Pregnant amid the abortion fights

Would expecting our own baby change the way I thought about abortion?

Erin Boers and Joseph Penner Erin Boers and Joseph Penner

It was an unremarkable Monday in March when I biked from my home in West Salem, Ore., across an old train bridge to a discount grocery store. I pushed a cart through my favorite aisles, hunting for the most exciting deals.

Finally, at the ripe age of 39, I veered into the less familiar pharmacy aisle and stared vacantly around until I located a pregnancy test: 99 cents, a bargain!

Pedaling back across the bridge, I took in the view of the Willamette River with an extra sense of pride and wonder. Back home, my wife, Erin Boers, had polished off a couple of glasses of water. She disappeared into the bathroom and reemerged stricken with fear and excitement.

We had spent most of our nine years of marriage thinking we wouldn’t have kids but had decided to give it a small window of opportunity, not truly believing it could happen.

Staring at the plus sign, we laughed nervously together, saying, “What have we done?”

We became pregnant at a time when fights over abortion access were at a fever pitch. Suddenly, phrases that had always been abstractions — 15-week ban, eight-week ban, viability, heartbeat bill — took on concrete meaning.

I run in liberal circles and have always been casually pro-choice. Would having my own baby change the way I thought about abortion?

We figured Erin was about four weeks pregnant. We didn’t really regard our precious embryo as a human life yet. We were tantalized by the miracle that had occurred in her body: Here we had done the most ordinary thing known to this world, and it made me realize our world is extraordinary.

Together with our secret, we carried on with a kind of anxious glee at the possibility of becoming parents. At this early stage we knew miscarriage is common, yet I dared to paint a picture in my head of a small girl (it was always a girl in my imagination) reaching up and tugging on my hand, of a young woman, brave and bold, taking on the world with some irresistible combination of my own pensive optimism and my wife’s no-nonsense realism.

Erin always hated the idea of being pregnant. To her, it seemed a horrifying affliction — an invasive assault on her body that she was not convinced she could handle. I harbored romantic hopes that the magic of it would capture her, that her spirit would be buoyed by some primal, unstoppable life-force. This was somewhat the case, but more prominent was the nausea, the pain, the tugging of hormones and the fear of childbirth.

Amid all the challenges, she started planning. She made doctor’s appointments, took vitamins, read books, consulted with other moms. She processed how our home would be reorganized and cataloged the items we’d need to acquire.

As I observed the way she vaulted forward despite the physical burden of pregnancy, the way she drew from a reservoir of inherited wisdom largely unknown to me, the way other women huddled around her in a bastion of support, I came to understand that it is women, not men, whose resilience, compassion, courage and strength make this world go ’round.

I knew that each passing week would make a miscarriage more painful and the notion of an abortion feel less ethical. On the radio, I listened to reproductive rights advocates who were agitated by state laws that would ban abortions after six weeks, saying this would force thousands of women into carrying out unwanted pregnancies.

On the one hand, I found it hard to relate to those who failed to discover and act on an unwanted pregnancy before six weeks. But on the other hand, it seemed profoundly odd — invasive, even — that my state government might take a stake in the intimate and private matter Erin and I were going through. How could any government or concerned citizen come close to experiencing the depth of feeling we were sharing in privacy? How could their interests exceed our own joy? Or, were it the opposite case, what could they possibly substitute in place of our despair?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be pro-life, not in the political sense but in a general sense. Some Mennonites argue that we ought to be consistently pro-life, meaning that protecting fetal life should go hand in hand with opposing war and capital punishment. But for me the notion of being pro-life is more expansive and less specific than this.

At a gut level, the word evokes a celebration of the complicated beauty of our existence. My mind goes to some of my life’s most visceral experiences: flying off a rope swing into a snow-melt river on a pitch-black night; biting into a peach after a day’s work in a fruit-packing shed; taking in a sunset after a passing rain and being held breathless in a singular moment of beauty; dancing to the perfect song with the greatest friends at the apex of an unforgettable night.

I think of my deep friendships as well as my hours of loneliness. I think of my moments of achievement as well as my periods of self-doubt. I think of how I’ve been in love and also known heartache. I think of laughter that snowballed so uncontrollably that my stomach hurt. I think of tears that have welled up from such a deep place that my whole body trembled and, afterward, the melancholy gratitude for possessing the ability to feel.

I want to indulge myself in these experiences — the totality of them — and celebrate them as good, gifted by a loving God. I want to be pro-life.

But Erin and I will be bringing a child into a world that we are deeply worried about. We are worried that climate change is making the world less hospitable to human life; that the escalating culture wars are making America an unsettling place to live; that capitalist greed is exacerbating poverty and hopelessness; that gun violence will wreak havoc on our sense of safety; that social media technology is turning us away from authentic relationships and damaging our mental health; that too many people of privilege celebrate life through vacuous consumption, seizing what they can for themselves without regard for others.

These conditions not only deterred us from wanting to have a child but also compelled us to question the ethics of it. How could we, in good conscience, add to the collective gluttony of human life on a hurting planet?

At some level, being pro-life has to merge the sanctity of individual lives with an ethic of service and sacrifice that seeks to ameliorate the problems that undermine all life. The Bible at various times encourages us to celebrate the material blessings given to us and also implores us to forsake worldly treasures in the name of service to God.

Liberal-minded Christians, like myself, understand that this ethic of service calls us to protect the most vulnerable: the sick, the poor, the outcast, the refugee. Our love instinctively extends to those affected by racism or those made vulnerable because of their sexual or gender identity. Many even devote themselves to a vegan diet so that no animal will suffer in their name.

It’s easy to imagine how this logic should extend to protect what is surely the most vulnerable form of life: a baby in its mother’s womb.

At its best, the pro-life movement has helped conflicted women embrace their potential as mothers and discover a life-giving strength they didn’t know they had. At its worst, it has ignored the myriad social problems that press women into hopelessness and despair, leaving them stranded. The pro-life movement often insists the family unit is the backbone of society, which liberals would supposedly break down and prop up with a government-run welfare state.

Yet conservatives are eager to use the levers of government to restrict a family’s reproductive freedom, though they know the government can provide no sufficient substitute for parental hopes and dreams. A government cannot know the joy of parenthood. It cannot love; it cannot dream.

Ten weeks into the pregnancy, Erin experienced minor bleeding. We were worried but determined it was not abnormal. The next day, however, right before a scheduled doctor’s appointment, she dashed to the bathroom, looking distraught. With fear in her voice, she said she was gushing blood. I stood outside the bathroom door taking slow breaths, saying calmly, “Are you OK?” I wouldn’t say I felt numb, but there was a kind of somber relaxing into a hard reality I had dared to hope against.

Most of all, as I stood helplessly outside, there was the humble awareness that every hardship of our parental journey would be borne acutely and exclusively by my wife’s body. No matter how important I might feel, there are paths women walk alone.

We drove quietly through town to the doctor’s office. We both believed we were experiencing a miscarriage. In the silence of the drive, I processed the rewinding of dreams, the resetting of a clock.

But at the doctor’s office, workers reacted to us professionally, without alarm. Through the ultrasound, a grainy image of our child appeared on a screen. The doctor interpreted the beautiful image with reassurance. “Whatever’s causing the bleeding, it isn’t bothering baby,” she said.

My wife has no qualms with the idea of early term abortion, but I’ve never quite been comfortable with it. It runs counter to my conviction that all life is valued by God and that no self-serving interest of my own could justify taking another life.

And yet, I realized that the sadness I felt when I thought we were losing our baby was not sadness for the child itself but for the loss of our parental aspirations, for all my wife’s sacrifices coming to naught, as if she had climbed part way up a mountain only to be plucked back to sea level.

Around week 12, we opted for a blood test that would reveal the sex of our baby. Erin was nearing the end of her work day when she noticed the results had been uploaded to her medical account. She texted me this news and said she was coming straight home so we could look at it together. I perceived a joyous excitement in her that I hadn’t yet noticed since we first discovered the pregnancy.

At home, we sat down together, logged into her account and clicked open the document. Being the faster reader, Erin skimmed down and pointed to the relevant sentence: We were having a girl.

We started sharing about our pregnancy with friends and family. We began suggesting girl names to each other. We wondered together what our daughter would be like: cautious or reckless, bookish or boisterous, thoughtful or daring.

We were at 18 weeks when the ­Supreme Court decided the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the Constitutional right to abortion in the United States. I was at the breakfast table when I relayed the news to my pregnant wife. She teared up a bit, contemplating all the women who would walk her path without a choice. I wondered quietly how to be vigorously pro-life, embracing every gift of breath and breathlessness while still wishing to protect a woman’s right to end her pregnancy.

As I write, we are over halfway through the pregnancy, and our baby’s personhood is beginning to feel so real. I can hardly wait to meet my daughter.

I want to see her squirming with life in Erin’s arms. I want to feel her tugging on my hand, gazing up at me with eyes full of wonder.

I want to see her venture out of our nest and to hold her tight when she feels life’s early stings.

I want her to embrace life in a complicated world, knowing that she has always been loved, sensing her own agency to make this world her own.

I want her to be held breathless by a singular moment of beauty and, in that moment, to feel how lucky she is to be alive.

I want her to know the depths of her own strength, drawing from a well of courage to take on the impossible, nurturing a compassionate instinct for all God’s creatures, resilient against every setback.

I want her to make the world go ’round.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!