Commentary Family

Choosing Jonah: A Family History of Abortion, Choice, and Love

Kristen Zimmerman

The words "pro life" have been pitted against "pro choice," as if they are opposites. In my experience it’s a false dichotomy, and while politically difficult and messy, our truths are much more complicated.

This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a blog series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Originally posted at Autostraddle.

I have a photograph of my mother that I love. She is 21 standing in her graduation gown beaming expectantly at the camera. Round belly poking through dark drapes, it’s the first portrait of us “together”—me nested inside of her, a sliver of white pressing through the black folds that usually conceal its opening. As if I am graduating too. At this threshold you can see that she (we) just barely made it to this moment. While I irrevocably altered her life, she was fortunate that I arrived in the world about a month after her commencement.

My arrival was not a given. I came at a time of great change, upheaval, and risk, born in 1968, five years before Roe v. Wade became law. Politically the world was volatile and in the throws of great social movements. Two important leaders—King Jr. and Kennedy—assassinated.

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My mother did not want a baby. With her eyes set on international relations she was ambivalent at best about her relationship with my father. I was not the plan, and so, like many young women of her time and class, she sought a way out.

She found a doctor in another town who performed abortions. In my mind she had to climb a dark stairway, grey with creaky steps, to get to the door. My father was with her, and still it took great courage for her to get to this point. But the doctor refused to let her in, or even acknowledge what was about to happen. He told her to come back alone. The feeling of the place and the demand that she come back alone scared her. She turned around and decided that she could not go through with it. Several months later I arrived.

Growing up I always had an inkling that there were pieces of my story I was not putting together. It wasn’t until I was 21 and pregnant, like my mom had been, that I was ready to wrestle with it. Despite identifying as queer and primarily attracted to women, I found myself in a relationship with a man and pregnant in Northern India, far from home. Like my mother, I too had big, emerging plans for my life that did not include a baby at this age. I assumed I would have an abortion when I got back to the United States. Instead, just before I left India, I had a dramatic and humbling miscarriage.

The experience created an opening between my mother and me that allowed for deep honesty. We shared stories as equals—feeling the circularity and changes of time. While happy to be alive, I was sad my mom had been in that position in 1968. Twenty years of marriage to my father, an abusive and dysfunctional relationship, forgoing her dreams—it all seemed like something that did not need to happen. I did not take personally the idea that I could have been aborted.

I didn’t know that the story, my story, and the nuance and questions about choice would get even more complex with the coming of my son 14 years later.

Like many lesbian couples, my partner and I were faced with the other side of reproductive “choice” on our road to parenthood. After years of planning, looking for a donor, changing our plans, then trying to conceive, Adrienne became pregnant. I was elated, scared, and deeply aware that my life was about to change.

The early stages of pregnancy were fairly typical. As Adrienne’s body was transforming, I continued my work in youth development and organizing. During this time I became close to a group of young activists who all had disabilities and worked together through a group called Kids as Self Advocates (KASA). They opened my eyes to a new community, perspective, and questions about choice.

The KASA youth were all individually powerful, bright spirits. Getting to know them opened my eyes and heart to think about how medical practice, the deep cultural value of “individual choice,” and our fears lead many of us to abort babies with disabilities. Through abortion we edit our society—and experience—of humanity. I began to question why we choose to keep some babies and abort others, and I considered what I would do if my child had a disability.

Adrienne and I went to the required class for prospective parents of children with genetic disorders and procedures to terminate pregnancies. As a queer person, I was disturbed by how many disorders highlighted in the class simply altered the sex of the child. I had a sinking feeling that this medical and cultural practice was also about editing out intersex babies from our population. I thought about sex selection practices around the world. The parallels made my head spin.

Despite growing skepticism, a series of events led us down the path of pre-natal testing. A small sign in the ultrasound led to more screenings and then to amniocentesis. It was intuition as much as clear medical evidence that ultimately landed us in the waiting room with doctors from Kaiser’s genetics department. Our child had Down syndrome. Stunned and disoriented, we were unsure of our next step.

We had pushed testing back. Now we only had seven days until the 20-week mark when the fetus is considered viable. I would be lying if I said I did not feel pressure from the medical system, and elsewhere, to abort. So we did what I hope anyone would do. We left town, stayed with close friends, called our wisest advisers, and searched for the answer that felt right.

That weekend was among one of the most vivid in my life. We talked with friends and took long walks. We each imagined what it would feel like to have this baby, versus abort it. I realized I felt more connected and open to life choosing to welcome him into the world. We agreed, even though it was scary and unknown, choosing Jonah felt like inviting life and love in.

The words “pro life” have been pitted against “pro choice,” as if they are opposites. In my experience it’s a false dichotomy, and while politically difficult and messy, our truths are much more complicated.

We left that weekend having made the choice to have Jonah. The power of making this choice is that we knew, our community knew, and the medical team knew that we were welcoming him into our life. This made all the difference. I could see it the moment he was born and the entire team—midwife, nurses, doula, even the doctors—were jubilant. You can see it in the photos. There was no doubt, no hesitation, no fear or grief present in the room.

This is not true for many families who give birth to babies with obvious disabilities. Often a sense of mourning, shame, anger, and guilt sweeps over the room instead of joy. But this is not the baby’s problem, or the mother’s or the families’. It’s ours.

After he was born we struggled to find community. Many of the parents who choose to have kids with Down syndrome and genetic disabilities are devout Christians. Other communities secretly (or not so secretly) cannot understand why you would “choose” to have a child with Down syndrome. The magic for us has been trying to find people who will be courageous enough to walk a different path with us.

I cannot describe the gift that it is to have Jonah in my life, although it has not been easy. Sometimes the gulf between my own experience and “typical” parents is the same as that between parents and non-parents. And yet, on a fundamental level it’s also the same joy and the same challenge that we all face.

In Jonah I have learned to see the light of a child’s spirit, the patience and full acceptance that allow him to thrive, the ways my own baggage gets in the way, and the gifts, brilliance, and love embedded in each one of us. Jonah is smart, funny, and deeply curious about other people. He is an emerging actor, DJ and musician in his own right. At seven going on eight, he is reading and writing, learning math, ice-skating, and attempting to ride a bike. He is part of a family and a community that loves him and which he loves. He has introduced me to my own joy, deepest sense of love, connection, and self-acceptance. Is there anything else that is important?

As the years pass and Jonah grows, I encounter the same fundamental lesson of parenting, a lesson my mother had learned many years before: we do not know who our children will be or what they will teach us; but we have our own stories and expectations of who they are and who they will be. The more we try to control or alter this, the further apart we become. The more we accept and embrace who they and we really are, the more magic and life we are able to embrace. Some of us get this lesson early and often; others bump up against it unexpectedly or resist it all together.

For Jonah and all of us, I long for a world that values humanity, one that supports us to thrive together—not survive individually, one where we value difference as part of the natural condition of things and where we see our choices as part of something larger than ourselves.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.