“What Could be Sadder?” I’ll tell you…by Esther Nelson

You’ve probably seen the following meme circulating on social media:

This meme is designed to be evocative.  Specifically, it plays into the concept of the sanctity of motherhood that so often oozes into a popular sentimentality about children.  In Christian-majority countries, we read and hear the story of the Virgin Mary acquiescing humbly and readily to her pregnancy when the angel of the Lord tells her she is with child, something done to her by the Holy Spirit.  “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.  And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38).  Mary is often elevated in Christian circles as a role model for women.

Putting aside the question (for now) that asks when life begins, let’s consider this “sad sight” the meme talks about—“women marching for the right to kill their own children.”  Abortion aside (for now), there are many examples—both in literature and history—of women having killed their children.  I offer the following two:

The novelist Toni Morrison (b. 1931) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988) for her book, BELOVED.  Morrison tells Sethe’s story, a mother who knows firsthand the horrors of slavery, who kills her child rather than seeing her enslaved

Andrea Yates, a real, live, flesh-and-blood mother killed her five children by drowning them in the bathtub of her home (2001).  According to her testimony, she was attempting to save them from hell.  Killing them before they reached that murky “age of accountability” would insure them a place in heaven forever.  She believed the kindest thing she could do was to end their earthly lives.

Much has been made of Andrea Yates’ “mental illness” and “insanity.”  The sentimental, popular thinking about the sanctity of motherhood says, “We all know that any woman in her ‘right mind’ would NEVER, EVER kill her children.”  I believe that both Sethe and Andrea loved their children.  The circumstances under which both these mothers lived were such that death seemed the loving option.

What kind of world steals a mother’s child in order to extract “services” from that child?  What kind of world teaches that children might be better off dead rather than risk the dangers of hell fire for eternity?  (I’ve been in Andrea Yates’ shoes.  I understand her thinking.)  The point being—the circumstances where people find themselves rooted can lead them to snuff out the lives of their already-born children in order to keep the children from suffering.

So, even if one believes that life begins at conception (often used as an argument against abortion), there are countless stories of women opting for abortion for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes, a mother’s life is in jeopardy due to her pregnancy, but she is unable to obtain a life-saving medical procedure.

Sometimes, a fetus is diagnosed with a condition that would cause horrific suffering should it continue to develop.  Abortion can be a way to show kindness.

By restricting (and working towards outlawing) abortion, we (our patriarchal society) frame our rhetoric with outrage.  “No sadder sight.”  Why are we not outraged when our country sends young people into war zones (most often the scenes of territorial expansion and/or a quest for political domination in a region), knowing full well that a percentage of these young people will not return home alive?  We embrace the “noble” narrative glorifying war—only through sacrifice (human carnage) can peace and justice happen.  I don’t buy into this narrative, but by using this paradigm, abortion can be a noble act as well.

We live in an anthropocentric world—“humankind [is] the central or most important element of existence…” (Online dictionary).  We’ve told ourselves we are the pinnacle of creation and therefore feel entitled to exploit creation for our own purposes.

The “sadder sight” is our tunnel vision.

This anthropocentric vision displays itself in the abuse of animals inside the barbaric agricultural business known as “factory farming.”  Even though Americans (along with the rest of the world) are consuming less meat, there are billions of farm animals born, raised, and killed in horrific conditions who end up as food.

Why does human abortion appall some of us, yet we easily tolerate ripping a calf from their mother, putting the calf in a crate, waiting a few weeks, killing it, and then selling the calf as veal?  I think if a mother cow knew what fate awaited her baby, she’d opt to abort.  We use the mother cow’s milk to make products for human consumption.  In other words, she is treated as a slave.  Her needs are subservient to our desires.  If this seems “beside the point” when talking about human abortion, it’s our anthropocentrism showing.

Why does it not concern us that male chicks are ground up alive shortly after hatching because they have “no value,” according to the agricultural industry?  Why do we look the other way when prairie dogs are gassed alive when their intricate tunnels are flooded with noxious, deadly fumes in order to make way for a human building project?

Why do we destroy the living Earth that does Her best to sustain us?  Deforestation, pollution of our waterways and atmosphere, along with raping the land have left areas decimated.  When She suffers in the form of “natural disasters” brought about human-induced climate change, we ignore her.

The above examples relate to the experiences of many women, tired of being exploited and ignored.  Marching in order to keep abortion legal is one way to reclaim what belongs to us.  Pregnancy ought not to be something done to us.

If we’re really concerned about the preservation of all human life, we’d move forward in creative ways, improving living conditions for all living beings.  To focus just (or mainly) on human abortion as “nothing sadder” is disingenuous.  Ask mother cows, the soil with its germinating potential, and trees.  We are all interconnected, not just with each other, but with all that exists.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Categories: Activism, Body, Women's Agency, Women's Rights

Tags: , , , ,

10 replies

  1. This reminds me of all the conversations I’ve had with people who describe themselves as pro-life about how “pro-life” is narrowly focused on abortion.


    • Thanks for commenting, Brendan. I do think it’s important, no matter what the subject, to take a broad, intersectional look, attempting to find the oppressive structures present. The subject of human abortion is charged (especially these days) politically. All the more reason, in my opinion, to bring it to the table.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Points very well made and well-taken!


  3. Esther, as a culture we are NOT concerned about the sanctity of life – we are too busy hating… I can’t read these horrific mother killing children stories without throwing up – so I don’t – What about the sanctity of women?????

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks, Sara. One of the things I attempt to do in this piece is broaden out the view. So, yes, the sanctity of women (and as well as all life) needs to factor into how we live our lives. So, often, I think, when we go about attempting to obliterate something we don’t find fitting, we don’t achieve success. I like to keep Emily Dickinson’s poem in mind: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant/Success in circuit lies….”


  5. I did some searching online to find out why abortion is legal in the first place. And I was surprised as regards the answer — it says —

    “In short, abortion is legal for two reasons: Because women have the right to make decisions about their own reproductive systems, and because they have the power to exercise that right regardless of government policy.”


    • Thanks Fran for your comment. As you say, abortion is legal. When upholding abortion, many people use legal, human rights arguments to insist that abortion remain legal. Part of what I try to do in my essay is to prod those who would ban the practice to look at the wider picture. Those who are against abortion usually focus only on the human experience. As I noted, there are many reasons women opt to abort. Many of those reasons involve living in or experiencing unbearable circumstances. Why do those people who want to take away our legal right to abortion hammer away on the (supposed) “cruel” act of the mother without batting an eye at the cruelty so many tacitly perpetuate–war, death penalty, animal exploitation. Better, in my view, to work towards making ending poverty, increasing availability of education for everybody, teaching sex education to young people and making birth control easy to obtain. Nonetheless, those who are pregnant should not have decision-making as to what is “best” in their particular circumstances stripped from them–as you note. It erases women’s autonomy.


  6. Two days ago I drove past several older adults holding signs saying something like “Pray for the end of abortion”. I was livid. I wanted to go back with a sign saying “Pray for loving care for all the unwanted children, for the severly handicapped children, for mothers in deep poverty”.

    I read that scene in Beloved where Sethe kills her daughter while I was in the midst of recovering memories of horrific abuse. Sethe’s decision made absolute sense to me. Better to kill your child than to let her suffer horrifically.

    Thanks for this thoughful piece. I appreciate that you bring together not only women’s right to choose for themselves, but also how we treat other mothers (and beings, male and female) in the world, from cows to our Mother Earth. I agree, we are all bound together and it behooves us to treat all with care and respect.


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