Few periods in life are quite as emotionally intense as the years when you are starting your family. Will it be a boy or a girl? Will he have your eyes? Will she be okay? Marked by anticipation, anxiety, sleeplessness, joy and occasional heartbreak, the rewards are closely linked to the massive personal investment it demands, an investment that stretches into your soul.
For many people, this is the experience that completes their transition to adulthood. Taking on these responsibilities means becoming more than merely independent. Assuming this duty to protect another life reveals a broader pattern of obligations that were always there, but many of us fail to recognize prior to that transformation.
In many ways, “growing up” means becoming bigger. By contrast, building a family means becoming quite small. Where not so long ago the shape of my day reflected the outline of my own personal wants, ambitions and needs, now my life became richer and more complex. As my world grew, my own place in it shrunk in relative terms. That new perspective came to influence everything, including my politics.
What my wife and I experienced as we tried to have children gave me a deeper perspective on reproductive issues. That very personal brush with larger political forces was a kind of wake-up call, a transition toward grown-up life which left me feeling a burden to see the world with more humility and compassion. In the midst of a fierce struggle to have children, we discovered how difficult it can be to get an abortion.
Our first child came with the half-intentional ease of youth. Having another would not be so simple. My wife faced health issues that would complicate childbearing under the best of conditions. We were not facing the best of conditions. As her second miscarriage loomed, we realized we would need to end her pregnancy.
About nine weeks into the pregnancy it became clear that the fetus had died. There was no heartbeat and hormone levels associated with a developing fetus, which should be surging, had begun to decline. As disappointing as this was, it wasn’t the worst news. My wife was very ill. Cramping, severe nausea and bleeding were complicating other health conditions and still the miscarriage did not occur.
As days wore on the situation became more serious. Her doctor explained that she needed a removal procedure which is also commonly used to perform an abortion. Religious restrictions at the hospital where our doctor operated made it very difficult to perform that procedure in their facilities under any circumstances. My wife could not get the procedure she needed without stronger proof that the fetus had died. Until proof was available in the form of a certain hormone level dropping below a set threshold, the facility would not allow the procedure. And even then additional approvals were required. When might that happen? Could be days. Could be weeks.
In theory, an abortion (if that’s what it should be called in this case) was still an option even without our doctor, but the reality was far more complex. If the hospital, or more specifically the hospital’s religious sponsors, would allow the procedure, our doctor could have put an end to that suffering the same afternoon. In the hands of a doctor who understood her broader set of conditions and with the resources of the Texas Medical Center at her disposal, the procedure would be safe, her recovery would be simple, and she would have been back on her feet in a couple of days.
Without access to her doctor, the situation was very difficult. We could wait for a miscarriage to happen in due course, but the risk of complications was growing. She was incapacitated and miserable. Her illness was beginning to trigger a wider range of conditions. There was no reliable prediction for how long this might persist.
We could find another provider, but even with a referral that was not a simple matter. One does not simply stride into an OB/GYN’s office one afternoon like breezing into the grocery store. A few calls made clear that no relief would be coming from that direction for quite some time.
That left us with the option of going to an abortion clinic, but that was not a straightforward matter. Her complications presented a set of circumstances they do not normally see. Then there was the cost. We discovered that our insurance might not cover the procedure under those circumstances, from the available providers. Even if it would, we would have to find the money up front then fight for repayment.
We weren’t poor, but we weren’t exactly liquid either. I was starting a career and she was just finishing her master’s degree. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with our young child who needed his mother. Our options were sorely limited and the danger was rising.
Trapped in a situation I never could have imagined before, politics was now intruding on my family’s future. While my wife laid bleeding and vomiting on the bathroom floor and our two-year son wondered what was going on, a collection of preachers, priests, and politicians had substituted their ignorant opinions for the insights of our doctor.
Politically, I had always thought of myself as a Texas conservative, an heir to the state’s “Come and Take It” tradition of militant individual liberty. Abortion was not a major concern of mine, though I casually opposed the practice. Thanks to others who shared that political tradition, my family’s most intimate medical needs were now subject to the ignorant whims of a few religious bigots, certain that their interpretation of scripture was more relevant than a doctor’s opinion.
For us, this episode ended about as well as it could. After a few days scrambling to find an alternative, nature took its course and she had a miscarriage. It took a few months to recover from some of the unnecessary complications of the prolonged process, but she recovered. In time we had another child.
It was an eye-opening, humbling experience. If a family with our resources and education found it this difficult to get the basic gynecological care we needed, what must this be like for others? As a Republican in Houston I was used to hearing abortion defined by hysterical extremists. Like the rest of the hysterical extremes that mark life in Texas, from the weather to the people, I had learned to tune it out.
After that experience it became harder to ignore those extremes and their implications. By sustaining a relatively detached opposition to abortion, I was participating in a political movement with implications I never understood. Those implications were not hidden. I just lacked the curiosity or compassion to discover them until they barged through my door.
Abortion wasn’t the only subject that started to inspire unease. It was becoming clear that there were serious, material consequences to living in a place where public life was steered by bigoted religious mullahs. From textbooks to transit, raising my children in a climate dominated by fundamentalists would impact their lives in ways I had never considered.
It’s a free country. Leaving home, especially a home tied to such deep roots is painful, but I don’t live there anymore. That said, you can’t solve every problem by running.
In 2013, Ohio’s Republican Senator Rob Portman announced a change in his position on same-sex marriage, citing his experience with his son who had come out as gay. He was criticized for the narrowness of this position, for only recognizing the damage his previous positions had caused once he had personally experienced their impact. That criticism hits home.
I had no interest in abortion rights until the matter invaded my own living room. Even then, what we experienced is relatively trivial. The misery endured by so many others who struggle under the worst of conditions to secure their right to control their own bodies is an unnecessary travesty.
Recognizing how badly wrong I was on this issue has inspired a great deal more caution and humility on other issues. I have experienced the power of markets and commerce to deliver improvements in the lives of ordinary people. I have also experienced the potential of bigotry to spread pain and misery. Those two insights create a constant tension. On the one hand, I feel tied to the Republican Party’s emphasis on growth and prosperity. On the other hand, the rest of the party’s increasingly bizarre agenda leaves me frustrated and occasionally frightened.
Being an adult inspires more than independence. We come to recognize our myriad dependencies. Being grown-up involves seeing our vital role in sustaining a community older than ourselves with a longer future than our own. Experiencing the realities around reproductive rights in a very personal way helped inform a wider perspective on other issues. It helped me see the wider consequences of my own choices.
I already left Texas. I’m not leaving the GOP without a much longer, more determined fight. I won’t lose another home.