I’d heard of Angie Jackson, the Florida mother who’s been making the news rounds since she live-tweeted her abortion last month, but it wasn’t until I saw this Slate story on Jackson’s bizarre, evangelical fundamentalist upbringing that I took the time to read further into it all. Religious cults? End-of-days extremists? Demonic energy purging and faith-healing? Even the National Enquirer couldn’t make up stuff this juicy.
Aside from the obvious connection between abortion and this blog’s focus on feminism, it seems that Jackson also has some experiences with the other two F-words discussed here. First some background: Jackson was raised in a conservative, evangelical household that would make Rick Warren look like a lefty liberal by comparison. Her grandmother, a fringe Christian leader and author of Christian apocalyptic thrillers, acted as a “spiritual midwife” in “Zion home births” conducted without medicine or medical intervention (which she considered to be “pagan religion”). In her mid-20s, Jackson googled her grandmother’s name and discovered a trail of deaths and tragedies that occurred as result of her grandmother’s extremist teachings and shortly after began an antithetical blog, Angie the Antitheist, where she writes frequently about atheism and the abuses of faith healing. It was on her blog that Jackson, the mother of a four-year-old special-needs son, announced her decision to terminate her second pregnancy after her birth control (she was on three different forms) failed. Read more of Jackson’s background in her own words here.
In an interview with The Frisky, Jackson said that she initially thought that people might be more accepting of her decision to have a non-surgical abortion in her first trimester because of the serious health risks a full-term pregnancy would hold for her (it still didn’t stop the death threats lobbed at her and her family by good “Christian” folk). She suffered from such severe sexual abuse as a child that she was told beginning at the age of 8 that she would never be able to have children, but got pregnant at 22 and went on to deliver her son after a grueling 98-hour delivery. Yes, you read that right — a 98-hour delivery. Yikes! On her blog, Jackson details some of the serious health problems she suffered from at the time of her first pregnancy, including anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia and self-harm (cutting) — all of which she says is closely linked to her cult upbringing. She writes:
I was told, over and over and over, in the repetative indoctrination style of a cult, that I was a burden, that I had too many needs, and that I was no good. I tried to cut away my flesh (my “Adam nature” or sinfulness) with a razor blade. I tried to make my physical body as small as possible, thinking maybe then I wouldn’t take up too much space or be so in the way. I starved and I ran. When my hip went out, I couldn’t run anymore so I went back to throwing up. I once carved the word “FAT” into my left thigh, and the scars are still there.
And from an excerpt in her forthcoming book (trigger warning for glamorizations of eating disorders):
My grandmother taught that there were worlds or realms – the spirit realm and the flesh realm. Flesh was always bad. I can’t help feeling like that has to mean something in the origin of my eating disorder. Starving was a way of making myself less about my body – that evil, human, sinful natured, Adam and Eve descended, recently molested and victimized body – and more about my thoughts, and the voices in my head. After all, that’s what I was taught to do.
So, given her history, Jackson just assumed her missed periods to be amenorrhea caused by a “particularly bad bout of anorexia.” In fact, she only found out that she was pregnant because her weight loss had plateaued and she had trouble reaching her goal of getting below 100 pounds. Anorexia wasn’t Jackson’s only problem; she was in an abusive relationship, had struggled to get off drugs and was struggling financially. She describes that first visit with her doctor and her consequent efforts to get healthy:
“You need to gain weight,” he told me, looking at my 5’3″ 104 lbs frame. “You need to gain 50 pounds, and you need to do it yesterday.” That was my battle for the next four months, trying to put on and keep on enough weight to make sure the fetus’ brain developed properly.
I quit smoking pot, and mostly quit smoking cigarettes. (Yeah, I snuck a few here and there, most memorably on my wedding day, early in my third trimester.) I laid off the diet sodas, energy drinks, and diet pills I’d relied on to get me through school, and dropped out of college. I changed everything about my body, from what I put into my body, to how long I kept it there (no bulimia for me, as the electrolyte imbalance that would cause could be extremely damaging to the fetus), to what size I tried to be. I dropped bad habits, bad friends, but regretfully, picked up again the bad relationship I had with my ex-boyfriend…
I struggled to stay healthy, while planning a wedding (on an extremely lean budget), fighting with my fiancee, fighting with my mother, and moving three times. I didn’t always win that fight, and I spent days and days in the maternity wardmergency room, on IV drips and supplements. My iron levels were low, but the prenatal vitamins with iron in them made me throw up. I was living off pizza, ice cream, and Subway sandwiches, but I couldn’t keep weight on to save my life (or my fetus’). A week after my honeymoon, I went into the ER with a fever and a stomach flu, and over the course of that week I lost 10 pounds through vomit and diarrhea. I wondered if either one of us would make it out alive.
Miraculously, Jackson and her son did make it out alive, but with her doctor’s warnings that a second pregnancy could be seriously risky for her health. And from some of her recent blog posts, it appears as if Jackson is still struggling with body image and disordered behaviors, thus complicating her preexisting health risks all that much more.Jackson’s case is a biographer’s dream not only for her bizarro religious upbringing and decision to live-Tweet her abortion., but what I find most interesting is how the issue of personhood (generally defined as personal integrity and autonomy) plays out here in relation to abortion and eating disorders. Indeed, it’s an issue that lies at the very heart of the heated abortion debates. Anti-choice zealots argue that personhood begins at conception, with some going so far as to claim that even sperm or ovum possess all the rights of personhood, while pro-choice activists maintain that to affirm the personhood of the fetus is to, in effect, deny personhood to the woman bearing it — and by proxy, to all women.
I’m sure you can guess which side of the abortion fence I straddle. As a Buddhist, I would have a difficult time reconciling a decision to have an abortion for myself, but as a feminist, I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to make medical decisions for her own body. Abortion is about so much more than women’s reproductive rights; a woman’s right to decide on abortion when her health and life are at stake is synonymous with her very right to be. Uh huh, I see you nodding, but how exactly does the issue of eating disorders come into play?
It may be a leap here on my end, but I see the denial of bodily integrity to women when it comes to their reproductive choices as representative of a much larger and historical devaluation of the bodies of women in general. And I’m not alone. In the anthology Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo includes an essay titled “Are Mothers Persons?” in which she examines women and reproductive rights that, at first blush, appears incongruous in a book about women, body image and eating disorders. Bordo’s motives become increasingly clearer, however, as she examines court cases and legal decisions in which pregnant women have been systematically denied agency over their own bodies and in making medical decisions for themselves and their unborn babies. The American legal tradition has traditionally upheld cases involving bodily integrity or “the right to one’s own person” — that is, in cases brought before the court by male plaintiffs. Cases involving pregnant women and mothers, however, evoke a legal double standard.
Social control of women is predicated on bodily control of women — throughout the centuries, women’s bodies have been subject to assault, rape and other forms of violence, their movements restricted both literally and figuratively, their sexual expression and self-determinations denied, their bodies sexualized and commodified, their health issues dismissed and undertreated, access to food restricted and regulated, ad nauseum. Is it any wonder then that 90 percent of eating disorder cases are seen in girls and women? Women seek to control their bodies precisely because they continue to lack control over their bodies.
And that’s what I find most interesting about the case of Angie Jackson, a woman with a history of abuse, both externally and self-inflicted. Sure, Jackson has serious medical problems that could complicate a full-term pregnancy, but as she very plainly stated on her blog, she also just didn’t want to be pregnant. For Jackson, terminating her pregnancy represented the best possible choice she could make for her physical and emotional health, and by live-Tweeting it, she declared her rejection of some of the same fetters that helped make her a victim of sexual abuse and eating disorders. If that’s not good enough of a reason to trust women, what is?