A single-stall ladies’ room with cinderblock walls and institutional grade toilet paper is not the ideal location to take a pregnancy test. But I’d felt really strange the previous weekend at the graduate student retreat, and my period still hadn’t shown up, so as I drove out to the church where I worked for the middle school lock-in, I picked one up. Nine months before my wedding, I desperately hoped it would be negative.
Two years later, almost to the day, I peed on a stick in our first floor parsonage powder room. My period was once again late, and though I generally felt okay, my breasts ached whenever I took the stairs too fast. We’d only started trying to get pregnant a few weeks prior, but when no second blue line emerged, the tears did.
Sarah, a clergywoman half a generation older than me, had an abortion when she was pregnant for the fourth time, when she was already a mother of three, when her contraception failed. She had no doubts; terminating the pregnancy was absolutely the right thing to do. “I do not see this as a theological question. I know that when you want a child, the moment the stick turns pink, it is real: a baby, your baby. I know that when you don’t want a child, there is no amount of moralizing or badgering that can make you want to be pregnant.”
Sarah is wise beyond measure, in my estimation. We can mourn the loss of pregnancies that never were; we can marvel at hearing the heartbeat during that first eight-week appointment and, at the same time, we can know that the “heart” could not sustain human life at that point, know that the pregnancy tissue resembles a blood clot more than a child. When women do not want a pregnancy, we may not experience the marvel and awe some claim are instant and “natural”—or, if we do, they are overshadowed by fear, and grief.
Sarah captures beautifully what is often missing in conversations about abortion: women have myriad experiences of pregnancy. Timing, partners, economics—so much can make a difference in whether a pregnancy is a welcome gift or an accident with potentially dreadful consequences. For too long, voices on both sides of the debate over abortion access have argued that an early pregnancy is either/or: an opportunity for medical decision-making for the pregnant woman or a human child from the moment of conception. But the complicated reality is that pregnancy is, for many women, a time of conflicting feelings and responses.
A few months ago, I realized it had been awhile since I’d menstruated. This was not entirely disconcerting, as I was still nursing our third daughter. But my period had returned over the summer, come for another cycle, and then vanished again. I’d had a tubal ligation in the hours after the baby’s birth, and so the likelihood that I was pregnant was extremely low. I’m not a litigious sort, but as I contemplated the possibility with my husband, I shook my fist in the air and ranted that “somebody’s gonna get sued.” I didn’t—don’t—ever want to think about pregnancy again. I am done. I love our daughters, love babies, love, even, being pregnant, but I cannot afford another kid—not in terms of time or money or risk. Still, there has been something marvelous and wonderful and holy about making babies with my husband; could I really terminate a pregnancy we began together?
Kassi Underwood’s astonishing new memoir May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey after Abortion chronicles a different sort of complexity. Pregnant at nineteen when the birth control she used with her addict boyfriend failed—through either user error exacerbated by varied chemical dependencies or terrible luck—Underwood knew that a pregnancy, and an invitation to her mother’s house in Kentucky to have and raise the baby, would entirely derail her plans and dreams. Though she’d always longed to be a wife and mother, she wanted to do it without dropping out of college; she wanted to do it without fearing her burgeoning alcoholism would put the baby at risk.
She was able to obtain her abortion with relative ease, though she had to use the four hundred bucks her mother had sent for car repairs and subsequently convince someone on campus she was responsible enough to borrow a car. But though the pregnancy—and the relationship—is over quickly, the experience continues to impact her. As she gets sober, as she moves to Austin and falls in love again, as she’s accepted into the MFA program at Columbia University. Though her abortion was absolutely the right decision for her, though she did not regret it, she did grieve it. It was more of a loss—of what, she wasn’t exactly sure—than she anticipated.
What is astonishing about Underwood’s telling is not the facts of the story—plenty of young women find themselves in similar situations; plenty more find themselves undone by the unexpected emotional complexity of their lives—but the wisdom she seeks, finds, and shares. She embarks on a pilgrimage inspired by an Onion article (“Rock-Bottom Loser Entertaining Offers from Several Religions”), researching university courses on Buddhism and following the leads of “Father Google.”
The result is a gorgeous and rich memoir that betrays her Ivy League MFA and leaves you unsurprised by her decision to pursue graduate study at Harvard Divinity School. Underwood’s story transcends common political division and religious definition. She seeks wisdom from fifteenth century Tibetan Buddhists, 21st century Jews, Planned Parenthood counselors, and the pro-life Catholics who run a retreat called Rachel’s Vineyard.
Underwood is a trustworthy narrator: unflinching in examining her own failures, and fiercely empathetic, especially of the other women she meets on her post-abortion journey. Indeed, it is this commitment to honoring the experiences of women that renders this memoir most helpful, pushing readers to consider a third option beyond the limitations (and misnomers) of the pro-choice or pro-life dichotomy: the “pro-voice” response. Aspen Baker, co-founder of Exhale, coined the term in 2005, “to represent our approach to creating a social climate where each person’s unique experience with abortion is supported, respected, and free from stigma.” Underwood makes use of the framework while also lifting up the very real legislative and economic hurdles that impact women’s abilities to make their voices heard.
Modern Love ran the essay that launched this memoir, and in the years since its publication, Underwood has become a collector of abortion stories: of the ways “religion can make an abortion sacred, or sometimes burden us with additional guilt;” of the economic, educational, and bodily injustices “written on our womb stories.” Reading each story that Underwood shares, I find myself nodding with each woman, regardless of her experience: whether she grieved or celebrated, whether she did both or neither. I also thought back to my friend Sarah, who claimed there’s nothing theological about the decision to seek an abortion.
Sarah’s right, in a way: there’s no one-size-fits-all doctrinal solution to the problem of abortion, or the need for it. But theology—religion and faith—is also concerned with the ways in which human beings make meaning of our lives. In that way, the good, hard work of encountering critical decision making moments, the potential of creating life or becoming a parent, the discerning of what is the best—holiest, healthiest—response to suffering and the unexpected is deeply theological work.
May Cause Love reminds us of the complex ways women make meaning in the world, find a way out of no way, and find liberation from suffering through naming and claiming their experiences.