Life Choices is a new book by Linda Weber, just out from Sentient Publications of Boulder, Colorado. It’s a deep and complex book on an equally deep and complex topic. After having read the book, I find it difficult to come up with a succinct description of the broad net that Weber casts with this work, but the jacket blurb does a good job of summarizing its rich contents: “Life Choices is a bold exploration of the spiritual essence of abortion, the historical context for it, and how it leads us to live with more awareness. Abortion has lessons to teach everyone about making conscious choices in our lives and opens the way to a greater connection with love, death, power, and all life. The essentially pro-life nature of abortion asks us to accept death as part of the flow of life. The failure to understand this contributes to the ferocious abortion wars.”
Linda Weber, whose courage I greatly admire in tackling this controversial subject and writing a book about it, has kindly answered a series of questions about “Life Choices.”
Planet POV: Could you talk a little bit about your career and how you came to write “Life Choices?” The second part of this question is, Who do you envision as your audience?
LW: I live and work in Boulder as a private psychotherapist, spiritual counselor, and rites of passage guide for women. I run a summer wilderness vision quest program. I have a masters in psychology and women’s studies, though I didn’t get the degree until after I had been counseling for twenty years. I see the interconnection between personal psychology, society, and spirituality, so my orientation is naturally holistic. I wrote the core of what was to become Life Choices for my masters thesis. The writing happened because of my desire to record what I was experiencing with the abortion work. As I followed it through the years, it led me to a deeper synthesis. The funny thing about books is that they know what they are before you do. I spent a lot of time catching up to what this book is. Over twenty years passed before I was ready to bring it into the world, and it was only then that a publisher appeared to make this happen.
I began my work in a New York City abortion clinic, one of the first to appear after legalization in 1970. My initial training was more like a trial by fire than a professional training. I was learning on the go, in an atmosphere of intense need. They showed us how to explain medical procedures and how to assist the physicians with the abortions, but not so much about counseling itself. I was deeply moved by the stories I was hearing from the women who were my patients. They came from all over the country, referred to the clinic by an underground clergy service that referred for safe though not always legal abortions. I thought that that in and of itself was amazing. Counseling came easily for me because I have a natural intuitive ability, so I’m self-trained for the most part. Even my masters degree was an independent study degree. I was a history major in college and an activist organizer by nature. I was interested in the flow of history and how it affected people. Those things came together in abortion counseling because both the historical and personal changes that were happening were profound. The work continued in earnest after I set up the counseling program at the women’s health center in Boulder in 1973.
As I approached the age of forty, I turned towards spiritual study and fell in love with the mountains and my sense of the spirit that moves in all beings and things. I wondered how to relate this to my feminism and my understanding of women’s issues, in particular abortion.
The writing of Life Choices, began as a reaction to what I was seeing in my counseling sessions. At first, I thought I might be writing a counseling manual or a how-to book about abortion, or maybe a historical study. But once I accumulated enough spiritual experiences of my own, I knew that the statement of Life Choices had to be much more than just about abortion. The perspective got bigger and bigger as the years passed.
The audience for Life Choices consists of anyone concerned about the issue of abortion, in addition to women who have had abortions. In particular, the book is for those who seek a multi-faceted understanding about how social issues affect us personally and what their role is in the growth and development of society.
Planet POV: You say in your book that you “believe abortion is essentially pro-life” and that you arrived at this conclusion because you’ve seen how the experience “can enrich women’s lives.” Can you address this idea and perhaps give us an example?
LW: The simplest answer to this is to just look around and see how many women have created successful careers that they would not have been able to have if they had been forced to give birth to every unwanted pregnancy. But the more complicated answer is more interesting to me. Abortion is part of nature. We see this most clearly when miscarriages happen. The medical term for a miscarriage is spontaneous abortion. What I am saying in Life Choices is that human consciousness—our ability to think and feel and intuit is also part of nature. We apply this consciousness to our bodily experience in order to better negotiate our lives. For women, this includes making choices about pregnancy. Thus, intentional abortion is also part of nature, and in my experience these choices are overwhelmingly on the side of improving lives—the woman’s life and the other lives that are directly affected by a pregnancy. Abortion is an essential part of creativity. This is easy to see when we think about a writer writing something and then crumpling up the paper and throwing it away or deleting it; or a painter painting, or a musician composing, and so on. When we say no to something in our lives and choose to go in another direction, we are aborting the other choice. Without the no the yes would not happen. It’s the same with pregnancy, it’s just that the stakes are high and intensely heart directed.
Planet POV: You have a wonderful sentence in your book: “Pregnancy decision making is more basic than beautiful, more like a mudslide than a meadow.” Yet it struck me that the attitude throughout “Life Choices” is that these “mudslides” are just another part of life and not necessarily good or bad. Does this sound accurate to you and if so, how did you arrive at the conclusion that having an abortion is not necessarily a negative experience?
LW: Yes, that’s right, that’s what I’m saying. The mudslides are definitely just another part of life and are morally neutral. They are simply experiences. Unfortunately in our culture there is a tendency to divide experiences between “good” and “bad.” I think this contributes to the denial of the important things we learn from difficult and painful experiences. As for abortion, most of the women I have met in my counseling work were overwhelmingly relieved that they could have an abortion, and because it was one of the most serious decisions they had ever made in their lives, they often grew in their understanding of what really mattered to them and became clearer about how they wanted to conduct themselves in their lives. I think that’s positive, don’t you?
Planet POV: Another striking quote in your book is from one of your clients: “For me, abortion is like pinching the leaves off the mother plant to let it grow.” Can you explain what your client meant by this statement and what it meant to you?
LW: That woman’s statement—the pinching of the leaves—was the main impetus for this book. I met her a long time ago, and her perceptions and point of view about her abortion had a huge impact on me. It showed me the essential creativity of life choices. I wanted to honor her and her forward thinking way. I thought it was beautiful. As for the meaning of it, that took me years to fully understand. I had to spend concerted time alone in the wilderness and a lot of time studying and practicing surrender to life processes, both my own and the manner in which the world conducts itself. What I came to understand is that life does as life does and we humans are responsible for stepping into our awareness of that and engaging with the truth of our lives in a manner that fits with the rest of nature and the earth as a whole. We need to be awake. This means different things to different people, but the truth of the movement of life into death and back into life is central. We die into ourselves in one way or another throughout our lives. It is the way life creates itself. Abortion can be a great teacher about this both on the level of personal experience and for humanity’s relationship with the earth as a whole.
Planet POV: You frequently use the term “crisis pregnancy.” Can you explain what this is?
LW: A crisis pregnancy usually occurs unexpectedly and causes an upheaval in a woman’s life. It is characterized by high levels of tension and uncertainty and often includes anxiety and fear. If the pregnancy is unwanted or a problem in some other way, the intensity of the crisis may be driven by a sense of not having enough time to make a decision, or in some cases, feeling unable to make a decision because no option is attractive or acceptable. Internal or external pressure to make a decision quickly can sometimes feel overwhelming. A crisis often opens the door to other problematic or difficult issues, which can further exacerbate the situation. This kind of pregnancy can be a critical turning point in a person’s life.
Planet POV: You describe a debate you once had with a pro-life activist who ended her arguments with the assertion: “Death is death.” You then go into a discussion about the context of death. Could you talk about this?
LW: The anti-abortion movement has been screaming murder about women’s choices to have abortions for some time now. They play upon the discomfort most of us feel about death and the way our society denies and denigrates the subject. They oversimplify and try to reduce complicated concepts to simple ones. Even murder when you think about it, is complicated and contextual from the law’s point of view. There are different kinds of murder that involve different circumstances; there are different levels of motivation; and there are different levels of punishment. But that’s a digression. Abortion isn’t murder. The death that occurs in abortion is tied to the relationship between the pregnant woman and her awareness of the nature of her pregnancy. Her consciousness about her body and about pregnancy is an aspect of her nature, which is part of nature. She is the responsible party when it comes to bringing life through her body or not. The or not is of course the big issue, because when she decides not to continue a pregnancy, she is causing the death of the part of her that is developing into another being. But the death can’t be compared to any other death. Because it happens in the context of her life process, her body, her relationships, and her power. No death happens in a vacuum. There is always a circumstance and situation—a context. There are always relationships that create the container for whatever the death process is, and these need to be respected.
Planet POV: Again on the subject of death, you say, “Our personal and societal fear of the end of life makes us label any kind of death bad. A walk in Nature will quickly correct this notion.” What is it about nature that leads you to question the idea that “any kind of death is bad?”
LW: Death is essential to life on planet Earth. All of nature exists in cycles of coming into being and going away. Stand in a forest and you will see trees in various stages of living and dying. Same with all plants and other animals. We humans have lost touch with this and live in ways that try to separate death from life when really there is no separation. Western society has attempted to substitute technology for nature and to pretend that humans are not part of nature. One of my teachers calls this the big lie. When we remember our true nature as part of nature, we can embrace the endings and losses as part of the great mystery of life, and pay tribute to the meaning of those losses through ceremonies and relationships that honor the changes.
Planet POV: Another phrase that jumped out at me as I read the book was “the ideology of self-sacrifice.” It seems to go hand-in-hand with another concept you discuss – the “Ideal of the All-Loving Mother.” Could you explain what these concepts mean and how they relate to abortion?
LW: Women often find themselves in a painful internal tug of war and feeling selfish if they put themselves first. But what feels like a personal psychological pattern is actually an expression of an old and deeply entrenched societal and historical way of meeting the world. Under patriarchy, which has been around for many thousands of years, women are expected to sacrifice themselves to care for their children and for the men in their lives. It is considered unfeminine and unwomanly not to do this. Moreover, women are expected to plan their lives this way—to marry, have children, and never put themselves first. This is changing. The pushback against patriarchal ways all over the world is about women wanting to make choices about all aspects of their lives. The choice to not carry a pregnancy to term flies in the face of the idea that it is good to sacrifice yourself. Legal abortion goes against the ideology of self-sacrifice because it suggests that being a woman is about more than having children. Along with this, it challenges the idea that any woman anywhere at anytime will be a loving and caring mother. Abortion breaks through the idealization of mothers, and suggests that in real life women are complicated and capable of creating in myriad ways, and that reproduction is just one facet of being a woman and that this is normal.
Planet POV: One concept that comes up repeatedly in “Life Choices” is the idea of female power. You say, “We actively express female power when we choose whether to bring pregnancy through or turn it back.” Can you explain how abortion and female power are related?
LW: It’s intrinsic power I’m talking about, not power over anything or anyone, but rather power within. Bringing life through the body is a female function. It’s an innate power. Part of expressing this power is to say no to pregnancies that feel like intrusions or that we know can’t be supported by our life circumstances. Saying no can sometimes be more life affirming and powerful because it requires the strength to honestly face and assess difficult feelings and circumstances and stand up to the pressures of society. Most importantly, saying no to a pregnancy is sometimes a necessary step to saying yes to stepping into responsibility for your life.
Planet POV: How can abortion be an act of love?
LW: Having an abortion is almost always an act of love. A woman has an abortion because she cares about what would happen to a baby born of that pregnancy, and because she cares about herself and others in her close circle of love relations. She may be young and not completely clear about these things, but her heart is at the center of her decision making and her mind grapples with all that is involved. She does the best she can.
Planet POV: You go into some discussion about the history of abortion in the United States. You mention that Colorado was the first state to liberalize abortion laws, sometime between 1967 and 1972. Roe v Wade was in 1973. You were involved in an early clinic in Boulder – can you talk a little about the founding of that clinic?
LW: I moved to Boulder from New York City in 1972. After Roe in 1973, I expected that clinics would form locally. The people who were organizing the Boulder Valley Clinic, which is now the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center, were community minded men and women, and skilled in different areas including medical and community organizing. They were driven by the desire to normalize and legitimize women’s experiences with abortion because they all knew how horrible it had been when abortion was illegal. They needed someone to head up the counseling program and I was someone, maybe the only one in the area, who had experience with this. Plus, I was passionate about helping women with what I had learned at the New York clinic. We had some opposition from a right-to-life doctor who kept us out of a medical building, but other than that there was no serious trouble. We found a house on Broadway near downtown and set about renovating it to suit the needs of a women’s clinic. It was an incredibly exciting and creative time. I hired 18 volunteers and trained them to be abortion counselors. They each had one patient in the first week we were open. We met incessantly to talk about our personal experiences and how best to do the counseling work with the patients. The whole thing felt more like a cause than a job and everyone was highly devoted to the work.
Planet POV: On the same topic as above, you mention that Roe v. Wade was a result of the pressure that mounted as more women obtained illegal abortions in the two decades before it passed. Can you talk a bit about this history?
LW: Illegal abortion is a truly horrible thing. It’s terribly dangerous for families as well as for women. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the laws against abortion were increasingly difficult to enforce. There were reputable physicians performing illegal abortions and clergy in all parts of the country who were counseling and referring women to these physicians. Population control advocates were actively lobbying legislators, and the women’s movement was growing in size and influence. The coalition to repeal the laws against abortion became strong enough to pressure successfully for the changes that led to the Roe v Wade decision.
Planet POV: You express your objection to the term “family planning clinics.” Can you explain why?
LW: I don’t object to the term family planning clinics or family planning, I just think it’s an incomplete term. Most people, especially young people, are not thinking about planning a family when they seek out birth control. They are thinking about and planning sex. I discuss this in the chapter in my book called Sexual Planning. By coining this term I’m encouraging people to think as realistically as possible. One of the results of legal birth control and legal abortion is the emergence of more awareness about sexual matters and a greater willingness to discuss sex and sexuality. But it’s a long road, and there is still a great deal of fear and avoidance when it comes to these issues. Family planning programs raise people’s awareness about sexual health, which I believe is the main reason they are in the crosshairs of conservative political movements.