Ancestors, childhood, and abortion.

When researching genealogy, documenting siblings of direct ancestors and the siblings’ children has proven very helpful in finding clues to the whereabouts of my direct ancestors. Though researching the many siblings in large ancestral family groups is also often an old timey reality check. My modern self starts all enthusiastic about tracking down the husbands, wives, and children, only to realize that my ancestor’s sibling died at 10 or 8 or 15 or 1. One of the saddest things is realizing that some families lost half of their children before those kids even had a shot at adulthood.

As a history person the news isn’t surprising. I know that people died young of all sorts of diseases and accidents and general tough living, but seeing it in your own family, giving names and lives to these individuals, makes the statistics people. It makes me realize how lucky we are in the U.S. in 2013. Yeah, people die of curable things because our healthcare system isn’t, erm, optimally run (totally different topic), but when I think of all the families I know with living children – well, this sure isn’t rural Tennessee in 1798!

It is a rarer tragedy when children get sick, and the families I know haven’t lost half their brood to disease or other causes. This makes me think about how our attitudes toward childhood and children are shaped by the expectation that children will make it to adulthood, and how this might inform modern day attitudes toward abortion.

I recently watched a couple documentaries on abortion. The fervent anti-abortion protestors standing outside clinics were most often portrayed as religiously motivated. I have no doubt that religion plays a major role in many individual attitudes on the subject, but the religious fixation of the anti-abortion protestors made me wonder less about biblical rationales and more about other cultural factors that play into American attitudes toward abortion. You don’t have to be super religious or non-religious to have an opinion on the subject. Separate from religious views, how might a modern day American’s worldview impact their attitudes on abortion?  Is it possible to separate religion from the issue?

Retrospect is often shrouded in a glowy halo. Not everyone I know loved childhood, but I think the general American cultural attitude privileges childhood as some sort of sacred phase. When you privilege the phase of life known as “childhood” as something special, memorable, and innocent, it seems worse to deny this phase to any cell with potential to become a human being.

So though vocal anti-abortion advocates cry foul in the name of religion, could more mild opinions be shaped by the value we place on childhood and optimistic beliefs that our modern medicine can solve the woes of childhood disease and award everyone the opportunity to grow to a fulfilling adulthood? Is it harder for modern Americans to accept that sometimes a fetus that doesn’t develop properly or is impeded by incurable disease has no fighting chance?

And this is not to say that the death of children in any time period is ever an easy thing (my great great great grandparents Thomas Crutcher and Nancy Holt each wrote a mourning poem when their son died in 1865), but I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to accept and mourn death with our overly optimistic rosy lenses – visions of cute children playing in the pages of Toys ‘R’ Us ads and in new clothes for the first day of school override images of infants hooked up on life support systems in the few months before they pass or (in abortions based on choice and not on medical conditions) children put in the adoption/foster system or children kept and not given the developmental support of their peers due to poor financial or emotional environments?

The history of American childhood, abortion, and death and mourning are not my specialties, so I could probably use some more reading before coming to any sort of real conclusions, but I do know enough to at least ask questions and wonder.

(As an aside, I’ll also note that I’m super impressed how old some of my ancestors got – 70s, 80s, even 90s!)


6 responses to “Ancestors, childhood, and abortion.

  1. I saw a documentary a while back that discussed how modern people don’t really deal with death. In the 19th century and prior, death was a large part if every day life and it was incorporated into the every day psyche. When was the last time a child you knew died? I was unfortunate enough to have a child who was a student at my school die this year but other than that I couldn’t really tell you. Like you I have ancestors who experienced great loss. One couple in my tree lost five children in less than two weeks due to a scarlet fever outbreak in the 1840s. I can’t even fathom the depth of their grief and loss. You raise some good points and questions. Good essay!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I know I personally don’t know how to deal with death – I’ve been very lucky to know few people who died in childhood. Do you remember the name of the documentary you watched?

      And that 1840s scarlet fever outbreak sounds terrible. I can’t even imagine how devastating that must’ve been!

  2. In Eastern Europe we observe ancient traditions for funerals, then feasts and almsgiving for the dead at specific times after the funeral etc. Heterodox Americans don’t seem to have that (at least not Protestants, perhaps followers of the Roman Pope do). The dead is put away, separated from the living. It’s a modern thing.

    Still, Americans can sometimes be better at facing death than others. I mean, in Eastern Europe (and in Europe in general) we don’t even talk about abortion, not in public, not with our families, just with friends or anonymously on the internet when “getting in trouble”. It’s the mess we sweep under the rug. Like a sort of fatality. That’s why it was always strange for me to read those pro choice slogans coming from America, I have never heard of anyone who seeks an abortion thinking they actually have a choice.

    You were misinformed by the supporters of abortion rights when it comes to anti-abortion advocates crying foul in the name of religion. It’s in the name of humans being equal. The pro-life logic is quite simple: all members of the human species are equally human (regardless of age, level of development, disability etc.), all humans deserve equal rights, therefore unborn humans have a right not be killed without a fair trial, just like we wouldn’t execute an adult without proving he’s guilty of a horrible crime. The religious element appears because Christians of all sorts, Orthodox and heterodox (I am an Orthodox Christian of quasi-atheist upbringing), base the belief in human equality on the fact that we are all created by God in his image and called to commune with Him and with each other. But we don’t get the definition of what is a human from the Bible, we get it from biology.

    Pro-life non-believers are quite active themselves, you can check out this website for instance:, I like to read their blog for philosophical stuff. And I myself was shocked to hear there is even something like Feminists for life, because I had always thought only Socialists were feminists – what can I say, I learned universal history from Communist textbooks!

    • Thanks for your perspective!

      I think it’s dangerous to loop any large, diverse group of people under one umbrella (even if an individual self-identifies as “Christian” or “atheist” or whatever else), which is sort of my larger complaint about American media often portraying abortion as a conservative versus liberal/religious versus atheist debate. There is a lot of variation in individual beliefs within these larger ideological containers. I apologize if my wording implied that all anti-abortion advocates were religiously motivated.

      You point out one of the problems of the abortion debate that often surfaces, and that is the question of what is human “life”? When does life start? At this point in time I think we have to each go with our own gut on what that means to us and how that influences our stance on the issue.

      One of the documentaries I watched was actually pretty sympathetic to all sides of the debate, so I don’t really feel that a specifically pro-abortion rights group fed me the religion line. I would have to do some research on the producers/directors/crew of each documentary to really figure out their bias, which would be a responsible thing to do if I wanted to get more serious with my questions. Though the documentaries were certainly not the first time in American media that religion was portrayed as a crutch for the pro-life argument and that coupled with genealogy research really sparked my questions.

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