Eve & Pandora & Abortion & Me

There is no hope in controlling the lives and bodies of women.

Eve & Pandora & Abortion & Me
Pandora by Odilon Redon, 1914

A few notes before moving into this essay -

America’s attitudes about abortion are rooted in a heavily edited collection of misogynistic stories about women. But gender is a construct, and many people can get pregnant who do not identify as women. Alongside that, it’s important to note that nothing about this piece is universal. This is a deeply personal essay from my lone perspective as a Meg, who is a woman. My inelegant way of addressing all of that is to use both “women” and “people” in this essay when talking about people who get pregnant—an imperfect offering made with earnest love.

Which is how I'd describe this piece of writing. This isn’t a sermon. I’ve got nothing to preach. There’s little certainty here. I’ve long abandoned dogma. I am not seeking to persuade, merely to record. When you read this, you are witnessing me. Thank you.

A content warning. In this essay, I talk about abortion. But I also touch on very hard things like the death penalty, miscarriage, and school shootings.

Again, I am writing from my perspective exclusively. When I write about my miscarriage, I am writing about my miscarriage. Your experience may have been, indeed will undoubtedly have been, radically different.  I honor your experience. I won’t ask you to honor mine. I will ask that you not take my experience as a universal one. Please do not impose it on yourself or others.

My first faith tradition was pro-choice in doctrine, if not always in practice. It helped me get to where I am. So, I’d like to nod my head in its direction. (head nods) I no longer attend that church. And this piece is not about religion. Still, this feels like the most Advent-centered thing I could write now. You may disagree. That’s all right.

If you were in my home right now in this season of darkness, I’d light three of the four Advent candles on my table. Hope, Love, Joy. This is one side of the conversation we’d have. The other side would be yours. I’d witness you by the flickering flame.

Pandora by Odilon Redon, 1914

Eve & Pandora & Abortion & Me

Brontë didn’t know what pregnancy was until a few weeks ago. I joked about her being in my tummy, and she laughed, “Oh, mommy. Only monsters eat people!” 

I laughed too, “No, silly. I mean, when I was pregnant with you.” She looked at me in confusion. “What is pregnant?”

Brontë processed my explanation of pregnancy with wide, and then wider, eyes. She turned four yesterday. In March, she’ll have spent half her life in the pandemic. I keep running into gaps in her knowledge. 

We’ve stayed fairly cloistered. She goes to preschool. We have close friends over for dinner. There are family visits. We talk about sex, conception, pregnancy, labor, and babies with our older daughters. But I guess those conversations drifted over her head. 

None of the people in our little circle have been pregnant throughout the pandemic. No parent or teacher at school has been pregnant. Pregnancy isn’t depicted in the three things she’s willing to watch - Bluey, Great British Bake Off, and Frozen II. When I was pregnant, I read her older sisters books about pregnancy and birth. But Brontë is a last child.

Explaining pregnancy to her during Advent made some sense. I am a Christian in the Northern Hemisphere. Advent happens in the weeks before the winter solstice. As the North Pole tilts from the sun, the night lengthens until the longest night. 

Winter solstice is always on December 21st or 22nd. Marked by rite and ritual by people well before the beginning of history. Christians were late to the celebration. The first recorded Christmas was celebrated on the winter solstice in Ancient Rome.

Advent is only a little younger than Christmas. Advent comes from adventus - approach, arrival. Christians wait in the darkness for Christ to arrive. His birth conquers death. We light four candles each Sunday to illuminate the dark before His arrival. Hope, Love, Joy, Peace. They form a circle on our kitchen table. 

Advent has the heaviness, longing, and uncertainty I associate with pregnancy— a time of preparation in the dark. Sometimes, I can feel other people from across the ages just outside the candlelight. They are preparing for an arrival with me. We’re all gathered round. Maybe we always have been.

The story of Advent is a child story. But it is also a mother-story.

The story of Advent is a child story. But it is also a mother-story. Mary chose to carry Jesus in her body. As she witnessed his crucifixion, she must have wished she could carry him again. I love her mother-story. 

We've got so many mother-stories. In some, the mother is a vessel that saves the world. In others, she’s a vessel that damns it. Eve and Pandora were both made by male gods. 

Eve was an intervenor. What many translate as “help meet” means something closer to “counterpart who intervenes on behalf of someone.” Eve functioned as a third-party, mediating between God and Adam. 

Pandora was a punisher. Prometheus loved men so much that he stole fire from Zeus for them.  Zeus knew how to punish a god - hurt what they love. Pandora was made to hurt men.

When people refer to women as earthen vessels, do they know those vessels held death as well as treasure?

Both women received a fatal inheritance from the gods. Eve was given stewardship of an eternally abundant garden. God told her she could eat from every tree but one, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Pandora received gifts from every god - beauty, grace, “a thievish mind,” and a pithios. 

Pithios were clay jars used to store grain, wine, and precious metals. Very large ones were used as burial vessels - grave jars. Souls could move in and out of the jars. When people refer to women as earthen vessels, do they know those vessels held death as well as treasure?

Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She asked Adam to eat, and he did. They were cast out from the Garden into a world of sorrow, labor, and death. We are born because Eve walked into a world where we will die. 

Pandora opened her jar. Pandora didn’t know what was in her last gift. Curious, she tipped back the lid. Evils flew from the jar out into the world - disease, death, sorrow, and war. When Pandora stopped up her jar, Hope remained within it.

We’ve been arguing over whether hope was a good kept or an evil that remained for thousands of years. The answer shifts from time to time, person to person. 

The nature of the women in first-mother stories shifts too. If am telling the stories, Eve stepped out of the enclosed garden because she knew Heaven is common. Maybe Pandora was made to punish. Instead, she revealed the nature of life. 

In the telling of others, the stories stick to a common of theme - the bodies of women exist, and so we die. The narrative repeats across our culture, even though death mostly exists outside the bodies of women. 

Mothers seeking asylum are turned away at our borders; they hold babies too hungry to cry.

Like right now in America. Children shoot each other at school. People huddle under overpasses. Cancer patients rely on crowdfunding. Mothers die in childbirth, and children die of despair. Men first condemned to die are then condemned to die alone. Mothers seeking asylum are turned away at our borders; they hold babies too hungry to cry.

And now, America is about to overturn Roe v Wade. The right to abortion has already been weakened by state policy and targeted inequity. But the loss of Roe’s basic guarantee is frightening to contemplate.

In high-income countries with easy access to abortion, 9 out of 10 abortionshappen before 12 weeks. When detection of pregnancies and access to abortion pills exist together, 75 - 97% of abortions occur before nine weeks. 

In America, 21 states have trigger laws that will ban “most or all abortions” when Roe is overturned. People who live in those states will need to travel to other states to get abortions. This means that abortions will happen much later in pregnancies, when they happen at all.

When a person wants an abortion but cannot get one, their pregnancy will continue. Pregnancy in America is punishing. There is no meaningful social safety net and very few workplace protections. 

If Biden’s paid leave proposal goes through, a new parent will have access to four weeks of means-tested paid leave. With just four weeks of leave, their babies will still need to go to daycare before most daycares accept babies. Daycares are still too expensive for most parents and pay too little to their workers. 

Under Biden’s plan, parents must fill out weekly forms documenting the care hours they worked. Once qualified, money will be paid out through private insurance companies. Insurance companies are concerned about profit margins, not care. Those already pushed to the margins in America will be written off to serve a bottom line.

If the birthing parent goes back to work after just four weeks, they will be at greater risk of postpartum depression. Well, if they live long after giving birth. America’s maternal mortality rate continues to climb. We are one of only two countries where that rate is increasing. 17.4 women die per 100,000 pregnancies each year. 

Black women are hurt first and worst, as is the American way. The maternal death rate for Black women is 37.1 per 100,000 pregnancies,  2.5 times higher than the rate for white women. This is a matter of deliberate design, not malignant neglect.

People who give birth in America die from hemorrhages. They die from pregnancy-inflicted heart conditions. They die from untreated postpartum depression. It will get worse after Roe is overturned. 

People unable to access abortion for unwanted pregnancies will die. In countries where abortion is illegal, women with wanted pregnancies die, too. Quick, accessible abortion is often the treatment for an ongoing miscarriage. Without it, pregnant people die of sepsis, they die from hemorrhages. Without abortion, women die. 

Reporting a story about how maternity care is affected in countries without access to abortion, and if you think that rolling back Roe won't affect you, doctors in some European countries have refused to treat sepsis and ectopic pregnancies because of a conscientious objection. — Jessica Grose (@JessGrose) December 7, 2021

Of course, some people would keep their pregnancies if they could afford to raise a child. We refuse to help parents take care of children in America. We argue over cash benefits for children, stripping them away at the first moment. We refuse to recognize unpaid care work as work in the economic sphere. There is no benefit for those who care.

We need to recognize that those who need care are also performing care work.

We need to recognize that those who need care are also performing care work. When a child is lifted into bed, participates in occupational therapy, undergoes surgery, or learns how to use assistive technology, they are doing care work. Every work is valuable; we should value every work. American work culture is hostile to caretakers, especially mothers. Giving birth costs more money than some people make in a year.

Teen mothers who carry their pregnancies to term and have wanted babies are cast out by American policy and culture. They hold their babies to their chests and wander on the edges of the American dream—so many fall.

Toni Morrison spoke movingly about a world where teen mothers had support,

"They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That's my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, 'Your baby is beautiful, and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me. I will take care of you, baby.' That's the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don't want to pay for it."

And what about the pregnancies that aren’t wanted? On Twitter, a woman told me she’d once been pro-choice. She said she "became pro-life once I saw the baby, I couldn’t unsee it.” I responded that I became pro-choice because once I saw the woman, I couldn’t unsee her. But that's not the sum of what happened to me. I can see both. I can see the person carrying the pregnancy. I can see the baby that would exist if a pregnancy is carried to term.

In 2016, I had a miscarriage before the end of the first trimester. I love the first trimester. It feels like I'm making a diorama about multicellular life. The egg and the sperm come together to form a single cell, a zygote. That single divides and becomes a collection of cells. Those cells can make more cells in the form of a human. An embryo isn’t a child, but it is a child-making machine. A distinction that removes none of the wonder.

When I started bleeding, I went to the hospital to get an ultrasound. Ultrasounds push sound waves into the body and record the waves that bounce back as images. I thought they also recorded sound. Blood dripped from me onto the table while I listened for the heartbeat. That steady, quick bu-bum-bum-bum-bum that made me cry with joy in my first two pregnancies. There was only silence. I learned later the heartbeat I heard in my other pregnancies didn’t come from the embryo. It came from another machine.

The medical community manufactures a sound. And then it lets that sound manufacture silence.

When its waves bounce off pacemaker-like cells firing electric signals, the ultrasound plays a heartbeat sound. Kind of like the sounds my little girl's toy stethoscope makes. Those pacemaker cells could one day make a heartbeat. 

But when I first heard a heartbeat in my pregnancies, there was no heart to beat. And when I didn’t hear those sounds during my miscarriage, there was no heart notto beat. The medical community manufactures a sound. And then it lets that sound manufacture silence.

There was no sound because those cells weren't firing. Something went wrong, and the fetus stopped building.  My body did what it was supposed to do. It carried the wrongness out of me through water, clots, and thick blood. 

The wrong thing wasn’t fated to go wrong. It could have gone right, in a different environment or different moment. A different egg. A different sperm. A different division of life. A different world.

I am mourning a future I glimpsed, not a baby that existed.

If we live in a multiverse, there’s a world where that pregnancy continues, and I hold that baby. In the days after the miscarriage, I could feel that impossible baby—the one I’d never have. I could taste her. I could feel her against my skin and between my teeth. I felt nauseated for her and dizzy with her disappearance. 

I had to shake the smell of her out of my nostrils and lift her hands out of my hair. But the fetus contractions pushed out of me was not that child. It was thepotentiality of that child. I mourned. I still do. But I am mourning a future I glimpsed, not a baby that existed.

And what of the pregnant person? I can see them too. In America, single motherhood is the surest way to fall into poverty. Single mothers work harder than anyone in America. Their families are the most likely to go hungry. Broken down by race, 35% of Black families with a single mother are poor. 43% of Indigenous families with a single mother are poor. 26% of white families with a single mother are poor.

People who can access abortion are less likely to fall deeper into poverty. They are more likely to leave abusive households. They are more likely to survive medical emergencies during pregnancy.

Sometimes, a person isn’t at risk of poverty or abuse. Sometimes, there is no medical need for abortion. And they still choose to abort a pregnancy. I have a story about a woman who made that choice. I can't share all of it. Some mother stories aren’t ours to tell. At least not without draping them in myth and mystery. So I'll only share part of it.

I exist because a foremother had an illegal abortion.

I exist because a foremother had an illegal abortion. She did it to secure a future she knew she and her children - the ones she already had, the ones she would someday have - deserved. She could have died. Many women did then. I find it difficult to fathom the hope that led her to take the risk. What potentiality could she see?

I can see her sitting and waiting for the procedure. Her purse on her lap. I want to sit next to her. I wish I could bend time and hold her hand. I'd guide it to the top of my head and let her feel what she let live. I’d show her my daughters. God, she’d be grateful for them. God, I am grateful to her for them. 

Maybe Eve and Pandora are mother-stories, grandmother-stories, great grandmother-stories. Cloaked to protect experiences that were not shameful, just sacred. Perhaps we’ve just laid the wrong things on top of them.

There is some tension in being able to see the pregnant person who is here and the child who might have been here. We tend to want to release tension. But tension is not always a bad thing. Tension is one of the pressures that causes earthquakes. And yeah, that seems bad! Until you remember that pressure built every mountain and released every valley. 

A loom is a tool made to sustain tension in the warp so a weaver can pull through the weft. What would The Odyssey be without the tension of Penelope at her loom weaving?

Tension isn’t only found in rocks, threads, or epics. There's tension in a dew drop. Liquid molecules always pull toward one another, contracting to the smallest possible area. A sphere is the shape with the smallest surface area to volume ratio. That dew drop is pulling itself together. If gravity weren't present, it would be a perfect sphere.

The water’s contraction creates surface tension. Water striders can walk on top of water because of surface tension. Their long legs distribute their weight evenly so they don’t break through the surface.

All fluids act this way. Some people say spacetime, the four dimensions that make up our reality, has the structure of a fluid. If it does, then spacetime might also have surface tension. Plato said the sphere is the perfect shape. 

There is some joy in thinking about our reality pulling itself into a sphere—a perfect dew drop. We may find ourselves on its surface someday. We could distribute ourselves evenly and walk together.

We do walk together now, you know. There was no first woman. But there is an Eve. The unbroken matrilineal line of every person alive leads back to the same woman,Mitochondrial Eve.

Mitochondrial Eve is the Mother of All Living. She lived 155,000 years ago, somewhere in Africa. Men and women have mitochondrial DNA, but mDNA is inherited solely through the mother. It’s passed down matrilineal lines, remaining unchanged for thousands of years.

Mitochondrial DNA tells mitochondrial cells how to convert energy from food into energy the cells can use. So, yeah. The mDNA traced back to Eve tells our cells to convert big bites of fruit into life-giving energy. 

There's some poetry there. Mitochondria use the oxygen we breathe to release the energy. This process is oxidation. Oxidation is also what ages our cells. What gives us life, makes us die. The Eve Paradox, maybe.

Mitochondrial Eve is not a fixed person. Our mythological Eve shifts from one kind of woman to another depending on age and interpretation. Mitochondrial Eve shifts from one lived woman to another and, from one time to another, as matrilineal lines end. And so Eve herself is killed and brought to life by our life and death. So much is dying in our bodies all the time. So much is being born.

I talk about abortion with my daughters. Last week, one asked what we’d do if one of them got pregnant in high school. I said we’d talk about it. We’d ask her what she wanted. We’d see mental health professionals. We’d sit in church pews and pray. And if they wanted an abortion, we’d care for them by getting them one.

We’d get a pack of pills online or from a doctor. As they cramped and bled, I’d hold their hands. It often hurts to push out a pregnancy. I know it does. I’d place my hands atop their head as they wept, a blessing of hope for their future.

We talked about Hope as we lit our first Advent candle. Brontë blew it out, “Mom! I blew out hope!” I don’t know if she knew why that was funny. But she laughed with us. The smoke from the candles circled the table and sank into our clothes. It was carried into us through our nostrils. Hope remains.

When writing about Pandora, a 6th-century Greek poet said, “Hope was the only good left to mankind.” The Hope of Advent has an object - eternal life no longer bound by death. How can we practice that hope in a world constantly remade by death?

Racial justice is a hope practice.

There is no hope in controlling the lives of women. Much of my practice of hope involves trust. I trust God; I hope for God. We can practice hope by trusting women to know their bodies, needs, and hopes. 

We can practice hope by sustaining the people here, with futures still not set. Racial justice is a hope practice. Voting for universal childcare is a hope practice. Getting every person the reproductive healthcare they need is a hope practice.

Hope is an intervenor, mediating between what must be and what could be. Sometimes, hope feels like a punisher.  Kierkegaard said that hopes bound by time can only let us down. Those are bad hopes. For a hope to be good, it has to exist in the realm we call eternity. 

Classical philosophers believed human history is a cycle, not a progression. We are always turning from light into dark and then back again. Every moment pulls at the other. Existence contracts. 

People with stirrings in their bellies pull close to me. They come from every age. Eyes closed in happiness, sorrow, anger, fear, or confusion. I draw close to them. We hope together.