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Commentary: ‘There are no atheists in foxholes’

Rich Egger
Alison Vawter

When we heard the news that my brother had been diagnosed with cancer, my mother told me that she took a long drive in the country, stopped someplace that held meaning for her, and prayed. This was kind of startling, considering that my mother was not ordinarily a person who prayed, or even a person who firmly believed in a higher power. When I expressed surprise, she said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

It’s possible that this term originated from a military chaplain during World War II. The “foxhole,” of course, was a dug-out place in the ground where soldiers knew that they were not, as long as they were in that foxhole, safe. It seems entirely plausible that there was a lot of praying going on by those soldiers in foxholes, and some of those praying were new to it.

A “foxhole” literally means a hole in the ground where a scared soldier takes cover during a battle, but I think “foxhole” can be used more broadly to describe the situation you find yourself in where none of your choices look particularly good, and you wish you weren’t in the foxhole in the first place, but there you are. And you still have to make a decision.

Some women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant face extraordinarily difficult choices. Men who have partners who become unexpectedly pregnant may be watching a woman presented with extraordinarily difficult choices that have a huge, if somewhat more indirect, effect on their lives. You may think you know what you would do when you find yourself in this kind of foxhole, and you may think you know what others should do when they are in the foxhole. The truth is, you won’t know what you are going to do until you get there, and your conviction about how others should behave in the foxhole is not helpful to them. You’re not there. You don’t know.

I’ve read with interest over the past decade or so the stories about individuals who are publicly pro-life, but when it was their turn in the foxhole, advocated for a partner to terminate a pregnancy, or made a decision to terminate a pregnancy themselves. These are not isolated stories. And I think, but freely admit I do not know, that we all know someone (or several someones) who chose to terminate a pregnancy despite a deep personal belief in the sanctity of life. We’ve all been at a moral crossroads at one time or another in our lifetimes, whether the issue was abortion, adultery, lying, gossiping, taking money that didn’t belong to us, calling in sick when we weren’t sick, or walking past a homeless person with their hand out the week before Christmas. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always made the choices you, dear listener, would approve of. But they were my choices to make and I made the best ones I could make from whatever foxhole I was in at the time. Some of my regrets are glancing, some are bone deep. I bet you have some of each, too – don’t you?

You may be on the side of absolute choice when it comes to abortion. You may be like me, somewhere in the middle, but sympathetic to the woman who is cornered, or you may be firmly pro-life. Since this is NPR, I’m going to assume that most listening to this commentary describe themselves as being in the first two categories, but I might be surprised, just like you might be surprised to know that one person can have experienced over the course of a reproductive lifetime both the foxhole of the unexpected, unwelcome, and terrifying pregnancy, and the sadness, envy, and bitter judgment an infertile person feels toward those who take fertility and the ability to have a child seemingly for granted.

I am not here to convince you of my views, and I am not here to judge the choices that you have made. I can only say that, having been in a foxhole or two myself, I was grateful to have choices. As a 58-year-old woman whose child-bearing years are behind her, I will be doing what I can to ensure that my daughters and yours have the same choices I did.

Alison Vawter is an attorney in Macomb.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.