Abortion as a ‘Technology From God to Prevent Suffering’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Zika emergency—thankfully now in the past but still without a vaccine—spread throughout 60 countries and affected thousands of pregnant women in 2015 and 2016. The disease is most dangerous for pregnant women due to the risk of birth defects as severe as microcephaly, when the fetus forms a small head and underdeveloped brain. To prevent that gruesome fate for their baby, pregnant women with Zika often turn to abortion (though the procedure is illegal in many of the countries most affected by the virus).

Before Zika, there was the rubella epidemic of 1964 to 1965, when an estimated 12.5 million Americans acquired the disease (also known as German measles). Similar to Zika, rubella’s symptoms for most adults are mild—a rash and a low-grade fever that lasts two or three days. But for a pregnant woman and her fetus, rubella is “very dangerous,” according the CDC, resulting in birth defects ranging from deafness to heart problems to mental disabilities. Also like Zika, rubella is often asymptomatic, thus many pregnant women don’t realize they’re carrying the virus until it’s too late. In the 1960s, prior to the release of the rubella vaccine in 1969 and the Roe decision in 1973 that made abortion legal nationwide, a small number of doctors illegally performed the procedure for pregnant women with rubella.

One of those women is Bette, an Atlantic reader who had a second-trimester abortion in March 1971. She was a 24-year-old married Christian at the time, and she frames her abortion story as “God’s will for my family”:

My husband and I celebrated my pregnancy with friends on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. Although the pregnancy was a bit of a surprise, we were delighted to welcome a baby into the world.

I was teaching fifth grade at the time, and I’ll never forget the moment when a student walked up to my desk and said he didn’t feel very well. When I saw the rash on his face, I flashed back to a terrible photograph I had seen in a magazine in my obstetrician’s office the week before. It was of a “Rubella baby,” and the caption said “Bobby’s mother recovered from German measles in 3 days. Bobby wasn’t so lucky.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I later found out the way scientists realized what the Rubella virus did to a fetus was when someone connected delivery-room personnel coming down with the three-day measles to a baby with severe birth defects. Although the mother recovers in three days, the baby stays sick throughout the remaining time of gestation and is still contagious at birth.

I had almost forgotten about that student and the magazine picture a couple of weeks later when I got up and saw a very slight rash on my own face.

I covered it up with make-up as best I could and drove 30 miles to school, feeling worse and worse the whole way. Halfway through the morning, I couldn’t deny what was happening to me and I cried all the way home. When I called my doctor, he specifically told me not to come in. He knew what was wrong and told me to go to bed and that I’d feel better in a couple of days.

My husband was in the Army at the time, and we felt that we needed to go to our hometown to have support from our family, our church, and the doctor I trusted. My doctor told us about a “therapeutic abortion.” Although he told me about the difference between a simple first-trimester D&C and a second-trimester saline injection, he explained it very gently. He told me that although he couldn’t give me advice, if it were his wife, he would urge her to have an abortion.

As a naive Christian girl, I had never heard the word “abortion.” This was before Roe vs. Wade and I had no idea what was going on in “Women’s Lib” circles at the time.

The reason I didn’t get my abortion until the second trimester was that my Christian family had never faced anything like this before. We were blindsided by the news and needed time to come to grips with what was happening. I wanted to talk to Christian leaders I trusted.

So we turned to our church. My aunt and uncle were missionaries in Taiwan at the time, but they were home on furlough. As a missionary nurse, my aunt agreed with my parents’ Sunday school teacher—a Chief of Cardiac Surgery at a major hospital—that this abortion was within God’s will. They told me that this was a technology that God has given us in order to prevent more suffering in the world. On their advice, I went ahead with the procedure.

Although I seldom talk about my abortion, I spent a lot of years being very angry with Christians who made a political issue out of something so deeply personal and spiritual to me. Since I was making one of the hardest decisions of my life, I had spent precious time talking with my Christian support system.

I have since left that church. I had to mask my rage at Christians—Christian MEN in particular who want to have a say in a decision that is between a woman and her God. The way I found peace was in knowing that I sent that little guy, Tory Cameron, back home to be with God.

I look at it the same way now. The suffering that abortion alleviates in the world is the mess we have created because we haven’t figured out a way to take care of the children who are already here. Every story is different, but what the “pro-life” crowd doesn’t want to consider is the fact that abortion is never going to go away—until we figure out a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Sometimes that can be a young girl living in poverty who has no way to support a child, or it is a mother addicted to drugs whose baby will be born addicted and possibly severely damaged. And then there are the young girls who are so afraid their families will disown them that they take matters into their own hands and risk the tragic consequences. Bottom line: NO ONE thinks abortion is a good thing.

I don’t know what my life would have been like if I had carried Tory to full term, but I do know that it would have been different. I wouldn’t have the two children I now have. My marriage may or may not have ended earlier, or we might have lived “happily ever after” with a beautiful handicapped child whom we both would have loved.

But I do know two things for sure: First, the decision was mine to make. And second, I will someday be reunited with Tory and we’ll talk about it then. That’s when I will apologize, if necessary.