I was raised in a very liberal suburb of DC where progressive ideals were a given. So, for me, identifying as pro-choice just came with the territory—I never had to wrestle with or challenge my beliefs. But when I got older and started meeting people with different experiences and upbringings from my own, I was surprised (perhaps foolishly) to learn that we aren’t always born with the beliefs we end up having. What we believe can change and evolve—it’s not fully baked the second we enter the world.
These days, we’re even more divided based on what we believe or what we’re taught in our childhoods—and proposed new laws are feeling increasingly out of touch to large segments of the population. I have a hunch (call it “faith” if that’s your thing) that once we start digging into perspectives that are different from our own, we’ll have much more compassion, understanding, and we’ll be better equipped to break down the boundaries.
To help start that conversation, I spoke with five women who’ve changed their views on abortion over time to learn what made them question those long-held beliefs. Most of the women I talked to credit their past ideologies to the religions they were raised in—something that has also played out in abortion policy. Because of that, when it comes to abortion, religion and politics are often linked. (It’s worth noting that while the women I interviewed were all raised in Christian denominations, not all sects of Christianity oppose abortion, and there are other religions that have mixed or negative views on abortion.)
For Angie, being raised in the Pentecostal church meant that the pro-life mentality was all around her from a young age. “I knew my church’s thoughts about abortion far before I ever fully understood what abortion was or the reasons somebody may have them,” she says. Her family reinforced those ideas at home. “My grandma gave me pro-life pins for my jacket—little babies,” Angie tells me. She also had bumper stickers on her truck, including one that said “Abortion is murder.” That bumper stickers still makes her cringe today.
Natalye, similarly, was taught by her church that life starts at conception, and that abortion is murder. Growing up in the “Bible Belt of California,” she explains that the pro-life stance wasn’t really up for debate. “It wasn’t ever just: ‘This is part of what we believe.’ [It was] straight-up indoctrination,” she says. At 10, she went to a pro-life event where a speaker claimed their mother had attempted to abort them, but the procedure didn’t work. “Maybe this person’s story was important,” she tells me, “But did a child really need to hear about how another person’s parent tried to ‘burn them alive’?” Yet, according to Natalye, these stories were a normal part of her childhood, and the language and imagery was deliberately vivid and misleading. “But since it was what everyone I knew seemed to think, I never questioned this view,” she says.
A Roman Catholic primary school curriculum first introduced Jayne to anti-abortion rhetoric. “The teachers in health class framed [abortion] as killing a baby. They never used any terms like ‘fetus’ or anything else—they specifically used the word ‘baby,’” she says. Since that’s how Jayne was taught to view abortions, she found them difficult to understand. “I honestly couldn’t imagine how anybody could kill babies like that. How anybody could murder a life inside them,” she explains. Jayne was so entrenched in the ideology that she even went on school-organized trips to Washington, DC, for the March for Life, a pro-life rally. “By then, I was in the thick of it—I was really drinking the Koolaid,” she says.
Krista was raised politically conservative and religiously Catholic—both aspects of her identity informed her views. Like Jayne, Krista’s education about abortion was mostly in a religious context: “The facts were skewed and the lesson came with a lot of very graphic photographs that focused on the blood and the horror of abortion, rather than the truth,” she says. Since Krista wasn’t getting this information in a health or science class, “The emphasis was on abortion as a sin,” she explains. If you had an abortion, you were murdering your baby and you were going to hell. “As a young adult, this scared me and made me pro-life,” Krista says.
For Jennifer*, though, it’s difficult to attribute her formerly pro-life ideology to one source or one memory. But she understands a big part of it: “I know that my primary draw to being pro-life was thinking that it wasn’t the baby’s fault—they existed and they didn’t deserve to die,” she explains. She became the vice president of the pro-life club at her Catholic university and brought speakers from “Feminists for Life” to her campus. Another huge influence for Jennifer was her “naivete and lack of experience.” “I was never in the position to be pregnant before college,” she explains, “So in my mind, I just thought, ‘Why can’t everyone just abstain?’” She believes that things may have been different if her parents had talked more to her about sex, pregnancy, and “the world outside my bubble.”
All five women started seeing a shift in their ideologies once they left the towns they grew up in or entered spaces with new ideas and perspectives. For Angie, teaching at a juvenile detention center in her twenties had a huge impact. “I saw girls come in who were 14 years old, pregnant, and addicted to meth. Many of them were pregnant due to statutory rape or sex work,” she says. “I began questioning my beliefs as I thought about what it would mean, not only for the babies of these girls, but also for the girls themselves to experience these pregnancies and have children.” She saw her views at the time as pretty middle of the road, but once she fell away from the church and got involved in feminist, queer, sex-positive, and body-positive communities, she became “staunchly pro-choice.” “I began to understand the nuances and gray areas. More than anything, I began to believe in the autonomy of each person with their body,” she explains.
In high school, Natalye moved from her hometown to the more progressive Bay Area. Immersing herself in punk-rock music and her environment ushered her into a new POV—one that she called “pro-life for myself, pro-choice for everyone else.” She isn’t sure why she didn’t fully embrace the label of “pro-choice,” but she thinks it might have to do with her upbringing and the stigma around the term. But time changed that, as well as learning more about reproductive science and the role that poverty and race can play. “Over the years that followed, and as I made my way into adulthood, I gradually became more comfortable in my beliefs. Now I would say I’m firmly and loudly pro-choice,” she says.
Though Jayne first started questioning her own beliefs when she watched an allegorical episode of “Seinfeld” about abortion around age 10, it wasn’t until her first semester at college that she truly felt a change. She recognized that the pro-life approach on her campus (and from her youth) didn’t actually celebrate life, and she understood the struggle behind making the decision about abortion after a friend of hers accidentally got pregnant. If Jayne could confront her former pro-life self, who was raised to fear God and grappling with accepting that she was gay, she tells me she’d say, “It’s okay to think differently. It’s okay to question things. It’s okay to form other opinions. I would’ve slapped her in the face and told her to wake up.”
Going off to college also made Krista discover new ways of thinking. “I was suddenly around people who had grown up differently and held better-educated worldviews,” she explains. “In the space of a year, I went from pro-life to pro-choice, began identifying as a feminist, and ended up registering to vote at 18 as a democrat.” One thing she realized with time was that “pro-choice” doesn’t necessarily mean pro-abortion. “It just means you believe in choice—as in the choice to give birth, put a child up for adoption, or yes, have an abortion,” she says. Knowing this helped her feel confident in her new identification.
Jennifer* started changing her ideology in college, too—but it was actually a “super pro-life” professor who pushed her away from her former stance. The shift began during her junior year of college, but it was solidified when she went to graduate school. “I realized things weren’t just black and white, and that people have different experiences. That’s a ‘no duh’ statement, but I really hadn’t considered that standpoint before then,” she says. Though she personally doesn’t think she’ll get an abortion, “I now believe it’s not at all my place to pass judgment or to tell people how to live their lives,” she tells me.
Each of these women’s trajectories is unique, but one thing is clear throughout—the more we know about other people’s experiences and struggles, the better we can understand where they’re coming from. With that understanding, there’s less judgment, less division, and hopefully less monitoring and dictating what others can and cannot do with their bodies. Don’t shy away from hard conversations with family members or childhood friends with whom you don’t see eye to eye—you both just might learn a few things about each other and be much better for it.
*This name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.
Sarah duRivage-Jacobs is a freelance reproductive health writer and editor who lives in New York City with her creamsicle cat, Jasper. She's obsessed with words (and puns) and doesn't believe in the concept of TMI. Find her at @sarahdurivagejacobs and www.sarahdurivagejacobs.com.
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash