have real choices, choices that do not pit their survival against the survival of their children, very few would choose abortions. This will require a massive investment in government services and a very focused and aggressive advertising campaign. Neither political party right now has the will to do this. However, if we work with others who are interested in human and economic rights issues, and especially those who wish to empower women and poor people, we may have a chance.
Ultimately the root cause of abortion is alienation, which sociologists define as powerlessness. After close to thirty years in the pro-life movement I have spiritually come full circle, reuniting with my progressive community. By uniting with everyone, including those who disagree with us, to empower women and achieve a more just society, we will liberate not only pregnant women but ourselves as well.
Editor’s note: Part of this article is slightly revised and republished from The American Feminist with permission from Feminists for Life of America. All rights reserved.
For more blog posts on personal journeys, see:
Supporting the Dignity of Every Life (Bill Samuel)
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons (Karen Swallow Prior)
Off the Fence and Taking My Stand on Abortion (Mary Liepold)
On Being a Consistent Chimera (Rob Arner)