There are very few issues that divide this country as completely and emotionally as abortion. And for good reason. Ending the life of an unborn child should compel deep reflection and pause in all Americans.
Including those of us who support a woman’s right to choose.
Wherever we end up on the spectrum of abortion’s legality – total ban, some exceptions, or unfettered access – our belief is a deeply personal one that’s often based on a religious teaching or life experience.
For me, it was both.
In college, I received a phone call from my grandmother. Gone was the voice of the normally cheery and engaging matriarch of the family. Instead, she was oddly hesitant. Then direct.
“I have something to tell you.”
I had always known that my grandmother’s life was difficult. Her mother Ethel was a dancer in Minnesota’s nightclubs in the 1920s and later in a traveling carnival. Though Ethel had her redeeming qualities, she was a troubled soul who battled a lifelong addiction to alcohol.
In 1930, she gave birth to my grandmother. She refused to identify the father.
Ethel eventually married a carnival wrestler and part-time cowboy named William. The family had very little money and survived on the leanest of budgets. They lived in clapboard houses and stitched together clothes for work and school.
This much I knew about my grandmother’s life. But the rest of what she told me came as a complete shock.
“I have another son.”
In 1947, my grandmother fell in love. The boy was a fellow high school classmate in rural Oregon. He was handsome, athletic, and kind. He was also from a proper family.
It’s no surprise that he fell for my grandmother. She was a strikingly beautiful girl with piercing blue eyes, a glowing smile, and the sweetest of dimples.
As their courtship progressed, they both knew it was best to wait until marriage to engage in acts of intimacy. But then as now, things happen. Promises get made.
Or, as my grandmother is fond of saying, sometimes the love bug just bites.
In the months of 1949, their young romance resulted in a pregnancy. Both were aware of the social expectations that a baby meant marriage.
He would make it right.
Unfortunately for my grandmother, however, his family did not approve. She was a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The boy’s mother was firm in her decision: my grandmother would never be good enough.
The young man promptly abandoned his promised bride – along with commitments of support. He left her utterly alone, facing an alcoholic mother, a dirt-poor father, and a frigid clapboard house.
In the 1940s, women largely had two choices when faced with such a predicament. Those with money could afford a quick – and quiet – illegal abortion. Those without could choose adoption.
But adoption came with its own complications, especially in rural communities. Unwed mothers faced unyielding shame by their families, their towns, and their churches.
A growing belly was impossible to hide.
Not surprisingly, my grandmother chose to move several hundred miles away, placing herself in a house for “wayward girls” operated by the Salvation Army. Months after her arrival, she gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy. She named him Brett Douglas.
Not long after, an infertile couple took the child – and his name – away.
In the midst of her heartbreak and fear, something unexpected happened. Another young man from high school began writing her, knowing of her struggles but willing to court her nonetheless. He sent words of encouragement and a few dollars of support.
Though his family disapproved, he asked her for a date and eventually her hand in marriage.
One month after giving birth to little Brett Douglas, my grandmother married the man who would become my grandfather. They returned to his farm and built a life – and family – of their own.
Their union lasted 61 years, ending on April 3rd, 2011. Cancer took my grandfather home.
As my grandmother finished telling me her story, I was at a loss for words. I remember telling her how brave she was. How impossible it must have felt.
And, most importantly, how much I loved her.
In the years since, I have reflected more and more on her improbable story. For the longest time, it strengthened my resolve to be pro-life. After all, she chose social stigma and personal sacrifice in order to do the right thing.
One day, however, something occurred to me.
What if she had chosen differently? What if her family was wealthy and, like others of the time, they had the luxury of choice?
And what if my grandfather hadn’t come along? What if she had returned to our small town with no education, no money, and the unrelenting whispers of her past?
As I sat wrestling with those questions, an expression of Christian faith came to me.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
For believers, this phrase is a simple and eloquent reminder to embrace humility, avoid judgment, and be humbled by the awesome power of God’s salvation.
Unexpectedly, my heart turned on the divisive issue of abortion. I realized that, had my grandmother chosen differently, I would not only still love her but I would have understood her choice.
To be honest, abortion still doesn’t sit well with me. Frankly I hope it never does. It’s why I so passionately believe in talking to kids about abstinence, safe sex, and promoting free or subsidized contraception – much like the incredible program in Colorado that has resulted in 40 percent fewer teen pregnancies and 42 percednt fewer abortions.
Yet as I think about the girls who still choose to end their pregnancies, the journey of my grandmother has forever changed me. It’s in my heart to ensure that our nation’s women know that, no matter what, they are still loved. They have options.
And that, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.