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Abortion as a Sacrament: A Poet’s Perspective

Photo credit: National Education Association


There is great insight in this feminist truism from the 1970s: “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” According to Faye Wattleton’s memoir, the pithy remark was first spoken by a female cab driver as she drove Wattleton and Gloria Steinem to a feminist rally in New York City. We might think of the sacrament part of the quote as an ironic joke, an over- exaggeration for comedic effect. But I began to take the remark much more seriously after I had an abortion myself, as a 42-year old witch and a mother of two, and encountered a profound spiritual depth in the experience. It was then that I finally came to understand the complex web of will, mind, body, heart, and spirit, of family, self, and society, of future and past, that may be summoned and considered and experienced in the choice to end a pregnancy.

By the time I had the abortion, I had considered the decision deeply and—for reasons I needn’t go into here— was sure it was absolutely the right one for myself and our family. The procedure itself was smooth and painless, even beautiful. The doctor was experienced, gentle, and sensitive. The clinic was so aware of the spiritual and psychological dimensions of abortion
that I was invited to choose a lovely smooth small stone to hold during the operation and bury afterwards to create closure. It would be hard to imagine a better abortion clinic experience.

That’s why it totally blindsided me when I headed into a horrible depression soon afterwards. I’d wake up each morning with tears in my eyes and a lead weight on my heart as it sunk in yet again that I had ended a life inside me and that I was completely alone with this bitter awareness. Had I made the wrong decision after all? I went over and over it in my head, turned it over and over in my heart, but nothing changed. I felt paralyzed. It was as if I’d been poisoned. Much of the anger was against my husband. He didn’t have to wake up every morning living with the knowledge that he had killed our baby inside his body. How could he go on living his life as if the whole thing were no big deal? The family in general, the world in general, everyone else just kept moving forward with their lives as if things were fine. What looked like their callousness
and heedlessness was unbearable.

And so it went for the better part of a year, as I struggled to claim my power. Witchcraft is about making use of the fullness of our Goddess-given selves. It can be frightening to embrace our more shadowy forces: fear, anger, fury, death, and grief. But that work is just as essential as coming to love. The shadow, when embraced with compassion, has great gifts to offer us. In contrast with monotheistic ideas of perfect good and unacceptable evil, the Goddess of the witches embraces day and night, death and life in one. As a witch, I try to allow each of my feelings its place, even the fierce and destructive ones— to experience each energy as much as possible without judgment. A large part of my spiritual healing and growth has come from integrating those parts of myself that had been repressed or ignored. During these hard months after the abortion, I stretched myself in new ways, aiming to come to terms with the “hard Goddess” in me; like Coatlicue or Kali, I needed to put on my necklace of skulls.

One Saturday morning almost a year after the abortion, the hard Goddess’s work with me was done. I woke up and instantly realized, in one crystal-clear instant, what my problem was. It was simple. I needed a post-abortion ritual. And it had to be a family ritual. The abortion had been a community decision —but I had been trying to handle all the spiritual work of processing and coming to terms with it completely alone. This literally wasn’t possible because, though I had had the final say, the decision had never been made for my own sake alone. I had made it for my family as a whole. So the hugely serious moment needed to be marked within the community that it affected—the community of our family. We needed a family ritual.

The ritual we used (which may be found in my epic poem about a sacred abortion, Among the Goddesses) was beautiful. Soon after we started the ceremony, a deer gave us the blessing of its company, watching us from a couple of feet away until we were finished. Afterwards we walked in silence through the woods, all four holding hands, connected with reverence for the gift of life, gratitude for each other, and grace in our humility at the endless depths we had navigated together. It was an amazing day.

The next morning, I woke up with a light heart for the first time since the abortion. My depression had vanished, and as of twenty years later, I have felt only peaceful, calm, and grateful about the abortion ever since. (about four years later, during a yoga class at the Stone House in Freeport, Maine, I felt the soul of the baby leave me and move out into the trees. Since then I have felt its spirit out in the universe as a beautiful spirit blessing me and smiling. Recently, I came across a yogic teaching saying that it takes the soul of a baby four years to leave after an abortion).

Though becoming a witch has been a lifelong, gradual process during which I have enacted and developed many rituals, if I had to choose one moment to mark the time I entered my full witchy power, this would be it. This ritual was the first time in my life that I had been thrown entirely on my own resources as a witch, to craft a ritual that was necessary for my survival and that I had no idea how to obtain in any other way. With this ritual I saved my own life, both in a spiritual sense and on a more literal level, since living with such misery and anger would surely have debilitated my physical health.

A friend who is a therapist tells me that she feels many of the women in her practice who are most troubled carry unresolved grief from abortions, and that therapy doesn’t seem to be addressing it. I used to wonder why, as a person who has successfully used many kinds of therapy, I didn’t seek out therapy after my abortion (although a fabulous book by a therapist, Peace After Abortion, truly was helpful). My sense of it now is that I was suffering, not from a wound within my separate self, but instead, from a more raw and basic need that had to be satisfied outside myself, with others: the simple hunger for the spiritual nurturing of communal ritual at one of the most profound moments of my life, the moment when I encountered not only the blood mystery of birth, not only the blood mystery of death, but both of them combined,
together, at once.

I hope that my ritual here will be of help to others who are in the same position, and not only for individuals on the personal level, but also for women collectively, on the political level. I firmly believe that in order for us to claim our matricultural power once more and help the human species re-emerge from the death-cult of patriarchy, we will need to make complete peace
with our power over life and death. We will need to disentangle our Goddess-given right to manage our own pregnancies from whatever guilt and shame patriarchal religion has tried to pile onto female bodies. We will need to reclaim female-centered spirituality, with its embrace of the physical world, reverence for the sensual, and understanding of the sacred aspects of both life and death. And we will need to embrace the power of ritual that women have always used to move ourselves spiritually and to make our mysteries whole.

The current abortion “debate,” with its obsessing over certain circumstances (incest, rape, life of the mother, age of the fetus) that supposedly make abortion more “acceptable”— in the eyes of a patriarchal moral system based on a punitive, hierarchical monotheistic religion—is trying desperately to fill the spiritual vacuum. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Those who get stuck arguing about the morality of abortion based on “when life begins;” are scared to face one indisputable fact: women have power over life and death. It comes with the territory. Abortion is always a life-death decision, however many weeks along. No matter when life begins, women have always and will always have powers to stop it. Period. (And speaking of periods, most women have been dealing with our power over life and death every month since puberty, and
most of us, thank the Goddess, know how to use our power over life and death with love and with wisdom)

Mainstream feminism—still shackled to the idea of monotheistic patriarchal religion as the only plausible spiritual path—has so far framed abortion rights strictly as a secular experience, forcing those who want to experience their abortions in spiritual terms to choose between a patriarchal religion’s spiritual guilt or a strictly secular approach to the act of abortion. But there is a third way: a spiritual path centered on the Divine Feminine. Combining birth, love, and death, abortion is potentially as spiritual an experience as one could imagine. Because the Goddess encompasses both life and death (unlike the transcendent male God), the Goddess can provide a spiritual context for abortion without guilt, shame, or judgement. On the path of the witch and in the sight of the Goddess, as hinted at in my long-ago postcard, it truly is possible to experience a sacred approach to abortion.

Here is the poem I wrote to express my sense of abortion as a sacred act shared by mother and baby, in the sight of the Goddess. Here is the poem I wrote to express my sense of abortion as a sacred act shared by mother and baby, in the sight of the Goddess.


(To be spoken aloud three times: One stanza for the mother, one stanza for the
baby, and one for both together.)

And I turn your blood back to the earth.
I am life. you are death. and we kiss
Through the fire that is my freedom’s birth.
By the womb of our love’s endlessness,
As you turn my blood back to the earth,
I am death, you are life. And we kiss
Till we move through the deep, giving forth
To the web of our love-woven bliss,
Through the fire that is our freedom’s birth!