Changing Hearts: From Pro-Life to Pro-Choice

Many pro-choice Americans opposed abortion at some point in their lives. Anna Clark explores her own journey and shares the stories of others whose beliefs have shifted over time.

What if I told you that I used to call myself pro-life?

What if I said that I once believed abortion was murder, or that I suspected women used the procedure to bypass the consequences of sex?

If I told you, would I lose your respect? Would you be suspicious when I say that today I'm committed to the right to reproductive health, access, and choice?

If so, you wouldn't be the first.

I'm a person who changed her mind. And no, it didn't happen with cymbal-crashing drama — no unexpected pregnancy of my own or anyone I'm close to (that I know of). It didn't happen with abrupt college-age fervor; though I entered the University of Michigan as a progressive, I held onto my belief that abortion was wrong (though I got quieter about it).

Here's what did happen:

Growing up in Michigan, I advocated social systems as a response to unwanted pregnancies. Sure, there were plenty of reasons why someone wouldn't have the ability or desire to parent. But don't punish the future child, I argued.

Adoption seemed an ideal compromise. With some systematic improvements, then, I thought, abortion is rendered moot and the world will be just.

Fast forward: In college, I was part of the Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP planned an event on reproductive rights and incarcerated women. It wanted the campus pro-choice group to sponsor it.

I argued for having both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion groups sponsor the forum. A more diverse audience! We won't preach to that interminable choir! Besides, not all inmates are pro-choice. No, of course, we don't want this to be a debate. Let's have a nuanced conversation.

In this leftist group, alluding to anti-abortion views was no less startling and shameful than if I'd proceeded to urinate on another PCAPer. The others made meaningful eye contact to each other and moved on. The event was sponsored by the pro-choice group.

Stay with me for one more fast forward.

In my twenties, in Boston, I was part of a feminist book club when I still hedged around identifying as pro-choice. Such a claim felt akin to articulating God: putting spirituality into words seemed to inevitably misrepresent it.

To assert the label "pro-choice" felt like I was taking somebody else's language to describe a most personal feeling about my own body and, yes, about my spirituality. To call it my own felt phony, cheap, and careless.

In my heart, however, the change had happened. I supported the right to choose, but I balked at throwing myself into the cartoonish divisions of the public "conversation" about abortion. So I said nothing. Silence seemed the only alternative to submitting my beliefs to sloganeering.

What changed?

I don't remember the day. But that day didn't come until after I'd met people — surprise! — who'd chosen abortion. It came after my school friends became parents; after I began having sex and selecting birth control; after I experienced and witnessed sexual harassment.

In short, it happened after pro-choice rhetoric took a human shape. I saw those I loved. I saw myself.

Today, I have the passion of a convert for reproductive rights. I remain equally passionate in my resistance to the machine that bypasses all ambiguity about abortion.

I didn't "switch sides;" I'm against the notion of "sides" in the first place.

I spent years in ambivalence, despite an inward belief in reproductive rights. While acknowledging my cowardice, I would've allied myself with the cause sooner had choice advocates talked with me, rather than dismiss me as an anti-choicer not worth the breath. I would've spoken sooner had I not felt that I must forsake anti-choice family and friends to do so.

My story echoes others — those of parents, students, clinic workers; religious and non-religious individuals; those who changed their minds, those who changed their reasons, and those who changed nothing. Not only are a great many people unable to split themselves between the enemy camps of "pro-life" and "pro-choice," but there is widespread revulsion at how abortion is talked about.

Depending on whose statistics you use, 37-43% of American women have an abortion. Why don't more people connect their private and public ethic?

"I hear: ‘Don't get me wrong, I'm pro-choice, I always have been, I just never thought I'd be here,'" said Claire Keyes, director of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Reproductive Health Center. "And others who come in, who have been anti-abortion their whole life, they say: ‘Now I don't know how I can live with myself; not because of having abortion, but because I feel like a hypocrite.'"

Dr. Megan Gilliam practices pediatric and adolescent gynecology at a University of Chicago hospital; among other responsibilities, she provides abortions. When asked about patients that identify as "pro-life," she said, "Oh, it happens all the time."

"People obtain services for their reason," Gilliam said. "We luckily don't have protesters, but they tell me about how they protest (a clinic) one day, come in the next, and are back out protesting a few days later."

This dissonance is also apparent in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Emily Batchelder once managed a clinic that provides abortions.

"I can't tell you how many times I checked in a patient who said, ‘Now I don't believe in this kind of thing, but…'" Batchelder said. "No one wants to have an abortion, but it's all those ‘ands' and ‘buts' that make abortion services a necessary part of the reproductive health dialogue."

This fluidity between pro- and anti-choice beliefs also affects doctors.

Medical students may cite ethical difference and opt-out of aspects of their rotations. Dr. Gilliam said that in any trainee group, one or two pick their way through family planning. They might refuse to assist an abortion, Gilliam said, but they will offer counsel.

Many, particularly younger residents, change their mind about abortion.

"Where does conversion happen?" Gilliam asks. "They encounter us in so many settings. You admire someone as a physician, and biases begin to chip away."

"Conversion happens with the human connections," she emphasized. "People are able to live with a lot of grey. It's people with no experience whatsoever who can live with black and white."

Is there enough acknowledgment of the grey in the pro-choice movement? I do not mean that we should dilute strong positions against mandatory delays, for example, but we certainly could use more nuance in our interactions with one another and with those with whom we currently disagree. While many will nod knowingly at Gilliam's pronouncement that "the dichotomy is a political tool," our movement feeds into it.

So many of us feel like we don't fit — to the point that even some who exercise their right to an abortion don't consider the movement to be their own.

Why do we support choice, after all? We cite constitutional rights (at least a little while longer); but as Claire Keyes points out, patients don't talk in those terms. "They don't come in to exercise their constitutional rights," Keyes said. "They may feel grief, but they feel this is the right choice for them."

We valorize "choice;" but Dr. Gilliam says that such language doesn't resonate with those who see themselves in communities — part of a church, school, neighborhood, or family. "They don't approach life on such individualistic terms," Gilliam said.

We speak of the right to control one's body. But ownership language causes some progressives to bristle. One of them, Harvard sophomore Jessica Ranucci, recalls the world's sordid history of people who take it upon themselves to define who is and isn't human. She wonders how she can use the same language to justify abortion. "How is that different from the slaveholder?" she asks. The politicizated language of abortion leads us to address each other as one thing, or another. This is symptomatic of the discomfort when, as in my case, divisions blur.

Which is unfortunate for the future of reproductive justice, because those human connections that Gilliam says are vital to conversion — that were vital to my conversion — simply do not exist when we fight "the other side."

Says Matthew Spektor, a 41-year-old in Los Angeles and lifelong pro-choicer: "I sometimes think my liberal education and cultural background drilled the pro-choice ethic into me so absolutely that it's been difficult even to understand that pro-lifers aren't all religious crazies," Spektor said.

Enemy caricatures mask the greatest strength of pro-choice philosophy: inclusiveness.

"If you asked me five years ago about abortion, I would have told you that I was 100 percent pro-life and there was no way around that," said Jeremy Shermak, a 28-year-old from Illinois. "But somehow during that moment and today, I realized that you can be pro-life while at the same time be pro-choice."

Pro-choice society, like democractic society, is predicated on space for those who disagree. When we play sides, we forget there are no enemies in the vision we pursue. Our inclusiveness of those who choose not to have abortions, and even those who judge abortion to be morally wrong, is our movement's power. When we approach anti-choicers as friends, not only do we act on the heart of our beliefs, but we create space for anti-choicers to become our allies.

I urge reproductive health advocates to remember the ones who will change their minds. We must build spaces where those of us who move slowly into the pro-choice movement are recognized as true partners, rather than tagalongs.

Our beliefs are not created by what — or who — we are against. They exist because of what we are for: comprehensive reproductive health for all, and the ability to decide for ourselves if we will or will not have an abortion.

As individuals and as a movement, we must act from that truth.