A ViewPoint by Jamie N. Marich
Come out of the darkness now, live as children of life
Sing and give thanks for Jesus shines, He is our light and now we see!
If you have met me in the last fifteen years, you may be surprised to learn that I wrote these lyrics as part of a pro-life musical that I composed and directed in 2003. At the time, I was using my talents to serve the mission of ultra conservative interpretations of the Catholic Church that I saw as saving my life.
The message I received was clear: to live as a good Catholic Christian in a state of grace, I had to support pro-life causes. Yet even as I volunteered with ministries that opposed abortion and learned all the arguments to use against the evil “pro-choice. liberals,” something inside me never felt quite right. Was it that, deep down, I knew who I truly was—a bisexual yogi who believes in the universal value of all compassionate spiritual paths and was hiding out in one hell of a closet tiled with crucifixes and rosaries? Or was it that I recognized I was just doing this to be a good Catholic Christian girl who was trying to get my family to love me and see me as I am? I played along because I believed I had to—until I absolutely couldn’t do it anymore.
As a person of faith who has lived on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice fissure, I hope my voice offers some value for readers who also struggle in these divided times. When I see conservative Christians, who call themselves “pro-life” and yet who publicly scorn the efforts of other Christians who are speaking out against the unjust treatment of immigrants, for example, my body smolders with anger. The anger I feel is, of course, directed toward the people who hold these uncompassionate views, but I also experience some remnants of anger at myself when I think, “This could have been me.” I have similar experiences when I hear the same “pro-lifers” fight against universal healthcare or the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals to live with the same rights as everyone else in society. My nausea becomes very real because I know how much higher the suicide rates of LGBTQ people are compared to the national average, largely due to the internalized shame and hate pummeled against us by many religious folks who proudly display “Your Mother Was Pro-Life” bumper stickers. When I see such things on the highway, deep breaths are required to keep my road rage managed, especially when I consider the huge role people with this level of perceived moral superiority can play in killing off my queer family of choice.
I was raised by two parents who were very religious in their own way—one a Pentecostal evangelical and the other a devout Catholic. They managed to stay married throughout my childhood, and I went to both churches on Sunday mornings for most of that time. I learned the importance of being anti-abortion in both churches. It was a common denominator in an otherwise divided household.
When I moved into the dormitories for my undergraduate education, I kept up the Christian facade for a whole two minutes until I started meeting people from other faiths and other backgrounds. Experiencing their humanity and love as something far more genuine than anything I received in either of my childhood churches, I started to ask serious questions about everything, including abortion. I embraced the truth of my sexual identity when I was nineteen, also knowing that coming out fully would mean losing everything, every family tie I had ever known. I wasn’t quite ready for that.
Just after turning 21, I had the experience of visiting Sarajevo during a backpacking trip through my ancestral homelands of Eastern Europe. It was in Sarajevo that I first encountered the now famous COEXIST logo, emblazoned on a billboard just five years after the brutal civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina ended. For the first time in my life, upon seeing that logo, I knew without a shadow of a doubt who I was and what I truly believed in. There was no doubt about it: I was changing.
But as nice as it would have been for the momentum of metamorphosis to continue, my rapidly escalating drug and alcohol problem stopped me short. There was another detour I needed to take on my spiritual journey.
Less than a season after Sarajevo, this growing addiction, mixed with my suicidal tendencies, almost killed me several times. I surmised that I got this way because I had drifted so far away from God and the church and that the natural answer was to return home like some sort of shameful prodigal daughter. The Roman Catholic Church felt like a more compassionate option than the evangelical church because the former seemed to tolerate drinking a little better than the latter. Yet the brand of Catholicism I shuffled back to was very conservative, and I found the pro-life message being shoved down my throat once again.
I decided to make another change, and I ended up moving to Bosnia-Herzegovina where I worked for a Catholic pilgrimage site and their projects for several years. Then I returned to the United States to complete my master’s degree in counseling at an extremely conservative Catholic university here in Ohio. I was a student there when I staged the pro-life musical. I remember reaching out to former professors to invite them to my musical. During my undergrad days, they had embraced me as a shining critical thinker; but now they challenged me about my dogmatic views. Why did I not take into account the complexity and nuances that need to be considered in discussing abortion? My response was simple but firm.“But the church saved my life. Believe me, I got really bad.”
Today, I know the reality. I drank because, in addition to having a biochemistry predisposed to addiction, I had no real emotional tools to deal with what was happening to me in those first years out of my parents’ house. I was trapped in the ultimate identity struggle, and to deal with the shame I felt, I drank. Yes, it’s understandable that the church seemed the most obvious place I had to go to make sense of it all.
Fortunately, there’s more to the story. Through the church, I met my wonderful first 12-step sponsor. Although she was religious, she was open-hearted and helped me to recognize the importance of finding a God of love, not one of crime and punishment. It was a crucial step in my recovery journey. The more I danced with this God of love and not the God of right vs. wrong, black vs. right, pro-life vs. pro-choice, the final facade that was covering my true self and my honest questioning eventually crumbled.
I credit one of my first clients with bringing about the final fall of this facade that I had been hiding behind. She had come to me for individual counseling when I had served as an intern in graduate school. She was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and was confused about what to do. My graduate school would have wanted me to proceed one way, yet my internal guidance and the ethics of being a good clinical professional prompted me to be the support she needed me to be. I was there to serve her—a person, a human being, not a “cause” or something abstract. The woman had been taken advantage of in a horrible situation by a man who had the luxury of simply walking away. She ended up carrying the pregnancy to term and raising the baby; yet “saving the baby” was never my focus or my goal. What I had focused on was her need in her own unique situation.
After the baby was born, she thanked me for my role and sent me a picture of the baby. As I looked at the picture, I wondered, “Do all of those holier-than-thou church people even stop to think that this counseling relationship was made possible because the woman was on Medicaid? Would they care to take a role in ensuring that the baby continued to receive good health care and be provided for? Or if after any baby reaches the light of day, does the immediate focus of these church people become one of not wanting to create dependence on the system?”
From that moment on, I proudly embraced my identity as a PRO-WOMAN. For me, being pro-woman means allowing women to have access to whatever services they require without interference from any church or religious institution. Of course, the Christian institutions in which I came of age would label this position—and me—“pro-choice,” such labeling being common for people who can only see faith and morality in black and white terms. (In fairness, I see this level of rigid judgment happen from liberals too.) There are liberals, for example, who are adamantly against any kind of post-abortion ministry or counseling out of fear that such counseling feeds stigma around abortion. They are quick to point to studies and testimonies that show most women do not regret their abortions, thereby hoping to counteract the church propaganda machine that can drive research in support of the anti-choice position.
But it’s not so clear-cut as that. What I’ve learned in my role as a trauma counselor is that some women experience great remorse around their abortions, and others do not. The complexities of how women struggle are just as multifarious after a termination as they are when an unplanned pregnancy occurs. I want to show up for women, whether facing an unplanned pregnancy or dealing with post-abortion feelings, in whatever way they need me to show up for them— in support, empathy, and non-judgment about their lived experience. For me, this is the essence of reproductive justice.
While I understand that traumatic experiences with church, especially in LGBTQ+ communities, can make people extremely anti-faith, I cherish my faith and still revel in much of what I learned from Christianity. One of these teachings is what an early Catholic school teacher and an early evangelical Sunday school teacher both taught me about the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Both communicated that “Thou shalt not kill” is about so much more than murder in a traditional sense. Yet certain conservatives in Christianity and other religions refuse to see abortion as anything other than murder. This simplistic, unyielding argument, which fuels the self-proclaimed moral superiority of some in the “pro-life” movement, can turn off religious people from considering a new approach that broadens the definition of “pro-life.”
If you are one of my conservative Christian family members, friends, or casual readers who has hung in with my story to this point, please ask yourself what makes a fetus more valuable or more innocent than a child in an American school living in fear of being cut down by gun violence. Ask yourself why a fetus is worth fighting for and not a child separated viciously from their immigrant parent who happens to be undocumented. Consider that in my clinical office every week for the past fifteen years, I’ve seen the tragic results of attitudes and actions by religious people who have refused to see the wider meaning of “thou shalt not kill.” Thus they have caused much pain by killing the spirits and dreams of other human beings through their dogmatism. I am disgusted by the trauma that people who claim to be religious inflict on children who are already born, and if this doesn’t disgust you too, please stop to consider what it is you’re fighting for.