My grandmother got pregnant at 19. She was unmarried and had just finished high school. She also was the oldest child of conservative Polish immigrant parents in the Detroit suburbs.
My great-grandfather was a strict Catholic. But despite that, and everything else, he asked my grandmother if she wanted an abortion. She never heard the word before, but her stomach turned cold. She knew, somehow, what he meant, and she refused.
Her father, she later concluded, didn’t want her to leave the house. She wasn’t married and had no means to support herself. Yet my grandmother, determined and independent as she has always been, married my grandfather and started a family, giving birth to my mother in defiance of my great-grandfather’s wishes. Still, she suffered the ridicule of her husband’s family, who resented her for what they perceived as the theft of their oldest son. No one blamed him.
My grandmother’s story is one of limited options, sexist societal expectations and familial pressure. It also was a common story. The women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s that swept the United States and Europe changed that, creating laws that provided women with more options and greater autonomy.
Today most countries in the European Union allow abortion on demand during the first trimester. Yet if my great grandparents hadn’t emigrated from Poland, women in my family still would not have that freedom -- the exceptions to the European abortion norm are countries where the Catholic Church retains a strong influence.
Poland is a leading example. The majority of the Polish population belongs to the Catholic Church and abortion is not legal there. The procedure is allowed if there is danger to the woman’s life, low chances of survival for the fetus or if the pregnancy is the result of rape. Today, the Catholic Church is pressuring lawmakers to remove at least one of these exceptions. So far, street protests have prevented this, but the Polish government is looking for ways around public opinion. It is also pressuring the United Nations to eliminate protections for women who terminate their pregnancies abroad.
In Italy, the right to terminate pregnancies was won in 1978. And yet, 40 years later, finding an abortion provider is incredibly difficult because nearly 71 percent of gynecologists, 49 percent of anesthetists and 44 percent of non-medical personnel refused to participate in abortions, citing “conscientious objections.” That’s another way of saying “my religion doesn’t allow it.”
In Malta, abortion is considered a criminal act with no exception. The Church led by Archbishop Scicluna won’t budge on the issue. "We remain committed to defend the most vulnerable and the voiceless in society, such as the unborn child," he told the BBC.
Ireland provides final evidence of the intimate connection between the Vatican and restricted reproductive rights. After a wave of sex abuse scandals perpetrated by the clergy in the 1990s, Irish Catholics began drifting away from the the faith. Now the government has proposed a referendum to loosen restrictions on abortion, which are illegal except to save the mother’s life. Public opinion is leaning heavily towards legalization. The vote will take place this summer.
My grandmother’s own grandmother grew up in Poland before contraception was widely or safely available. She was a devout Catholic who gave birth to seven children, four of whom survived. Childbirth and loss were unkind to her body, and when she became pregnant for the eighth time, she feared for her life — childbirth could be fatal. She made the difficult decision to give herself an abortion and died as a result.
There is a cruel myth that women who have abortions are “loose,” immoral or heartless, and have failed their religion and community. Another myth is that male politicians and religious leaders — not women themselves or qualified medical professionals — should decide what a woman can or cannot do with her body. These myths are harmful and must be confronted by telling the truth — by telling stories like my family's.
The challenge is the Church. Those inside and those who have left the Church say it is too rigid to be shaken out of its old ways. Many believe that if the church changed its stance on abortion and women’s autonomy, it could undermine Christianity itself.
And yet it moves.
True, in 2016, Pope Francis did say that “the family protects life at every stage,” and reminded “those who work in health facilities of their moral duty to conscientious objection.” And yet, that same year, he indefinitely extended the right of priests to grant women forgiveness for the “grave sin” of abortion. Previously, abortion was such a trespass on the Church’s doctrines that only a Bishop could absolve a woman who had one.
If the Church is open to forgiveness, as Pope Francis insists, then it must be open to hearing the countless stories about abortion from women like my grandmother and great-great grandmother. Our choices may be different, but we are united by the belief that only we have a right to make them.
My grandmother did not give birth to my mother because of pious Catholic beliefs. My mother and I owe our existence to her love and conviction that she should be free to determine the course of her own life. This is the gift she passed on to each of us. We are three generations of women who believe and fight for the right to choose.
Which makes me wonder what would happen if women used the collective power of the truth, and said #MeToo about abortion as bravely as they did about sexual abuse.