Sorting by

Skip to main content

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t have sex in college. It’s an absurd thought, really, because there are so many reasons: there was nowhere to do it, since I didn’t have my own room or my own car for good portions of that time; there were long stretches wherein there was no one to do it with and others in which the gentlemen in question would have also had religious qualms; I was both horribly self-conscious (I joke now that I was hot in college, but I did, at the time, deeply hate my own body) and very concerned with rules. And I was abjectly terrified of getting pregnant.

Pregnancy felt to me then very much like a death sentence. Either you got an abortion, a mortal sin and eternal shame, which was also expensive and confusing and I didn’t know how you would even access one, or you had the baby, which was also to your eternal (and much more public) shame. I knew people who had done this. It was spoken of tersely. A nod of approval that this woman had done “the right thing” in response to the consequences of her indiscretions, but mostly a palpable sense that that woman had ruined herself and her family in an almost Victorian way.

I have a painfully clear memory of being told that a family friend’s girlfriend was pregnant—the phrase “it only takes one time” ominously repeated, this news shared with me much as the news of a death in the family was later relayed. I have blocked out memories of friends who told me they were pregnant “out of wedlock.” I am confident that I was not as kind as I now wish I had been, that they felt my judgment and my fear. And I was—afraid, I mean. I remember keenly that I felt very much like a liability from the moment I got my first period the week of my tenth grade winter formal. For years after that I had what I called “Virgin Mary dreams,” in which I’m clutching a distended belly or pregnancy test and sobbing—I didn’t break the rules, I swear! You have to believe me! If my brother got someone pregnant, he could nobly stand by that person, still be lauded as some kind of decent man. But I, a woman, would have to bear a scarlet letter.

The older I get, the more I watch women around me trying desperately to get pregnant, after being told for years that “it only takes one time,” that conception was to be avoided at all costs, that it would ruin you.

The older I get, the more I hear stories of women—dear friends—who have miscarried wanted pregnancies and needed D&Cs (dilation and curettage) or D&Es (dilation and extraction), both procedures also used in early abortions, to remove fetal tissue that could produce infections, or cancerous growth, or end their hopes for future pregnancies.

The older I get, the more women I know who have had ectopic pregnancies, in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. You might get a positive pregnancy test, but then—if untreated—your fallopian tube ruptures, you bleed internally, you could die. But apparently, treatment for a life-threatening non-viable pregnancy sounds too much like baby-killing—a 2019 bill to ban abortion introduced in the Ohio state legislature “required doctors to ‘reimplant an ectopic pregnancy’ into a woman’s uterus—a procedure that does not exist in medical science—or face charges of ‘abortion murder.’” A 2022 bill introduced by Republican representatives in Missouri would make anyone “provides an ‘abortion’ on a woman with an ectopic pregnancy” guilty of a Class A felony. That was before Alito’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. In the weeks since, Louisiana Republicans have drafted a bill defining legal personhood “as beginning from the moment of fertilization,” which would make abortion a felony and arguably criminalize in vitro fertilization and intrauterine birth control devices (IUDs), too.

And the older I get, the angrier I am at the men in my family, who would be glad to see abortion banned even if it means that I am subject to legislation like this. Even if it means that I am at higher risk for infections, hemorrhage, and death. Even if it means I would be subject to criminal suspicion should my pregnancy, like twenty percent of confirmed pregnancies, end in miscarriage. Do they trust me so little to make decisions when the stakes are high, and higher for me than anyone else? Do they love the theological thought experiment of when a life begins more than they cherish mine?

I am turning thirty this month. I am older now, much older, than my grandmothers when they had their first babies. I am just older than my mom was when she had my brother, just younger than she was when she had me. I spend a lot of time thinking about pregnancy and childbirth. My friends’. My family members’. The possibility of my own. I wonder if pregnancy will be a death sentence for any of us—not just socially, the shame of it under the “wrong” circumstances, but also because what does it mean to decide to “try” knowing that I could be one of the thousands of women each year who become a maternal mortality statistic, a rate that is higher now than the year I was born? And what does it mean to have a baby in this country, where so many have no access to affordable healthcare, or housing; when a formula shortage makes clear how little our lawmakers understand reproduction and child-rearing, when I know the cost of and demand for childcare has long outstripped available and affordable supply?

And what would it mean to raise a daughter in America, where she, too, might be taught to see herself first as a liability and then only a vessel, where she might learn to fear sex, pregnancy, and condemnation as one and the same? For her, this hypothetical child I might be forced to bear, I’m sorry it took me so long to say that we both deserve so much better—we deserve care, respect, and the right to make our own hard choices.

This originally appeared on the post calvin, May 16, 2022
Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Katie Van Zanen

Katie Van Zanen is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan, where she studies the rhetorical and ethical decision-making of raised evangelical social media writers. She has been a writer for the post calvin since 2014.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Most excellent. Such fierce candor. Thank you.

  • Tom says:

    Your viewpoint on the world makes me profoundly sad. No one should ‘see herself first as a liability and then only a vessel’. I don’t believe most of America sees women or girls that way, and it saddens me to think that your view may be common.

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    ALL of the proposed (or passed) bills in Republican-dominated state legislatures are chilling, but the ones focusing on ectopic pregnancies are ignorant and vicious. Thank you for writing.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    Well said, Katie. You identified issues I had not considered yet… but need to.
    I wish our fierce pro-life people would read this and then be willing to discuss the points you have outlined here. A discussion that does not become defensive or argumentative, but with love and unity we humbly look at ourselves, the church, and realize we need to make some changes.
    We need to value the vessel as much as the unborn; we need to support – yes, even financially – the young mother with her child. We need to stop judging.

    • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

      Thank you Nancy for opening a door to communication on a challenging subject. While I am not a fierce pro lifer, I am against abortion in some cases (as a birth control to get out of the inconvenience of pregnancy) but not all (ectopic as an example) which complicates the issue for me. I’ve used IUDs before I knew what they did. I also have a daughter who got pregnant at a very early age — I understand the shame and guilt—and
      yet she chose to give him up for adoption. (An option not mentioned in this blog).She eventually married the father and she wrote often to their child through the adoption agency. Their child contacted them when he was older and is now back in her life…and mine. I believe there are two lives that matter in this issue. And I also agree that there are two people responsible for the unborn and that needs to be addressed. Ultimately I don’t see this issue being fixed. It’s too complicated. That makes me sad.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Your writing touches on something I have felt recently, without having the chops expertly to elucidate it, and I am sure that I will be misunderstood. What I have felt is that there is something deeply violent in the Right-to-Life movement. I am not saying that there is no violence in the Right-to-Choose movement, nor that all Right=to=Lifers are violent people, but that in the movement itself there is a deep violence, a deeply American kind of violence. Forcing women sexually. Imposing childbirth. Sort of a legalized and sanctified rape. I wonder if the violent expressions of the Right-to-Life movement are not so much aberrations as symptoms. I am not excusing the violence that is hidden in so much of humanism, secularism, or liberalism, my point is not comparison, but awareness. What deep violence is being expressed in what you reflect on here? Which is why I am grateful for your sharp light.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks for this courageous post, Katie. It reveals the completely unnuanced nature of our society. There are only extremes. New York State passes a law that allows abortions practically until delivery and the left cheers. State legislatures criminalize ectopic pregnancies (and can we be far off from doing investigations into routine miscarriages?) and the right cheers. And there is no middle ground on anything. It is this no-holds-barred mentality that got us Trump to pack the Supreme Court against abortion, and I guess the millions who gambled the whole nation on that bet are about to get their “reward.” But it is not a triumph of morality. It is not finally in the best interest of “life” broadly considered. It’s just sad.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I am no advocate for late term abortions such as they are called, but we could acknowledge that they are incredibly rare (women rarely carry a pregnancy for 8-9 months only to choose to terminate that pregnancy at the very end). It is almost always because of a significant risk to the mother or catastrophic news about the baby.
      I found this podcast very helpful with the nuanced conversation you seem to be asking for (admittedly it is a liberal podcaster but it’s meant to be a conversation across the aisle so to speak).

  • What a magnificent and thought-provoking bit of writing. Thank you for making me think. Your writing is a great blessing to me. I hope that it is also a blessing to others.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Oh Katie. I can only thank you for sharing these searingly important words.

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    Why is there no mention of the men who cause the pregnancy? As a man, I am ashamed that all the anger is focused on women, by men who cause the problem. If women must carry a child in her body, what should men suffer, mandatory vasectomies?

  • Kim Van Es says:

    Incredibly powerful post.


    Thank you Katie Van Zanen—and Reformed Journal—for setting forth this detailed truth-telling. I am reminded of poet Muriel Rukeyser’s question—What would happen if women told the truths about our lives. And her answer: the world [of patriarchy] would split open [exposed for its fundamental injustice]. I used to think “Abortion is Healthcare” was too stark a slogan. But I no longer do. Thank you again—writer & publisher— for offering this Truth-Telling to the LIGHT of grace—going forward. May we be in hearty conversation about matters that matter.

  • Kate Kooyman says:

    YES. And wow. And thanks.

  • George Vink says:

    Thank you, Katie
    You make a very, very strong case for our having more discussion regarding the issue, while calling our lawmakers to task and stop their knee-jerking ploys to get re-elected by an ill-informed and reactionary segment of our alleged Christian community.

  • George S Bruins says:

    Thank you, Katie, for thoughtful, introspective, and painful post. I even hesitate, as a male, to attempt a response. But as a retired physician I was privy to additional perspectives. Women who sensed the presence of new life well before a confirmatory test could be done. Women who grieved deeply the loss of a pregnancy, even when that pregnancy was not planned or desired, I will affirm your observation that men are often peripherally involved, or not involved. I can see how this contributes to the intense anger associated with the abortion topic
    Slogans on both sides contribute more heat than light. Extreme examples from either side also don’t promote understanding. Your reflections, on the other hand, may open the door to some understanding and more discussion. Thank you.

    • Daniel Bos says:

      Thank you for adding your perspectives also. We cannot even give a name to the unborn — “a human person” or “life in the process of becoming human” — without sounding extreme with either one. May our ongoing understanding and discussion give us more light than heat.

Leave a Reply