An Open Letter to My Best Friend About Abortion
I am not writing you this letter to change your mind.
I don’t remember when I first realized I was “pro-choice” and you were “pro-life.” It’s not a discussion we ever had.
We grew up in the same Colorado suburb, only a few blocks away from each other. In kindergarten, we started playing together. I like to think we became friends for the same reason we remain friends: our shared sense of humor, our passion for creativity and music, and our mutual wonder at the beauty of the world.
By middle school, we were inseparable. We shared secret notebooks in which we would write letters to each other about the most shameful aspects of adolescence. You were the first person I told when I got my period in the girls’ bathroom in Hall B. You were the only person who could share my mixture of excitement and shame when I started growing boobs. You were the one who helped me shave my legs for the first time. Yours is the only phone number I still have memorized because you were the first person I would call.
By high school we were already starting to have impassioned debates about politics. Ours was a red district, made up of primarily upper middle-class conservative (and now I would add, heterosexual cis-gender) white people. Neither of us quite fit the bill. I was a middle-class liberal white girl (presumed heterosexual at the time), you were a low-income conservative Latina (though I never heard you use that word until adulthood). You worked on the campaign for a conservative representative, I phone-banked for Obama. I supported civil unions for gay couples, you believed marriage should be between a man and a woman. I self-identified as an atheist, you attended an evangelical church.
I suppose abortion must have come up at some point, but it wasn’t at the top of our lists. At that age, I knew nothing about the anti-abortion movement, the inner workings of Planned Parenthood, or the legal ramifications of Roe vs. Wade. I just knew that I was a Democrat, and Democrats supported a woman’s right to abortion. I knew you were a Republican, and Republicans did not.
When it came time to apply to colleges, our priorities became clear. You chose a Christian university in California, and I chose a women’s college in Massachusetts. I couldn’t have known how much would happen in the space between coasts. At Mount Holyoke, I learned about feminism for the first time. I remember coming home that December and being horrified at the gender roles of Christmas dinner, my mother cleaning all evening long while my father drank whiskey. I learned that the expectation for women to shave their legs had been a marketing ploy devised by men’s razor companies in the 1920s, for profit. I stopped shaving my legs and threw away my razors. I met self-identified lesbians, bisexuals, genderqueer, and trans people for the first time.
The day I told you I was falling in love with a woman, I still had no words for how I identified. I didn’t think of it as coming out, really. We had always talked about love and relationships and I needed your advice. Was this love? I needed your help decoding her behavior, deciding how much to divulge to her about my feelings and when. “I totally understand why you fell in love with her,” you told me, “it would be hard not to, based on everything you described.” You never asked me to choose a word for myself, and I didn’t feel the need to. You didn’t care what it “meant” that I had fallen in love with a woman. You cared what it felt like for me, and what I needed to feel safe and loved in that moment. What I needed was for you to listen, and you did.
While I was grappling with my sexuality, you were transitioning into a new phase of your life. You left college and worked to support yourself while most of us were still living off of our parents. You spent your days nannying, a job that gave you a chance to do what you loved: nurture children. Meanwhile, you met the love of your life, got engaged, and married him on a beautiful June day several weeks after my own graduation.
On your wedding day, surrounded by your friends and relatives, I realized I couldn’t refer to my then-girlfriend without causing a scene. This may seem like a small price to pay for seeing my best friend married, but watching you walk down the aisle in a church that would consider the same ceremony between me and my girlfriend to be a sin felt painful in a way I didn’t know was possible. Though you had never rejected me for who I was, the institutions you belonged to did. I felt ill at ease, closeted in a way my daily life never required me to be. When you left for the honeymoon and I left California, I could feel that something had shifted in our friendship.
I think that was the first time I understood people’s incredulity at our friendship. Plenty of my college friends had balked at the idea that I could remain so close to someone who fundamentally disagreed with my most basic values in life. “I love her,” I would respond, perhaps naively, “and she loves me.” I’m sure you heard the same from your friends, many of whom I met. I know both of us had to defend each other to our respective friend groups, not to convince them of anything, but to convince ourselves that the friendship we built over the course of decades could hold all of our differences, those of identity as well as those of belief.
Then Trump happened.
You didn’t vote for him. I was relieved. I would brag to my friends — “even Dawnielle didn’t vote for him!” You didn’t vote for Hillary either, opting for a third-party candidate to avoid the ethical pitfalls of voting for a pro-choice democrat. I respected your decision, though I wondered what would have happened if all those third-party votes had gone blue. It was a devastating election, we both agreed. A sign of our country’s moral degradation. I suppose I was so relieved to know you hated him that I never sat down to ask you what it was, specifically, that you feared from his presidency. Corruption? Immorality? A Godless nation? We didn’t talk about abortion then, either. You never said it, but I knew you would rather have him in office than someone who was pro-choice. You had just given birth to your first child, and your beliefs about abortion felt more personal than ever.
Then, in fall of 2018, you moved to New York City, a turn of events neither of us anticipated. We made a habit of seeing each other at least once a week. Your son was two years old when you moved, and I felt so grateful to be around to watch him grow up. You invited me and my girlfriend over for dinner, and we started joking that your son loved her more than me — she is so good with children, we both agreed. And as an added bonus she also happened to be Christian, a source of many engaging conversations about faith and sexuality that we started having, comfortably, over wine at your dining room table.
So much had changed about our relationship, about our lives. I never thought we would make it here, that your child would grow up in a cozy Upper West Side apartment with a pair of loving lesbian aunts to entertain him. It was like something out of a story book. Proof of the enduring power of friendship, of chosen family.
But there was one thing about our relationship that hadn’t changed. We had still, never once, had a conversation about abortion. I was still pro-choice. You were still pro-life.
Maybe it was the wine, or the calming presence of your toddler jumping on the bed, or the fact that I was holding my girlfriend’s hand at the table, but one night in February we got on the topic of abortion and, unlike every other time that had happened, we kept talking. Your husband and I tended to get into heated discussions over dinner — it had happened before, and every time you sat back in your chair, waiting for the storm to pass. This time wasn’t any different. He lamented what he considered to be an increase in abortions since Roe v. Wade. I responded by offering what I thought was some helpful perspective on the history of birth control and abortion. I could tell I was verging into the pedantic, but I didn’t know what else to do.
All the while, you remained more or less silent, your face registering all the emotions that your husband and I had been relegating to the back burner in our quest for rational debate. At a certain point, we refilled our drinks, started playing poker, and moved on. But I could see that it had affected you. That it had scared you, even. When I talked to you about it recently you confirmed what I had picked up on that night. “If we saw each other as our spiritual and political convictions,” you told me, “our friendship would probably end.”
I am writing you this letter today because I never want that to happen, and because I am starting to see that even after all these years, there is still so much work to be done for us to keep loving each other — to keep this improbable, elusive relationship alive. The more our country has fractured, the more I have needed the safe haven of our friendship. Maybe you don’t know this about me. I guess we’ve never talked about it, just like so many other things. But I need you, Dawnielle. I need you to love me as the feminist leftist dyke that I am, and I need to love you as the conservative Christian mom that you are. I need us to have the hard conversations, the ones that we have avoided for decades. And I need to hear your voice in them, even through tears.
I am not writing you this letter to change your mind about abortion. Maybe you thought that I was, and that’s understandable. I have always been the outspoken one in this relationship. But for once, I want to hear what you have to say.
I think about that notebook we passed back and forth to each other in fifth grade. The one where we wrote all our secrets, all of our most embarrassing questions about our bodies, about ourselves. We were scared then, too. Trapped under so many layers of guilt and shame — isolated. We have done so much work since then, personally and relationally, to dismantle the shame. But there are questions we still haven’t answered, fears we still can’t name. I am afraid of what will happen if we don’t start answering those questions, if we continue to mistrust the hands that are receiving them. And I am afraid of what it means for our country, if a love like ours can’t withstand the maelstrom.
There is a word you use often that I’ve sometimes struggled to understand. It’s a word you’ve used to describe God and to express your values in life. Recently, I found out it’s the root of my name, Hannah, from the Hebrew root chanan. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately: about the softness and care that’s required to sit with all this messiness.
The word is “grace.”
Hannah Leffingwell is a Ph.D candidate at New York University in the departments of History and French Studies. Her work centers on the intersections of queer identity, feminism, and social justice. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018.