I once spoke at a Catholic parish on behalf of the cause - the pro-life cause, that is. I chose my words carefully, as I always do: Uncompromising and compassionate was the tone I strove for, because that's the way I feel.
After Mass, a woman approached me, balancing a toddler astride one hip and holding a slightly older child by the hand.
"I really like your talk," she began, and as her voice trailed off, I could sense a "but" hanging in the air.
"But, " she continued, glancing at her children, "I just don't like my kids hearing about abortion. I try to protect them from things like that, and I'd hope that when I brought them to Mass, I wouldn't be put in this situation."
Before I could answer, she rushed on: "See, we're expecting another baby, and they're so excited. It upsets them to know that some people don't want their babies."
I understood this woman's concern, because I've lived with it myself for many years. I protected my children from knowledge about that horrific thing called abortion for as long as possible, but you know, when my oldest finally asked me about it directly, it turns out he was just looking for confirmation of information he'd heard elsewhere. Although legal abortion is a quarter-century old and is performed with horrifying frequency, it's still something we feel children shouldn't know about.
Doesn't that tell us something?
The reason we protect them from knowledge about abortion is not only because of what it is, but also from how we sense this
reality will affect children and their self-understanding. After all, remember how we teach children about pregnancy and childbirth? When small children ask "Where did I come from?" we usually answer something like:
"Mommy and Daddy made you with God's help..at first you were very smalll and you lived in Mommy's stomach. For mine months you grew and grew. You didn't look like a baby at the very first, but it was still you....Mommy could feel you kick and move and so metimes we'd even talk to you through Mom's tummy! Finally you came out so we could hold you in our arms and love you right here and right now."
Notice who the center of that conversation is? Not "a pregnancy." Not "a fetus," and not even just any old baby, but a very special "YOU!"
When we tell children about the beginnings of life, we make it clear that their lives began long before they were born. Their identities as a unique "you" were established from the very beginning.
So, when children hear about what abortion is, they are horrified, not just by the thought of babies being killed- and what other way is there to explain it- but also by fears about the solidity of their own existence. One can only imagine the toll of that nagging, subconscious understanding that a generation buries deep within when it knows its first home was a very dangerous place, no longer a place where they were first accepted, loved and rejoiced over, but a place that those more powerful than they studied, weighing whether or not they deserved to continue living.
Yes, abortion is disturbing to children, and perhaps we should get the message and learn something from our little ones.
When we explain anything to children, we have to put it in simple terms, accessible to them through their own experience of the world. So when we answer the question, "What's abortion?" we are forced to say it like it is, because none of the euphemisms would make any sense to them.
We have to pronounce horrifying words and describe unimaginable acts.
And then we have to tell them why it happens.
And then we have to tell them why we're not stopping it, why babies are being killed next Saturday morning at that building we pass on our way to the grocery store.
And all the while, we have to look into their eyes.
And we have to explain.