The Humane Necessity of Abortion

Christine Robinson

Sermon preached at the First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, January 27, 2013

Sermon Part I:  History and Statistics

The History: from the New York Times

WHY would a woman put a leech inside her body, in the most private of female places? Why would she put cayenne pepper there?

Why might a woman swallow lye? Gunpowder? Why would a woman hit herself about the abdomen with a meat pulverizer? A brickbat? Throw herself down the stairs?

Why would she syringe herself, internally, with turpentine? Gin? Drink laundry bluing?

Why might she probe herself with a piece of whalebone? A turkey feather? A knitting needle?

Why would she consume medicine made of pulverized Spanish fly? How about powdered ergot, a poisonous fungus? Or strychnine, a poison?

Because she wanted to end a pregnancy. Historically, women have chosen all those methods to induce abortion. The first known descriptions appeared around 1500 B.C. in ancient Egypt.

For most of history, abortion has been a dangerous procedure a woman attempted to perform on herself. In private. Without painkillers.  Throughout all recorded time, there have been women so desperate to end a pregnancy that they were willing to endure excruciating pain and considerable risk, including infection, sterility, permanent injury, puncture and hemorrhage, to say nothing of shame and ostracism. Where abortion was illegal, they risked prosecution and imprisonment. And death, of course.

The Statistics:  From The Guttmacher Institute

(By “all women” the following includes all female persons, including those who don’t have sex at all, are infertile, or don’t have sex with men…which is a substantial number of women.) 

  • By the time they are 45,  about half of all women will have had an unintended pregnancy.

  • Of all women, nearly 1 in 3 will have an abortion by age 45. 

(The rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion for women who are sexually active with men for most of those 30 fertile years will be considerably higher.)

A few more statistics of interest

  • 58% of all women who have abortions are in their 20’s. (the years of greatest fertility and sexual activity, as well as, often, they years in which male partners are least supportive and the woman least able to raise a child.)

  • 15% of abortion patients are married and 30% living with a boyfriend.

  • 79% are religiously affiliated.

  • 88% of all abortions are done in the first trimester. 

  • Most abortion patients have some kind of health coverage but either for reasons of privacy or because their health plans do not cover abortion, they pay for the procedure themselves. 

  • The average cost of an abortion in 2008 in this country was $480. 

  • Many women must delay the procedure because they must raise the money from friends and family, from not paying bills, and so on. 

  • New Mexico is one state with very few restrictions beyond Roe v. Wade, joining states on the west coast, the northeast and Illinois in that distinction.

Now, we turn to stories; stories about abortions .  Since one in three women has had an abortion, nearly 50% of women has contemplated one, and at least many of their husbands, lovers, sisters, parents and friends has known about their ordeal, we know that these are very personal stories which are almost never told  We will hear three stories this morning, but when this sermon is published we would like to have a hundred more.   Preferably with real names attached, but that’s optional.  If you want to write your story of having an abortion or supporting a woman who had an abortion and send it to Christine, she will get it published with the sermon.   The first story comes from church member X


My grandmother and grandfather lived on a farm in southern Ohio in the 1930’s: the Depression.   There were six kids from about 6 to 12, three girls and three boys.   My mother was the “middle girl” age eight.   They were poor.  They worked the farm and grandpa also traveled around selling farm equipment.  

One day when he was away, Grandma told the kids she needed to rest and they were not to bother her.  She was going to lock the door and there would be a whipping for anyone that bothered her.  So the kids played and generally stayed away from the house all day.  It got dark.  They called to her and she didn’t answer.  They ate something and called again with no response.  The oldest boy went to talk to the neighbor who came and found her dead.  She had bled to death from a clothes hanger abortion she did on herself.   The neighbor lady said that grandma had done it before without any problems. 

The family divided up the children to go live in various east coast places but no one had room for my mother.  She went to an orphanage and said, “That was the best time of my whole childhood”. 

At thirteen her mother’s sister  brought her to live with her since she needed someone to help with chores and housekeeping.   She made life a hell for my mother and made her feel dirty and ugly.  She was not allowed to date but in the last month of her senior year she allowed her to go roller skating with a girlfriend.  There Florence met a senior guy named Fred who was also going to graduate in a month.  They had two skating dates and immediately after graduation ran away to Cleveland to get married.  They were together for 10 days before he had to report for duty in the merchant marine for WWII.

Florence got a job riveting airplanes in a Cleveland factory and enjoyed her new freedom.  She went to California once and to Newport Virginia once to meet Fred during a shore leave.  When the war ended Fred got a big surprise – he was still alive and was going to be a father –that was me.  He had known Florence for a total of 16 days.  

When I was in college in the 60’s, I was sexually active with the man that later became my husband.  Although we practiced “safe sex” I was terrified that I would become pregnant.   I had grown up in poverty and was going to be the first in our family to graduate from college.   Every girl on campus knew the name of two nurses who could “help” in case of pregnancy.  One could do an abortion at her home but it was expensive.  The other would give you some kind of medication and send you back to the campus where you would have a “miscarriage” and your friends would help you through it.   If a girl started to bleed too much they were supposed to call for an ambulance.  

I got married in June of 1968 and was so very relieved to finally have a marriage certificate – which was required by the doctor in order to get a prescription for the wonderful new birth control pills.  Safe abortion must always be available.

A’s story

I have never said this to more than a few people at a time, but twenty years ago, I had an abortion.  Although it is common, it’s something we almost never talk about. There is a lot of shame around it. But keeping abortions secret allows them to be controversial—if everyone knew how many people in their lives have had one, they wouldn’t seem frivolous or scandalous anymore. And keeping abortions secret makes the shame worse—if we could talk to each other about them, we could let that shame go.

So, for all the women who have had an abortion, and all the men whose partners did, and for everyone who contemplated one, I tell my story for you. Let’s come out of the closet if we can, to lessen the shame, and change the conversation.

I was sixteen and fiercely attached to a boyfriend I had been with for a couple of years, since we were freshmen in high school. We always used birth control, except for once, when we didn’t have any.

A few weeks later, when I noticed the early signs of pregnancy, I went to a pregnancy crisis center for a free test. It was not until the test came back positive, and the woman asked me what I intended to do, that I realized the crisis center was actually an antiabortion center. When I told her I’d probably terminate the pregnancy, she tried to scare me out of it by describing the procedure in frightening detail, emphasizing how painful it would be. I left feeling terribly conflicted, but went ahead and made an appointment at an abortion clinic. My parents supported my decision, and my doctor, who was a fairly young woman herself, made a comment I’ll always remember. She said she had known many women who had gotten over having an abortion, but that she had never known any woman who got over giving a baby up for adoption.

The morning of the procedure, my boyfriend stood me up. My mom took me. I made it through, and came home tearful.

I was one of the lead actresses in a play that night. I had an understudy, but went through with it anyway. I knew I didn’t look myself, so I told the rest of the cast that I was a little under the weather from a minor medical procedure. I didn’t say what it was.

Afterward, rumors flew at school. One popular girl came up and asked me point blank if I’d had an abortion. Trying to diffuse the rumors in a credible way, I told her that my boyfriend and I had thought I might be pregnant, but that I didn’t turn out to be. Maybe that’s where the rumors started, I told her. Actually, though, I’m pretty sure my boyfriend started them. I think it may have been a point of pride for him to have gotten a girl pregnant.

The whole experience was pretty traumatic. When I hear people talk about women using abortion as their main form of birth control, I think they must have no idea what an abortion is like, or what kind of shame or social complications it can cause in a woman’s life.

I have personally accompanied two women to their abortions and I know of many others. Some were Catholic or Christian. Some were raped. Some couldn’t manage a pregnancy for financial or health or practical reasons. Some had used birth control. None speak easily about it, as though it were no big deal.

This is the reality. Some women face difficult or impossible situations, some feel overwhelmed. Some people who thought they were against abortion find themselves in a situation they had not imagined, in which it turns out to be the only option that makes sense to them.

C’s Story

I was 23 years old, drifting through a young adult fog after graduating from college with a degree in music that I had come to understand was not going to be very useful to me and a three year relationship with a man which was ending.  I was in the process of moving out when I discovered myself pregnant. 

We had been using birth control…the sort which, when used correctly, provides more than 90% safety from pregnancy.   Up until that point, I had lived a lucky, privileged life and it had never once occurred to me that I might be in the unlucky 10%.  It was a dreadful moment of learning.

I was all for abortion rights but had  had imagined that a careful person like myself wouldn’t use them.  I suppose I was poor, technically, but I had plenty of resources.   My family would have supported any decision I had made and I knew that a healthy white baby of a college graduate would be easily adopted.  I would have been massively embarrassed to be pregnant but I didn’t think that my massive embarrassment was justification for ending the life in me.  

So it was a great surprise to me to find that there was a second C in me, a focused and rather ferocious one, and that C took us both straight to the doctor and signed up for an abortion.   The stress of finding myself doing something I didn’t think was good for reasons I couldn’t articulate was truly disorienting.   I didn’t understand why I just didn’t have the baby.

The doctor who performed the abortion told me that the pregnancy seemed to have ended itself, and no abortion had been performed. But that didn’t really alleviate my distress.  I had chosen to do something I felt was wrong and had to find a way to live with that.  The whole situation grew me up, introduced me to parts of myself I didn’t know were there, and impelled me to get serious about the rest of my life.   The whole experience was a part of what made me the person I became.  It was so good for me that it is hard to regret it.   But I was determined never to repeat the experience. 

I quickly discovered that there was…there is….no birth control method short of sterilization  100% effective in preventing pregnancy.   I’m a fast learner.  Having so painfully discovered that 90% wasn’t good enough,  I understood that 99% was only a little better and still not good enough.  I decided to wait ‘till I got married to have sex.  Then at some point I realized that being married would not make any difference at all.  Married or single I was looking at three years of graduate school and a career of service and I couldn’t just stop any old time to have a baby for the next 25 years.  Married or single, until I had had the number of children I wanted,  I was either at the mercy of chance for the most responsible decision a person could ever make; that of being a parent, or I could be, married or single, celibate.  Alternatively, I could accept the sad necessity of abortion.     

The Sermon  “Life and Freedom”

Quick…your money or your life?     That’s a joke because, well, it is so obvious what your answer should be. Money can be replaced.  Your life is a sacred, irreplaceable reality.  So is everybody else’s.

Quick…be enslaved or die now!   Well.  Not quite so obvious, is it?   Give me Liberty or Give me Death, right?  It is sort of a national anthem in America…the basis of the best wars ever fought.  England was not threatening our lives when we went to war in 1776.  It was a war for independence, for freedom,  not a war for survival that all those men died in.  The Civil war, the costliest war in American history, in terms of loss of life,  was either fought for the freedom of slaves or the freedom of southern states, depending in which side you listen to, but both sides were fighting, dying, and killing for freedom.

I begin a sermon on abortion this way because we have to start by saying that the “right to life” is not an absolute right.  It exists in a matrix with other vital human rights, and they come into conflict more often than you might think.  Because they come into conflict most painfully and personally in the situation of an unwillingly pregnant woman, abortion is a humane necessity.  Women have always resorted to it.  Since 40 years ago, with Roe v. Wade, American women have been able to do so legally. 

This is what a pregnancy is.  It is one person donating an increasingly large proportion of her body and her freedom to another  life,   I’d call pregnancy a womb donation except that anybody who has been pregnant knows better, and its not only a donation of body but of heart, and while it is absolute and physical for 9 months, unless she can give the baby up for adoption, which many women can’t, for social reasons or because nature and evolution have put a lot of effort into bonding babies and mothers so that mothers WILL take care of them, then an unwanted pregnancy is also an 18 year loss of significant freedom because you are obligated by conscience and law to put quite a lot of time and effort into raising a child.  This is no pin prick, no mere blood donation or even kidney donation, this is motherhood,  And Motherhood is not for everybody, and it’s not for anybody as clear and present possibility for 30 fertile years.  Abortion is a human necessity. 

There is no other situation besides pregnancy in which one person is legally required to donate so much as a drop of blood to another person, even if the other person will die for its lack.  The minute after a baby is born, if it needs a blood transfusion and only the father’s blood will do, and the father refuses, the baby dies.  The mother, who was not free the day before, to endanger her baby in any way, can, after its birth,  legally refuse to give it a drop of her blood, but she probably won’t.  She’s put 9 months of blood into this baby. What’s another pint?  Cases where a desperate person goes to court to demand a small life-saving sacrifice of a reluctant parent or sibling  have been adjudicated in court, over and over again, as desperate people or loving parents try anything to save lives.  The courts always say, “no”.  The courts always say that a persons’ fundamental and sacred right to freedom means nothing if it does not mean the right to decide whether or not to donate a part of one’s body to someone else.  They always say that the human right to life does not extend to the right to appropriate somebody else’s body.  That’s what all the rhetoric about when human life begins is a big red herring.   It doesn’t matter when human life begins.  Whatever you think a fetus is, it doesn’t have the right to use somebody else’s body, even though it will die without. 

There are only two times when this fundamental right to bodily freedom is abridged in our society; in the conscription of soldiers and in pregnancy.  Soldiers believe that they are sacrificing their freedom and possibly their lives for the higher cause of nation, and they get pay and life-long benefits.  You could make a case that through most of history, woman’s sacrifice of freedom and often enough life, in pregnancy were for the greater good of the survival of the human race.  Women never got paid or life long benefits for their sacrifices, though, and anyway, you can’t make that case anymore.   That’s why abortion is a humane necessity. 

The incredible, inconvenient, painful, life-changing, miraculous whole-body donation of my freedom and body to the baby inside me that is pregnancy is taken for granted by most people as just the way things are supposed to be, and they think that Roe V. Wade somehow violated the way things should be when actually, it was a carefully drawn compromise in what is a fundamentally insoluble conflict of the human rights to freedom and life.  –a humane necessity

Women who are unwillingly pregnant know what is happening to them, what they are giving up, how big the deal this is, the affront to their personhood, this violation of their freedom.  That is why they have been willing to do everything from swallow ergot and die in dreadful pain to cross boarders and risk infections, jail, and shame to end their unwanted pregnancies.   Those women know that a pregnancy is like a kidney donation.  They know that if they can’t do it in love, they shouldn’t have to do it.  And also, like anyone ever asked to give more than they could who had to say no to a legitimate need of another, they feel a twinge, or more, of sadness and shame about their predicament and their decision.  So we don’t talk about this much and the reality that this happens a LOT is left out of public discourse.  I don’t want to leave it out of this one.  This is not an academic sermon about something that happens to other people that we should look upon humanely.  This is something that has happened or will happen to 1 in 3 women during their fertile years. 

Now there are those who believe that the woman’s right to choose should be the right to choose not to have sex, and if she does choose to have sex, she has already given permission for this intruder to enter her body and grow there, and should not be allowed to expel it.  That’s why even those who would disallow abortion under almost any other circumstances often believe that women whose pregnancy is the result of rape or incest should be allowed an abortion.  If she didn’t consent to sex, the thinking goes, she didn’t consent to this violation of her freedom and should be allowed the humane necessity of abortion. 

And what about if she chooses to have sex? Is it reasonable to say that she has thereby given her consent to the rigors, trials, risks, of pregnancy?  To the derailment of her life’s plans? To Mandatory Motherhood?   

When she had a failure of birth control she was obviously not giving permission for body donation that is pregnancy.  Should she be forced by law to take the consequences anyway?  Well, if we lived in a society…or bodies….constructed such that that sex was only for creating pregnancy, if we all expected to be celibate, married or single, until late middle age, except for those relatively few occasions in which we were trying to be pregnant, then maybe engaging in the act of sex should carry the consequence of loss of her fundamental human right to freedom for at least 9 months.  But we don’t actually live in that sort of world.  The celibate hierarchy of the Catholic church wishes we did, but they can’t even convince their own followers of this, who use birth control in the same high numbers as the average Americans.

What do you think, gentlemen? You’re just going along with life, trying to be a responsible guy, having sex probably not often enough, and…oops…you discover that you are party to an unwanted pregnancy. There’s a 50 50 chance it will happen to you.  But, no problem.  We’ll just require you  to donate a kidney to a stranger in recompense for being so naughty and unlucky.  It inconvenient, we know…but you will save a life.   Then you can help raise the child.  OK?  Or…maybe that seems rather unfair to you?  Punitive, perhaps?  An outrageous idea? 

Actually, science tells us that our bodies were clearly constructed with cross-over purposes for sexuality as not only for procreation but to facilitate the bonding that keeps parents together and society functioning.  We are meant to be having sex.  It’s good for us and for society that we do.  Science also tells us that there are terrible consequences for bringing every conception to term. Neither the planet nor or society can bear that weight.  Punishing women for unwanted pregnancy with a loss of their sacred right to freedom because they had sex is unjust and inhumane. 

But what do we then do about the sacredness of life which is ended in abortion?  When two basic and fundamental rights clash, there is no just solution. Some things can only be given as gifts.   Some situations can never be made right, so we do the best we can and live with our decisions. 

Roe v. Wade, whose 40th anniversary we celebrated last week, created a compromise between society’s interest in preserving the fundamental freedom to decide if you want to donate your body to some else, (which they called, confusingly, privacy) and society’s interest in preserving human life.  If you are unwillingly pregnant, you can obtain an abortion freely in the first trimester, less freely in the second trimester, and only in tragic necessity in the third trimester.  Roe v. Wade did away with ergot and induced miscarriages in college dorms and desperate housewives traveling to Mexico. Because of  Roe v. Wade 6 million unwanted babies were not born into stressed or resentful or angry families and they didn’t have chancy childhoods or create the need in America by now, for another dozen cities the size of Albuquerque.  But most of what Roe V. Wade did was put into law what every woman who is unwillingly pregnant knows in her heart.  “It’s my body, and deciding who can use it is a fundamental part of my personhood.   And if donating it to this new life is too hard right now, then I have to have the right to, sadly and respectfully, say “no”. 

Once unwillingly pregnant, a woman has to decide if she can bear the intrusion, make the gift, deal with the logistics, derail her life at this point.  She has to decide whether she wants to be a mother and if she doesn’t if she can give up the baby for adoption.  Most married women just can’t do that, after all, and even if she is single, will she be able to resist the bonds that nature will use to make her one?  She has to figure out what her other responsibilities are, to herself and others, and to this life which she had some part in starting.  Most women who make that decision, weighing life and freedom, have never before and will never again make such a momentous one.  And because there is no possibility of a “good” decision when one is unwillingly pregnant, they live with their sadness, their resentment, their road not taken, for the rest of their lives.  .

The gift of life and the gift of humanity, of choosing, of wanting, of knowing; it is complicated and messy, and there is no way to live so that you are guaranteed to never have to choose between competing goods and clashing rights.  You do the best you can, and it makes you who you are. 

Amber Royster