A COMPLICATED CHOICE by Katey Zeh – Book Review by Esther Nelson

Katey Zeh, an ordained Baptist minister, CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and a contributor to this Feminism and Religion (FAR) blog recently published her newest book, A Complicated Choice  Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement (Broadleaf Books, 2022). Not only does Zeh push back against those individuals who are dead-set against giving space to pregnant people to make their own decision about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, she dares to imagine a world where people are not just free to easily access an abortion procedure, but are also given the support to grieve (if need be) and heal without being bogged down with shame heaped on them by the larger society. 

One of the strengths (given the current religious-political climate in the U.S.) of this slim volume is that Zeh uses Christian Scripture to illuminate the way for pregnant people to embrace their inner knowing, something that helps slough off the stories that our society (collectively) has given them that silences and shames them “from speaking up and speaking out” about their abortions. “There is a culture of silence around abortion, and that silence is shaming and isolating on both a personal and a collective level.” When we break the silence of isolation and give voice to our difficult and painful experiences, we are then free to find healing and wholeness.

Some people (most often members of conservative religious groups) set themselves up as experts insisting on “a truth they claim is absolute, offering simple answers to life’s complex questions.” Many conservative faith leaders assert, “You are a sinner, and you cannot trust yourself to know what is best for your life.”  (Conservative Christian theology asserts all people are sinners.) I have to wonder why some faith leaders and the institutions they belong to have become so adamant about pushing their “no abortion” agenda? Aren’t they sinners as well?  How is it they “know” what’s best, yet pregnant people don’t?

Zeh writes about David Reardon, an engineer as well as founder of the Elliot Institute for Social Science Research. He is an outspoken individual who unequivocally states, “Abortion hurts women.” Reardon has no credentials in any mental health discipline, but has authoritatively written about “post-abortion syndrome” or post-traumatic stress after an abortion.  His aim is to “save babies from being murdered [and] save women from the trauma of abortion.” Focusing on the “aftereffects of abortion…,” he bypasses “addressing systems of oppression…that contribute to…abortion such as economic inequality, gender-based violence, lack of social support for parents and families, etc.” Based on his work, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy (2007) upheld an abortion ban, referring to the “severe depression and loss of esteem” experienced because people regret their abortions.  Kennedy, however, did note there was “lack of reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” Truth is, most people experience relief post-abortion.

I like Zeh’s reference to the phrase “disenfranchised grief,” referring to “losses that go against our society’s ‘grieving rules.’” Historically, abortion has centered on legality and individual bodily autonomy. However, just focusing on legal access to abortion “…fails to address the process of grief and healing that some experience in the aftermath of making their decision….”

“We can make space for the gray,” writes Zeh. “We can learn to live in the tension of affirming that abortion is a moral decision that pregnant people are fully capable of making…” as well as to “…acknowledge that this decision may, though certainly not always, evoke feelings of ambivalence, sadness, loss, and grief.” Zeh wants to support “the sacred decision-making of every person regarding their bodies, their families, and their futures….” as well as “hold space in both our faith communities and our own hearts for grief, relief, pain, healing, and joy after an abortion….reject[ing] the theology of shame and silence currently surrounding abortion in this culture….”

The bulk of the book is based on Zeh’s interview with nineteen people from various backgrounds as young as their late teens all the way to their mid-sixties. She divides the stories she garnered into six chapters: “For Abundant Life,” “For Self-Preservation,” “For the Dignity of Young People,” “For a Just Society,” “For the Good of Growth,” and “For Communities That Heal.” She contextualizes the chapters within Scripture and applies her understanding of that Scripture to the various abortion stories she encountered.

I found it interesting that Susan, one of the interviewees, thought “one of the reasons the church is in decline is because we aren’t talking about the full realities of our lives….But the possibility of goodness, healing, community, and connectedness is far greater when we tell our stories than when we don’t.”

Zeh is careful to differentiate between compassion and empathy as she frames the abortion narrative. Empathy “involves feeling someone else’s experience as our own,” whereas compassion “is a process that moves us into taking action that centers on the one in need. Compassion is active.” Zeh asks us to “…expand our theological imagination and shift our public discourse toward an orientation of compassion instead of judgment.”

Berating people for aborting their pregnancies is not helpful. Neither is it helpful to insist they carry their pregnancies against their will. Refusing to listen and hear their abortion stories with an open heart and mind isolates those who so often are in the most need of a supportive community. It damages all of us when we require that those stories fit into a prescribed mold and outcome.

Zeh assures her readers, “Each time we offer compassion [action centered on the one in need], we move one step closer to being the kind of people God calls us to be.”  When we offer compassion, we offer love. And, according to New Testament Scripture, isn’t love the greatest of all gifts?

BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and 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. She recently retired from teaching.

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14 replies

  1. Thank you for these much needed perspectives.


  2. I loved this post Esther – such an important subject. I love these words:“There is a culture of silence around abortion, and that silence is shaming and isolating on both a personal and a collective level.” Having worked with women who had abortions sometimes 20 – 30 years previously I noted that most were still flooded with shame – even though at the time many felt profound relief -( some did not) – and virtually EVERY woman I worked with had an abortion for a good reason. I remember thinking how fortunate I was not to have had that trauma to deal with personally because of its deadly consequences. We still don’t share our stories of abortion with others. It’s like aging. We talk about becoming a crone – and that’s it – after that SILENCE. Thank you for addressing a subject that is still considered taboo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Sara. Far too many stories about our human experiences are verboten. Not telling our stories causes us to fester. Let’s shine a light on all aspects of being human.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. And we wonder why depression in women is such an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this book review. I hate hate hate it when some supercilious “religious” person refers to a “pre-born child” in an anti-abortion pronouncement. What nonsense! I’m glad Katey Zeh wrote such a courageous and fact-filled book. Ditto your post. Bright blessings to us all.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. One of my cherished quotes is from the movie “A River Runs Through It”. Near the end, the father of the two boys, a small town minister, asks in his sermon what we can do with troubled children, troubled people, He responds, “All we can do is love them.” This is true too in the abortion issue. No matter what side of the fence one stands on, or what fence one straddles, all we can do is love them. Abortion is not an easy choice. There are no “theoretical” rights or wrongs. There is only a woman, usually alone, and what she needs is love, no matter what her decision may be.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. As always, Esther, a powerful word and thanks for the introduction to this book. I would wish that these thoughtful words (and this book, especially the emphasis on the women’s stories) might come before those who find themselves singing the Doxology at 11am tomorrow(Sunday) morning. Maybe compassion might spring forth for us all.


  8. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review A Complicated Choice! I’m so glad that you found the book helpful.


  9. Thank you, Katey, for tackling a difficult and sensitive subject.

    Liked by 1 person

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