My social media accounts are bleeding red. A practicing Catholic, I have many friends and acquaintances who are voting Republican this year, in order to secure at least one conservative Supreme Court judge, and possibly even overturn Roe v. Wade. A Donald Trump vote, they say, would save millions of babies from abortion. A Trump vote is the only moral choice.
And as a practicing Catholic, I couldn't disagree more.
Four years ago I was lying in a darkened office in a Chicago-area hospital listening to my son's heartbeat when our obstetrician walked in and upended our lives forever. The baby on the ultrasound screen had not formed properly. His neural tube had failed to fuse together, creating a hole at the base of his spinal column. His tiny feet were clubbed inward. The buildup of spinal fluid on his brain was so immense that it had managed to push his cerebellum—the part of the brain responsible for motor control—down into his neck. I fought the urge to vomit, to run, as he scanned my burgeoning belly with his ultrasound wand and clicked his tongue disapprovingly. I can't even see the cerebellum, he said.
Maybe this is the part of the essay where you're expecting me to say I terminated the pregnancy, and the GOP should keep their hands off women's bodies. The end. I read at least one of those essays every few months. But the truth is, I'm a practicing Catholic, and I identify as "pro-life." Put simply, this means that I think every life—every single one—has dignity and value, by the virtue of its humanity: immigrant lives, gay lives, black lives, poor lives, born and unborn, able-bodied and not. So I told the doctor I'd keep him, even though my teeth were chattering as I did it, and I begged God for the strength to ease him into a peaceful death, if it came to that. I was scared shitless, the kind of fear that makes it hard to draw a full breath.
Being "pro-life" is something I believe in strongly, and I try to reflect that politically when I can. Until four years ago, this meant voting for the GOP, the party who was loudly and unapologetically against abortion. But my son changed that.
Over the next several months, still pregnant, my husband and I visited an endless number of specialists, trying to come to terms with the level of care our son would eventually need: Right away he'd need surgery to repair his spinal cord, to sew up the hole in his back where it had failed to fuse. He'd need a permanent shunt to drain the fluid in his head. And beyond that—who knew? We had no idea what the future looked like, except that it stretched on in front of us endlessly, and I felt faint under the weight of it. I understood why parents would choose abortion, with news like this: It was like I had been thrust into a full-time job for the rest of my life that I didn't want and had never asked for—the life of a special needs parent. I didn't want this, God, I argued. I never asked for this.
When we welcomed Henry on a snowy day at the end of February 2013, he was fat and pink and beautiful, with a fine layer of red fuzz on the top of his head. He squawked, once, and settled grumpily into the doctor's outstretched hands, glaring at my husband and I, looking deeply irritated. As the doctor handed him to the chaplain to be baptized, I gasped for air, crying at his beauty. You're so beautiful, I kept weeping. How are you so beautiful? He had this hole in his back, but whatever. We'd get it fixed! We'd do whatever it took! And we could, too—because our private health insurance was awesome.
Henry stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for 25 days and underwent two invasive surgeries: one to repair the defect in his back, the other to place a shunt in his head to control his hydrocephalus, a buildup of spinal fluid on his brain. He was nearly six months old when the hospital bill came, and his care, including my c-section, totaled a quarter of a million dollars. The insurance paid every dime.
I started to re-think what it meant to be “pro-life,” and how I lived that out politically.
I realized that thanks to Barack Obama—the guy I lamented in 2008—Henry would never have a lifetime cap for his medical care under any insurance, and he would never be denied insurance due to the condition he was born with, all a result of the Affordable Care Act. Our insurance was fantastic—but for expenses it didn’t cover, the act allowed us to apply for a Medicaid waiver on behalf of Henry. I nearly wept.
The money we saved on his medical care allowed me to stay home with him and watch him thrive. And for the next four years, he did, beyond anything I could have imagined. Despite his complex medical condition, Henry blossomed into a social, talkative little boy who became the “clown” of our family. We lunged at every social service offered to us—from occupational and physical therapies provided by the state’s Early Intervention program to the food stamp, Medicaid, and social security benefits afforded to him due to his diagnosis.
In 2014, the current governor of Illinois, where we live, was elected on a pro-family, anti-abortion platform. He went on to slash Early Intervention by $23 million in an attempt to balance the state budget, and thanks to said budget negotiations, froze payments for Early Intervention therapists. Additionally, he proposed increasing the eligibility guidelines for Early Intervention services—a move that would have excluded thousands of special needs children from the program. Thanks to an enormous outcry from angry parents, this proposal was quickly tabled. Never again, I vowed at the time, seething after our therapist told us she wouldn’t be able to offer Henry care if the state budget didn’t pass. Never again would I vote for a “pro-life” politician simply because they give lip service to being “pro-life.”
This was not the first time that so-called “pro-life” politicians have tried to erode the social programs that enable parents to care for their disabled or otherwise vulnerable children. Self-proclaimed “pro-life” Republicans are notorious for cutting funds for the services we special needs parents use to raise our children. Now, when terrified parents who have just received a spina bifida diagnosis for their unborn child contact me and want to know how they can possibly make this work? It’s becoming harder and harder for me to reassure them that it’s possible.
This year, I watched in horror as my friends heralded Donald Trump as the “pro-life” option for Catholics and Christians. And why? Because if you can believe a word this person says, he would appoint an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice (or two!) under his presidency. He might—hypothetically—overturn Roe v. Wade.
As a "pro-life" Catholic who's endured a crisis pregnancy, as the mother of a special needs child, I can only tell you this: Even if I agreed with criminalizing abortion (and I don't), none of what Trump is promising would have done a thing for me during my pregnancy. Having a conservative judge on the Supreme Court or de-funding a local Planned Parenthood would not have emboldened me to carry my child to term. It would not have helped me pay for Henry's medical care; it would not have done a thing to actually ensure Henry had the opportunities to live a full and productive life like he's living now.
None of these political promises mattered as I lay shaking in that ultrasound room four years ago. There was only the far-off whisper of God saying trust me, I got this, and the vague hope that our insurance would pick up the tab for this little boy who we desperately loved but could not afford. There was only the hope that someone would catch me if I took a leap of faith. Someone did—and it wasn't the GOP.
Please: Stop pretending that a man who literally mocked a disabled person actually gives a shit about my disabled son, or that he'll champion the programs that will make a difference for kids like him. Trump’s top advisers, in fact, have a long political history of cutting funds to the programs special needs families use the most.
The Catholic Church tells us that we need to create a culture that respects the dignity of all human persons. But how we do that, specifically, is up to us. I cannot in good conscience vote for someone who has such disdain for the weak and marginalized, or someone who will destroy the same services that special needs families rely on to survive—the same services that enable mothers to carry to term.
I cannot, as a "pro-life," practicing Catholic, vote for Donald Trump.
Watch: We may have just lived through the most sexist election, ever.
Sarah Watts is a freelance writer and content strategist. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Salon, and others.