Commentary Religion

Bodily Autonomy, Abortion and Orange Drink: Or, What I Learned In Youth Group

Andrea Grimes

I spent my formative years believing my body, my life and my choices were not my own, but a kind of joint property between myself, God, my parents and my church friends and family. As such, my body and my behavior was up for discussion and judgment. Is it any wonder then, that I'm afraid, as a single woman, to be pregnant?

What does God want for your life? What is God’s plan for you? Want some orange drink?

These were the questions people asked me on Sundays when I was growing up as a teenager in church. We wondered about what God wanted for us, and wondered how we all could hold ourselves and our friends accountable for our behavior to keep us walking in the path of holiness. All, of course, discussed over the ubiquitous orange drink served at youth meetings across the country. Orange drink is the most righteous of bulk beverages.

Now, a decade removed from the religious enthusiasm of my teenage years, I wonder if all that wondering about God’s plan didn’t encourage me to forget I had a plan—and a life and a body—of my own. You see, I am terrified by the prospect of unwanted pregnancy.

My best friend is the one who noticed it. Even though I’ve been on hormonal birth control for years, rarely miss a pill and take emergency contraception when I do, I still worried that a recent wonky menstrual cycle meant I was pregnant. So I told my best friend. And she comforted me but also kind of laughed and said Andrea, you are pretty weird when it comes to pregnancy.

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She’s right. I am. I would say this is firstly because I do not currently, nor have I ever wanted children, and do not currently, nor have I ever fantasized about motherhood. Much like following Dave Matthews around on tour, parenting is something I’m more than happy to hear about second-hand from others, and I will listen with genuine interest. As long as it’s not about vomit. Hearing about vomit—a baby’s, a kid’s, or a Dave Matthews super fan’s—makes me yarf.

I have decided to put my very limited maternal instincts to use rescuing animals rather than producing humans, even though as I understand it, cats and babies vomit about the same amount. So look, I’m not ambivalent. It’s not that.

It’s that ten years after graduating high school as a prominent youth group leader, and settling into a content agnosticism, I still find myself wondering what God, and my parents, and my friends would think about me if I chose any of the obvious outcomes of unwanted pregnancy—adoption, unwed parenthood, abortion. Even if my dad never knew I had an abortion. Even if long-lost church friends never know I had a baby out of wedlock. I still have this nagging question: what will they say if my reproductive organs do something, anything, besides have a baby with my husband—like God’s plan says they’re supposed to?

I spent my formative years believing my body, my life and my choices were not my own, but a kind of joint property between myself, God, my parents and my church friends and family. As such, my body and my behavior was up for discussion and judgment. And for a long time, the threat of judgment kept me on the straight and narrow.

Judgment, like sexism or racism or any kind of –ism, doesn’t have to be explicit and overt to exist. I saw enough pursed lips, heard enough backseat whispers—hell, pursed my own lips, whispered with my own voice in the backseat. When part of organized religion is concerned with arbitrarily policing behavior—usually sexual behavior, and usually women’s–rather than increasing social justice and joyfulness in spirituality, you logistically have to judge at least some people for doing it wrong, because you just can’t fit everyone in the tree-house.

I’ve written before about how I got tired of that religious judgment, which was coated with a sticky-sweet layer of faux love and concern, disguising more insidious victim-blaming and slut-shaming. I eventually learned—I thought—to live my life on my own terms, according to ideas that made sense to me.  I decided people can’t simply be judged into behaving a certain way according to a certain religious code (the preponderance of badly behaved religious-political figures in America suggests this). But it does seem that nowadays, people believe others can at least be legislated into doing so if the resources they need to live autonomous lives are taken away, as they were in Indiana and Minnesota with the de-funding of Planned Parenthood. In the most recent surge in the GOP’s war on women, I was amazed at the degree to which women’s bodies are considered the righteous business of others.

And then I realized that not very deep down, I have trouble remembering that my body is not anyone’s business but my own. It’s why my stomach jumps every fourth Tuesday if I’m not menstruating. Because part of me can’t shake the idea that strangers, friends and relatives alike have some kind of right to my body. It doesn’t matter if I think they’ll hug me or kick me out on the street–the point is that I imagine, somewhere inside me, they have a right to do either one.

Does that sound crazy? It shouldn’t. After all, we live in a culture that says women don’t have the right to revoke consent to sex if they’ve been drinking or are wearing what some people consider to be revealing clothes, whatever that means. I live in a state that will soon require women to undergo mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds and actively refuse to see an image of a fetus, because Texas legislators aren’t totally sure women know abortion ends pregnancy. Women apparently need a lot of help from other people just to be women.

So why should I believe my body is my own when my church and my country have both told me, at various times in my life, that it is not? From “True Love Waits” rallies, where I literally danced upon altars to virginity in front of all my friends, to purity balls—oh, thank God, my father never took me to one of those—the religious culture of my upbringing encouraged me to say: my sexuality belongs to everyone, police it as you will, for I am female.

We see this echoed in anti-choice legislation, in the gleeful ways politicians speak about women’s bodies as mere vessels for the unborn (see: Santorum, Rick)–and the ways in which what is a purely intellectual or philosophical conversation for men affects the daily life and practice of actual women like me, many of whom were raised to see themselves and their bodies through the eyes of others.

Let me be clear. I don’t regret my religious upbringing, and I would do it all over again. Church was the—yes the, as in, the only–place I felt truly safe and welcomed, even at my very lowest, as a teenager. Looking back, I think it’s a pretty good idea to hold off on the sex and drugs and drinking until you’re in college, and church gave me the strength of a peer group that did not engage in those things. (Though to be fair, anyone who’s spent any time in youth group can tell you there’s plenty of hanky-panky going on behind the building.)

In fact, I would send my own kids to church, if I intended to have any. But I would tell them, especially if they are girls, that they need to think about their own plan as much as they think about God’s. Because too often, what is presented as God’s will, presented with perhaps the best intentions, is actually the will of a culture of patriarchy that tells women that their lives aren’t theirs to live.

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