My Dad, the Abortion Doctor. My Mom, the Evangelical.
I grew up with two sides of the debate. Here's how I reconcile pro-life and pro-choice.
I remember the day I learned that my dad was an abortion doctor. I was 7 years old, sitting on the floor of his study next to my older brother, just before bedtime. Visiting our dad’s office at the end of the night was a ritual, a moment to cross from our world of Legos, Star Wars and carefree fun as kids in the 1980s into his hallowed sanctuary—dimly lit, a leather chair, shelves packed with medical texts.
Besides the framed degrees on the walls were artifacts from afar: photographs of working-class life in Turkey; a large oriental rug; and a wooden statue that reminded me of the golden idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark—mementos of his time researching infectious diseases abroad and serving as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force. In contrast to life in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, our dad’s office was a foreign country. That night, a colorful vase caught our eyes.
“What is this, Dad?” my brother asked. The vase was lacquered so heavily you could see your reflection if you stood close enough. Two peacocks of pearl inlay perched on its side.
“It was a gift from one of my patients,” he replied, barely looking up from his newspaper.
“Why did one of your patients give you a vase?” my brother asked.
“Well,” my father began, “when I was stationed in Miami, at Homestead Air Force Base, the wife of an airman came in to see me. They had five children at that point, and she was concerned about their ability to afford a sixth. So I helped her. Afterward, she wanted to thank me, so she gave me that vase from Japan, since I told her I’d lived there as a young boy.”
“But how did you help her?” my brother asked.
“I performed an abortion,” he replied.
Even at the age of 7, I was no stranger to what my dad had just told me. My mother—a devout Lutheran at the time who later attended a conservative Pentecostal church—had given me a primer on the issue: “They suck a living baby out of a pregnant woman’s stomach, and the baby dies. It’s horrific, and the mother often feels guilt and regret for the rest of her life.”
Given this description, my dad’s announcement struck me with a mixture of confusion and horror. Over the course of the next 30 years, I was to undergo a transformation on the issue, moving from staunch supporter of the pro-life cause to a believer that abortion should be safe and legal, albeit rare. My shift proves that the debates polarizing Americans need not always end in rage, and that deeply-held beliefs can change—an idea of particular relevance as tension over abortion law rises again with the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
In my youth, as the George H.W. Bush years gave way to the Clinton years, the evangelicals I interacted with at my mom’s Pentecostal church—a sect of Christianity with over a half-billion adherents—adopted apocalyptic rhetoric in talking about abortion. One of the church’s core beliefs is that we are nearing “the end times,” in which Jesus will return to Earth due to catastrophic world events and a cultural climate that becomes intolerably hostile to Christians. Wars, earthquakes, and other disasters, as well as political victories by Democrats, are interpreted as evidence that Jesus’s return is imminent. Along with this belief is a desire to enact change while adherents remain on Earth. Ending legalized abortion and overturning Roe v. Wade is deemed crucial.
I often wondered why my mother’s church longed for the return of Jesus while demanding action to push back against the arrival of the end times. Youth pastors failed to provide me with a satisfactory answer. But, as a dutiful parishioner, I took up their urgent cause. I also felt shame that many at my mother’s church knew what my father did. From their viewpoint, his vocation was hastening the country’s decline.
My dad, by contrast, held complicated views about abortion, owing to the collision between his own faith and the circumstances he saw women wrestle with in arriving at their decisions. Beyond the hospital, he was a paradigm of civic virtue: a scoutmaster who played the French horn at a local Baptist church and later served as the director of the Family Practice Program for medical residents at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. (In his mid-seventies, he is today working on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic response after failing retirement three times.) In some circles, he was a pariah—yet remained gracious with those who championed the pro-life cause, and stayed patient in responding to harsh questions and criticism, including my own.
It was this contradiction, between the language many in the pro-life movement used to describe people like my dad and the person I knew him to be, that always gave me pause. Nevertheless, my pro-life views persisted, alongside the moral certainty they gave me through high school, college and my early working life. As a professional musician in my early twenties, I played electric guitar with well-known Christian recording artists to raise money for crisis pregnancy centers, which seek to persuade women not to have abortions. It was some of the most fulfilling work of my life, of which I remain proud. I expressed my moral commitment in larger ways too: During my third year of law school, my wife and I decided to adopt a child, based in part on our belief that the pro-life cause was the civil-rights issue of our time, obliging people of faith with the financial means to foster or adopt.
Something changed, though. During the 2016 election, I watched the Republican Party that I called home give itself over to a demagogue who knew and cared little about the conservative principles I had spent much of my life advancing. One by one, deeply devout friends and family decided not only to vote for Trump but, in many cases, to celebrate a man who flouted norms that they had spent their lives proclaiming. They were remarkably consistent in their reason for this: the issue of abortion.
“How,” I asked myself, “could one issue be so consuming that it would justify putting in the White House a thrice-married narcissist and lecher, who insults war veterans, has no interest in governing, and little knowledge of public policy?”
This compelled me to examine the abortion issue through a more critical lens, using the tools that were most familiar to me as an attorney: law and policy. The tipping point was my scrutiny of a pillar of a future Republican-supported abortion ban: the rape exception.
The complexity and unworkability of a rape exception should not be understated. Most physical evidence of a rape becomes weak or disappears after 36 hours. But victims cannot be expected to report their experiences within this window, given the trauma they have just suffered. Suppose you allowed women to report later. Who would adjudicate those claims, and by what standard of evidence? Would it be possible to judge all such claims in time to avoid late-term abortions? Would a prosecutor’s office have to become involved, and at what point in the process?
As my former law-school professor, Ray Diamond of Louisiana State University, used to tell me: “Good policy ideas are never enough. You and I could sit here and come up with the best policy solution anyone ever thought of. But then we would have to pass it and, most importantly, figure out a way to actually implement and administer it.” What pro-life supporters advocate would be an administrative and legal morass. It also risks involving the criminal-justice system in one of the most personal and painful decisions someone will ever make.
The only workable pro-life position is that of senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who call for an abortion ban with no exceptions. But the overwhelming majority of the American public is deeply uncomfortable with this position. Indeed, such a policy would likely lead to a black market and self-performed procedures. Before Roe v. Wade, some women desperate to abort pumped Lysol into their wombs, with disastrous results for their health.
As I reasoned through this, I found myself gravitating toward an idea that Bill Clinton introduced in 1992, that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare”—a stance that helped those suffering inner conflict between the moral and the practical sides of the issue. In parallel to my shift, I still held firm to my pro-life ethos by encouraging families to bring children in to their homes.
Many of my closest friends, on both the left and right, were surprised. And most found my position unsatisfying for the same reason: the practical reasoning. To them, moral aspirations were paramount. I still wrestle with the tensions inherent in my position, particularly when I look at my adoptive son at our home in Nashville. Under different circumstances, this beloved member of our family would not be alive.
I still have deep sympathies with the pro-life community’s advocacy for the unborn. At their best, they are the conscience of our nation with respect to how we care for the most vulnerable. And so, my current view on abortion sits in this uneasy space: between the world as it is, and the world as I wish it would be. St. Augustine referred to this as the City of Man and the City of God, the former a place of only relative justice and the latter a place of true justice in which conflict and discord will one day be resolved.
Strikingly, the more I move away from viewing policy as the best means to address the demand for abortions, the more ardently I believe in the pro-life cause on a personal level. For the overwhelming majority of religious conservatives I talk to, unfortunately, the opposite is often true: The more exercised they are about politics and abortion as a political issue, the more they chafe at the suggestion that they should act on this commitment by bringing an unwanted or needy child into their own homes.
That night in my dad’s office over 30 years ago, my brother asked a simple question about a vase, about the gratitude of the woman who gave it to our father, and the abortion that was at the heart of it all: “But how did you help her?”
How my dad and many other doctors have helped women like her is an issue I still grapple with, that our country is still grappling with. My own tentative answer, I realize, comes from within my parents: a dad who taught me moral complexity, and the limits of government policy; a mom who granted me the moral urgency to fight for children. When young, all I wanted was moral certainty. With age, I must accept complexity.
We are, after all, a complex country: of abortion doctors, evangelicals, pro-choice, pro-life, and everything in between. No side can win a pure victory in the political sphere. The conversation must continue. And, as my case proves, minds can change.
Greg Everett is a writer and corporate lawyer in Nashville.