Rebecca Shrader had always thought that abortion was morally wrong. As a devout Baptist Christian, she volunteered at a clinic designed to discourage women from getting abortions. And when she got pregnant for the first time, she knew she would carry the baby to term, no matter what.
But when Rebecca’s pregnancy didn’t go as planned, she started to question everything she had always believed about abortions, and about the people who choose to have them.
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Miki Meek and Diane Wu with additional production by Peter Bresnan and Julia Longoria, and help from Alina Kulman. Reporting by Emma Green. Editing by Laura Starcheski. Fact-check by Jessica Suriano. Special thanks to Emily Patel and Aimee Baron.
Sound design by Joe Plourde. Transcription by Caleb Codding.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(The sounds of an angry crowd roil.)
Activist: When I say liberate, you say abortion. Liberate!
News anchor 1: The Supreme Court heard arguments today in what is widely seen as the most significant abortion case in a generation.
News anchor 2: More than 20 states are poised to ban or restrict abortions if the Supreme Court upholds a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
News anchor 3: Mississippi’s law is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Protester 1: (Yelling.) A society that didn’t support my mother doesn’t deserve to exist!
News anchor 4: Outside the U.S. Supreme Court, riot police stood between protesters for and against abortion rights.
Protester 2: (Over a microphone, yelling.) I cannot believe that we are going back and erasing all the progress that we’ve made over the past half century!
(Gently, strings enter, solemn and low.)
Commentator: You just say, “This is all about choice, all about a woman’s right.” No! It’s all about the life of a little baby.
Guest 1: (Responding.) Then who gives these state legislatures—?
Guest 2: When people are killing themselves in back allies before Roe v. Wade?
Commentator: People are dying now, too, Chris.
Protesters: Liberate! Abortion! Liberate! Abortion!
(The crowd noises fade out, followed by the strings.)
Emma Green: So the short version of why we’re at such a huge moment with abortion is that we’ve had this one way of testing when is abortion legal in the United States for half a century.
Julia Longoria: Emma Green writes about the intersection of religion and politics.
Green: And it’s the point of viability. When can a baby live outside of the womb? And now the Supreme Court is looking at this case—out of Mississippi—that would move that line back, that would say, “It’s okay to ban abortion earlier than that.”
(A scratchy record plays the low hum of a didgeridoo, drawn out long and soft.)
Green: It’s possible the Supreme Court is going to scramble our entire way of talking about abortion and where you stand.
(A beat more of music.)
Green: You know, for 50 years almost, there have been these categories: Are you pro-life; are you pro choice? Do you think Roe vs. Wade should stand, or do you think it should be overturned?
It’s always this very polarized debate. And what I have found in my reporting is that, actually, that doesn’t really describe where most people are. It really misses something about people’s experiences with abortion.
(The hum is scratched out, leaving just the scratchiness of the vinyl.)
Green: When I was thinking about how to talk about this huge case, Rebecca instantly came back to my memory.
Longoria: Rebecca Shrader is a sonographer. She ran one of the ultrasound machines at an OB clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Green: She was someone who I had seen online. She has a really big Twitter presence.
Longoria: It was on social media years ago that Emma first started following the story of what happened to Rebecca.
Green: Her story, I think, embodies so much about the kind of gray space that a lot of people live in when it comes to abortion—and a lot of the gray space that we might be about to enter as a country when it comes to the Supreme Court’s decision.
(A clarinet trills slowly over the static, stretching it into a softer sound that moves in circles.)
Longoria: This week, a story from The Atlantic in collaboration with This American Life: Emma Green dives into the gray space of the U.S. abortion debate with the story of one woman who thought she had a clear idea of what she believed—until she got pregnant herself.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music loops more quickly, still quietly, then cuts out.)
Green: It never really occurred to me that one of the perks of working in an obstetrics clinic is off-the-books access to an ultrasound machine. But Rebecca told me that lots of pregnant women have daydreamed about this scenario.
Shrader: I’ve had so many patients who have come to me and said, “Oh, if I had an ultrasound machine, I’d scan myself all the time!” And you do—when you’re pregnant and you’re a sonographer! And so I would try to get in the position and try to, like, straighten out and just scan myself standing up.
Green: What was that like?
Shrader: They obviously weren’t, like, the best images, but we could at least see a heart rate. And as long as I saw her heart rate, I was like, “Okay, we’re good.”
Green: This was back in 2012, during Rebecca’s first pregnancy. She was married, in her late 20s. She really wanted to be a mom. And it made her less anxious to be able to see what was happening with her baby.
Rebecca knew exactly what could go wrong in a pregnancy, because the clinic where she worked, at Duke, specialized in complicated and risky pregnancies: things like chromosomal abnormalities or pregnancies with a high possibility of miscarriage or stillbirth. Just to warn listeners: Issues like this are going to come up a lot in this story.
(A slow drawling bass line plays up over percussion.)
Green: At work, she prided herself especially on taking really good 3-D images with tons of detail.
Shrader: And I would do it while the baby was moving. And so it really helped women. I could see them getting emotional watching it on the screen, knowing that maybe my baby might have some disability, but that’s okay because that gave them hope to see that I’m going to love this baby regardless of whether they have a disability or whether they maybe don’t survive birth.
(The bass line moves into the background—almost as though it's playing underwater—becoming dreamy and distant.)
Green: Working at an OB clinic made sense for Rebecca—she’s from a family of scientists and doctors, and she always loved babies. But her love for her work also came from her faith. She was a member of Summit, one of the most prominent Southern Baptist megachurches in the country. And she believed life begins at conception—every tiny heartbeat she saw on the ultrasound screen was a living human being.
She thought abortion was morally wrong. She even spent her Thursday nights volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. These centers are the pro-life movement’s answer to Planned Parenthood—they’re designed to discourage women from getting abortions. And they do things like provide free diapers and parenting classes and ultrasounds. That’s what Rebecca helped with.
(Out of the water, the bass line sounds clear again.)
Green: So, anyways—those free ultrasounds Rebecca gave herself. Once she was pregnant, going through this new experience, she developed this Monday-morning ritual at work. She’d head straight to her ultrasound room, stand up in front of her screen, squirt jelly on her abdomen, and grab the probe—which looks a little bit like a Nintendo Wii controller. Here’s what she saw. Week 6: the flicker of a heartbeat. Week 7: little arm buds. Week 9: toes.
Shrader: And then, when I got to the tenth week, um … I was scanning myself, and I noticed there was some fluid on the back of the neck, and I noticed that there was, like, a bulge, kind of right by the abdomen.
Green: Rebecca went to find one of the doctors she worked with. Her boss came, too, to do another scan.
Shrader: You know, I know—I know the looks between doctors and sonographers. I know what those mean. I mean, they weren’t going to hide anything from me.
Miki Meek: Which was? What did you see?
Shrader: Just them looking at each other, just an unease between the two of them, knowing that there was something definitely really wrong, but we weren’t sure exactly what it was—which is what the doctor told me. It was just kind of like a drop—my stomach dropped.
Green: Rebecca and her husband, Josh, eventually got a likely diagnosis: limb-body wall complex. This is extremely rare. By 15 weeks, most of the baby’s organs—the stomach, liver, intestines—were hanging outside of the abdomen. The baby’s spine was bent at a 90-degree angle.
Shrader: Those anomalies were enough to know that either the baby was going to have thousands of surgeries when it was born alive, or it could end up being stillborn. So I think they said most babies don’t live to be a year old. So there’s very rare circumstances that the baby even lived a few days or months. But there was no record of a baby of being over a year old.
Green: They had to decide what to do. Rebecca knew her doctor might bring up abortion.
Green: Do you remember how that conversation went with your doctors?
Shrader: Yeah. So, um, we had sat down, and she said, you know, “I know …” They all knew what my personal beliefs were. And so she said, you know, “I know normally what you would choose, you might choose to carry to term. But since this is such a low risk of survival, what are you thinking now? This is likely going to end in the baby dying at some point, either before birth or after birth.” They still gave me that option to terminate.
Green: Do you remember how you internally reacted to that suggestion?
Shrader: Um, kind of dismissively, I guess, like it wasn’t even on the table in my eyes.
Green: How did your husband react?
Shrader: Similar. Very, like, “Oh, we’re going to carry to term.” We were pretty much on the same page.
Green: She would carry the baby as long as she could, even though it would have been safer for her own health to terminate. Generally speaking, pregnancy and delivery carry a lot of inherent risks.
But Rebecca believed she had to give her baby a chance. There was a purpose for her baby’s life, even if Rebecca didn’t quite know what it was yet.
It wasn’t her place to change the course of her pregnancy.
As a sonographer, she knew that there was basically no possibility that her baby would be born alive and survive. But as a Christian, she felt she had to be faithful, and keep praying hard that God would intervene.
Shrader: Like, there was a tiny bit of hope still there. Um, I do feel like so many people saying, “I’m praying for a miracle,” and stuff did give me a little bit of hope maybe the baby would survive.
Green: Do you feel like you needed that little sliver of hope in order to continue carrying?
Shrader: I do believe that I probably craved it, um, especially being visibly pregnant and scanning people every day. And everyone’s asking me—every patient that I have—is asking me about it: “Are you having a boy or a girl?” and “Do you have a nursery already?” and all that stuff. So I do feel like I kind of held on to hope for a little bit.
(A low, plucky bass line plays, solemn over the rattle of a tambourine.)
Green: In a strange way, she wasn’t surprised that something had gone terribly wrong with her pregnancy. Rebecca always had this feeling in the back of her mind—like God was going to use her or test her in some way—because she worked at a place where most of her co-workers were pro-choice and where the doctors referred patients to get abortions at a nearby clinic all the time.
Rebecca started a blog called “Afflictions Eclipsed by Glory,” a line from a popular Christian song. She made it to share all the complicated medical details she was sorting through with her family and friends.
But she also hoped it would reach beyond her circle, with a specific message:
Shrader: I do feel like I wanted to empower women by saying, “I made this choice. And if you feel like you can, then I’m telling you I did it, so that maybe you feel like you can do it too.” And I just wanted to be used by God in whatever way he had me. So I just kind of wrote every blog with very honest feelings.
(The music goes quiet.)
Green: In one of her entries, she wrote, quote, “You may not notice, but I cry a lot. Usually alone in my car, apartment, or ultrasound room, but always silent, and always in control.”
At 18 weeks, Rebecca and Josh announced on their blog that they were having a girl. They named her Cora Kimberly.
(Keyboard music plays, distorted but gentle and resonant.)
Green: Rebecca came to see her pregnancy as a personal cross that would provide some inevitable redemption. And this idea was reflected back to her at church. When Rebecca first started going to Summit, it felt really large. But she volunteered in the baby room during services and got to know people and found this group of women who she could really talk to—her small group. That’s the term in evangelical-speak for the people she prayed with every week. These were her closest friends in Durham—the people who invited her and her husband to baseball games and had them over to their houses for cookouts. When Rebecca shared the latest on her pregnancy, they’d tell her how strong she was. People knew the Shraders when they walked into church. They’d sometimes stop Rebecca in the halls and say they’d read her blog and they were praying for her. At Summit, she was like this pro-life darling.
(The music plays up for a moment.)
Green: One Monday in her third trimester, Rebecca went into work and started her week like she always did—alone in her ultrasound room, running the probe over her belly.
(The music fades out.)
Shrader: And I saw that she didn’t have a heartbeat. And it was just like all of a sudden everything became surreal at that point. Like, one of my first thoughts was Now I’m going to have to go through labor to deliver her, and she’s not going to be alive.
Green: Thinking about everything she was about to have to do made her incredibly anxious.
Shrader: I’ve never labored before. This is my first baby. And then I was, you know, gonna hold her, and I had no idea—I hadn’t held my own baby ever. And so here I am, “I’m going to hold a baby who’s no longer living.” And so it was just a lot of feeling of dread.
Green: At the hospital, doctors gave Rebecca a drug to start her labor. Church friends were in the room when she started pushing. Cora was so tiny—just 1 pound, 2 ounces—that it only took about five minutes for Rebecca to deliver her. There was no celebratory laughter and delight, no baby crying. The room was silent. [A beat.]
Later that day, two pastors from Summit came by to pray with Rebecca. They read her verses from the book of Lamentations.
Shrader: I don’t even really remember crying that much when I was in the room—I think because I was surrounded by so many other people and I just didn’t allow myself that moment of grief until everyone had left and I was by myself at night.
Green: Did you still—in this moment—feel that God was using you?
Shrader: I mean, I felt like I was, completely, like, still kind of in shock, I guess, in the moment. But I felt like maybe God was using me in a way that I didn’t even know yet.
(A keyboard runs over and over and over under a slow, small organ melody.)
Green: Cora’s headstone bears the title of the classic hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.” Rebecca got the same phrase tattooed on the underside of her wrist.
(A long moment of just music. As Green narrates, the music fades out.)
Green: After Cora died, Rebecca and her husband decided to adopt a kid. This is pretty common in the evangelical and pro-life worlds—it was something her church really supported. And while they were going through this process, they also started trying for another pregnancy. It happened fast—Rebecca’s due date was just a couple of weeks before the first anniversary of Cora’s death. She scanned herself every week, just like she had done with Cora.
But this time, everything was perfect.
Shrader: I was a little anxious, but she came early, so that was helpful. She came at like 38 and a half weeks, so I didn’t have to worry too, too long. And my labor was really easy and good and everything about it was great. And so, when she came out, it was just all joy. And so, I thought, Maybe this is my gift after being through something so horrible.
Green: They named her Lydia. She was their rainbow baby, which is what the pregnancy-loss world calls a birth after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death—this glimpse of brightness. People at her church were extra excited for her. They told her and Josh how much they deserved it.
(A beat loops.)
Green: And then the adoption went through. The Shraders’ son, Aben, came to North Carolina from Ethiopia.
(Chords play over the beat. It’s quiet, so tender, intimate—and a little sad, too, somehow.)
Green: He was about two years older than Lydia. The Shraders wanted a big family—something like four kids. They bought a minivan.
But little by little, in the background of all that life unfolding, Rebecca was thinking about her pro-life stance, and questioning it. Her questions came from little observations—things she felt in her body.
Like, after losing Cora, Rebecca learned that the drug doctors used to induce her labor is also used in some abortion procedures. And Rebecca realized that some women who had abortions—some, but not all—were part of the very small group who could viscerally understand one of the hardest parts of what she went through: laboring to deliver a body that will never cry out.
Shrader: It made me realize that for a lot of people—not for everybody, but for a lot of people—abortion can be a very traumatic, unwanted procedure that they feel like they have no choice to go through. And that’s kind of how I felt like I was going through this birth. I didn’t want to deliver her. I didn’t want to deliver her body. I didn’t want to have to go through that.
Green: The strangeness of that shared experience started to make her feel a new kind of empathy for women who’d had abortions. Her pro-life world at Summit started looking different to her—the way people talked about abortion was so black-and-white, and she was starting to see some gray. But she knew she couldn’t say anything about all of this at church.
(The music holds, then fades.)
Longoria: After the break, Rebecca breaks her silence.
(Before it disappears, the music lingers just a moment more. Then, the break.)
(After the break, the sounds of anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights protesters play for a moment. Then, with a blip, they disappear again.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, and we’re back with a story of sonographer Rebecca Shrader. Here’s Emma Green.
Green: In 2017, Rebecca found out she was pregnant a third time. And seven weeks in, scanning herself, she noticed something was wrong with the baby’s head. Against all odds, the worst thing was happening—again. Another pregnancy with a fatal diagnosis. This time, anencephaly, an extremely rare disorder where parts of the brain and skull are missing or develop abnormally. Babies with this diagnosis are usually stillborn, or die within a couple of hours or days. There’s no chance of survival.
Green: How did it feel to have another challenging diagnosis? Did you feel like God was playing a—a joke on you? Did you feel like you were just profoundly unlucky? Like, what was that like to be there again?
Shrader: I was like, “Maybe God put me in this situation again to—I don’t know—test me or, um, you know, show himself again. But why did he have to do it this way?” I was mad that we were doing this again. I was mad that I was going to have—like, I was almost mad that I was going to have to choose life. Like, I wanted to, but I was also mad at the decision that I was having to make, it felt like. Because this was different than Cora. I didn’t have any hope. There wasn’t any hope.
Green: Doctors later told Rebecca there wasn’t any genetic or medical explanation for why she and Josh had two pregnancies that went so wrong. They just got very, very unlucky. They had to sit down again with a doctor to talk about what to do. It ended up being the same doctor who had talked them through their decision with Cora.
Shrader: She said the same thing again. She was like, “I know that you carried to term before. I don’t want to assume”—’cause I remember this—she said, “I don’t want to assume that you’re going to carry to term again.” She was like, “So I just want to put termination on the—on the table.” She was like, “And if you need to talk about it, I can be here to talk about it. If you want to talk about it with just your husband alone, you can do that.” And I remember looking over at my husband, like, me saying, “Yes, we’re going to carry to term,” and him saying—at the same time—“I don’t know.” Like, we both said it at the same time. The doctor noticed that we both said different things, stepped out, and we had a conversation right then and there about it.
(Bursts of air move sound into the space over a repetitive beat.)
Shrader: And, like, I guess I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I personally chose, knowing that I had done this before—what would I be saying? Would I be saying Cora was more worthy? That I liked this baby more than this baby, or this baby deserved a chance and this one didn’t? And he was like, “I don’t know if we can do this again.”
Green: Eventually, they decided together that Rebecca would continue the pregnancy. They also gave this baby a name: Layla Kate. But Rebecca’s pregnancy with Layla was very different from the one she had with Cora.
Back then, she talked with her small group at church constantly about what was going on with Cora and how she was feeling. With Layla, she didn’t really want to talk about it at all.
Rebecca spent most of her days at work trying to dissociate from what was happening, but she couldn’t ignore it entirely. Layla was way more active than Cora: kicking and tumbling around.
For a while, Rebecca stopped reading the Bible. She couldn’t pray. She couldn’t sing hymns.
(The music fades out.)
Shrader: I grieved with Cora, like, in a sad way. When Layla came along, it came out in more in a rage.
Green: What does that mean?
Shrader: I remember a very specific incident where I was doing laundry. I started freaking out and throwing the laundry. And then I ended up, like, punching the dresser and, like, jamming my finger.
And it was just, like—I had just, like, held it in for so long being at work, trying to, like, hold it in, holding all my emotions. It all came out at one time. And of course it was at home. So it, like—it happened in front of my kids and they were confused as to why I was yelling and I was so angry. I was like, “I just can’t pretend.” Like, my pretending was just at a—we were at a limit.
Green: The thing Rebecca wanted most of all—her No. 1 prayer request—was to hold Layla alive after she was born. She became hyper-focused on the idea that Layla’s organs could be donated to medical research. She was grasping for a sense of purpose, still hoping she would get some kind of redemption.
And then one night, roughly a week before she was scheduled to be induced, she felt like something was off.
Shrader: And I was like, “Well, maybe it’s she’s just tired and doesn’t want to move. Maybe this is just a day she doesn’t move.” And I went into work—even though I wasn’t supposed to be at work—I went in to scan myself because I just couldn’t handle the anxiety, and that’s when I found out that she didn’t have a heartbeat.
(A piano plays in.)
Shrader: It almost felt like an immediate rejection and like my prayer hadn’t been heard. And I felt like I asked for so little in these, like, big situations, and I felt like I didn’t get it.
Green: Because Layla was not born alive, her organs couldn’t be donated. The family buried her in a plot near Cora.
(More piano, spare and serious.)
Green: When Rebecca returned to work after Layla’s death, it felt good to be back, at first. She felt especially drawn to helping families who knew their babies were not going to survive, so the doctors specifically gave those cases to her.
But her grief was persistent—a debilitating fog in her head. All day, every day, she performed ultrasounds in the very same room where she had discovered that both Cora’s and Layla’s heartbeats had stopped. There was this picture of tulips—her favorite flower—in her ultrasound room. She used to love it. But now it was a constant reminder of what she had lost.
Shrader: Just seeing the ultrasound machine and being in that room was enough to make me nervous. My heart would race when I had to take a patient in sometimes. Like, I was always fearful that the same thing was going to happen. I was going to scan somebody who had a surprise abnormality, and I was gonna have to tell them. I just didn’t—I didn’t want to go through those feelings again.
Green: Rebecca got a therapist, went on depression meds.
But after an entire year of feeling so unsteady at work, she decided she actually had to leave her job. She found a new position at a regular OB clinic where the patients were mostly young and healthy and had uncomplicated pregnancies. On her blog, she posted a picture of herself holding a pill in her open hand. The entry is titled “It’s ok to have Jesus and a therapist, too.” You can see Cora and Layla’s names tattooed on her wrist below that phrase “It is well with my soul.”
This time around, Rebecca really felt like she wanted to talk openly about how hard and painful all of this had been. She saw an opportunity to speak publicly at this event her church holds, called “Sanctity of Life Sunday.” Lots of conservative churches use Sanctity of Life Sunday each year to preach about the pro-life cause.
Shrader: I did many times reach out to our church and say, “Hey, Sanctity of Life Sunday is coming up. I would be happy to speak. And this is my story.” And I mean, I sent that to—to our head pastor and many of the other pastors, and it was never, like, brought up or answered. Like, it was just amazing to me that I had been through this twice. I could go up there and speak, um, about it, and I was in the church—I was a member of the church—and they never asked me to.
(A wash of lo-fi sound plays.)
Green: I asked some leaders at Summit about this, including a lead pastor, and they said that they’re often choosing from multiple stories and don’t have enough time at services for each one to be shared.
But Rebecca believes she wasn’t given a chance to speak because only a certain kind of woman gets featured at Sanctity of Life Sunday: the woman who chose life, sometimes against doctors’ advice and certainly against all odds, and God rewarded her for her faith. She was given some heart-wrenching diagnosis, but her baby was born completely fine! Or she was told her son would have severe disabilities, but here he is at church, thriving as an adult!
With Cora, Rebecca easily fit into this archetype. Her church community rallied around her with their prayers and their presence. And she did get her redemption story, in a way, with Lydia arriving so soon after Cora’s death, and Aben’s adoption not too long after that.
But now, Rebecca felt like her life no longer fit a clean redemption storyline.
(The music fades out.)
Shrader: I can’t imagine going up there, at the front of the church, saying, “This is what happened. And then my baby died. And then it was really hard and I was really depressed and mad at God.” Like, they didn’t want to be told that it was hard. They wanted to hear me when I was with Cora saying I had hope and I was okay. But, like, I think my grief after Layla was way more authentic than it was after Cora. And people felt uncomfortable about that.
Green: To be clear, Summit leaders say they don’t only want to hear happy stories. But that’s not how Rebecca sees it. When her experience of making a pro-life decision got more complicated—when she felt more ambivalence—it was like they didn’t want anything to do with her.
Rebecca was feeling incredibly alienated in the pro-life world. But she slowly started to realize that other evangelical women were feeling the same way.
(Strings strain to play, quietly, under the narration.)
Green: They were coming to her, quietly, sometimes at church, sometimes online, telling her their stories—messy ones that also wouldn’t make the stage at Sanctity of Life Sunday.
Like there was this one woman from church, named Jen. She was pretty involved at Summit—Rebecca first met her when they were both helping with childcare during Sunday services.
And they had a lot in common. Jen also grew up in a really conservative Christian world—really wanted to be a mom. And when she got pregnant for the first time, she also got this diagnosis that came out of nowhere: trisomy 13, a rare condition with little chance of survival. When Rebecca heard about Jen’s situation through the grapevine at church, she immediately thought about what she’d been through with Cora and Layla. But Rebecca learned that Jen might be considering an abortion.
Rebecca texted her:
Shrader: I had said something like, um, “Regardless of the choice you make, I’m here with you. If you need to call me and vent or need to talk to me, just know I’m safe.”
Green: They didn’t know each other very well back then, but Jen told me Rebecca’s message allowed her to admit to herself that she might get an abortion—and it would be okay if she did. Ultimately, Jen chose to terminate her pregnancy.
Afterwards, at church, Jen didn’t hear from any of the pastors. Summit didn’t want to comment on this specific situation, but they said, in general, they aim for their ministry to be shaped by the approach of Jesus, who went to people in crisis.
(The strings return, louder this time, more glaring.)
Green: Jen didn’t feel like she could have a straight conversation with her small group. Sometimes, she just told people she’d lost the baby, letting them think it was a miscarriage. Rebecca saw this and felt sad that Jen didn’t feel like she could be honest. Rebecca believed church should be the place where people who are hurting can find comfort, and a community to walk alongside them. She was disappointed that Summit could be so cold—especially in Jen’s case, where it wasn’t even a choice between a healthy baby and an abortion—between life and death.
Shrader: The baby was likely going to die. And so here we are in a—a situation where it was death and death, and there’s no real choice there. It’s just, it is what it is. And so that really changed my view on abortion.
Green: Rebecca understood why Jen chose to have an abortion—and believed she should have the right to do it. This idea would have been unthinkable to her only a few years earlier. She still struggled with the thought that healthy women with viable pregnancies would choose to terminate, but she also believed she couldn’t know exactly what their reasons were and it wasn’t up to her to dictate someone else’s decision.
She decided to share all of this in a blog post—a post that her family and friends and many online followers would see. It was scary. Rebecca worried that people would think she wasn’t a Christian anymore. She wrote, quote, “I am an evangelical, pro-life, registered Republican who believes Roe v. Wade doesn’t need to be overturned in an effort to decrease abortions. I chose life for two babies, knowing they would die, and I do not believe that should be a choice women are forced into making.”
Shrader: And then once I hit publish, I was just like, “Okay, here we go!” ’Cause I knew there was going to be some sort of backlash.
Green: Did you get pastors trashing you? What kind of feedback were you getting?
Shrader: “Jezebel,” “pro-abortionist,” “liberal.”
Green: When you hear somebody calling you a jezebel, like, what do you think they’re trying to say to you?
Shrader: Like a non-biblical woman, I think is what they were trying to get across—like, somebody who is controversial, non-biblical—somebody who should be kind of cast aside. I’m just saying we don’t know everyone’s circumstances and we can’t force women to make a decision.
Green: So you felt like the fact that you had, with your own life, chosen to do this really, really, really hard thing based on your convictions basically counted for nothing after you came out and said that you supported legal abortion?
Shrader: Yes. So some people—[Chuckles lightly.] some people even told me I didn’t do enough, that I should have had them all—had the babies resuscitated and I should have done all the surgeries possible and all the interventions possible, because I didn’t do enough.
Green: One evangelical blog wrote a couple of posts about Rebecca, deriding her as a, quote, “very confused person.” Other bloggers screenshotted comments she made on Twitter and sent them to her pastor and her church, trying to prove that she wasn’t a faithful Christian. Her pastor was a big deal in the evangelical world, and bloggers started attacking him just for being associated with her.
They wanted Rebecca kicked out of her church. That didn’t happen. And Summit leaders say they get attacked online all the time. They tend to ignore nasty comments, rather than responding to them directly. But to Rebecca, it felt conspicuous that Summit leaders never reached out, or stepped up to defend her.
(Another wash of lo-fi music plays, strummed notes in an open room.)
Green: After everything that happened, Rebecca spent months agonizing over whether she and her family should even stay at Summit. It wasn’t just the abortion issue; there was other stuff too. In particular, they didn’t think the predominantly white world of Summit would be a good place to raise Aben, who is Black—Rebecca and Josh are white. They finally left last winter.
Rebecca still strongly identifies as a Christian. And she’s still close with her small group. But she’s unsure where her place in the Christian world should be.
Shrader: While it feels hard to not be the pro-life darling that I once was, I feel like, um … It almost feels like churches and stuff don’t know what to do with me. They don’t know where to put me.
Green: When it comes to abortion, Rebecca says she’s personally pro-life—when she looks at her ultrasound screen at work, she still sees a human being. But she’s less sure than she once was that life begins at conception.
Shrader: I was talking about this with a friend recently who’s also very similar to me. I do feel like there’s a lot of us out there who are kind of in-between. And we just don’t know which side to go to, because we don’t fit in the pro-life movement, we don’t fit in the pro-choice movement. We’re kind of in the middle, and we see good in both. Um … And that we don’t know if they will ever mesh or if they will just go further apart.
Green: In all of my years of reporting on abortion, this is the one thing that’s struck me over and over again: Most people are actually like Rebecca and her friend, caught between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in some way or another. Polls show that most Americans think abortion should be legal in some form. But when it comes to spelling out the exact circumstances of when it should be allowed, or the morals of it, people are much more ambivalent. Most of us land in a gray area.
And, in this moment, where the Supreme Court is about to make decisions that could dramatically change abortion in the United States, it’s useful to remember that most people—most experiences—have never really fit a neat binary. When you’re trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, it’s not as simple as picking which team you’re on. It’s way more murky and complicated than that.
(The buzzing sound grows and grows, a hum in the static. Then it begins to fade out.)
Green: So do you feel, having gone through everything that you did, that—do you still feel like that was God’s plan for you?
Shrader: Um, yeah. I mean, I feel like there’s a reason why it all happened, whether I see it or not. Um, I don’t feel like it was a mistake at all. I do feel—I mean, I still feel anger to this day that it even happened, period. But I don’t feel any regret. I feel like it was the right choice for me.
I would do it all over again. I would choose life for Cora and Layla—as much as I know that it caused pain—because they were my daughters and I loved them and I cared for them. And I—I am, similarly—I’m not getting pregnant, because I know that I would have to have another baby that could have another diagnosis. And I don’t want to put myself in that situation where I might have to choose. I might not choose life. I don’t know!
Green: For all the clarity Rebecca has come to over the last few years, she’s ended up with much less certainty about her life, and life’s big questions.
(One piano note plays again and again.)
Green: She never got her picture-perfect minivan full of kids. This grieves her, and leaves her feeling unsettled. But maybe that’s where God meets us, she thinks—in that broken, uncertain place.
(That one note blossoms into a whole melody. The piano pedals softly draw out each moment of the music, making it feel just as somber as it is comforting, a blanket of sound stitched together, with handmade holes in between—the silence that makes it whole.)
Peter Bresnan: This story was reported by Emma Green in collaboration with This American Life, and also appears in This American Life’s December 10, 2021, episode, “But I Did Everything Right.”
From the This American Life team, this episode was produced by Miki Meek and Diane Wu. Editing by Laura Starcheski, with fact-checking by Jessica Suriano. Special thanks to Emily Patel and Aimee Baron.
From WNYC Studios, thank you to Joe Plourde for our engineering and sound design. Production by Julia Longoria and me, Peter Bresnan, with help from Alina Kulman. Music by Tasty Morsels and Joe Plourde.
Our team also includes Natalia Ramirez, Kelly Prime, Gabrielle Berbey, Emily Botein, Tracie Hunte, Jenny Lawton, and David Herman.
If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listened.
And just so you know, The Experiment will be taking a break for the holidays, returning with new episodes starting January 13.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The piano plays up, triumphant but still soft, for a long moment before its music—and the episode—ends.)