Changing Hearts: From Pro-Life to Pro-Choice

What if I told you that I used to call myself pro-life?

What if I said that I once believed abortion was murder, or that I suspected women used the procedure to bypass the consequences of sex?

If I told you, would I lose your respect? Would you be suspicious when I say that today I'm committed to the right to reproductive health, access, and choice?

If so, you wouldn't be the first.

I'm a person who changed her mind. And no, it didn't happen with cymbal-crashing drama — no unexpected pregnancy of my own or anyone I'm close to (that I know of). It didn't happen with abrupt college-age fervor; though I entered the University of Michigan as a progressive, I held onto my belief that abortion was wrong (though I got quieter about it).

Here's what did happen:

Growing up in Michigan, I advocated social systems as a response to unwanted pregnancies. Sure, there were plenty of reasons why someone wouldn't have the ability or desire to parent. But don't punish the future child, I argued.

Adoption seemed an ideal compromise. With some systematic improvements, then, I thought, abortion is rendered moot and the world will be just.

Fast forward: In college, I was part of the Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP planned an event on reproductive rights and incarcerated women. It wanted the campus pro-choice group to sponsor it.

I argued for having both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion groups sponsor the forum. A more diverse audience! We won't preach to that interminable choir! Besides, not all inmates are pro-choice. No, of course, we don't want this to be a debate. Let's have a nuanced conversation.

In this leftist group, alluding to anti-abortion views was no less startling and shameful than if I'd proceeded to urinate on another PCAPer. The others made meaningful eye contact to each other and moved on. The event was sponsored by the pro-choice group.

Stay with me for one more fast forward.

In my twenties, in Boston, I was part of a feminist book club when I still hedged around identifying as pro-choice. Such a claim felt akin to articulating God: putting spirituality into words seemed to inevitably misrepresent it.

To assert the label "pro-choice" felt like I was taking somebody else's language to describe a most personal feeling about my own body and, yes, about my spirituality. To call it my own felt phony, cheap, and careless.

In my heart, however, the change had happened. I supported the right to choose, but I balked at throwing myself into the cartoonish divisions of the public "conversation" about abortion. So I said nothing. Silence seemed the only alternative to submitting my beliefs to sloganeering.

What changed?

I don't remember the day. But that day didn't come until after I'd met people — surprise! — who'd chosen abortion. It came after my school friends became parents; after I began having sex and selecting birth control; after I experienced and witnessed sexual harassment.

In short, it happened after pro-choice rhetoric took a human shape. I saw those I loved. I saw myself.

Today, I have the passion of a convert for reproductive rights. I remain equally passionate in my resistance to the machine that bypasses all ambiguity about abortion.

I didn't "switch sides;" I'm against the notion of "sides" in the first place.

I spent years in ambivalence, despite an inward belief in reproductive rights. While acknowledging my cowardice, I would've allied myself with the cause sooner had choice advocates talked with me, rather than dismiss me as an anti-choicer not worth the breath. I would've spoken sooner had I not felt that I must forsake anti-choice family and friends to do so.

My story echoes others — those of parents, students, clinic workers; religious and non-religious individuals; those who changed their minds, those who changed their reasons, and those who changed nothing. Not only are a great many people unable to split themselves between the enemy camps of "pro-life" and "pro-choice," but there is widespread revulsion at how abortion is talked about.

Depending on whose statistics you use, 37-43% of American women have an abortion. Why don't more people connect their private and public ethic?

"I hear: ‘Don't get me wrong, I'm pro-choice, I always have been, I just never thought I'd be here,'" said Claire Keyes, director of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Reproductive Health Center. "And others who come in, who have been anti-abortion their whole life, they say: ‘Now I don't know how I can live with myself; not because of having abortion, but because I feel like a hypocrite.'"

Dr. Megan Gilliam practices pediatric and adolescent gynecology at a University of Chicago hospital; among other responsibilities, she provides abortions. When asked about patients that identify as "pro-life," she said, "Oh, it happens all the time."

"People obtain services for their reason," Gilliam said. "We luckily don't have protesters, but they tell me about how they protest (a clinic) one day, come in the next, and are back out protesting a few days later."

This dissonance is also apparent in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Emily Batchelder once managed a clinic that provides abortions.

"I can't tell you how many times I checked in a patient who said, ‘Now I don't believe in this kind of thing, but…'" Batchelder said. "No one wants to have an abortion, but it's all those ‘ands' and ‘buts' that make abortion services a necessary part of the reproductive health dialogue."

This fluidity between pro- and anti-choice beliefs also affects doctors.

Medical students may cite ethical difference and opt-out of aspects of their rotations. Dr. Gilliam said that in any trainee group, one or two pick their way through family planning. They might refuse to assist an abortion, Gilliam said, but they will offer counsel.

Many, particularly younger residents, change their mind about abortion.

"Where does conversion happen?" Gilliam asks. "They encounter us in so many settings. You admire someone as a physician, and biases begin to chip away."

"Conversion happens with the human connections," she emphasized. "People are able to live with a lot of grey. It's people with no experience whatsoever who can live with black and white."

Is there enough acknowledgment of the grey in the pro-choice movement? I do not mean that we should dilute strong positions against mandatory delays, for example, but we certainly could use more nuance in our interactions with one another and with those with whom we currently disagree. While many will nod knowingly at Gilliam's pronouncement that "the dichotomy is a political tool," our movement feeds into it.

So many of us feel like we don't fit — to the point that even some who exercise their right to an abortion don't consider the movement to be their own.

Why do we support choice, after all? We cite constitutional rights (at least a little while longer); but as Claire Keyes points out, patients don't talk in those terms. "They don't come in to exercise their constitutional rights," Keyes said. "They may feel grief, but they feel this is the right choice for them."

We valorize "choice;" but Dr. Gilliam says that such language doesn't resonate with those who see themselves in communities — part of a church, school, neighborhood, or family. "They don't approach life on such individualistic terms," Gilliam said.

We speak of the right to control one's body. But ownership language causes some progressives to bristle. One of them, Harvard sophomore Jessica Ranucci, recalls the world's sordid history of people who take it upon themselves to define who is and isn't human. She wonders how she can use the same language to justify abortion. "How is that different from the slaveholder?" she asks. The politicizated language of abortion leads us to address each other as one thing, or another. This is symptomatic of the discomfort when, as in my case, divisions blur.

Which is unfortunate for the future of reproductive justice, because those human connections that Gilliam says are vital to conversion — that were vital to my conversion — simply do not exist when we fight "the other side."

Says Matthew Spektor, a 41-year-old in Los Angeles and lifelong pro-choicer: "I sometimes think my liberal education and cultural background drilled the pro-choice ethic into me so absolutely that it's been difficult even to understand that pro-lifers aren't all religious crazies," Spektor said.

Enemy caricatures mask the greatest strength of pro-choice philosophy: inclusiveness.

"If you asked me five years ago about abortion, I would have told you that I was 100 percent pro-life and there was no way around that," said Jeremy Shermak, a 28-year-old from Illinois. "But somehow during that moment and today, I realized that you can be pro-life while at the same time be pro-choice."

Pro-choice society, like democractic society, is predicated on space for those who disagree. When we play sides, we forget there are no enemies in the vision we pursue. Our inclusiveness of those who choose not to have abortions, and even those who judge abortion to be morally wrong, is our movement's power. When we approach anti-choicers as friends, not only do we act on the heart of our beliefs, but we create space for anti-choicers to become our allies.

I urge reproductive health advocates to remember the ones who will change their minds. We must build spaces where those of us who move slowly into the pro-choice movement are recognized as true partners, rather than tagalongs.

Our beliefs are not created by what — or who — we are against. They exist because of what we are for: comprehensive reproductive health for all, and the ability to decide for ourselves if we will or will not have an abortion.

As individuals and as a movement, we must act from that truth.

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  • invalid-0

    remind us all that there is humanity in both perspectives; that, at some time or another, most of us have lived “in the grey” area when it comes to reproductive rights. My own grey area came when I became pregnant purposefully with my second child, my daughter, while working at an abortion clinic. For awhile I had a hard time reconciling the growing life inside me with some of the more disconnected discussions around abortion I was having as the communications director for the center.

    And that truly personal experience, as difficult as it was, helped me to see that there are not, as you say, two disparate and conflicting sides to this but deeper levels of thinking and feeling that cannot solely be defined by the phrases “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”

    This should be required reading for everyone involved or in some participating in the reproductive health and rights dialogue!

  • invalid-0

    Dear Anna
    Your change of heart was sad to read about.

  • scott-swenson


    I’m certain to be pilloried for saying this, but your heartfelt journey to me defines what it means to be pro life (lower case p and l) because you brilliantly speak to the humanity in all of us, and the capacity each has to caricature and dismiss others. The real choice each person makes is whether or not to listen to their heart, or simply follow whatever crowd you fall into. You not only listened to your heart, but by sharing your experience, will touch many others.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • anna-clark

    …for the kind words, Amie and Scott! This was a cathartic piece to write.

    dfk is right to note a feeling of sadness. Though perhaps he or she meant their comment in a very different way, I've been thinking about how transformation is neccessarily difficult. We tend to fight it every step of the way. It certainly is sad to grow apart from ourselves, to become something new, to call ourselves by different names. It's sad to lose pieces of our very own person.

    But of course, the sadness is vital to transformation, and it is worth it. It's all part of the process. I feel wonderful to be where I'm at now, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'm also eager (and scared!) to see what comes next…

  • amanda-marcotte

    I can see that it's sad to move away from our more reactionary opinions, but for me, making the move was mainly sad because I regret being naive and I regret how frustrating it is to know and love a lot of people who just have simplistic, judgmental politics. A lot of people don't want to be hateful, but support hateful viewpoints. I think a lot of anti-choicers are in denial about some basic issues, like the pain of adoption or the misanthropy behind the extreme anti-sex views that motivate the leadership of the anti-choice movement. Your piece makes me see ways to reach out to the misled, but I don't think we're going to get very far with people like the 'sad' commenter here, who is most likely closed off to any information that could mess with his/her misogynist beliefs about reproductive rights. Still, you give me hope that some people are reachable.

  • invalid-0

    I tend to remain quiet on this issue too even though I feel strongly as well. There’s so much anger and hate over this, one of the most polarizing of social issues. I am Pro-Life. And I am Pro-Choice. And I’m not Anti-Abortion, or Anti-Choice. No one is Anti-anything – that’s just how the other “side” paints them. Everyone is trying to be as human and as loving as they can as they can. I identify with the goals and hopes and loves of everything that cares about these things, but I will never identify with the fight against or demonization of other caring people, and that’s who we all are. I know the things I think are right and my beliefs don’t need to fit into anyone’s categories.

  • invalid-0

    I have yet to see any evidence to support the view that abortion involves the taking of human lives. (e.g., I’ve seen part of “Silent Scream” on public access TV but dismissed it and changed the channel because the narrator’s comments often didn’t match what actually was happening on screen.)

    I think people who view abortion as bad should start asking questions as to why they think it is bad, who is telling them it is bad, and what the real agendas of the people propagandizing against abortion might be. So much of anti-abortion sentiment is based on accepting what people have been raised with or told in their churches.

  • harry834

    considering anti-sex views misanthropic. If sex is something we generally have, regardless of political views, then condemning sex is misanthropic.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t accept the “nobody is anti-anything” statement. I’m sorry to put a damper this middle-grounded article, but I think that anti-choice is a well-deserved label. Being pro-life (politically, at least) is about denying someone the right to make a choice because you beleive it is morally wrong. That’s anti-choice and anti-abortion. You can be “pro-life personal, pro-choice political” but that is technically still pro-choice. “Anti-life” does not fit the pro-choice side because they do care about life, just not in the same way that the pro-life side does. We care more about quality than quantity. Even “pro-abortion” does not fit the pro-choice side, because while they want it legal, they are the only people I see actually trying to make it less common.

    I can understand the idea of wanting to do away with “sides” as an effort to promote understanding and conversation, but I think the “sides” are pretty accurate. At least, the way I decide which “side” somebody is on. I feel bad seeing it this way, because I try not to see the world in black and white. But to me, either you support the right to choose or you do not.

  • invalid-0

    This was a good article except for the part where she compares controlling one’s own body to slavery…huh? Quite the opposite is true–slave owners controlled their slaves bodies, deciding when they could “breed” and when they could not–which is how the slave owners saw it. I have read that slave women learned to use cotton root bark as an abortificiant to not have children born into slavery. The right to control one’s own body is paramount to this issue! Though I do feel there are grey areas–I am not for abortion for just any reason after the first 4 months(only to save the life of the mother or if the baby will die at birth). As there will always be religious disagreement over when we are fully human and we are supposed to have separation of church and state, we need to go by what we know from science–brain activity is not measuarable until about the 4th month of gestation and that is the sign we use to decide when someone hadsat the other end of spectrum–so that seems like the best place to draw the line for the rights of the mother and the rights of a potential new person.

  • invalid-0

    be misogynistic, rather than misanthropic? Because I feel there is a small element of sexism in the pro life movement. And yes, women can be sexist towards other women. What else explains groups which want to turn back most of the gains of the feminist movement?

  • amanda-marcotte

    Misogyny is a specific flavor of misanthropy. I agree that the anti-choice movement is specifically misogynist, but the general suspicion of sex and pleasure seems fundamentally anti-human to me.

  • pbelden

    RH Reality Check, For the intro-teaser to the above article you wrote, "Many pro-choice Americans opposed abortion at some point in their lives." I would have said "many pro-choice americans opposed legal abortion at some point". I think this is actually a critical distinction and warrants a quick correction. You can be pro-choice and support or oppose abortion. Being pro-choice just means you favor legality, that you feel it's up to the woman to decide.

  • emily-douglas

    Thank you for pointing this out. I think you raise an excellent point, and we’ve made the change. What I was trying to get at with the teaser is that there are pro-choice people who make the journey on a moral level — from believing that abortion is immoral and should be illegal to believing that it can be or is a moral choice and should be legal. Thus, they not only do not oppose the legality of abortion, they are also not opposed to abortion. But I think you make a distinction that is more relevant to the article and the discussion, so we’ve taken your suggestion and changed the language! Thanks for your close attention to this article and our work!

  • invalid-0

    It is a great relief to see liberal feminists starting to discuss the true nuances of the pro choice/anti abortion
    While I did not follow all the somewhat convoluted rationalizations the author presented, I did get the gist of her position–that there is a tremendous amount of middle ground in this dialogue.
    Just as she changed her position on abortion so have I.
    I used to be pro choice, but after watching anti abortion
    advocates discuss partial birth abortions and the hopelessly
    biased-jockeying-for-political-advantage rhetoric promulgated by feminists in reference to the US Supreme Court nominations, I’ve become anti abortion. There is no question that pro choice advocates and liberal feminists have totally misrepresented many aspects of abortion. I constantly get advocacy emails that I know are pathetically and catagorically misleading and downright lies.
    Regardless of what your position on abortion or any other subject is–the wilfull misinformation, disinformation, innuendo and lies really must stop. Unless we discuss this subject from an honest open dialogue we as a nation will continue to be polarized.
    The argument: “my body, my choice,” has no merit under our current legal system. It is a felony to attempt to commit suicide–and in doing so you are hurting no one but yourself.
    It is a felony to take drugs (and this is wholely and solely involving just the individual) and especially when one is pregnant. A woman can conceivably be prosecuted because she endangers not only herself– but when pregnant her unborn child. Then of course there is the sticky issue of the donor sperm–(i.e. the man).
    Under current law, a man inpregnating a woman is legally responsible for this child until the child is emancipated. This can be up to 21 years of age. And, while the law is very clear on this matter, there are no provisions for giving males any voice or power in this issue–even if he has consistently taken the position that he does not want to have children, he is still responsible. Furthermore, I find it laughable that feminists and pro abortion advocates rail against men shirking their biological responsibility while at the same time deny they have any say whatsoever in the matter–talking about having your cake and eating it too!!!
    The argument against their protestations when they are informed–sometimes years later (when the state asks them to ante up not only child support payments but penalties and arrearages)is that “if you have sex, then you must assume that you want a child” –why cannot the same standard be used with respect to women??? Well, according to pro choice advocates: “It’s not the same.”
    If a man has no choice in this matter (because of the overriding concern for the welfare of the child) than why should a woman (who is only playing host to a biological conception) be given different treatment?
    And lastly, it has not gone unnoticed that there is an enormous amount of money and power associated with the abortion rights issue and billions of dollars at stake–mostly to pro choice advocates– providing anything from medical services to counselors and other assorted advocacy groups that feed on grants and government subsidized monies.
    Furthermore note that 90 per cent of those obtaining these lucrative funds are coincidentally women that also happen to have strong feminist ideologies–my point is that we need to get the carpetbaggers that financially benefit and feed on this issue out of the general discussion.
    I agree with the author in that this dialogue must change but until the dialogue does change many of us that long for some middle ground will be forced to take a negative position on this issue simply because the alternatives are totally unacceptable.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you Anna,

    I appreciate you sharing your journey, your words serve as reminder of the diverse views that exist with pro-choicers. The pro-choice movement includes those both accepting and personally against abortion, with the bottom line agreement of not wanting government to interfere in a woman’s intimate decision and beliefs – government imposing on the woman alone the sacrifice of bringing life into this world. Although in the courts and legislatures the arguments have necessarily been along established legal arguments, you re-emphasize the necessity of seeing the importance of reproductive freedom through many frames and very importantly, challenging us to approach those who disagree with us as friends.

  • invalid-0

    A great article which shows that the issue of reproductive rights in America is not black and white, despite what some people want you to believe. People are smarter than we give them credit for. They analyze and think critically and apply their own life experiences. The polarization of the issue by anti-abortion advocates serves no one. It unceremoniously shoves people into categories and camps and makes them feel that it’s “us vs. them”. Such is the spirit of American politics, and it’s a true shame, because really when it comes down to it, we’re all in this together.

  • invalid-0

    I used to be anti-choice as well, Anna. That all changed in 2003, when I realized that the “pro-lifers” were actively engaging in a war on women. Here is the link to my article:

  • invalid-0

    Anna wrote:
    “But that day didn’t come until after I’d met people — surprise! — who’d chosen abortion. It came after my school friends became parents; after I began having sex and selecting birth control; after I experienced and witnessed sexual harassment.
    In short, it happened after pro-choice rhetoric took a human shape. I saw those I loved. I saw myself.”
    Having the opportunity to have caring, supportive relationships with peers who had chosen abortion was critical to Anna being able to effectively empathize with people who had chosen abortion. And she used the word “people” and “human” to describe these peers – and as many advocates these days would have more descriptively said “women”, one has to wonder if some of the people she met who had chosen abortion might actually have included some men who played an appropriately supportive role.
    It’s interesting Anna seems to have identified with caring relationships as critical but she doesn’t directly use words very much like “opportunity” and “empathy” and “caring”, although she uses words that suggest opposite qualities, like “phony”, “cheap”, and “careless”.
    Anna probably would agree that those words like “opportunity” (or maybe “authenticity”) and “empathy” and “caring” would apply to her transformational experiences, but it’s interesting that she didn’t use words like that — and many young people don’t use them. Maybe these are qualities which are increasingly more conspicuous in their absence than their presence, and if one hasn’t experienced them it’s hard to find words to describe them. It’s easy to overlook the need to use words like these which evoke what Carol Gilligan called an ethic of care, but if we don’t, it’s something the anti-choice opposition seizes on to make women who choose abortion and the men who are involved seem all the more isolated and selfish in their choices.
    We think that having the “opportunity” to “empathize” and “care” for people — women and men — who have to deal with unintended pregnancy is critical to developing a sense of pro-choice empathy and functional caring skills. It’s important in many of the same ways for a woman and her significant other (generally a man) to get support from their peers when they deal with an unintended pregnancy, whether or not the woman chooses to carry the pregnancy to term. But with better contraception, less accessible abortion, later marriages, and a more competitive, commercialized culture, there are fewer opportunities for young people to have those experiences. No wonder the polls have changed over the years, especially for young people, who seem at least by poll responses less empathetic and supportive of abortion access.
    We are also very glad that you discussed some of the problems and limitations of pro-choice organizing which includes opponents of abortion, or individuals who support regulations which restrict access to abortion. This has been a needless appeasement which some pro-choice activists have clearly made going back to the Carter administration, which has lead today to the (seemingly) intractable support for public funding of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which in many conservative communities, especially conservative middle-class and working-class suburbs and rural areas, are the best-known (but very biased) facilities offering free pregnancy tests and prenatal care, mostly to young and poor women. They’ve taken over much of the market that public health clinics were supposed to serve, and did serve from their development in the 50s and 60s until the flattening of Title X funding as adjusted for inflation, and the increase in funding of CPCs and similar agencies from the late 80s to date.
    We think that pro-choice movement would be better off, at least where organizing young people is concerned, if it were to focus more on giving young people opportunities to help support and counsel other young people on reproductive choice options, including an agenda which is responsive to the needs of young and poor mothers — as many reproductive health groups participating in the conferences sponsored by National Advocates for Pregnant Women have done, for example. While those groups — even the ones who get some public funding — can’t completely take the place of public health clinics, they at least give people who want to provide accessible, comprehensive reproductive care — and not only medical care, but perhaps social services and legal services as well — some of the best opportunities in the country to develop those caring relationships and play a role in changing government policy that affects those agencies as well.