Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Explaining Abortion to a 10-Year-Old

It all began with a postcard from our older daughter.

She sends us postcards, real drop-in-the-mailbox postcards, a few times each week, with a little snippet or two about college life or something interesting she’s learned on them. The latest one said that a good portion of women who have abortions consider themselves to be pro-life, and think “I’m a good person who made a mistake, so it’s OK if I get an abortion.” But when “those” people get abortions, it’s because they’re bad people and irresponsible.

As I read the postcard to myself, her younger sister asked what it said, and when I told her, I got a question that I wasn’t expecting: What’s an abortion?

Now, the reason I wasn’t expecting the question isn’t because I was na├»ve. My daughters are nurse’s kids, and knew more about sex at age eight than many kids knew at age 14. If you ask us a question, we’ll give you the answer. Besides, just last week she was in the same room with me when I was talking about our church’s position on abortion with a friend, and she hadn’t asked any questions then.

And in case you’re interested, the last time I checked, the official position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is that abortion is, and needs to remain a “tragic option,” one that is sadly necessary for some people in this fallen world.

But back to the main story here, when she asked me what an abortion was, I could easily have deferred that one to her mother, but she was asleep, and I figured that this was something that we needed to talk about right then and there. I was going to try to talk about it in the most neutral way possible, without hitting either of the rabid extremes, but coming from the uncomfortable middle, where I find myself, along with most other people in this country.

I don’t remember my exact words, but I explained to her that an abortion was an operation where a pregnant woman goes to have the baby removed, and it dies. I didn’t use the word “baby” over “fetus” for any political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was talking to a 10-year-old, and that’s the term she understood.

When I explained this to her, a look of horror went over her face. Once again, not because of any particular political or ideological reasons, but because this is the kid who can’t walk through the mall without saying, “Ooh, look at the baby!” While she can imagine someone not wanting a baby (she knows that having a second kid was really not on my personal To Do list, and laughs at me for losing that battle), she can’t imagine anyone not wanting one badly enough to kill it. Her immediate response was “couldn’t they just have someone adopt it?”

Ah…in a more perfect world that would be the case. But I also took the time to explain some of the social pressures that might lead a girl to feel that she had to have an abortion, and that how, ironically, those pressures can come from the same religious people who are fighting against it. It used to be that an abortion was one way of hiding the “shame” that you had been having sex without being married. Or rather, of hiding the shame that you’d been caught. We all knew that people were doing it, we just didn’t want to admit it. Nowadays we assume that most people have sex without being married, so getting pregnant is only the confirmation of what we figured you were doing anyway.

In recent years I have been very pleased to see the baptisms of a few babies in our congregation who were the children of unwed parents. I was pleased to see that the mothers were not “sent to visit Aunt Sue for a few months,” but remained as part of the community, and that their children were fawned over just like any other new baby in the congregation. I was quite proud to know that our congregation isn't part of the problem that I told my 10-year-old about.

But I know that this conversation isn’t over yet, and while I really don’t want to talk to her about coat hangers, I know that I need to in order to put this whole issue in context.

And even though I’ve run long over my self-imposed word limit, the conversation here isn’t over yet either, and will resume in a few weeks as I think about a book that influenced me a great deal when I was in high school.