You Don’t Have to Keep It: Finding God at Planned Parenthood (Guest Post)

The following is a personal essay by Isabel Montoya-Minisee that continues my series on listening to each other’s stories until they echo with our own and become avenues for grace and compassion. In this case, Christian and pro-life Isabel unexpectedly became the protagonist of a story that she never thought she would tell: a visit to Planned Parenthood to request information about having an abortion. Here is her story. I will follow-up in my next post with some of my thoughts on the topic. 

Unexpectedly Expecting 

Isabel Montoya-Minisee

This drive to Planned Parenthood feels like the longest trip I’ve ever been on. I know it’s just for the information, but how can I be considering such a thing anyway? What kind of person must I be? Why did they close the Planned Parenthood in my city? Actually, the truth is that I don’t think I would’ve gone to that one if it were open. What if somebody were to see me walking in? Me, one who champions the cause of abused and neglected children, seen walking into Planned Parenthood. Me, the one who has always voted first and foremost on the issue of pro-life. Me, former wife, former church leader, former children’s advocate board member considering abortion. How did I get here?

I am scared. I wonder what the clinic will be like. I bet it’s mostly feminists giving a lot of propaganda about how a baby is a fetus until it is born and “my body, my choice—that type of thing. I bet they’ll try to convince me that the choice for abortion is a liberating choice and comfort me and make me think that it’s all going to be ok. But it’s not going to be ok. I wonder if there will be protesters holding signs outside like on TV, those doing God’s work. I wonder how many lives they’ve saved by doing that.

I am so scared. I wish I had one friend to turn to, just one. Just a few years ago I had more friends than I could count, when I was married, when I was in church, back then.

Actually, I do have one friend. I tried to open up to her. I told her what I was thinking about, but she said it was selfish and the easy way out. There isn’t anything easy about this and there is no way out, only either or. I don’t want to share with her about it anymore. Please God, help me! Why can’t I just go back two months? I will do everything right, I promise. Please God, help me!

I haven’t stopped crying for weeks since I found out. I still can’t believe it. Why did the doctor say I couldn’t have children after surgery? This doesn’t make any sense. Yet here I am, pregnant, unmarried, and at my age! Here I am.

Oh my God, I don’t want to get out of this car! There are protestors. But they’re not the reason I don’t want to get out. I grip the door handle with all of my strength as if some unseen force were trying to open it. I do all I can to hold it closed. How can I be doing this? I know I’m just here for the information, but how can I have even come this far?

I am the worst person in the world. I am so ashamed. My feet are heavy as I walk this walk of death, death for my baby, death for me.  I know if I do this deed I will never be the same. I will exist only for the sake of others. I will be a shell of myself and my new vision will be in shades of gray. Blue skies and green grass, red rose petals and purple hydrangeas will exist only in my memory. A genuine smile shall never grace my face again. I feel the life in me slipping away with every step I take. My feet feel like blocks of concrete. I keep my head down not so much from the intimidation of the protestors as they hold their signs and Bibles, but because the weight of my shame bears down on it.

I do glance their way, looking, hoping for any hint of you, God. I don’t see you there and I don’t feel you there, I only feel condemnation and I am more ashamed. Aren’t you coming to rescue me? I am searching desperately where you are supposed to be. Have you abandoned me all together now, now that I have come this far?

I can hardly raise my head to sign in and tell why I’m here. My voice is a whisper and I struggle to manage a faint smile. I hope she doesn’t make me say it twice. It’s so cold in here. Not on the outside of my body, but on the inside. It feels like ice, my arms feel heavy. I swallow hard and sit down. There are a few other women here. There is one very young girl with her mother. She looks up for a brief second and our eyes meet. She looks as scared as I feel. I wonder about her. I want to empathize and ache for her but I don’t have the strength today. Any other day I could, but today I barely have the strength to breathe. I notice that hardly anybody has their head raised and everyone is sitting far apart. I understand. I feel alone too and I wrap my arms around myself in consolation.

I always wondered what it was like in here. So now I know. I wish I didn’t.

Remember the woman I was two years ago, Lord? Before I lost myself? I chuckle in my mind. Lost myself? I don’t think I ever really knew myself. I was an actor. Performing for others, performing for you. I lived my life aspiring to the perfection I thought was required to be loved and accepted. Well, I’m not perfect anymore and everyone has turned away from me. Will you now turn away from me too?

“Ms. Byrd.” The call startles me back to the present. I stand and follow slowly behind a nurse.  I want to turn and run out, but I don’t. The hallway seems narrow. It feels like I am walking to the electric chair. This is the end. How can I hold life or death in my hands? Who am I? I wish my mind would slow down. I am exhausted.

“We’re just going to take some blood today and then you’ll have your counseling.”

Well, that wasn’t too bad, but needles never have bothered me. On to waiting room Number Two. Wow, this is a small room for all six of us. The chairs are arranged so that we are sitting directly across from one another. We can’t be more than three feet apart. Still, nobody speaks a word much less makes eye contact. I am so used to speaking to people everywhere I go, but this is like being in a mausoleum and words would be an affront.

All of our eyes are glued to the small television playing a video. I am taken aback. It is showing a baby in the womb. A soothing woman’s voice is telling what stage the baby is in and what it will be doing this week, before moving on to the next one. “In week seven” she continues, “The fetus’s tiny heart begins to beat, other major organs like the liver and kidneys have begun to develop and the fetus’s arms and legs begin to grow from tiny buds on each side.”

I am shocked! This is so unexpected. The video plays and replays the entire nine months of pregnancy. It takes what little strength I have to hold back the tears. I place my hand gently on my stomach. I think of my baby.

“Hi little one, it’s mommy. Do you know where we are? Are you afraid? I am so sorry! I am so sorry! Do you know? Will you ever forgive me? How can you ever forgive me? God will never forgive me. I will never forgive myself! I promise if I do this I will never live another joy again. I promise!”

I watch the video three times before my name is called. It is time for my counseling. I sit in the chair at the side of the desk. The woman across from me is looking through her paperwork. She is a black woman in her early sixties with a soft character. She is stoic as she starts to speak, while I am nervous.

“Are you here on your own accord? Nobody forced you to come here today?” she says.

“No, ma’am, nobody forced me.”

“Nobody here is going to encourage you to have an abortion. That is your decision. Now,” she continues, “Your options for this pregnancy are termination, carrying the baby to term and giving it up for adoption or carrying the baby to term and keeping it.”

I can’t take it anymore. I burst. I weep. I cannot stop myself. I don’t want to. The pain and fear and shame have overtaken me and I cannot control it.

“Oh honey!” Miss Julia says as she comes from around the desk and takes me in her arms. “It will be ok. You can have this baby. She will just be the baby of the family. I had my daughter when I was forty-one and she is at the Art Institute of Atlanta right now.  You can do this honey. God will make a way. I know it’s scary and it seems hard and like you can’t do it, but honey, God will make a way!”

I raise my head. I look into her eyes. The countenance of peace is unmistakable. God, you are here! You were waiting for me inside all along. You didn’t abandon me! Miss Julia gives me a hug and I feel His spirit inside of her. Then she hands me my paperwork.

“Honey, I told you that nobody here was going to encourage you to have an abortion, I didn’t say we wouldn’t encourage you to keep it. Now they’re going to make you an appointment up front, but you don’t have to keep it.”  She looks deep into my eyes. “You don’t have to keep it.”

I didn’t keep it. I did keep her. The story is a little longer but I will give you the short version. My water broke when I was twenty-three weeks pregnant and I spent the next six weeks in the hospital on complete bed rest. When I say complete bed rest that is what I mean. My bed was my living room, my kitchen, my bedroom and my bathroom for six weeks. My feet did not touch the floor the entire time and I never left that room.

I had to fight for my daughter. I had to fight hard. I fought through loneliness and depression. I fought through sickness. I fought through overdoses of medication that paralyzed me. I fought through knotty veins that made the nurses have to stick me in five to eight places every time they changed out my I.V. I fought through heart issues where they brought the paddles in, yes, the paddles. And I am glad.

I am glad for my daughter to know that I did and do and always will want and love and fight for her. She is amazing! This story is not about the women who have had abortions or those that condemn them for it. This story is about me and how I have learned that the woman I want to be is the woman that Miss Julia is. In the face of my fear and shame, she was shameless and unafraid. It is my story about hoping against hope and still unexpectedly expecting God to come to my rescue. And he did.

I am still ashamed. I am ashamed when I think of how I wore the red pro-life bracelet and failed to show love to a scared pregnant single mother. I am ashamed that I shouted amen to the preaching about abortion and never once rocked a drug-addicted baby whose mother abandoned it in the hospital. I am ashamed that I walked a Right to Life courthouse walk and never bought diapers and milk and clothes and took them to a struggling father and mother working two jobs to keep things a float. I am ashamed that I stood in the church vestibule in my “leadership” role talking about how abortion is a selfish, easy way out decision.

Yet, I never once held one of these scared, weeping women in my arms and told her that it would be okay and that God would make a way. I am ashamed. I have heard it said be careful with what measuring stick you judge by, for by it you will be judged. I know that I need a very long stick.

My arms are still heavy these days, too heavy even to lift a small stone.

Irreparable Damage: The Problem of Christian Purity Culture

What we call Christian “purity culture” in America has developed in the last few decades as a reaction against loosening sexual morality, and it focuses not only on refraining from sex (and other acts like fantasizing or kissing) before marriage, but also on strict rules of modesty that are mostly directed at girls and women. It spawned the True Love Waits campaign that was a staple at the Baptist youth conferences and camps that I attended as a teenager in the mid-90s.

In conservative religious circles, purity culture has also prompted the popularity of daddy-daughter dances and dating (I’m all for dads spending time with their daughters, but over-romanticizing it as a ‘date’ is somewhat creepy, as in this video).

Purity balls are even creepier, if not downright horrifying from a feminist standpoint: in one variation of this marriage-like ceremony, a young woman stands up with her father, who gives her a purity ring and pledges to exercise his authority over her, specifically over her purity (i.e. modesty and virginity). Meanwhile, the daughter silently commits herself to remain pure. She does not even get to pledge on her own behalf. 

I have two responses to such ceremonies: the first is “Ick!” and the second is, “What about the boys?”

Well, the founders of the same purity ball described above explain on their website how they provide a supposedly similar experience for their sons, who at age twelve have a “manhood ceremony” in which they are given a purity ring that reminds them to honor God (not the authority of their fathers) and an enormous sword to symbolize “the incredible privilege and responsibility we [that is, men] have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God.”

So, while girls silently give up all authority over themselves and their bodies to their fathers, boys are given a (very large and phallic) symbol of their incipient manly authority at the symbolic age when Jesus began to speak and ask questions. The founders also invite boys to attend the purity ball to see how their fathers treat young women, which is essentially as passive pieces of property over whom they have authority, most particularly in matters of sexuality.

Featured image

Image: “How to Handle Your Females” by nakedpastor, in response to purity culture.

This is not surprising, considering that a great deal of sexual morality has always been aimed primarily at controlling women and their bodies. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible is essentially an economic transaction in which the wife and her resulting offspring became property of the husband. Strict sexual standards for women ensured that babies born into a family were legitimate heirs, and marriage practices sought to ensure that men had heirs to continue the family and preserve its property (i.e. levirate marriage, polygyny, divorcing a barren wife, or producing heirs using slave women). Men, especially powerful ones, had much more sexual liberty than women, and most rules regarding sexuality and marriage practices were for the direct benefit of men.

Although Jesus and Paul advocated a more gender-neutral standard for sexual morality and a more precise definition of marriage (bye-bye multiple wives, slaves, and concubines), throughout history men in western cultures have been granted much more leniency to have sexual relationships outside of marriage than women have. Thus, we have no female equivalents of popular philandering archetypes like Don Juan or Casanova because such behavior in a woman simply made her a whore.

While I am all for self-control in sexual behavior and for fathers taking an active role in guiding their daughters, purity culture is pernicious because it continues the promotion of double standards for girls and boys. It takes away any authority that girls have over their own bodies and gives it first to their fathers and then to their husbands. It also gives boys and men the idea that they have a right and a responsibility to control female bodies.

Critics of purity culture have rightly linked it to male entitlement and even to rape culture because of the way it takes away women’s autonomy. In addition to these critiques, purity culture can be extremely harmful to women’s spiritual lives (and probably men’s as well, but I’ll leave that aside for now). Here is my take on the reason why:

Purity culture takes sex and puts it into a category of its own so that it seems like the most egregious act that person can commit. It also places an undue burden on girls and women to avoid sexual desire–both their own and male desires that might be incited by their bodies or clothing. It also sends a message to young women that their self-worth is inextricably tied to their sexual purity.

Generally speaking, men have always been expected to have sexual desires, and to be sexually aggressive, while women have been expected to be pure and passive. Consequently, a young man’s sexual transgression is more likely to be seen as a slip up or a mistake that does not detract his inherent worth. This is because men are not understood to be automatically altered or damaged by a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, a woman’s loss of virginity before marriage has been understood as an irreversible alteration of her body and as a permanent stain on her character, and the social and psychological implications of these ideas are still very much with us (for instance, in gender-biased metaphors used to teach abstinence).

Sins can be forgiven, but virginity cannot be restored, which means that if a young woman makes a wrong decision about sex, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with it can become long-lasting and even permanent. The sin may be forgivable, but being forgiven does us little good if we are unable to accept that forgiveness and grant it to ourselves.

Shame hinders the holy work of grace and forgiveness and separates us from God. It can also isolate us from our faith communities because of our fear of condemnation and rejection.

Purity culture attaches so much gravity and shame to one particular act, especially for girls, that if they transgress sexual boundaries, they can end up feeling like they have done irreparable spiritual damage to themselves. Girls need to know that they are worth more than their virginity before marriage, or their purity afterwards.

Christian culture needs to teach self-control in sexual matters, but not in a way that takes away young women’s autonomy and encourages male entitlement over women’s sexuality. Girls need to be given the guidance and then the authority to make positive decisions about their own bodies without a heavy cloud of unequal expectations and potential shame hanging over their heads.

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