I learned many things during my ten weeks at Planned Parenthood but I’m going to talk about the two most important ones here. We’ll start with what seemed like the bad news and work our way to the good news, although both of them would be freeing in their own ways – one would just hurt more.
When I walked into PP, I had already had one very significant and growing problem with identifying myself as pro-life. If this was really all about saving babies, as I had always been told, then why wasn’t there a whole lot more focus on and support of birth control? Nothing cut down on abortions more effectively than birth control. No one gave out more birth control than Planned Parenthood. I understood the black/white issue, of course. Even if you did support birth control, they also performed abortions – murdered babies. It was less than 4% of what they did (one of many things I did not know until this quarter) but that still added up to a lot. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, shouldn’t we at least be talking about it? If Planned Parenthood was not the answer, if the pro-life movement could not support an organization that both handed out contraceptives and also performed abortions, then shouldn’t they be working on some kind of solution of their own that might also offer contraception? I knew most of the people who disagreed with abortion disagreed with premarital sex, but surely saving innocent lives must trump that, right? If you truly believe that millions of innocent children are being murdered every year, surely that must supersede other moral concerns? That must supersede everything. But it didn’t. It doesn’t.
My supervisor, who was amazing and talked to me a great deal about where I was coming from and how I was feeling about things, allowed me to do something that in retrospect I think was pretty remarkable for a lot of my practicum – she let me explore. One of my objectives was to write a letter to the editor and I had a lot of freedom in what that might look like and how I wanted that to be shaped. I started to research the pro-life movement in ways I never really had before. I started researching Planned Parenthood in ways I never had before. I spent hours looking over pro-life websites (if you have ever done this, you know this is a painful experience and I don’t mean from a moral standpoint. When will conservatives update their web skills?), I looked through blogs and links. I started finding all of the places where Planned Parenthoods and other abortion clinics were being shut down around the country and I started looking into how that was being done. A big focus of our attention during the quarter was what Catholic owned hospitals meant for the rights of women and potentially for the LGBT community. And I made my first discovery that horrified me: I had been lied to.
Look, this will sound deeply naive and there is a really good reason for that – it was deeply naive. I grew up being taught to love America. Officially of course we love God the most but God chose America so we try not to let there be too much of a contradiction there. I legitimately do not know if my father ever said this or if this is just what I took from what he said but I believed in the system. It wasn’t a perfect system, of course (nothing except God is perfect) but it was the best system there was. It was critically important that we overturn Roe v. Wade and we would do so but we would do it legally, we would do it within the system because the system was what protected everyone. There are rules within a system. And that means you don’t just start tearing pieces out. You don’t take sneaky, backdoor routes to things. Attaching bills to completely unrelated things, so that no one would notice until it was too late. Putting requirements on clinics that were too stringent to be met or that required community cooperation that they knew they would never get. Some of the more conservative states (and by some I mean the number was at 17 when I was doing this research), who railed against Obamacare, were now using it to put new rules in place so that insurance companies wouldn’t cover abortions. This was dirty politics. It was underhanded, it was corrupt, it wasn’t playing fair. If anything I was taught that it was the evil liberals who did this kind of thing. They were the ones tearing things out as it suited them. And if we just tore things out of the dam as it suited us, we all drowned.
I kept running into this wall. I kept realizing over and over again that I did not believe that these male (primarily, though not entirely) politicians cared about saving the lives of babies. This was a political stepping stone. This was about power and control, it was about money, at the expense of the lives of women, at the expense of the lives of children. Women who were being denied access to birth control, being denied access to abortion, even in my own state where it is a guaranteed right in our state constitution. These people cared far more about punishing women for having sex than they cared about unborn children. I found that I did not believe that this party that I had supported and voted for the majority of my life had my best interests at heart, or the interests of the people I loved. I felt strangely betrayed. I do realize for a number of people this is not new. And that was part of what I kept running into. It was hard to even find people to talk to about it because I would get looks and blank stares. “Yes? Obviously? How are you just getting to this now?”
Here’s the crux of that and here’s what hurt. How was I just getting to this now? Because my daddy told me so and I wanted to believe him. Because a world in which politicians, even if they’re very wrong, genuinely do have the best interests of people at heart, genuinely do want to save unborn babies, seems like a better world than the one where they are greedy and cruel misogynists. Because I was told these things with the exact same sincerity as I was told that Jesus was God, that there was a heaven and hell, that someone died for me. I don’t think they meant to. I don’t believe that they meant those messages to have the same weight and meaning but it all got so mixed up. It was so important that we were right and suddenly whether or not Jesus died on the cross seemed to hinge not only on a literal 6 day creation, on Jonah being swallowed by a real fish, and on the importance of biblical inerrancy but also on the Chosen status of America, on free-market superiority, on how pro-life you really were and on homosexuals burning in hell (but we still love you). They were the same. Everything was so tightly bound and connected, there was no room to breathe, no room to look up. I thought if I let go I would lose everything and the truth is that I kind-of did. It turns out it was worth it but you never know that before you jump. So that was the first thing I learned. I had been lied to. And while that may seem like a silly thing to have come to at 29, it was a pretty deep cut.
The second thing I learned was equally unexpected. It is one of the primary things I credit with leading to me walking away from my faith eventually. I was having a pretty rough week. I had been switching meds, the one that I had been on had put me in a bit of a manic state so I had been a bit crazy for a few days. The worst part of this was that I hadn’t realized I was crazy, which is borderline unforgivable to me. I hate being nuts but I want to at least know I’m nuts. In this case I actually had to have a very dear friend point it out to me. I stopped the medication, came back down to sanity in a day or so and had to send out a couple of apology emails to a few friends, who were very gracious and loved me anyway. That should have made me feel better but I mostly just felt ashamed. I was pretty overwhelmed with school, since the mania had not been awesome for schoolwork. I came into practicum that day and my supervisor asked me how I was doing and I did something that, at the time, was rather unprecedented – I told her. I was nervous about it but I did and she responded… amazingly. She listened and she was so empathetic and told me about a time she had had some issues that were maybe comparable and she was just generally wonderful.
In that exact moment I had an epiphany – I don’t believe people are evil. For anyone who didn’t grow up in a Christian household, understand that this is typically a big part of the teaching. People are in their base nature sinful. It’s part of the fall, it is our default setting. It is why evil exists in the world, in spite of a perfect and good God. People are naturally evil. When you tie in a belief like that with abuse issues, they add up pretty nicely. Look, it was easy for me to want to trust my father that distant politicians meant well, that they genuinely wanted to save the world. Those were abstract concepts and they kept me hoping for something, which is why tearing it down hurt. But on an interpersonal level my experience taught me something very different. I had grown up not trusting people, believing that not only would people hurt me but that they would seek out hurting me. Men in particular were a danger, at least in a physical sense, but women were perhaps just as dangerous emotionally. I would rarely verbalize this belief because I was aware of how paranoid and crazy it sounded but I lived it.
Things had started to change over the last couple of years. I had made friends with people who were very gentle with me, who had been patient enough that I had very cautiously begun to trust them, but I was certain they were exceptions. I was certain I had simply been somehow blessed enough to stumble on these few people like this, that God had given me this gift but generally people were still not to be trusted. In that moment, my whole world turned upside-down. What if it wasn’t true? What if there were bad people in the world but most of the time people were just doing the best they could? What if there were any number of genuinely kind, loving and gentle people in the world and that an astonishing number of them seemed to want to be friends with me?
What if that could be my life?
I went home that night and told a couple people about my sudden realization. I cried three times. I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed everything for me. I still believed in people who I couldn’t trust but it wasn’t personal. The world was not out to get me. I could invite people into my life who loved me, who were supportive of me, people who, when they asked me how I was doing, I could just tell them and it would be okay. That could actually be my life. I’ve worked very hard since that day to make that my life. It’s been pretty wonderful.
So of everything I learned at Planned Parenthood, somehow what I learned most was that I had been lied to about the goodness of humanity in two different ways. And it changed everything.