A Sexual Revolution: One woman's journey from pro-choice atheist to pro-life Catholic

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.

8 years 8 months ago
I have been a pro-lifeactivist since 1969. Ultimately holding the position of Director of the Office of Respect Life for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. When speaking in the classrooms I have always drawn a parallel between the laws of Patre Familias in ancient Roman Society in which the father could kill an unwanted new born and our current laws concerning a woman's right to choose an abortion. Since the Supreme Court decisions of 1973 we have come full circle. The only thing different is that we have changed the law from Patre Familias to MATER FAMILIAS. Women today can decide the fate of the next generation all in the name of CHOICE.
8 years 8 months ago
I am a devout catholic, a Eucharistic Minister, and enjoy a very intimate relationship with God. I have come to understand that the sexual act is a profoundly sacred act of communion, of sharing of love, between a man and a woman. This sharing of love does not depend on the production of a child. It is quite absurd of religious conservatives to assert that a man and a woman should stop sharing their love once that have finished producing children. It fact, it corrupts the sacredness of the sexual act to affirm that it's only purpose is procreation. We are not meant to breed like rabbits. A couple's love, including sexual communion, is meant to continue to grow and deepen even after they have produced their two or three children. It is only a matter of time before the Catholic Church declares that responsible family planning, including the appropriate use of reliable birth control methods, is the sacred duty of every Catholic. In my opinion that day is long overdue.
8 years 8 months ago
Jennifer, Masterfully written, "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." Yes, the pro-choice advocates feel they must come out with these sort of statements in attempt to quash the guilt that can never be completely put down..they become their 'moral mantras' they must trot out in order to live with their consciences.
8 years 8 months ago
Hello Jennifer, I'm a young adult about to enter marriage. Although all of my peers began having sex years ago, my fiance and I are virgins, and we both made that decision when we are young and have abstained very thoughtfully. I am also very pro-life, and I have been all my life, I've marched in Washington, held candle light vigils outside abortion clinics and defended myself against many pro-choice men and women. I'm commmenting on your article because of the birth control pill is a contraceptive, and it is the most effective; yet, you seem to be saying it is wrong as well. I've waited very patiently to have sex with my husband, and I view sex as a beautiful wonderful glorious gift from God, and I hate the idea that I have to risk pregnancy when we are not ready. I want a big, beautiful family, but not tomorrow, and I feel like your article was saying you either don't believe in contraceptives or you do believe in abortion, and for me, and I think others, you can believe in both contraception and be against abortion.
8 years 8 months ago
I presume from your comments that you have come to the conclusion that to take a position in re legal abortion or no abortion is to take a position on the lives of others. I don't think of these positions this way--I believe that these positions are only meaningful in law (aside from personal angst)--if there is a law should it respect the life of the mother or the life of the fetus. When you were an atheist you voted for the mother, now that you are back under the church you decide for the fetus. And that's where the discussion breaks down into sides, and therefore the difficulty making law.
8 years 8 months ago
(I ran out of room) Therefore it must be that the only sane decision for a woman in the position of deciding on whether to abort or carry a baby to term depends on only her personal factors, and with her medical advisor--not a church, not a law, not a government, not a court.
8 years 8 months ago
Jennifer, Thank you for keeping the message alive! We were cradle-but-uneducated Catholics. During our pre-Cana talk my husband became interested after hearing about NFP. I knocked it completely and he didn't argue. We knew almost nothing about it. I was terrified of being pregnant--ever. By God's grace, we were witnessed to by another couple shortly after we were married. We read Nona Aguilar's book and then began Creighton instruction at a local hospital. We were hooked and thus began looking at our marriage in a new and totally different way. Here's hoping that your article will do the same for someone else! God bless you. jp
8 years 8 months ago
I'd like to ask a favor of the author, but would first like to comment on my opinion of her article. I found her words to be moving and thought-provoking. My beliefs about the sanctity of human life (fetal life, too)are the same. Since I am a Mormon, I also have the belief that we existed as spiritual beings before coming to earth to gain a physical body and that the union of this spirit and body play a vital role in the eternal salvation of man. To me, this means that providing a physical body for a spirit child of God is a sacred responsibility and also a blessing for my life. I certainly understand the temporal struggles that come with having children. My husband and I were young parents and have had five children. We did not finish our college educations and have had to work very hard to overcome that disadvantage. We have attended college throughout our adult life, have worked more than two jobs, and have survived without a lot of material things. But we've had a wonderful life, raised happy and successful children, and been blessed far beyond any amount of sacrifice we made in order to raise and care for our children. My reason for writing is not just to add my high five to her article. But to ask if this wonderful writer could re-word her article and shorten it for the purpose of sharing it with teenage girls. Particularly, some inner city and immigrant girls (and possibly boys). It would be such a blessing for them to read this, but I fear that some meaning will be lost to them, due to the length and the vocabulary. I wouldn't want to even verbally re-word it myself in order to share it's message. I couldn't begin to do it justice. This message is so needed by this age group and I would love to pass it along to those I know. I feel the comments related to abstinence would be mind-opening for them. Thanks very much for your consideration of my request. Totally understandable if it is not possible, for whatever reason.
8 years 8 months ago
As a pro-life twentysomething woman, I deeply appreciate the words of Jennifer Fulwiler and Shannon Crounse in the recent “Facing Life Choices” issue of America. Through my professional career as a homeless service provider and my parish involvement as a Gabriel Project volunteer, I have been afforded the opportunity to work with women experiencing all manner of crises. In doing so, I’ve learned that being truly pro-life encompasses more than opposition to abortion. While being a champion for unborn babies is a critical part of our work as pro-lifers, we must also give voice to working single mothers, mothers who are incarcerated, and families who make choices you or I consider to be less than ideal. It is my sincere hope that the future of the pro-life movement includes support for more pro-family public policies that, long after a child’s birth, continually reaffirm a woman’s (or couple’s) decision to parent. We cannot achieve and maintain a culture of life if we fail to prioritize support for families once the baby is born. Comprehensive pro-life public policy should follow families out the hospital doors, through graduation and beyond.
8 years 8 months ago
Chelsea - you should know that the Pill is an abortifacient. It works first, by attempting to stop ovulation, second, by changing cervical mucus so that it impedes semen flow, and third, by irritating the lining of the uterus so that any newly conceived embryo can not implant and is flushed out. Check the Physician's Desk Reference, available at all doctor's offices. Additionally, most IUDs, including Mirena, and some other contraceptive options, work exclusively by this last mechanism.
8 years 8 months ago
Wow, I just wanted to thank you for writing such an amazing and thought-provoking article. What makes is truly amazing is how it documents where you came from on your journey from athiest to Catholic. The comparison of abortion as acceptable in our society to the abandonment of newborn infants in ancient Greek society was something I had never thought about, but makes complete sense. Thanks again, very powerful!!!
8 years 8 months ago
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8 years 8 months ago
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8 years 8 months ago
I am pleasantly surprised to see this article in America Magazine. This is a compelling viewpoint in a culture obsessed with consequent-free sex! Keep up the good work!
8 years 8 months ago
I am with Defend Life and I would like to see and end to all abortion. I feel it should be a crime to kill a human being whether or not it is inside the mother's womb or outside the mother's womb. Seems to me that if it is against the law to murder someone outside the mother's womb it should be inside the mother's womb. I pray that there will be and end soon America Need Fatima real bad.
8 years 8 months ago
A Christian (not necessarily a catholic, believes in eating off the tree of life, wherein he has control over the choices he makes. However, those who eat off the tree of good and evil and engage in sexual activity outside the framework of marriage must take responsibility for this sort of activity (pleasureable) and find a home for their production, but never kill it. This is a violation of one of the commandments: "Thou shalt not kill". By the way, those who make good choices are upward bound and those who make bad choices are downward bound. Those that are upward bound will find happiness that exceeds "pleasurableness".
8 years 8 months ago
I thought your article was very interesting, and your use of the 'creating an other' argument reasonably sound (theory wise). Unfortunately, you chose to focus on the phrases pro-choice and pro-life, with political ramifications that lie within. You have every right to think that fetuses (even single cells) are human beings with 'souls.' You have every right to believe in souls. You have absolutely every right to judge and condemn people (though not very Jesus of you to do so) in your mind if they disagree. You have no right to force them politically to adhere to your religious beliefs. None what so ever. No one does. For every argument pro-life, there is one pro-choice just as strong. That is why this argument is timeless and will never change. The reason pro-choice is superior to pro-life is because one forces something onto people, and one does not. Regardless of whether or not the fetus is human, that is not 'your' soul to save as much as it isn't 'their' soul to murder. Not all people believe what you believe. Most of them don't actually, if you were to look at statistics.
8 years 8 months ago
I would recommend, if you are going to cite history, that you do some research and then cite that in a works cited. "I have read..." and "I suspect..." while fine terms, do nothing to support what you are trying to say without citation.
8 years 7 months ago
thank you for this article you express things that needed to be expressed
8 years 7 months ago
When all of the above is read and digested, it still remains a fact that there is a fundamental moral difference between, on the one hand, destroying an existing human person (i.e. abortion) and, on the other hand, preventing, even if by positive interventions, the coming to existence of a hypothetical human person, who does not yet exist (i.e. contraception). The difference, I submit, is unbridgeable. -- In this connection it may be enlightening to read the archived article "Humanae Vitae after 25 Years" (AM, July 17,1993), authored by the late Richard McCormick,SJ, a well known moral authority. The article is accessible on this very website. OAMDG.
8 years 7 months ago
The "Contraceptive Mentality" which sees abortion as the next step in contraception allows the opporunity for further teaching, since they are not the same thing. If we are clear on when life begins, we can teach that the two are different and that the former is murder and the latter is not. Until gastrulation, which occurs after implantation, twinning can occur (a moral objection to the gestationalists) and hybrids continue to develop (proving that a blastocyst may not actually be a human in some cases if bestiality was involved in the conception).
8 years 7 months ago
Thank you for(what is to me)an exceptionally well written article. The crucial part was understated, maybe just the way the Holy Spirit was hoping you would write. "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." I am sending your article to my daughters with a prayer that it touches their minds if their minds need this touch. Again, thank you, Jennifer, and thanks also to those who published this.
8 years 6 months ago
What about the 10-year-old girl who was impregnated by a relative? What about rape? incest? Both of those horrible things happened in my family--what about yours? are you speaking from experience, or just religiosity? I'm not asking fro compassion, just a little common sense. A horrible crime is committed against a girl or woman by a man, and SHE has to pay for it?
8 years 2 months ago
d. drug - " A horrible crime is committed against a girl or woman by a man, and SHE has to pay for it? " The child is not the payment ... this is the mentality of pro choicers which I detest ... the child is NOT the burden Did the baby hurt or abuse the mother ??? NO ! WHY but WHY is the INNOCENT baby blamed in these sick rape and incest cases ? They had NOTHING to do with it If you are looking for somebody to shoot or abort try the RAPIST or the ABUSER or the PERPRETATOR ! That would make more sense ... to lay it down for you d. drudge there are four things to be done in these cases : 1 - Get the mother counseling , aid or help 2 - Keep the child ( either by herself or adoption ) 3 - Lock the abuser or torture that person if you like ... 4 - You can you even connect the innocent child ( result of a horrible crime not even done by it ) with the rapist ( the one who does it ) ? Feminism is truly sick ... first men , then themselves and now last but not least the baby ... way a go for the destruction of the relationship between men and women which keeps society afloat ... seriously try to detach the little human being with the true culprit ... I know that you want to " erase " this memory but this is not the way to do it

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