The most powerful stories are those that bring the hypothetical to life. In 1989, a reported 1,396,658 abortions took place within the United States. Claire Culwell may have been the only infant who survived the procedure that year. Her twin wasn’t so fortunate.
The Abortion Survivors Network reports only 365 documented cases of abortion survival in American history, though more survivors almost certainly exist. Like Culwell, many of them have grown up unaware of how they entered the world.
In her memoir, Survivor: An Abortion Survivor’s Surprising Story of Choosing Forgiveness and Finding Redemption, Culwell recounts her idyllic childhood spent in a loving adoptive family. As a young woman, she became interested in finding her biological mother, a search that would drastically change her life.
Raised in a compassionate Christian home by parents who worked for the evangelical organization Cru for over 40 years, Culwell was poised to receive the news of her unlikely birth sympathetically. After locating her birth mother, Tonya, and having a joyous first meeting, Culwell penned a note thanking her for choosing life. But the note compelled an astonishing admission.
Tonya was only 13 at the time of the 20-week abortion that killed Culwell’s sibling and nearly took her own life. “The day [my mother] took me to an abortion clinic, I was terrified,” recounts Tonya in the book. “I was alone and scared. The doctor never said a word to me … as if this were just another day in the life of a bad young girl.” Soon thereafter, Tonya discovered she was still pregnant. (She hadn’t known she was carrying twins.) Her mother took her for a second abortion, which never took place due to complications from the first.
Culwell felt “shocked” and “confused” when Tonya tearfully disclosed the disturbing truth. “I now had to face the startling reality that I was almost aborted … twice,” she writes. But where anger may have arisen, love bloomed instead.
As Culwell explains, “I didn’t feel the slightest bit of hatred for her. She seemed like a victim in the whole situation—abandoned by the boyfriend who had fathered me and pressured by her mother to quickly deal with the pregnancy … I actually saw Tonya as exceedingly courageous. She bravely revealed to me her deepest, darkest secret.”
Culwell’s willingness to forgive sprang from her deep faith, as well as a lifetime of care and concern for the vulnerable. She writes passionately of being drawn toward the outcast and downcast, people like the lonely autistic classmate she befriended at school or a developmentally disabled girl she babysat. God had prepared her to respond with compassion.
Ironically, it was only in the aftermath of her discovery that Culwell began considering the mission of the pro-life activists she often saw outside her bedroom window, protesting at a Planned Parenthood clinic nearby. She admits she had “given virtually no thought to abortion” before learning she’d nearly died from one. In fact, she didn’t even know Planned Parenthood offered abortions—or that it was possible to survive the procedure. She immediately felt a strong urge to speak up for children in the situation she once faced.
One prominent voice in contemporary abortion debates is former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson, who famously quit her job right before Culwell learned of her own story. Johnson’s former clinic was the same one visible from Culwell’s window. Johnson had just gone public with her new pro-life perspective, reached after she witnessed the ultrasound-assisted abortion of a 13-week-old baby. When Culwell shared her story with the activists outside the clinic, they quickly connected her with Johnson, who encouraged her to begin sharing her story publicly.
That meeting soon launched her into a whirlwind of speaking engagements for pro-life causes. As an introvert, she was uncomfortable becoming a poster child, but she felt she could she help others see the reality of their choices.
In Survivor, Culwell clarifies her discomfort with the unhelpful, divisive tactics of certain angry activists, often seen brandishing grotesque images of aborted babies or Bible verses damning people to hell. These sensational displays reliably generate news coverage, but they misrepresent the vast majority of Christian activists, who approach vulnerable women in love, offering genuine prayers and support. As Culwell writes, she “never would have wanted” someone like Tonya “to encounter angry pro-life activists calling her a murderer, saying she had blood on her hands.”
The book also counters the narrative that abortions aren’t affecting Christians. In reality, as Culwell notes, four in 10 abortions are performed on churchgoing women. She encourages churches to offer better care, support, and financial assistance for women facing unplanned pregnancies, commending the work of church-based organizations like Embrace Grace and Sanctuary of Hope.
From the pro-life world, we often hear it proclaimed that an aborted child could have been the next president or the person who discovered a cure for cancer. But these notions, however well intended, are unhelpful. Every child, regardless of their actual or theoretical contributions to the world, is an image-bearer of God. In the life of Culwell, a wife and mother of four children, we see plainly the humanity of what so many in today’s world mislabel a “choice.”
“I chose to boldly embrace who God said I was—his beloved child he had known since before the dawn of time,” writes Culwell. That’s a truth we should all affirm unwaveringly.
Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected from the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma, and Mental Illness.
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