Angie Jackson, the Florida mother now known as the abortion tweeter, isn’t the first woman to try to demystify abortion by talking about her story publicly. Since Romper Room personality Sherri Chessen got a very public abortion in 1962 after taking thalidomide, women have tried to erase the lingering shame of abortion by publicizing their own. Author Jennifer Baumgardner recently started the “I had an abortion” T-shirt project. A forthcoming Web site, ShareWithThree.org, urges women to “come out” to three friends about their abortions.
Jackson’s innovation was to use Twitter and YouTube to detail her experience with the drug RU-486 and thus expose her personal life to assault and dissection. One hundred twenty-nine thousand viewers watched Jackson’s first YouTube video about her abortion and left nearly 10,000 comments. Anti-abortion blogger Jill Stanek devoted a 10-part blog series to analyzing Jackson’s tweets and picking apart the side effects she suffered. Some commenters have questioned whether Jackson’s claim that a pregnancy would be very risky for her is valid. Others have been viciously critical, calling Jackson a murderer or making death threats against her family, including one commenter who said he hoped Jackson’s 4-year-old son would be ripped limb from limb.
Jackson, whose special-needs son was born after a grueling 98-hour delivery, says her motivation is to counter the stories of regret the anti-abortion movement has cultivated in recent years. As the controversy continues, one of the most interesting—and motivating—parts of her narrative has been largely overlooked: her intimate connection with a religious movement—one she now calls a cult—that glorified fertility and childbirth and demonized medical intervention even when mothers’ labors were going very wrong.
Twenty-seven years before the YouTube video documenting her home abortion, Jackson was born at home in what her grandmother, a fringe Christian leader named Carol Balizet, called a “Zion home birth,” conducted without doctor, nurse, or midwife; without any medicine or medical intervention of any sort; and relying only on prayer and faith in God to get through a safe delivery. Balizet is a Christian author of apocalyptic thrillers who came into her life’s work when she started attending the home births of women in her Tampa community as a “spiritual midwife.”
This practice, which Balizet tried out first on a young woman in her church and subsequently on Jackson’s mother, became what she called her “baby ministry.” In time, a handbook of assorted papers directing expecting parents how to prepare themselves spiritually for a Zion home birth—through purging the house of demonic energy and equipping themselves with faith-healing prayers—became a self-published book, Born in Zion, that Jackson estimates has sold 400,000 mimeographed and bound copies, often distributed at churches and home-schooling conferences where Balizet would lecture.
Jackson and her siblings were home-schooled briefly, and during her kindergarten and first-grade years, she would frequently accompany her grandmother to the houses of her laboring followers in Tampa or daughter sects elsewhere in Florida. Armed with a five-gallon ice-cream bucket full of crayons, Jackson would wait for hours, and once for three days, at the kitchen tables of families abiding by Balizet’s home-birth prescriptions. She estimates she was with Balizet for nearly 70 births before second grade. At one birth, Balizet brought Jackson into the room to “lay hands” on an apparently stillborn, premature infant, reasoning that God would better listen to the prayers of a child. Jackson put her hands on the infant, tiny and blue, and used the “prayer warfare” she’d been taught. The child, who had not undergone any medical tests after birth, started breathing, and Jackson’s belief in faith healing was cemented. “I thought I’d brought someone back from the dead. I don’t think anything could have solidified my faith in God more than that.”
Balizet’s teachings on home birth came from extreme origins, notably the Pentecostal Word Faith movement, and as part of her teaching she said Christians must avoid the “seven systems of Satan,” which included banking, public education, government, and formal religion. Jackson says Balizet herself was firm only about shunning institutional medicine. She considered it a pagan religion, with doctors serving as high priests or “sorcerers,” making sacrifices through surgical incisions and offerings to Caesar and to the spirit of secular humanism through Caesarean-section births. Four of Balizet’s own five daughters were delivered by C-section. Adherents were taught that medical problems in labor were of their own spiritual making, based on causes such as insufficient faith in God or disputes between the parents. It was an uncompromising conviction that has been condemned by many conservative Christians who embrace other high-commitment lifestyles—like having extremely large families or living off the grid—but it also appealed to some of that number.
“She had a very low cost, word-of-mouth business and it fit really well with the Quiverfull or evangelical fundamentalist lifestyle,” says Jackson. “The idea of home births and self-sufficiency and total reliance on God—all of those things already had a market.” With support from Word of Faith pastors and a scattering of influential fundamentalist women’s organizations like the international women’s group Above Rubies, Jackson watched Balizet’s monthly newsletter grow to 28,000 subscribers.
Over the years, a number of families suffered from Balizet’s teachings. In 2001, a 31-year-old Australian mother of five died after several weeks of severe post-childbirth hemorrhaging and swelling for which she received no medical attention. (Above Rubies’ Australian director told a local TV station that the mother’s trials showed she had been “seeking truth and walking in faith.”) Several children died as well, including two infants in the Massachusetts Attleboro cult in 1999—their parents followed Balizet’s teachings to the point of severe neglect—as well as a toddler named Harrison Johnson whom Jackson had baby-sat during a “Born in Zion” conference in her grandmother’s Tampa, Fla., trailer park. In 1998, Harrison fell into a yellow-jacket nest on the grounds of the park and, after suffering 432 stings, was treated with prayer alone until he died seven hours later.
“That was incredibly shaking for me. I knew this little boy, I knew his parents. I believed in faith healing, and the newspapers were calling my grandmother a cult,” says Jackson. “The other incidents I didn’t find out about until 11 years later, when I Googled my grandmother’s name and the word ‘cult.’ And that’s when I found out about the other people.”
In the next two months, Jackson, then 25 with her own toddler son, rapidly lost her faith. She’d already been running a blog for Balizet as part of her work for the ministry, and shortly began an antithetical blog, Angie the Antitheist, where she writes frequently about atheism and the abuses of faith healing. When Jackson began to blog and tweet about her medical abortion last month, “the transition from being born at home and ending with a home abortion” felt like a full circle. Jackson is writing a book about her childhood in Balizet’s household, tentatively titled Birth and Death: Life of a Newborn Cult.
“I like to say I’m allergic to secrets,” says Jackson. “I grew up in an abusive and fundamentalist childhood, so secrets and lies were par for the course. I’ve made the conscious decision in the last two years to be open about that. So it flowed for me; I write about everything.”
Kate Cosby Cockrill, program director of the social and emotional aspects of abortion program at the University of California-San Francisco, says the costs associated with coming out about abortion often outweigh the benefits on an individual level. The condemnation Jackson has drawn can testify to that. “The process of stigma is to label someone with something and then to stereotype them and separate them from the norm,” says Cosby Cockrill. “You can do that with 500 women, 100,000 women, with 2 million women.”
Somewhere between 45 million and 52 million U.S women have had abortions since 1973, but very few discuss it, even with friends, says Charlotte Taft, Director of the Abortion Care Network, the largest coalition of non-Planned Parenthood abortion clinics in the United States. * But perhaps Jackson’s extreme and unique background, which few women will share, also has given her an uncommon willingness to be public with her story. And for that, many abortion advocates are grateful.
“If what you have is a secret,” says Taft, “it can only be private when somebody has risked enough to break the secret.”
Correction, March 10, 2010: Due to an editing error, this piece originally stated that between 45 million and 52 million U.S. women have abortions annually. In fact, that statistic is cumulative since 1973. Return to the corrected sentence.