in(tense) conversation

Talking About Abortion With My Mom

I’m the reason she’s against it, she says. She’s the reason why I don’t agree.

Photo: Courtesy of the Subject.
Photo: Courtesy of the Subject.
Photo: Courtesy of the Subject.

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Abortion is a part of my origin story. Or rather, it was my mother’s choice to not get an abortion that informs the pro-life ethos she posits as the reason for my existence.

My mom was 21 when she got pregnant. She and my dad were working at the same hotel on Mackinac Island, a resort town in northern Michigan, over the summer of 1989 between college semesters. However seriously they took the relationship at first — at that point it was just two consecutive summer flings — it got very serious when my mom got pregnant.

From the time I was old enough to know the story of my own conception, my mom made it clear that I owe my life to the moment she went to the doctor, learned what the fetus could look like at that stage, and declared me an official “baby.” So she decided against an abortion, and they got married. She dropped out of college (she’d been a journalism major at Colorado State) and moved across the country to live on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing with my dad and me while he finished school and worked part-time at a fast-food restaurant to support all three of us.

She hates it when I say this, but I often wonder if her life would have been better if she had gotten the abortion. It’s hard to communicate to her that at that time, her life mattered more than the embryo that would become me, and that now my life matters more than that same embryo’s did. Arguing with my mom about abortion rights is like walking through a Scooby-Doo mystery house of emotional booby traps — one trip wire or trick bookcase and I’m trapped in a secret room, going in circles explaining why I’m still glad I was born.

We’ve had this argument many, many times over the years, and it only ever seems to get heavier. The last time, she happened to call just hours after Texas’s SB:8 went into effect, and she warned me to “get all the facts” before I wrote about it. I had to hang up before I said something actually cruel.

Here’s my theory: Because she felt like a mother as soon as the pregnancy test came back positive, and because she leans toward a very self-sacrificial view of motherhood, to argue that she, or any pregnant person, could or should have chosen her own life over her fetus’ feels like I’m throwing all her maternal love back in her face. This Selfless Mom thing of hers is also why she called to console me after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, knowing what it would mean to me. And why she agreed without hesitation when I asked her to do this, a recorded conversation about abortion that would then be transcribed, and then (slightly) annotated (for fact-checking/clarification/because-my-editors-asked purposes), for public consumption.

She just had one condition: “We have to agree to still love each other no matter what and not stay angry.”

Kathleen: So why are you pro-life?

Mom: I used to be pro-choice before I got pregnant. Once I got pregnant, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a baby.’ And I was like, Well, I’m pro-life for me, but for anyone else, it’s not like I’m going to judge people or anything like that. Or even vote, like, to totally get rid of abortion altogether. Do I think anyone should have abortion after, honestly, 12 weeks? No.

Kathleen: Why specifically 12 weeks?

Mom: Just looking at the pictures of the fetuses at that age. Like, it’s a baby. For me, at eight weeks, it looks like a baby, at six weeks … When you have eyes and ears and toes and a mouth, that’s a child. You know, they can sense taste. You know, they can taste before 24 weeks. They move. Like, you feel them at like 16 weeks. And I dare you to tell any pregnant woman who wants her baby at 16 weeks that it’s not a baby yet. Pretty sure you’d get an ugly response. [A note for clarification: Limbs and extremities are not fully formed until the end of the third month, or at 13 weeks. Taste buds activate at 30 weeks. Fetal movement becomes more coordinated at around 14 weeks but is generally not strong enough to be felt until around 20 weeks, or 18 weeks after conception.]

Kathleen: Well, what if you don’t want it?

Mom: It’s still kind of a baby. Whether you want it or not, doesn’t change what it is. It’s not an “it.” It’s not a blob of cells. It’s skin and heart and organs and things developing.

Kathleen: Last time we had this argument, before I got mad and hung up on you …

Mom: Yeah …

Kathleen: You mentioned a couple of things that I have serious issues with. One: the term “late-term abortion.” What does that mean?

Mom: For me, that would be after 24 weeks. That is late-term.

Kathleen: You know that “late-term abortion” doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a real thing.

Mom: I don’t know. If I were making the law, I’d probably make it 12 weeks.

Photo: Courtesy of the Subject.

Kathleen: Why?

Mom I don’t know! I’d have to look it up and see the pictures again. [Laughs.]

Kathleen: Another thing that you said that pissed me off, you were like, “Well, you’ve never been pregnant.”

Mom: It’s something that — at least anyone I’ve talked to after going through it — it’s emotional all the way through. Once you accept it. And maybe if you don’t want it, you don’t accept it. But once you say, “I’m pregnant. With child,” it’s a child. Like the sense of joy when my doctor showed me where my fetus was at, I think it was six weeks. I was relieved and joyful.

Kathleen: It would never have been six weeks, first of all, because six weeks is actually two weeks past your first missed period. And most doctors will send you away, because it won’t show up on the ultrasound then.

Mom: I didn’t have an ultrasound.

Kathleen: Like, they won’t be able to positively confirm it yet. It’s too early.

Mom: I’d have to figure out the date when I left the island. Because when I went in, I thought it was six … maybe it was eight weeks. But she showed me where the development was. She showed me all the pictures, and I was like, “Well, that’s a baby.”

Kathleen: It doesn’t matter, though, because if it’s in my body, it’s still part of me. It’s still something that is just mine because it’s in my body. And so I am the only one who gets to decide what whatever is growing in there is worth. It only matters in terms of what the person who is pregnant thinks about it or feels about it because before then, it’s not a person. It’s a theoretical person.

Mom: Okay, well, I think it is a person. It’s not a theoretical person. There’s nothing theoretical about it. This is flesh and blood. It’s actually there. It’s not imaginary.

Kathleen: No, it’s not imaginary. It’s a physical being, but it’s a theoretical life. It’s a “maybe,” “what might be.” And it doesn’t matter as much as the actual life.

Mom: It is an actual life. You’re still pumping blood. Your heart is beating. Sounds like a life to me! [Note: Per Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN, speaking to NPR, the “fetal heartbeat” detected at six-weeks gestation “is a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity … In no way is this detecting a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart.”]

Kathleen: I exist because you chose for me to exist. You decided that you wanted me.

Mom: Before I decided you existed, you still existed. If I ended that existence, I would have ended it, but I would have ended an existence.

Kathleen: But it wasn’t me.

Mom: Of course it was you. Every part of you was there. Every cell, every part of you was there.

Kathleen: Not every cell, mom. No, it still grows.

Mom: Okay, not every cell …

Kathleen: So what? Like, I didn’t matter to anybody. The only value I had in the world was the value I had for you.

Mom: And your dad and your grandparents and everybody.

Kathleen: If you had never told them that you were pregnant, life would’ve gone on fine.

Mom: It doesn’t turn you into an invisible thing that never happened because I didn’t tell people. It’s like, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound. Yeah, it does.

Kathleen: But, who cares?

Mom: Your heart’s beating whether anybody knows about it or not.

Kathleen: Well, who cares?

Mom: I care. I care and half of the people in the world care.

Kathleen: You cared about your pregnancy, but why should you care about anybody else’s?

Mom: Why do I care about anybody else, period? Why do you care about any human being in this world if you don’t know them? Why should I care! I don’t know them, therefore they shouldn’t exist to me.

Kathleen: Okay. If I got pregnant right now, and I wanted to get an abortion, whose life do you value more?

Mom: You really think that’s the question?

Kathleen: Yes.

Mom: Okay. In my mind, that’s not the question. I value your life more. Because I know you. I value every person I know more than people I don’t know. That doesn’t mean that the people don’t exist.

Kathleen: I’m not saying that people don’t exist, Mom. I’m saying that if a person is pregnant and they don’t want to be, whatever is growing inside them, the fetus, they get to decide. They get to decide what it’s worth because it’s not a person yet.

The person who is pregnant, that whole-ass person, they have a real life. They’re alive. They’re out in the world. They’re impacting things. They have thoughts and feelings and they are a whole person. If something only exists in my body? If something hasn’t finished cooking yet, if it needs me to survive, it doesn’t matter.

Mom: I’m not sure that’s how life works. I don’t think I get to decide when the sun comes up or the sun goes down. I don’t get to decide whether you’re my daughter today or you’re not my daughter tomorrow. I’m pretty sure life begins when life begins. That’s how that starts.

Mom: Where’s your line?

Kathleen: I don’t have a line.

Mom: So you’re okay with somebody aborting a 39-week-old fetus? [Note: This is a common talking point among anti-abortion activists, who argue that abortion is akin to infanticide. However, less than one percent of abortions, according to the CDC, happen after 24 weeks. This idea is really a rhetorical device employed to make abortion in general seem cruel and inhuman.]

Kathleen: Who does that?

Mom: I don’t know.

Kathleen: Nobody. Nobody does that.

Mom: Really.

Kathleen: Really.

Mom: I don’t know. How about 30 weeks?

Kathleen: Mom … If someone is that far along in their pregnancy, they’re not getting an abortion. They want the baby. If they do have to get an abortion, it’s usually for a medical emergency or, like, the fetus is braindead or there’s a miscarriage and they need to get an abortion to remove the fetus so they don’t have to go through the trauma of giving birth to a dead child. That’s the only time that that happens. I think you should have some compassion for that. And I think that you do. [Note: It’s worth noting again that this procedure is very rare and very expensive, and that typically, serious signs of serious trouble don’t show up until your 20-week appointment, which doesn’t leave a ton of time for more testing and second opinions.]

Mom: Of course I do. Of course. Just saying, are we drawing a line here?

Kathleen: So, okay. I have a metaphor for you: If I, in order to survive, need constant blood transfusions, and there is one person in the world who can give me these blood transfusions, is that person required to give them to me? [Note: This is not my metaphor — I can’t remember where I found it on the internet!]

Mom: No.

Kathleen: Right.

Mom: But they’re not attached to you either.

Kathleen: It’s the same thing.

Mom: Not really.

Kathleen: How is it different?

Mom: They’re not inside of you. They’re not part of you. You didn’t make them. You didn’t make them. You didn’t make the problem, as it were. It’s like, when you have a baby, you are responsible. If someone just needs blood transfusions, that doesn’t make you responsible. If you put that baby inside of you, you are responsible. Whatever your choice, you are responsible.

Kathleen: Fuck that.

Mom: Really. I was not responsible for you?

Kathleen: Listen to me! I hate this argument. Because one: Sometimes it’s an accident. And I hate to bring up the rape exception, but like, yeah, sometimes people are raped and it’s not their choice.

Mom: I agree with that. That happened to A* [a relative]. Um, and I guess maybe a lot of people, because A was raped. So a lot of people said she should have aborted that pregnancy. But I don’t think B* was … I’m glad that she didn’t, because we have B. And I’m glad she didn’t because B’s all A has ever had.

Kathleen: But again, that’s A’s choice.

Mom: Yeah. But I just don’t think you can say, “Oh, it would always be horrible.” I don’t want it to be illegal, Katie. I’m just saying, you can’t just assume because someone was raped or they didn’t want the pregnancy that it would always be horrible. We don’t know that.

Kathleen: Sometimes men are shitty. Why are women the only ones who have to bear responsibility …

Mom: I didn’t say just women!

Kathleen: Only one half of this equation is the one getting pregnant.

Mom: Even if it’s an accident, I still feel responsible once I feel like there’s a human being in there. And that’s up to me, whether I feel like it’s human being.

Kathleen: Exactly.

Mom: But being me, I felt that it was, knew that it was.

Kathleen: That’s kind of the essential point, Mom. The pregnant person gets to decide what that means. And whether that matters. If that matters to them, then that matters to them, and that should be valuable. But whatever it is, it doesn’t get the same rights as someone who has been born.

Mom: You’re not a human life until you’re born? Like seriously, you don’t exist until you’re born? Those babies have everything. They can feel. They taste, they touch, everything. You can’t tell me that’s not a life until they’re born. [Note: This depends on the stage of fetal development. Most do not occur until at least the second trimester.]

Kathleen: All right, you can call a fetus a life if you want. My point is that the rights of the person who is pregnant, their rights, matter more. Because their lives matter more. And they get to decide. They matter more.

Mom: That’s to you. That’s not to most mothers in the world.

Kathleen: How the fuck can you know that?

Mom: Because I’ve met a lot of mothers.

Kathleen: Have you met all the mothers in the world? This is the part that really pisses me off. You’re saying that I don’t have a right to have an opinion about this because I’ve never been pregnant.

Mom: I didn’t say that. You have a right to have an opinion, but I believe your opinion is only based on what you’ve been through. And I believe it’s crazy to say I’m completely wrong.

Kathleen: I have also met a lot of pregnant people and a lot of mothers and a lot of people who have had abortions. I have met a lot of mothers who have had abortions.

Mom: Okay. I’ve met lots of people too, who’ve had abortions. I’ve yet to find one who didn’t regret it. Not saying they all do, but everyone I know did. Every single one.

Kathleen: I’m willing to bet you know a lot more people who have had abortions and just don’t want to tell you because you’re judgy.

Mom: I don’t know the real statistics. All I know is the people I’ve met have regretted it, all of them. So that says something to me.

Kathleen: If someone accidentally gets pregnant, they get an abortion at, say, 18 weeks [Mom gasps], you think that’s murder.

Mom: Yeah.

Kathleen: And so they’re not going to tell you.

Mom: They don’t know how I feel because I don’t broadcast it. I don’t tell anybody. I do not tell people. You know because you’re my kid.

Kathleen: And maybe because it’s stigmatized, people don’t go walking around saying, like, “Yeah, I had an abortion. I feel nothing about it. And I went on to live my life.”

Mom: I know there are a lot of people like that.

Kathleen: They’re not bad people. They’re just people.

Mom: I didn’t say they were bad people, Katie.

Kathleen: You seem to be implying it.

Mom: I’m absolutely not implying it.

Kathleen: You’re calling them murderers.

Mom: If it’s 16 weeks, that’s kind of late.

Kathleen: But that’s just you.

Mom: I’m saying these are the choices I made. This is how I feel about it. What other people do, they do. I’m certainly not going to come knocking on their door or call the police or anything like that. I’m just saying, this is what I believe.

Kathleen: The other thing I’ve always found a little difficult for me when we have these arguments is that you get to say, “Well, if I had gotten an abortion, you wouldn’t have existed.” You’re talking about me as a person. And it feels like this sort of emotional manipulation, because it doesn’t change how I feel, but you put me in a position where I have to say, “Well, I shouldn’t have been born,” or something. But that’s not what I’m trying to say.

Mom: That’s not what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to be like, “I’m so glad.” I feel like that was the best decision I ever made.

Kathleen: I’m glad that you chose to stay pregnant and have me. I’m glad you had the choice. I’m glad you had an option.

Mom: Me too.

Photo: Courtesy of the Subject.

Kathleen: Because I think that it means more. I feel like I was created more by your decision to have me. Like, I was created out of love. Like you decided to love me and stay pregnant. And that’s a decision you made; you chose to make me a person. But what about the kids who weren’t wanted?

Mom: That used to always be my argument.

Kathleen: What happens to them? What do we do for them? What do we do for the people who weren’t ready to be parents, who didn’t choose to be pregnant? This is something that happened to them. And they had no options. What happens to all of the people who would have gotten an abortion because they wanted one?

Mom: There would be good outcomes and bad. There are always good outcomes and bad. There’s no way to know that.

Kathleen: Do you think about lives derailed, the gender wealth gap …

Mom: Of course! Yes! Katie? I didn’t get to finish college. I feel like we’re arguing for no reason. You’re here! I chose you. I would choose you a million times again.

Kathleen: Great. But the argument, it matters, because people who agree with you are taking away people’s rights to have an abortion. And that terrifies me.

Mom: They are not people who agree with me because I’m not doing that. If they agreed with me, they would not be doing that. They would be doing what I’m doing, which is, like, I’m just not going to vote on that.

Kathleen: No, because it matters. It’s important that people have the right to an abortion.

Mom: Well, okay. My cousin’s husband’s mom worked for Planned Parenthood. She’d been dating him probably four years, got pregnant, same age as me. And the mom forced her to get an abortion, they pushed her and pushed her and pushed her until she got an abortion.

Kathleen: No one should do that either.

Mom: And she just was miserable about it.

Kathleen: Yes, that’s because someone took away her reproductive rights. Because someone took away her choice.

Mom: Well, that’s why I loved my doctor, because she told me, she goes, “Now, if you want to get an abortion, I’m going to find you the best doctor. It will be safe. You will be okay. I will take care of you.”

Kathleen: I’m really grateful for that doctor also.

Mom: And she said, “But you have to be completely informed. This is exactly where you are in your pregnancy.” She just showed me the picture and was like, “I’m not going to say anything. This is just where you are.” And she did not give any opinion of what I should do. She just said, “Whatever your choice is, let me know.”

Kathleen: Yeah, because you know what? At that point, your life mattered more.

Mom: To my doctor!

Kathleen: Yeah! To the outside world!

Mom: I am not going to disagree that the mom’s life means more. But I think there comes a time when, you know, you’ve got a viable human being, and I don’t think that life should be ended.

Kathleen: You are aware that Roe v. Wade only guarantees the right to an abortion pre-viability.

Mom: Okay. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna agree. I’m not, I’m never gonna agree that it’s right to have an abortion morally at a certain point, but I am not going to take away someone else’s right because they have different views.

Kathleen: I find that odd. Considering the conversation we just had.

Mom: There’s legal things. There’s moral things.

Kathleen: I think that morally, we can’t dictate other people’s reproductive decisions.

Mom: I agree.

Kathleen: Morally, we should value the person who’s pregnant.

Mom: Well, morally, everybody can value whatever they hell they want to value. They just can’t dictate it to someone else.

Kathleen: Mom, all my friends are having kids now, I’ve met lots of pregnant people, and I’ve met lots of people who’ve had abortions. I don’t think anyone should force anyone else to be pregnant.

Mom: It’s not about forcing anyone to be pregnant. You know, if you’re pregnant, then that situation exists. We’re talking about after this, it exists. It’s the choice of whether to have an abortion. It’s not whether you get pregnant or not.

Kathleen: Yeah, but if you’re not allowed to end the pregnancy, then you’re forced to stay pregnant.

Mom: I know what your point is. I know, I understand. Just, you know.

Kathleen: Well, this has been good. [Mom laughs.] Thank you for doing this. I might have to do another one depending on how this transcript comes out because there was a little bit of yelling.

Mom: There is, but that’s okay. I love you, always.

Kathleen: Love you too.

Mom: Okay, baby girl.

To hear more about writer Kathleen Walsh’s conversation with her mother, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Talking About Abortion With My Mom