Jennifer Fulwiler
One woman's journey from pro-choice atheist to pro-life Catholic
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Back in my pro-choice days, I read that in certain ancient societies it was common for parents to abandon unwanted newborns, leaving them to die of exposure. I found these stories to be as perplexing as they were horrifying. How could this happen? I could never understand how entire cultures could buy into something so obviously terrible, how something that modern society understands to be an unthinkable evil could be widely accepted among large groups of people.

Because of my deep distress at hearing of such crimes against humanity, I found it irritating when pro-lifers would refer to abortion as “killing babies.” Obviously, nobody was in favor of killing babies, and to imply that those of us who were pro-choice would advocate as much was an insult to the babies throughout history who actually were killed by their “insane” societies. We were not in favor of killing anything. We simply felt that a woman had a right to stop the growth process of a fetus if she faced a crisis pregnancy. It was unfortunate, but that was the sacrifice that had to be made to prevent women from becoming victims of unwanted pregnancies.

At that time I was an atheist and had little exposure to religious social circles. As I began to search for God and open my mind to Christianity, however, I could not help but be exposed to pro-life thought more often, and I was put on the defensive about my views. One night I was discussing the topic with my husband, who was re-examining his own pro-choice stance. He made a passing remark that startled me into reconsidering this issue: “It just occurred to me that being pro-life is being pro-other-people’s-life,” he quipped. “Everyone is pro-their-own-life.”

Growing Discomfort

His remark made me realize that my pro-choice viewpoints had put me in the position of deciding whose lives were worth living, and even who was human. Along with doctors, the government and other abortion advocates, I decided where to draw this crucial line. When I would come across Catholic Web sites or books that asserted “Life begins at conception,” I would scoff, as was my habit, yet I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with my defense. I realized that my criteria for determining when human life begins were distressingly vague. I was putting the burden of proof on the fetuses to demonstrate to me that they were human, and I was a tough judge. I found myself looking the other way when I heard about things like the 3-D ultrasounds that showed fetuses touching their faces, smiling and opening their eyes at ages at which I still considered abortion acceptable. As modern technology revealed more and more evidence that fetuses were humans too, I would simply move the bar for what I considered human.

At some point I started to feel I was more determined to remain pro-choice than to analyze honestly who was and was not human. I started to see this phenomenon in others in the pro-choice community as well. As I researched issues like partial-birth abortion, I frequently became stunned to the point of feeling physically ill upon witnessing the level of evil that normal people can support. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read of reasonable, educated professionals calmly justifying infanticide by calling the victims fetuses instead of babies. It was then that I took a mental step back from the entire pro-choice movement. If this is what it meant to be pro-choice, I was not pro-choice.

Yet I still could not quite label myself pro-life.

I recognized that I too had probably told myself lies in order to maintain my support for abortion. Yet there was some tremendous pressure that kept me from objectively looking at the issue. Something deep within me screamed that not to allow women to have abortions, at least in the first trimester, would be unfair in the direst sense of the word. Even as I became religious, I mentally pushed aside thoughts that all humans might have God-given eternal souls worthy of dignity and respect. It became too tricky to figure out when we receive those souls, the most obvious answer being “at conception,” as opposed to some arbitrary point during gestation. It was not until I re-evaluated the societal views of sex that had permeated the consciousness of my peer group that I was able to release that internal pressure I felt and take an unflinching look at abortion.

Sex and Creating Life

Growing up in secular middle-class America, I understood sex as something disconnected from the idea of creating life. During my entire childhood I did not know anyone who had a baby sibling; and to the extent that neighborhood parents ever talked about pregnancy, it was to say they were glad they were “done.” In high school sex education class, we learned not that sex creates babies, but that unprotected sex creates babies. Even recently, before our marriage was blessed in the Catholic Church, my husband and I took a course about building good marriages. It was a video series by a nondenominational Christian group, and the segment called “Good Sex” did not mention children once. In all the talk about bonding and back rubs and intimacy and staying in shape, the closest the videos came to connecting sex to the creation of life was a brief note that couples should discuss the topic of contraception.

All my life, the message I had heard loud and clear was that sex was for pleasure and bonding, that its potential for creating life was purely tangential, almost to the point of being forgotten. This mind-set became the foundation of my views on abortion. Because I saw sex as being by default closed to the possibility of life, I thought of unplanned pregnancies as akin to being struck by lightning while walking down the street—something totally unpredictable and undeserved that happened to people living normal lives.

My pro-choice views (and I imagine those of many others) were motivated by loving concern: I just did not want women to have to suffer, to have to devalue themselves by dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Since it was an inherent part of my worldview that everyone except people with “hang-ups” eventually has sex, and that sex is, under normal circumstances, only about the relationship between the two people involved, I was lured into one of the oldest, biggest, most tempting lies in human history: the enemy is not human. Babies had become the enemy because of their tendency to pop up and ruin everything; and just as societies are tempted to dehumanize their fellow human beings on the other side of the line in wartime, so had I, and we as a society, dehumanized what we saw as the enemy of sex.

As I was reading up on the Catholic Church’s understanding of sex, marriage and contraception, everything changed. I had always assumed that Catholic teachings against birth control were outdated notions, even a thinly disguised attempt to oppress the faithful. What I found, however, was that these teachings expressed a fundamentally different understanding of sex. And once I discovered this, I never saw the world the same way again.

Burdens or Blessings?

The way I had always seen it, the generally accepted view was that babies were burdens, except for a few times in life when everything might be perfect enough for a couple to see new life as a good thing. The Catholic view, I discovered, is that babies are blessings and that while it is fine to attempt to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons, if we go so far as to adopt a “contraceptive mentality”—feeling entitled to the pleasure of sex while loathing (and perhaps trying to forget all about) its life-giving properties—we not only fail to respect this most sacred of acts, but we begin to see new life as the enemy.

I came to see that our culture’s widespread use and acceptance of contraception meant that the “contraceptive mentality” toward sex was now the default attitude. As a society, we had come to take it for granted that we are entitled to the pleasurable and bonding aspects of sex even when we are opposed to the new life it might produce. The option of abstaining from the act that creates babies if we see children as a burden had been removed from our cultural lexicon. Even if it would be a huge crisis to become pregnant, we had a right to have sex anyway. If this were true—if it were morally acceptable for people to have sex even when they believed that a new baby could ruin their lives—then abortion, as I saw things, had to be O.K.

Ideally I would have taken an objective look at when human life begins and based my views on that alone, but the lie was just too tempting. I did not want to hear too much about heartbeats or souls or brain activity. Terminating pregnancies simply had to be acceptable, because carrying a baby to term and becoming a parent is a huge deal, and society had made it very clear that sex was not a huge deal. As long as I accepted the premise that engaging in sex with a contraceptive mentality was morally acceptable, I could not bring myself to consider that abortion might not be acceptable. It seemed inhumane to make women deal with life-altering consequences for an act that was not supposed to have life-altering consequences.

Given my background, the Catholic idea that we are always to treat the sexual act with awe and respect, so much so that we should simply abstain if we are opposed to its life-giving potential, was a revolutionary message. Being able to consider honestly when life begins, to open my heart and mind to the wonder and dignity of even the tiniest of my fellow human beings, was not fully possible for me until I understood the nature of the act that creates these little lives in the first place.

All of these thoughts had been percolating in my brain for a while, and I found myself increasingly in agreement with pro-life positions. Then one night I became officially, unapologetically pro-life. I was reading yet another account of the Greek societies in which newborn babies were abandoned to die, wondering how normal people could do something like that, and I felt a chill rush through me as I thought: I know how they did it.

I realized in that moment that perfectly good, well-meaning people—people like me—can support gravely evil things because of the power of lies. From my own experience, I knew how the Greeks, the Romans and people in every other society could put themselves into a mental state where they could leave a newborn child to die. The very real pressures of life—“we can’t afford another baby,” “we can’t have any more girls,” “he wouldn’t have had a good life”—left them susceptible to the temptation to dehumanize other human beings. Though the circumstances were different, the same process had happened with me, with the pro-choice movement and with anyone else who has ever been tempted to dehumanize inconvenient people.

I suspect that as those Greek parents handed over their infants for someone to take away, they remarked on how very unlike their other children these little creatures were: they couldn’t talk, the couldn’t sit up, and surely those little yawns and smiles were just involuntary reactions. I bet they referred to these babies with different words than they used to refer to the children they kept. Maybe they called them something like “fetuses.”

The author will be responding to readers questions on July 7 & 8. Click on the comments link below to submit questions.

Jennifer Fulwiler is a Web developer who lives in Austin, Tex., with her husband and three children. She converted to Catholicism from atheism in 2007 and writes about her conversion at http://

Comments

EVA ARNOTT MS | 7/2/2008 - 8:15pm
Thank you for a beautifully written article. I wonder, however, if those ancient Greeks might have had some of the same feelings of guilt and regret that many post-abortion non-parents have now. Maybe that is one of the messages of "Oedipus Rex"; the exposed baby comes back and haunts the survivors.
Karen Edmisten | 7/2/2008 - 7:40am
Jen, you have perfectly summed up exactly what I went through, too, in moving from a pro choice to a pro life position. Beautifully done.
claire b. | 7/2/2008 - 7:04am
Good piece, Jennifer. I like your comment on 'sex as something disconnected from the idea of creating life;' or 'sex was for pleasure and bonding, that its potential for creating life was purely tangential;' or 'that we are to treat the sexual act with awe and respect.' I agree with you on those points. What I find missing is sex as violence, as in rape, gang rape, rape as act of war, molestation or incest. Where is the outcry of the Catholic Church in those cases? Where is the condemnation of those indulging in such horrifying acts? I am working with homeless and drug-addicts and find many times that these people have been abused sexually as children. Their life is hellish. What about the lack of education of youngsters and teen pregnancies? I see the result of teen pregnancies. Not good. As I read your article, I imagined a lovely woman, filled with grace, in a world where life is safe, with a nice home, a kind and loving husband, and adorable children going to a good parochial school. This is the kind of family every child should be born in. I was born in such a family. Now, I am a grandmother and find that I am drawn to those people who are not as fortunate as I am. There is a whole different world out there, much darker, much tougher. Implacable even. As long as this world exists, I will remain pro-Choice. I am not for abortion. I am certainly against partial birth abortion. But some women need a choice. I refuse to grow self-righteous and feel good about 'being good.' Some day, when everyone can live the way fortunate folks can live, I will stop being pro-Choice. That will undoubtedly be one of my happiest days.
Trina | 7/1/2008 - 4:59pm
First of all, I agree with your pro-life stance. I clicked over from your blog which I started reading a few weeks ago. I was very interested in your conversion. I'm not from a Catholic background, but I am a Christian. I read thru the comments and I am confused by some of the terms such as the "teachings of the Church". Aren't these the teachings of God? Just wondering. I have never really understood Catholicism. Also, I assume what you are saying in this article is that sex should only be engaged in if you are willing to produce life (a child)? In that case, don't have sex unless you intend to get pregnant? I have never heard this before could you tell me what you and your husband think about this? Do you plan to never have sex again if you don't plan to have more children?
Mary Ellen Hancock | 7/1/2008 - 3:42pm
Jennifer, thank you so much for your story. I have recently returned to my faith after a number of years away in secular hell, and I find that I depend on stories like yours to help my ongoing recovery of faith - in fact I am very grateful.
Jim | 7/1/2008 - 9:28am
Very well reasoned and personal account. Though I wonder, now what? Does your "pro-life" extend to others, to taking away their choice? What a pregnant woman decides is a unique situation. Now, worldwide, 40% of all abortions are illegal. A law against abortions does not eliminate this practice. And who am I, a man, to tell women, especially those I don't know, what to do with their bodies? So I agree with what you present. Yet I have concern for women who are faced with a difficult choice in today's contraceptive culture. Women have to choose within a short time span and may be physically sick. They may hear mainly the message, including from the man involved, to terminate the pregnancy. Christ says to reach out to the vulnerable, not to legislate against them. So I am a pro-chice pro-lifer. Do what we can to help pregnant women want to give birth, but don't take the easy and uncaring way of banning abortions and see that as Christ-like. Caring for the unborn involves caring for those who give birth. It's not either/or.
Rhett Segall | 7/1/2008 - 6:51am
Ms Fulwiler ‘s testimony is a strikingly clear example of awakening, similar to the apostle Paul’s epiphany that the ones he persecuted bore the holiness of Christ. In coming to the realization that the unborn is a child of God, she brings out vividly the capacity we all have to avoid facing disquieting truths about ourselves through rationalization. In this case the discomforting truth is that the God given gift of sexual pleasure is uniquely connected to the God given meaning of sexual intimacy and is only to be broached with the awareness of its life giving and love giving mission. This is a wonderful article that I will share with many people! Thank you Jennifer!
Dean | 6/30/2008 - 9:49am
I once was a pro-choice liberal who thought in much the same way. I could not understand pro-life ideas and used to become very angry whenever pro-life came up in conversation.Before becoming Catholic last year at the age of 62, Iviewed sex as innocent fun so long as no babies were born. Teaching at a 100% secular university, I see the "sex is fun" philosophy everywhere. Catholics are seen as outdated folk who want to spoil the party.It was only by a slow conversion to Christianity (I once was a liberal pro-choice Christian, then an atheist) that allowed me to view things from a biblical perspective. Once God was at the center of life (and not sex, fun or the liberal agenda) the light came on. I think you have expressed the truth in such a way that a pro-choice person might actually read to the end of the article. I do work with a very small prolife student group on campus and I will share your article with them when they return in the fall. A wonderful article that should be read aloud in every pulpit in the country (Cathoic and others) and it should be mailed to the Democrates like Obama and Clinton who consider themselves pro-choice Christians. Also, send one over to the congress and the supreme court too! I love your story and your writing. You are doing so much good and you keep our spirits up.I check the blog daily. God bless-
Timothy | 6/29/2008 - 1:43pm
Jennifer, you obviously have a great ability to identify and assess the contributing factors that give way to many people's misconception that being pro-choice is preferable to being pro-life. I absolutely loved your testimony, analysis, and sharing. You understand very well how language can be manipulated for the purpose of manipulating people's beliefs and, in turn, their actions. I really enjoyed coming across this column this morning. Thanks for sharing. Your testimony is truly inspiring.
Mary Ellen Hollahan | 6/29/2008 - 1:29pm
What a beautiful testimony. Though I was never pro-choice, I spent plenty of time picking and choosing among the Church's teachings on sexuality and had fully embraced contraception as practical and "responsible". By the grace of God, I came to see that much of the feminist project is based on putting women at war: first with men, then with their own bodies, and then with their potential children (not to mention the war with the primary enemy - God and the Church). When I finally embraced the Church's teachings - all of them - I came to understand the peace that God always wanted me to have. It was the peace of order versus the chaos of disorder. Thank you for sharing your very moving journey.
Ann | 6/28/2008 - 10:41pm
Wow! I love the way this article makes the connection between the way society treats pregnancy and having children as "a big deal" and having sex as "no big deal". So, so true. Unfortunately this phenomenom is all too common among Catholics who claim to be "pro-life" but disobey the Church on contraception. Too many are muddled by this secular lie: they are only an unexpected crisis pregnancy away from an abortion themselves. Without the full teaching of the Church, they have no rational reason to oppose the latter when push comes to shove.
Katie (justanothercatholicmom) | 6/28/2008 - 8:40pm
"I found myself looking the other way when I heard about things like the 3-D ultrasounds that showed fetuses touching their faces, smiling and opening their eyes at ages at which I still considered abortion acceptable." This made me cry. During my pro-choice to pro-life conversion, this is also something that really shook me. So much of this resonates with me, I could have written it myself.
Christy | 6/28/2008 - 7:00pm
Jennifer- This is a wonderful-written article. As the past leader of a Ivy League college pro-life group, I struggled with how to present well-reasoned articles to pro-choicers who violently objected to my position, thought it idiotic, and argued exactly from the position you've identified: that the baby was an unfair burden to some poor woman who bore no responsiblity for it, or that the baby was destined for a life of "inhumane" suffering. Your arguments are a thoughtful, realistic and considerate response for those pro-choicers. I would love to know how you respond to those who argue in favor of abortion for those who have been raped... I imagine it was an issue you wrestled with yourself in your conversion. The best I could ever articulate was to argue that a further act of violence was not truly going to solve anything for these women; it was not truly going to empower them (victimizing others who are weak and defenseless -as rapists do- is a false power) and would likely give that woman a worse psychological burden than she already has to carry. What's your perspective?
Karen | 6/28/2008 - 3:50pm
Your story sounds similar to mine. I aborted my first baby because a baby was not convenient at the time. I bought into all the dehumanizing lies. My awakening came years later when I lost the next pregnancy to miscarriage, at almost the exact point of the pregnancy I had aborted the first one. This baby was very wanted, and I grieved terribly. All of a sudden, it struck me that where I called my first a "fetus", I had never, even once called the second that. The second had always been a baby. I asked myself what was the difference between the two? As it hit me that there WAS no difference - that they were BOTH babies all along - I saw the truth. Thank you for this article.
John C Liberty | 6/28/2008 - 3:06pm
God has obviously blessed you and helped you change your mind. I never could understand what athiests think about how the trees, sky, earth and all it's natural beauty got here. Of course, if you do not believe in God, it is easy to "justify" all kinds of inhumane acts, like abortion. If you would like I will send you a bumper sticker that states,"you can't be Catholic and pro-abortion". If you want one be sure to include a "snail Mail" address to send it to. If you don't want one I understand that a lot of people don't put stickers on their cars. I invite you and ALL Catholics in America to join my new Yahoo group for discussion of abortion and other political or dogmatic topics. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CatholicAmerican/ I am so happy that you were touched by God's loving hand to change you mind and spirit. You have become a beautiful person. Yours in brotherly love and friendship, John Liberty
Paul in the GNW | 6/28/2008 - 1:35pm
Jennifer, Thank you for a great story, and praise God for your ongoing conversion! Although I am a cradle Catholic, and was generally a moderate on Life issues, your progression of view points mirrors my own in many ways, particularly in regards to contraception and sex. When I actually read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which I had been anticipating for years) and saw as you did that Catholic teaching on the sinfulness of contraception was actually well reasoned and logical the truth laid bare the lie I had been fed by catechism teachers, dissidents and the media. I was still skeptical until by God's grace I attended an NFP lecture with my girlfriend. Eventually, NFP brought me from being "personally strongly opposed to abortion but I can't impose my views on the constitution" to becoming militantly pro-life. God Bless Paul
CON O SULLIVAN | 6/28/2008 - 1:27pm
HI JENNIFER MY view for what it is worth is new life is gods gift, and it is very sad how people destroy this beautifull gift. YOUR husband was right wa are all pro our own life, no one i know wants to give up their own life ( that includes myself) yet many can take the life of a little person. our bodies are not our property thay belong to god con o sullivan
Jane Meyerhofer | 6/28/2008 - 12:49pm
This explanation of why people believe so strongly in abortion really helped me to understand something I found very mysterious. It points the way towards good teaching for my children. I think it also explains the latest oddity in this department which is babies as a cool item. They can't be important if they came about from something so unimportant.
Joseph Puglielli | 6/28/2008 - 10:41am
Jennifer, I forgot to ask you a question in my previous email. How did all the pro abortion people react to your first decision to forsake that ideology and how did they react when you converted to Catholicism? Joseph Puglielli
Joseph Puglielli | 6/28/2008 - 10:37am
Dear Jennifer: As a cradle Catholic I am overjoyed at your conversion to Catholicism. Praised be Jesus Christ forever and ever! The present age has been seduced by the same evil that seduced the first Adam:"I will not serve and I shall be my own god." If only we could all, Catholics like me included, realize that by the Eucharist we become "divine". Your story reminds me of the scene in John's Gospel of Jesus meeting the woman at the well. Of course she stands for all of us. There is a beautiful Middle Ages hymn one line of which states--- I used to teach Latin-- " Quaerens me, sedisti lassus". "Seeking me, You sat down, tired." How much He loves us. All we have to do is accept His Love.God bless you and your family. Joseph Puglielli
Mickey Addison | 6/28/2008 - 8:54am
Thank you for a wonderful testimony...and a remarkable journey! It's "inconceivable" to me (sorry for the pun), that the many well-educated "pro-choice" people don't make the same mental journey you did...perhaps the contraceptive mentality has too strong a hold on them, and perhaps the language of death that so pervades our society has them hoodwinked. It's further remarkable to me that so many black people support abortion as a "choice" when precisely the same language of dehumanization that was used to justify the enslavement of Africans and black Americans is used to justify the killing of the "poorest of the poor." I once had a conversation with a friend, a professed Christian and a black man, who simply wouldn't explain why he thought life didn't begin at conception, or why the fetus wasn't human. Furthermore...the contraceptive mentality has saturated our society: I want to drink cola all day, but don't want the calories, so I drink "diet cola"...I want to eat chocolate cookies all the time but don't want the calories, so I eat a cookie sweetened with a "sugar substitute" that does God-knows-what to my body. To all this, all I can do is echo Our Lady of Fatima's words..."Pray, little children, pray, pray, pray!"
Tienne McKenzie | 6/27/2008 - 11:31pm
It seemed inhumane to make women deal with life-altering consequences for an act that was not supposed to have life-altering consequences. I think this quote encapsulates the reason so many pro-life supporters are accused of being anti-woman. People want so badly to believe that casual sex is their right that it seems cruel and unnatural to ask women to pay such a steep price for that right. When did it become inhumane to ask that individuals take responsibility for their actions and consider the consequences of their decisions? I think Mother Theresa said it best: "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so you may live as you wish."
Susan T. | 6/27/2008 - 7:10pm
Was that course you took required by the Church to have your marriage blessed? If so, it's too bad there isn't something more oriented to Catholic teaching.
Melody | 6/27/2008 - 4:14pm
Wonderful article, Jen. This type of approach- describing your viewpoints from the one "side", and then explaining how certain conclusions are met - is POWERFUL. I am glad that your audience is expanding. In the coming Pauline year, hopefully others (converts and reverts) take notice and employ a similar approach.

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