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The Bought Grace of Life

#unplannedparenthood testifies to a thankfulness for life that escapes The Atlantic
baby hand in hand

As I—peculiar person that I am—see the world, few things could be more readily understandable than a person’s expressing gratitude that her mother didn’t choose to abort her. And that’s what the #unplannedparenthood hashtag on social media is all about: people telling their own stories of gratitude—gratitude to pregnant women who, in the face of fear and uncertainty, decided to take a chance on life; gratitude also, in many cases, to friends, family, churches, and community organizations who supported the women who took that risk. Who wouldn’t be grateful in such circumstances?

But for Olga Khazan, writing at The Atlantic, such expressions of gratitude are “bizarre,” “odd,” and “disastrously illogical.” I fear that I too must be disastrously illogical, because I fail to understand why Khazan then goes on to explain how “during the Great Depression, women who wanted to avoid having babies they couldn’t afford used ‘disinfectant douches’ that burned their genitals.” Is the point that people should not only be grateful for not being aborted but also grateful that their mothers weren’t faced with the prospect of singeing their genitals with corrosive chemicals? The relevance of this excursus escapes me.

At one point, groping to understand these alien minds, Khazan suggests that “the larger purpose seems to be to put many happy faces on the pro-life movement. All those people weren’t aborted! Isn’t that wonderful?” And she goes on to say,

Of course it is. But it also assumes that the only reason for an abortion would be that you’re mildly surprised by your pregnancy status, and uncertain what to do next.

But the #unplannedparenthood hashtag assumes no such thing. It is grossly insensitive and uncharitable of Khazan to assume that every woman who decided to keep an unplanned baby was only “mildly surprised” to be pregnant. And incurious of her too: her assumption won’t survive two minutes’ scrolling through search results for the hashtag, which show again and again the harrowing circumstances in which many, many, many women decided to bear unplanned children. That they made such an immensely consequential decision is amazingly courageous—there is nothing “of course” about it.

And often, at the time, these were unwanted children as well. Khazan notes that “there is a big difference between an unplanned pregnancy and an unwanted one”—which is indeed true. But one of the chief points that emerges from the #unplannedparenthood stories is that a great many children who were unwanted at first became very much wanted, very much loved later—either by their birth parents or by those who adopted them. Khazan’s moral world is so impoverished that in it only first thoughts count; by contrast, the people who are grateful for #unplannedparenthood are also grateful for second thoughts.

Khazan tries to draw our attention to a world in which abortion is illegal, as though that’s likely to happen any minute now, but it’s not likely, and that’s not the world that the #unplannedparenthood stories come from. In every case that I have seen, these stories commend women who could have chosen abortion, but chose life instead, even when it was costly to them. In a famous phrase, Edmund Burke spoke of an “unbought grace of life,” but the people who celebrate #unplannedparenthood know that the grace of life that experience was bought at a price—in many cases a very high price. Olga Khazan’s disdain for their expressions of thanks is contemptible.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.