/ 28 March 2024

Should we ‘be fruitful and multiply’?

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Pregnant with meaning: Pontsho Pilane’s memoir Power and Faith: How Evangelical Churches Are Quietly Shaping Our Democracy explores the churches and how their beliefs affect everyday lives. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP
God Edition

Molefe, 26, stretched her hand out to greet the old woman. Instead, Ingrid welcomed her with a hug. “God wants you to be here,” Ingrid reassured her. “Nobody comes here unless it was divinely appointed by God.” 

Molefe was about two months pregnant, and had come to Ingrid for counselling before deciding whether to terminate the pregnancy or carry full term. But she was leaning towards abortion. The pair made their way inside the house. They sat on chairs across from each other in what looked like a study-cum-office.

“What is happening in your heart when you think about this pregnancy?” asked Ingrid.

“I’m not sure I want to be a mother. I don’t know if I’ll have a job next year, and I’m also worried about the finances,” Molefe said.

Ingrid picked up a pregnancy wheel — a small calendar that uses your last menstrual period to help determine your due date — from the table next to her. “Nine weeks pregnant … which means this baby should come around 25 March [next year],” she said.

But Lerato Molefe is not real. Lerato Molefe was me. In 2018, I went undercover at a pregnancy crisis centre after students I was interviewing for another story told me that a pregnancy crisis centre, then called Amato, was operating on their campus at the University of Pretoria.

According to the students I spoke to, students who went to the campus clinic with an unintended pregnancy were referred to Amato. The pregnancy crisis centre was so institutionally embedded in the university that walls of the female toilets in the Huis-en-Haard building were plastered with the poster: “Pregnant, alone and confused? It’s good to know there’s someone to talk to.”

To experience Amato’s counselling first-hand, I decided to go undercover. During the session, I — as Lerato — also told Ingrid that I had had an abortion when I was 17 and requested post-abortion counselling from Amato, and also asked advice on my current pregnancy. 

“God has put something in here,” said Ingrid as she pressed on her chest with the palm of her hands. “It’s called a mommy heart, and it says: ‘I need to love. I need to care. I need to nourish.’” The hormones induced during pregnancy “create an emotional bond between the pregnant woman and her baby”, she told me. And having an abortion “pushes this mommy feeling down”. 

Ingrid adjusted her spectacles and touched her pearl necklace. She asked: “Did you have any emotional effects [after your abortion]?” I responded: “I felt guilty about keeping the secret from my parents, and sometimes I wonder what life would have been like had I had the baby.”

I was baiting her, but the words were what I’d heard many women who have terminated a pregnancy say. People do wonder. I wondered, too, when a pregnancy test turned positive after I felt sick for a couple of weeks. I had done “all the right things”. I took my birth control religiously, as well as the emergency pill if and when I needed to. I also took copious amounts of herbal teas to try to lose weight. Even before I took the pregnancy test, I knew I didn’t want to be pregnant or want the pregnancy to result in a baby. I terminated my pregnancy three weeks later.

It was a tedious, run-of-the-mill procedure — I have had pap smears more dramatic. But, at the time, I was scared, mostly of the unknown. Did I feel guilty afterwards? Absolutely not. I was relieved, but my lack of negative feelings made me anxious. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to wake up with an aching womb yearning for the baby that could have been. It is yet to come. My mommy heart, as Ingrid called it, did not exist.

It would take me years to understand that I wasn’t wondering because I felt guilty, but rather because of a warped understanding of and socialisation about abortion and what it means. 

I have never wanted children, especially biological ones. At first, I was terrified of the idea of single parenthood. My indoctrinated psyche kept running worst-case scenarios of me getting married, having a baby and then getting divorced — leaving me as primary caregiver. 

Panic-induced thoughts raced through my mind. Do I have the emotional capacity to nurture another human being as well as myself? Will I have to slow down my career? What will co-parenting look like? Will I have to beg someone to be a father? Will I unknowingly traumatise this poor child, leaving her to spend her early adult life working through her traumas? Would I have a future of blended families? Imagine having heart palpitations over a hypothetical child and former husband.

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My anxiety was fuelled not only by the logistics of co-parenting in a patriarchal world where heterosexual women — partnered or not — carry the burden of childcare, but I had also left the church. I was ashamed that my hypothetical marriage could end in divorce. It would mean I had fallen out of grace with God because how could a godless marriage survive this world? 

Christianity was still my security blanket. Before leaving the church, I believed that bad things would happen to me, but thank God for feminism and therapy, which gave me the tools to work through these complicated feelings. Most of the shame dissipated, but the thoughts of being a primary caregiver lingered. My therapist asked me to write a list of all the reasons I want and don’t want to have children in the future. I was to bring it along to our next session. The night before seeing her, I sat pondering this question. 

The reasons for not having a baby came quickly: I couldn’t afford it. It is time-consuming. Pregnancy looks hard and painful. I don’t get paid maternity leave. I am not ready. THE EXPENSE. I am scared. It is forever. And then to the other side: Babies are cute. But then I couldn’t come up with anything else. 

The next day, I took the list with me to therapy. “I don’t want children,” I said to her.

I would have probably become a parent if I had stayed in the church. As a believer, having a baby — just like marriage — is a given. Why else would the Bible mention “be fruitful and multiply” so often? While the exact number of occurrences of the phrase varies from one preacher to the next, it is widespread in Christian circles — from the Catholic Church to the most radical evangelists. Some say 63 times across 12 iterations of the Bible, and others argue that it’s 13 times, with most appearances in Genesis. 

But of most importance is the second mention, on the sixth day, when God instructs Adam and Eve not only to be “fruitful and multiply” like the animals but also to take dominion over his creation: “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.’” — Genesis 1:28, New King James Version.

Genesis documents God’s repetition of this phrase — seen as both a command and a blessing — to all of his creation: first to the animals and then to Adam and Eve. After the floods, He says much the same to Noah, his sons and the animals, and promises Abraham to make Ishmael “a great nation”. 

There are many iterations of this verse, and it is a principle ingrained in the very fibre of evangelicalism. Be fruitful. Multiply. Have dominion. Plundering Earth and populating heaven. This is a war that cannot be won without an army. How can we expect women not to want, or at the least feel obligated to have children?

The phrase is also metaphorical and relates to The Great Commission in the New Testament. The logic is that being fruitful and multiplying is one of the highest blessings God has bestowed on His people, an ideology that has shaped the evangelical movement’s ambitions, pushing for “God-ordained” policies such as opposing access to abortion, eugenics, and colonialism. 

My undercover stint at Amato, which rebranded into Crossroads Pregnancy Help Centre in the aftermath of the story, caused a stir among those in the anti-abortion movement in South Africa. Soon after the article was published, I started to receive Facebook messages and emails about how unfair and biased my story was towards the centre. I would later find out that a message had been posted in a Facebook page of one of South Africa’s leading anti-abortion groups that appealed to its followers to send out these messages and emails. This tactic is similar to that of The Family during the #Colourblind campaign. 

My investigation uncovered that health workers at the campus clinic refer pregnant students considering terminating their pregnancies to the centre’s on-campus offices, which are directly opposite campus health services, sources inside UP told me. There have been multiple attempts to discuss the matter with the university, dating back to a 2018 stakeholder meeting about Amato, hosted by the office of the director of student affairs at the UP Hatfield campus. In 2022, one of my sources confirmed that the centre is still operational at the university and uses a new name, but remains the same model used in the US.

This is an edited extract from Power and Faith: How Evangelical Churches Are Quietly Shaping Our Democracy by Pontsho Pilane.