Beyond the legal right; why liberals and feminists don't like to talk about the morality of abortion.
We going to watch a child being torn apart. . ." promises Dr. Bernard son, "by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist." But the promise isn't really kept. What we see in The Silent Scream, Nathanson's famous anti-abortion film, isn't red dismemberment but flickering gray chaos. I stopped the video tape three times to examine the fuzzy image that Nathanson calls a child's mouth emitting its silent scream. But what I saw looked more like a satellite photo of a Manitoba blizzard, an undifferentiated swirl.
Several years ago as the film's influence spread-Ronald Reagan showed it at the White House-Planned Parenthood released a handsome brochure of rebuttal, entitled "The Facts Speak Louder." Whereas The Silent Scream claimed the fetal head was too big for a suction tube and had to be crushed first with forceps, the brochure said the doctor could have used a larger tube. Whereas The Silent Scream said the invasion of the uterus raised the fetal heart throb from 140 beats per minute to 200, the brochure said a rate of 200 is normal. The lines of inquiry remained the same on the "CBS Morning News," where dueling experts speculated on whether a 12-week-old fetus possesses enough cortex to feel pain, and what, in fact, we mean by painsomething understood or merely reflexive? "We know that the fews spends lots of time with its mouth open," said one Yale physician, so what looked like a scream might have been "a chance random finding'"
While these facts may, as Planned Parenthood says, speak loudly, it's unlikely that they say what the prochoice groups hope, since they put the fetus, even a televised facsimile, on center stage, precisely where prochoice groups don't want it. Assume the film is wrong and the Planned Parenthood brochure is right. Assume that was a fetal yawn and not a scream. None of the experts contested that it was a fetal mouth, and that it was pan of a fetal head, attached to a fetal spine, and that it had arms andlegs, fingers and eyes. Nathanson was certainly wrong to suggest that the 12-week-old fews was "indistinguishable in every way from any of us"; a rather important difference, one would think, is that the rest of us aren't enveloped in the living flesh of another human being with needs and rights of her own. But if the film's scientific and rhetorical claims are extravagant, it nonetheless succeeded in directing all eyes toward-take your pick-the "fetus" or "unborn child."
Writing in Ms. magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich argued that the film's failure to mention the woman having the abortion, "not even as a sinner or a murderer," was the "eeriest thing" about it. 'Abortions, after all, have to take place somewhere," she wrote, "i.e., in the uterus of an actual human being." Ehrenreich's point is well-taken: much of the right-to-life movement does act as if abortions took place in an abstract neutral setting, rather than within a woman whose life may begin to unravel with an unwanted pregnancy. But I don't think I'd call that the "eeriest thing" about The Silent Scream; as eeriness goes, the image, clear in mind if fuzzy on screen, of tiny bits of head, shoulders, ribs, and thighs being fed to a suction tube is formidable.
It's hard to hold these two images-the dismembered body of the fetus and the enveloping body of the mother, each begging the allegiance of our conscience-in mind at the same time. One of the biggest problems with the abortion debate is how rarely we do it, at least in public discourse. While contentious issues naturally produce onedimensional positions, the remarkable thing about abortion is that many otherwise sensitive, nuanced thinkers hold them. To one side, visions only of women in crisis, terrified and imperilled by an invasive growth; to the other, only legions of innocent children, chased by the steely needle.
The inhumanity that issues from baronies within the right-to-life movement is well known: the craziness of a crusade against birth control; the view of women as second-class citizens; even the descent into bomb-throwing madness. The insistence that an unborn child must always be saved, no matter the cost, isn't compassion but a compassionate mask, and it obscures a face of cruelty.
But what ought to be equally if not more disturbing to feminists, liberals, and others on the Left is the extent to which prominent prochoice intellectuals mirror that dishonesty and denial. One-anda-half million abortions each year is not the moral equivalent of the Holocaust, precisely because of the way in which fetuses are distinguishable: growing inside women, they can wreck the lives of mothers and of others, including her children, who depend upon hen But the fact that three of 10 pregnancies end in abortion poses moral questions that much of the Left, especially abortion's most vocal defenders, refuses to acknowledge. This lowering of intellectual standards offers a useful way of looking at the reflexes of liberals in general, and also reveals much about the passions-many of them just-that underpin contemporary feminism.
What the suction machine sucks
The declaration of a legal right to an abortion doesn't end the discussion of what our attitude toward it should be, it merely begins it. Ehrenreich, like many of the prochoice movement's writers and intellectuals, would have us believe that the early fetus (and 90 percent of abortions take place in the first three months) is nothing more than a dewy piece of tissue, to be excised without regret. To speak of abortion as a moral dilemma, she has written, is to us "a mealy-mouthed vocabulary of evasion," to be compromised by a "strange and cabalistic question '"
Yet everything we know-not just ftom science and religion but from experience, intuition, and compassion-suggests otherwise. A pregnant woman, even talking to her doctor, doesn't call the growth inside her an embryo or fetus. She calls it a baby. And she is admonished, by fellow feminists among others, to hold it in trust: Don't drink. Don't smoke. Eat well, counsels the feminist manual, Our Bodies, Ours"think of it as eating for three-you, your baby, and the placenta. . ." Is it protoplasm that she's feeding? Or is it protoplasm only if she's feeding it to the forceps?
Grant for a moment that it is; agree that what the suction machine sucks is nothing more than tissue. Why then the feminist fuss over abortions for purposes of sex selection? If a couple wants a boy and nature hands them the makings of a girl, why not abort and start again? All that matters-no?-is "choice."
It wasn't sex selection but nuclear power that got a feminist named Juli Loesch rethinking her own contradictory views of fetuses. As an organizer attempting to stop the construction of Three Mile Island, she had schooled herself on what leaked radiation can do to prenatal development. At a meeting one day, she says, a group of women issued an unexpected challenge: "if you're so concerned about what Plutonium 239 might do to the child's arm bud you should go see what a suction machine does to his whole body."
In fact, we need neither The Silent Scream nor a degree in fetal physiology to tell us what we already know: that abortion is the eradication of human life and should be avoided whenever possible. Should it be legal? Yes, since the alternatives are worse. Is it moral? Perhaps, depending on what's at stake. Fetal life exists along a continuum; our obligations to it grow as it grows, but they must be weighed against other demands.
The number of liberals, feminists, and other defenders of abortion eager to simplify the moral questions is, at the very least, deeply ironic. One of the animating spirits of liberalism and others factions on the Left, and proudly so, is the concern for the most vulnerable. But what could be more vulnerable than the unborn? And how can liberalism hope to regain the glory of standing for humanity and morality while finding nothing inhumane or immoral in the extermination of so much life?
The problem with much prochoice thinking is suggested by the movement's chief slogan, "a woman's right to control her body," which fails to acknowledge that the great moral and biological conundrum is precisely that another body is involved. Slogans are slogans, not dissertations; but this one is revealing in that it mirrors so much of the prochoice tendency to ignore the conflict in an unwanted pregnancy between two competing interests, mother and embryo, and insist that only one is worthy of consideration. Daniel Callahan, a moral philosopher, has written of the need, upon securing the right to a legal abortion, to preserve the "moral tension" implicit in an unwanted pregnancy. This is something that too few members of the prochoice movement is willing to do.
One fine example of preserving the moral tension appeared several years ago in a Harper's piece by Sallie Tisdale, an abortion clinic nurse with a grudging acceptance of her work. First the mothers: "A twenty-one-year-old woman, unemployed, uneducated, without family, in the fifth month of her fifth pregnancy. A forty-two-year-old mother of teenagers, shocked by her condition, refusing to tell her husband. A twenty-three-year-old motlier of two having her seventh abortion, and many women in their thirties having their first. . . .Oh, the ignorance . . . .Some swear they have not had sex, many do not know what a uterus is, how sperm and egg meet, how sex makes babies. . . .They come so young, snapping gum, sockless and sneakered, and their shakily applied eyeliner smears when they cry. . . .I cannot imagine them as mothers."
Then the "I am speaking in a matter-of-fact voice about 'the tissue' and 'the contents' when the woman suddenly catches my eye and asks, 'How big is the baby now?'. . . .1 gauge, and sometimes lie a little, weaseling around its infantile features until its clinging power slackens. But when I look in the basin, among the curdlike blood clots, I see an elfin thorax, attenuated, its pencilline ribs all in parallel rows with tiny knobs of spine rounding upwards. A translucent arm and hand swim beside. . . .I have fetus dreams, we all do here: dreams of abortions one after the other; of buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses. . . ."
It's not surprising that the defenders of abortion don't like pictures of fetuses; General Westmoreland didn't like the cameras in Vietnam either. Fetuses aren't babies, and the photos don't end the discussion. But they make it a more sober one, as it should be. Fetuses aren't just their image but our image too, anyone's image who is going to confront abortion.
If the prochoice movement doesn't like the way The Silent Scream depicts the fetus, turn to an early edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Describing an abortion at 16 weeks by means of saline injection, the feminist handbook explains: "Contractions will start some hours later. Generally they will be as strong as those of a full-term pregnancy. . . .The longest and most difficult part will be the labor. The breathing techniques taught in the childbirth section of this book might help make the contractions more bearable. After eight to fifteen hours of labor, the fetus is expelled in a bedpan in the patient's bed."
When Suzannah Lessard wrote about abortion in The Washington Monthly in 1972 ("Aborting a Fews: the Legal Right, the Personal Choice"), a year before Roe v. Wade, she described what she called a "reaction formation along ideological lines. . . of die new feminist movement" as it related to abortion. This was a time when Gloria Steinem was insisting that a fetus was nothing more than "mass of dependent protoplasm" and aborting it the moral equivalent of a tonsillectomy "I think a lot of women need to go fanatically ideological for a while because they can't in any other way overthrow the insidious sense of themselves as inferior," Lessard "nor otherwise live with the rage that comes to the surface when the realize how they have been psychically mauled." This is an observation about the psychology of oppression that could be applied to any number of righteous rebellions; the path to autonomy tends to pass, by necessity perhaps, through stages of angry defiance. "But I don't think that state of mind-hopefully temporary-is the strength of the movement," Lessard wrote. "It has very little to do with working out a new, undamaging way of living as women."
But to judge by much contemporary prochoice writing, the mere-protoplasm camp still thrives. Certainly, there are exceptions, Mario Cuomo's 1984 speech at Notre Dame perhaps being the most famous: "A fetus is different from an appendix or set of tonsils. At the very least. . .the full potential of human life is indisputably there. That-to my less subtle mind-by itself should demand respect, caution, indeed. . . reverence. . . [But] I have concluded that the approach of a constitutional amendment is not the best way for us to seek to deal with abortion." And others on the Left have gone even further: Nat Hentoff, who supports a legal ban, has written a number of attacks on abortion in the Village Voice; Mary Meehan, a former antiwar activist, published an article in The Progressive that attacked the magazine's own editorial stance in favor of legal abortion.
But these are the exceptions. Pick up the past 10 years of The Nation, Mother Jones, or Ms. Read liberals and feminists on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post or The New York Times-you're likely to find more concern about the snail darter than the 1.6 million fetuses aborted each year.
> Barbara Ehrenreich in a "Hers" column for The New York "I cannot speak for other women, of course, but the one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks. . ."
> The Yale University women's center, pledged to be "a place for all women-of every race, ethnicity, age, ability, class, sexual orientation, religion. . ." barred a group called Yale Students for Life. After the prolife group applied for space, the women's center amended its rules to specify that its members support "reproductive freedom." Similar banishment of prolife groups from women's studies centers has occurred on a number of college campuses.
> Mother Jones published a note on Catholic schools that amended the Pledge of Allegiance to read, "with liberty and justice for all, born and unborn." The magazine headlined it, "Heil Mary."
> Linda Gordon, a leading feminist historian, in Harper's: "I'm not sure, by the way, that we should spend our time debating the ethical points of abortion. . . .Abstract ethical arguments over when life begins are not very illuminating. They inevitably become moralistic-and they inevitably carry the implication that people who support abortion are less moral than other people.
"When women are able to be self-assertive, that to me is a step toward moral, emotional, and intellectual growth. When I had an abortion, that's what it represented to me."
> Ellen Willis, a senior editor at the Village Voice, in the same issue of Harper's"I think it is a good thing to have an abortion rather than to have a child that you don't want. Women should feel good about it. . . ."
> Katha Pollitt, a poet and critic, writing in The Nation: "When I first heard that an antiabortion demonstrator had stationed himself outside of the building in which The Nation has its offices-a building that houses, among other businesses and concerns, a gynecological clinic that performs abortions-I had an immediate image of what he would look like. He would be pale and rawboned and strained, a hungry fanatic in a cheap suit, like a street-corner preacher in a Flannery O'Connor story. . .
"I was wrong about the details. The demonstrator-perhaps harasser is a better word for what he does-wears his hair in a long ponytail and, in his blue jeans and parka, looks like a pudgy hippie. . . .1 was right about the main thing though: he is a religious fanatic. . . .
"There was a certain elation, I admit, at having my beliefs about the antiabortion movement so neatly confirmed in a single person: that it is a reactionary religious crusade, opposed to nonprocreative sex and contraception, indifferent to the health and individual circumstances of women, boneignorant. . ."
> Katha Pollitt again, this time in a "Hers" column for The New York Times: "Moralists, including some who are prochoice, like to say that abortion isn't or shouldn't be a method of birth control. But that's just what abortion is-a bloody, clumsy method of birth control."
> Ms. in 1989, naming Anne Archer, an actress and prochoice activist, Woman of the Year: "Cut to a scene at last summer's Republican National Convention. We're in that part of Schlaflyland where reproductive reactionaries who feel free to thrust bottled fewses in your face are assured a place on the party platform. The audience. . .contains some of those elements who wouldn't mind frying Betty Ford at the stake for being a radical feminist. . . ."
Archer says"I don't care [about the anti-choice women]. They're a minority. They're vocal, but it's not really based on intelligent thinking or caring. . . .Once you take a step back and deny women privacy and choice, you put them back in the kitchen; you put them back in an inferior position. If they cannot control their reproductive systems, they cannot control their personal destiny."
"The and-choice, anti-privacy forces," Ms. says, "would seem to prefer things that way. . . ."
And when it comes to dissent, even dissent of the mildest sort?
> In 1985 The North Carolina Independent, a biweekly alternative paper with a history of support for left-liberal and feminist causes, put a fetus on the front page, labeled with the blandest caption: "Controversial, magnified images like this one. . . are credited with winning converts to the antiabortion camp."
The phone calls and letters poured in. "The enmity that it aroused was just unbelievable," said Katherine Fulton, the paper's editor. "It was perceived as antifeminist." The graphic seemed like "the other sides image. We didn't couch it enough."
> Fetuses again, this time in The Progressive: In 1985, the magazine ran an advertisement ftom a group called Feminists for Life. "This Little Girl Needs Protection. . ." it claimed, presenting an embryo at eight weeks.
The Funding Exchange, a New York philanthropy that had supported the magazine, wrote to say it was "greatly offended," was canceling its subscription, and would henceforth find it "difficult for our staff to lobby for funding for your publication."
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil liberties group, weighed in as well: "Happily I am not a subscriber so I needn't cancel my subscription," he wrote. "I would surely do so after seeing the antiabortion ad. . ."
The list could continue, but the point is clear: questioning abortion-not only the legal right but also the moral choice-is often viewed, even by otherwise sensitive and thoughtful activists, as a betrayal of the highest order. (Except, at times, for Catholics, whose antiabortion views are usually dismissed as a quaint if unfortunate quirk of faith.)
A great irony about this public demonstration of zeal is that there may be more ambivalence on the Left than is usually acknowledged. When the 7he Progressive published Mary Meehan's prolife piece in 1980, it drew more mail than any article save the famous guide to the workings of the H-bomb. About half were predictable: "your knees buckle at the mere thought of taking a forthright stand for women's rights," "prolife is only a code word representing the neo-fascist absolutist thinking." Etc, etc.
But the others: "I support most of the positions of the women's movement, but I part company with those who insist on abortion as a 'right of women to control their own bodies.' There's a lot more than just one body that is being controlled here." "I have no religious objection to abortion, but I do oppose it from a humanitarian point of view." "I was awfully glad to see a liberal publication printing an antiabortion article."
Why aren't there more voices like these heard in liberal precincts? The answers come in two general sets, one pertaining to liberal and progressive values generally and the other connected more specifically to the passions of contemporary feminism.
Right or wrong, abortion helps further values that liberals and progressives generally hold in esteem. Among them is public health. Even those with qualms about abortion tend to back the legal right, if for no other reason than to stem the mutilation that a return to back alleys would surely entail. There's also an equity-between-the-classes argument: if abortion is banned all women may experience trouble getting one, but the poor will have the most trouble of all. For others, there are always planes to Sweden.
Beyond questions of abortion's legality, the Left tends to hold values that encourage the acceptance of abortion's morality too. There's the civil liberties perspective, which argues that the state should "stay out of the bedroom." There's a population control argument; without abortion, wrote one Progressive reader, "there will be a more intense scramble for food and all the world's natural resources." There's a help-the-poor strand of thinking; what, liberals constantly ask, about the welfare mother who can't afford another child? And there's a fairness-in-the-marketplace argument, which maintains that without absolute control of their fertility, women cannot compete with men: if two Arnold & Porter associates conceive a child at a Christmas party tryst, bringing it into the world, whether she keeps it or not, will penalize her career much more than his.
These principles-a thirst for fairness between genders and classes, for civil liberties, for economic opportunity-are honorable ones. And they speak well of those who hold them as caring not only for life itself but also for its quality.
Careful, though. Quality-of-life arguments sometimes stop focusing on quality and start frowning on life. Concerns about population control have their place; but whether abortion is a fit means of seeking it raises questions that go well beyond enviromnental impact swdies. One of the most troubling prochoice arguments is the what-kind-of-lifewill-the-child-have line. Yes, poverty may appropriately enter the moral calculus if an additional child will truly tumble the family into chaos and despair, and those situations exist. (And there is little cruelty purer than child abuse, which afflicts unwanted children of all classes.) But liberal talk about the quality of life can quickly devolve into a form of cardboard compassion that assumes life for the poor doesn't mean much anyway. That sentiment says to an unborn child of poverty: life is tough, so you should die. Compassionate, that.
Abortion's neat fit with other liberal concerns creates a package-politics tug. The right-to-life movement looms as the Great Beast in the mind of the Left: "Schlaflyland." "Reproductive reactionaries." (Do opponents of abortion like Nat Hentoff or the Berrigans live in Schlaflyland? Does Christopher Hitchens?) One is inclined to take Katha Pollitt very much at her word, when she confesses 'to a "a certain elation, I admit, at having all my beliefs about the antiabortion movement so neatly confirmed. . . ." That kind of confirmation lulls us into avoiding the issues right-to-lifers pose.
Let's be clear: much of the right-to-life movement is antipoor and antiwoman. This tends to be particularly true of the movement's political spokesmen, like Jesse Helms. And beneath the debate on the moral status of the unborn, lies a debate on how career, family, sex, birth control, and control in general should shape our lives-all of which are important, but none of which finally answer the question of our obligations to prenatal life. Hunkering down for the great defense of other values, the defenders of abonion tend to miss the ways in which their own concerns can wend back to the womb.
Juli Loesch, the antinuclear activist at Three Mile Island, said a social discomfort with the antiabortion people she knew initially closed her mind to their arguments, "They weren't my set," she said. "They liked Lawrence Welk; I liked the Rolling Stones. They wore polyester clothes; I wore natural cotton. They were pro-inhibition; I was antiinhibition '" But in reconsidering her protests against the Vietnam war, Loesch said she found herself being "inconsistent to the point of incoherence. We were saying that killing was not an acceptable solution to conflict situations, yet when we had our own conflict situation we were willing to go straight to killing as a technical fix."
Another obvious link, made too seldom, concerns abortion and executions. If killing criminals is wrong, then what about fetuses? (At least the criminals have done something wrong.) The issues, of course, aren't synonymous; there are thoughtful arguments to be made to permit abortion and ban capital punishment, and the other way around. But one of the real ironies of contemporary polities is that the Left and Right tend to split that ticket in exactly opposite ways, and each often invokes the word "sanctity."
Perhaps if liberals and progressives weren't so besieged in general, more ambivalence about abortion would bubble to the top. In my talks with Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich, they, like others, found it particularly troubling that moral objections to abortion would be raised by someone, who, to use Ehrenreich's phrase, "had been on the right side of the barricades." When I asked why, she said, "that kind of thing always cuts the legitimacy of our [legal] right; it's the kind of wedge used to threaten us."
The Christmas party tryst
While the values of the Left in general provide one set of explanations for the contours of the abortion debate, the specific passions and experiences of feminists provide another. These concerns don't, finally, answer the question of what our personal, as opposed to legal, obligations toward fetal life need to be. But they do underline the history of injustice that women have inherited.
In rough outline, one persuasive feminist argument for keeping abortion legal-an argument I accept-goes something like this: Without the option of abortion, women cannot be as free as men. Not just socially and economically but psychologically as well. And not just those with unwanted pregnancies. As Ellen Willis of the Voice has put it, "Criminalizing abortion doesn't just harm individual women with unwanted pregnancies, it affects all women's sense of themselves. Without control of our fertility we can never envision ourselves as free, for our biology makes us constantly vulnerable." Vulnerable to failed birth control. To rape or other coercive sex. Or simply to passion. Vulnerable in a way that men are not. And in a society that rightly prizes liberty as much as ours, it's unacceptable for one half of its members to be less free, at an essential level, than the other. Therefore the legal right.
Of course, having the legal right to do something doesn't tell us whether it's a desirable thing to do. Women have the legal right to smoke and drink heavily during pregnancy, but few of us would hesitate to dissuade them from doing so. Why don't more feminists take the same view toward abortion-defending the right, but urging women to incline against it whenever possible? The feminist defenders of abortion I spoke with reacted to that proposal with a litany of past and present injustices against women-economic, social, political, and cultural, all of them quite You can sit around all day talking about what's the morally right thing to do-rights and sacrifices and the sanctity of life and all that-but I don't think it can be divorced from women's lives in this society"' Pollitt said.
Leaving aside for a moment the wrenching emotional issues, one obvious burden is economics. Having a child-even one put up for adoption-costs not only trauma but time and money, and takes them from women, not men. The financial burden is one reason why poor women are more likely to have abortions than others.
But the same inequity is true among professional women. To return to the Arnold & Porter Christmas party tryst, what would happen if the female associate does the right thing by prolife standards and decides to have the child? At $65,000 a year, she can certainly afford to do it, and her insurance is probably blue chip. But in the eyes of some senior partners, the luster of her earlier promise begins to fade. They may be reluctant to keep her on certain accounts, for fear of offending the clients. What's more, even if the clients understand, she'll be missing at least six to eight weeks of work-just, as fate would have it, when she's needed in court on an important case. The long-term penalties may be overestimated-good employees are in short demand in most professions; it's the marginal who will suffer the most-but the fears are nonetheless real. What's more, the burden is unequally shared. Her tryst-ee suffers no such repercussions. The clients love him, he shines in court, and his future seems assured. Unfair? Yes, extremely.
These inequities are one reason why the right-tolife movement has the obligation, often shirked, to support measures that would make it easier for women of all incomes to go through pregnancy-health care, maternity leave, parental leave, day care, protections against employment discrimination. But even if all these things were provided-as they should be-it's unlikely that the strength of feminist feeling on abortion would recede. Economic opportunity is an important facet of the abortion debate, but it's not, finally, at its core. Of all the women I spoke with, the one I most expected to forward an economic argument was Barbara Ehrenreich-since she is co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America-but she never mentioned it. When I finally asked her about it she said that no amount of money or servants would change the essential moral equation, which centers, in her mind, on female autonomy. "The moral issue has to do with female personhood," she said.
What surprised me in my talks with the female defenders of abortion, was how many of them seemed to view the abortion debate as some sort of referendum by which society judged women's deepest levels of self. Words like guilt and sin, punishment and shame kept issuing forth. They did so both about abortion and about sex in general. "The whole debate is more about the value of women's lives and the respect we have for women than it is about the act of abortion itself," said Kate Michelman, the head of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
A few days before my scheduled meeting with Michelman, I got a phone call from her press secretary. "We hear a nasty rumor," she said, "that you're writing something that says abortion is immoral." I mentioned the rumor when I sat down to speak with Michelman, who quickly told me about the very difficult circumstances surrounding her own abortion. Her first husband had walked out on her and her three small children when she was destitute, ill, and pregnant. She had to make a difficult moral judgment, she said, weighing her responsibilities to her family against those to the fetus. Then, this being 1970, she couldn't even make the decision herself but had to obtain the consent of a panel of doctors and then, to further the pain, get her ex-husband's signature. Call me immoral, she seemed to say, in an I-dare-you way.
But it seemed to me that Michelman's decision, like those, certainly, of a great number of women, had involved a thoughtful handling of difficult questions-as she herself was underlining. "Sure the fews has interests, absolutely," she said, as do other things, like a woman's commitments to her family and her health. It was only when I began asking why those leading the prochoice movement didn't discuss these moral tensions more often that her reasoning turned curious and defensive.
"The ethical questions are being raised," she said. 'And if [a woman] makes a decision [to have an abortion] then she's made the right decision."
I asked her how she knew. With 1.6 million abortion s a year, there seems to be a lot of room for error.
Merely asking the question, she said, implied that women had abortions for frivilous re"To even raise the question of when it's immoral," she said, "is to say that women can't make moral decisions."
In considering the way a legacy of injustice fuels the adamance over abortion, it is helpful to consider three generations of women: those who preceded the feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies; those who soldiered in it; and those who inherited its gains. Each has faced the tyranny of a man's world in a way that primes passions about abortion, but each has done so in a different way.
Women who became sexually active outside of marriage in the days of blanket abortion bans faced a world prepared to hand them the cruelest choice: the life-wrecking stigma of pregnancy out-ofwedlock or the back alley; a "ruined" life or a potentially lethal trip through a netherworld, Men, meanwhile, made the decisions that crafted that world while escaping the brunt of its cruelty. That was an unjust life, and the triumph over it is among feminism's proudest achievements.
The following account from a woman identified simply as Kathleen comes ftom Back Rooms, a recent collection of oral histories, and is worth quoting at length. It speaks for a tremendous number of women.
"It was the first and only time I was ever sexually intimate with this man. . . .He offered me a ring. . . .But I did not want to do that. . . .1 thought about going to a home for unwed mothers and I thought about how my family would deal with it, how it would affect my college career, my scholarships, my job. . . .I couldn't even imagine telling my parents. . . .It was just unthinkable. . . .I just really couldn't put my family through the shame. . .
"Things at that time in Cleveland were very tight. . . I finally located an abortionist in Youngstown, Ohio. It was going to cost one hundred dollars. . .This so called doctor-this man who called himself a doctor-had two businesses. He was a bookie and he was an abortionist. He was an elderly man in a ramshackle little house in a disreputable, shabby section of Youngstown. . . .I don't recall seeing any medical certificates on the walls. I don't think anyone who was a doctor would also be a bookie. I think there was some actual gambling going on while we were waiting. . . .
"He had a room with a chair and stirrups set up. I went in and it was all very, very secretive. The money had to be in cash, in certain denominations . . . .He checked it very thoroughly to make sure it wasn't marked. . . . He explained that he was doing a saline injection and that there should be some cramping and that abortion would happen within 24 hours. . . .I don't know how many days passed . . . . But I do know that when I finally aborted I was alone in my room in the dormitory at school. I went through at least 12 hours of labor alone in my room. . . .
"It was more terrible than I ever imagined. . . .I remember noticing that the contractions were getting more frequent and more frequent, five minutes, then four minutes, then three minutes, and then there was a lot of blood and there was a fetus. . . .I remember taking this fetus and not knowing what else to do but flush it down the toilet. And I was terrified that it wasn't going to go down, and that it would clog up the system, that somehow, some way, I would be found out, The whole system would be clogged up. They'd have to call a plumber and then there would be this hunt to find out who did this terrible thing in the dorm, and I'd be tracked down and prosecuted. I was really in shock and just terrified ."
A second generation of women share the memories of illegal abortion, but their perspective has been honed even finer by roles as activists. For these women-in their late thirties to late forties, which includes Ehrenreich, Pollitt, Gordon, Willis, and Michelman-the fight for other forms of feminist freedoms was linked to abortion not only intellectually but through political experience. "My early involvement in the women's movement was involvement in the health movement," says Ehrenreich. Reproductive rights, including birth control, were at the center of the feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies, and the battles to win them were hard fought. Such experiences aren't likely to lead to a lot of second-guessing.
Nor, for that matter, is the fact that so many women (of many different ages) have had abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 46 percent of American women will have an abortion before menopause, and more than a third of those will have had more than one. During my telephone conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich I asked her why she thought there wasn't more discussion of whether abortion is an acceptable type of killing. She sounded incredulous. "That's a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife question," she said. "I've had two abortions-do you want to call me a murderer?"
In retrospect, I regretted my use of the word "killing." I hadn't meant it as an accusation, though, perhaps understandably, that's the way she heard it. I explained that I had in mind a great difference between the word "killing," which I regarded as neutral and descriptive, and "murder," a legal term meant to describe killing of a very narrow and wrongful sort. This is a problem that makes all discussion of abortion so difficult. I no more think Barbara Ehrenreich or other women who've had abortions are murderers than I think that of people who support capital punishment-there are people I respect and admire greatly in both groups. It's difficult to raise moral qualms about abortion, perhaps especially for a man, without a great number of women feeling accused of something quite serious, even if accusation is not one's intent at all.
Stallions and diaphragms
Women my age-I'm 28-haven't had to worry about back rooms. To a significant extent, too, they no longer face a life-wrecking stigma from a pregnancy outside of marriage (though this still varies greatly with individual circumstance). They have inherited the gains-more economic opportunity, fewer social barriers-that earlier feminists helped secure, and while this is a very good thing there is at least one sense in which that legacy contains some ambiguity: to some extent women were the losers in the sexual revolution. This is true in at least two ways. For one, much of the culture still remains ambivalent about female sexuality, acknowledging its legitimacy while at the same time distrusting it. Secondly, while die legitimation of sex without commitment was sought by women as well as men, men pursue it more often, and women are more vulnerable to its effects.
I ran this theory past Kate Michelman, and she bought it without a blink: "Men want sex, require sex, they use sex to. . . ." Her thoughts outpaced her "Women are less needful of actual sexual intercourse. Women are more needful of intimacy and closeness, while men drive right in there, you know. They want sex. I don't know how men and women ever get together you know. We're very different. But the ultimate impact really falls on women."
More evidence of the way men's sexual behavior feeds the feminist fervor on abortion comes from a Katha Pollitt piece in Mother Jones. Entitled [Nat] "Hentoff, Are You Listening?" it answers Hentoff s attacks in the Voice on women who have abortions after deciding that giving birth, in Hentoffs words, would be 'Just plain inconvenient."
"Rather than fulminate against women, about whose lives he seems to know little," Pollitt wrote, "would it not be more seemly for Hentoff to direct his moral fervor toward his brothers?" To help him along, Pollitt composed a sample speech for Hentoff to take on the road. It's worth listening to in detail, for the list it offers of women's legitimate gripes:
"Men! Abortion is a terrible thing, and it behooves us to ensure that there are as few as possible. . . .That means no more extramarital affairs, no more sleeping with our students, no more one-night stands. Should the marriage fail, let's vow to cheerfully continue to support every child we father until that child is 21-we have a bad record there, what with three-fourths of divorced dads reneging on court-ordered child support. . . .
"Now comes the hard part. . . .It goes without saying that we're mounting a major campaign to make male birth control the chief medical priority of our time. . . .vasectomies for you guys who can't live with the conditions I've outlined above, and, for the rest of us-condoms! They're messy, they diminish pleasure, but so what? How can we blame women for having 'convenience abortions' if we won't put up with a little inconvenience to prevent unwanted pregnancy? In fact, since condoms have been known to break, let's wear two at a time!"
"None of this will amount to anything, though, if we don't change our attitudes about sex as well. Face it men, we give women mixed messages. So from now on, let's never call a woman frigid if she won't sleep with us without commitment, or promiscuous if she takes a diaphragm with her when she goes out for a date. As for men who sleep around, let's think of them not as stallions bursting with vitality but as hit-and-run artists so irresponsible they don't even know how many fetuses they scatter about. . . ."
Accepting female sexuality
One could scarcely ask for a better example of the way the male "stallion" legacy makes feminists angry about abortion. And rightly so. But what's interesting about the observations of male irresponsibility, as it relates to abortion, is that both sides cite it. Prolife feminists, like Juli Loesch, argue that the acceptance of abortion actually encourages exploitation. The "hit and run" artist can pony up $200, send a woman off to a clinic, and imagine himself to have done the gatlant thing. "The idea is that a man can use a woman, vacuum' her out, and she's ready to be used again," Loesch says. "It's like a rent-a-car or something." (In such scenarios, Loesch argues, abortion has the same blame-thevictim effect that the Left is typically quick to condemn, with the victimized mother perpetrating the injustice through violence against the fews.)
When I asked Katha Pollitt about this, she dismissed it with the argument that men will be just as irresponsible with or without abortion, and that the only difference will be the burden left to women. To some extent she's right: irresponsible sexual behavior-by men and women both-will no doubt continue under any imaginable scenario. Then again, it's not unreasonable to suspect that casual attitudes about abortion, particularly among men, could increase precisely the kind of "stallion" behavior that Pollitt rightly protests. And abortion can become a tool of male coercion in other ways as well. "He said that if I didn't have an abortion, the relationship would be over," a friend recently explained. Many women have experienced the same.
Of course, feminist emotion toward abortion isn't just a reaction to male sexuality but also an assertion that women's own sexual drive is equally legitimate. Feminists argue that antiabortion arguments reflect a larger cultural ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward female sexuality. This is where words like guilt and shame and punishment continue to arise. I recently sat down with Katha Pollitt for a long conversation about abortion. She cited the many ways in which women (and the children antiabortionists want them to raise) are injured by society: poor health care, poor housing, economic discrimination, male abuse. We talked also about power, politics, religion, and the other forces that play into the abortion debate, like the unflagging responsibilities that come with parenthood. (She is a new, and proud, mother.) But when I asked her which, of the many justifications for abortion, she felt most deeply-what, in her mind, was the real core of the issue-her answer surprised me. "Deep down," she said, "what I believe is that children should not be a punishment for having sex."
Ellen Willis of the Voice advances a similar argument. Opposition to abortion, she's written, is cut of the same cloth as the more general "virginity fetishism, sexual guilt and panic and disgrace" foisted on women by a repressive society. The woman's fight for abortion without qualm, she says, is part of the fight for the "acceptance of the erotic impulse, and one's own erotic impulses, as fundamentally benign and necessary for human happiness."
Pollin agreed. "The notion of female sexuality being expressed is something people have deeply contradictory feelings about," Pollitt said. And her example to Hentoff of diaphragms and dates-damned if you bring one, damned if you don't-shows she's right.
An unspoken assumption
Pollitt and other leading feminists are right about a lot of things-right to point to the terrible past of stigma and dirty needles; right to complain of sexual exploitation; of double standards; of economic discrimination; of a shortage of birth control; of a society that places them in too many binds. Only one question remains: what about the fews?
Do we have any moral obligations to it? What are they? What happens after the birth control fails, the egg becomes fertilized and implanted, and human life begins to unfold?
> "Maybe I'm a cold and heartless person," said Pollitt, "but I find it hard to think of it as a moral question, the right to life of this thing the size of a fingernail."
> "Would I feel comfortable gening rid of a fetus in the first few months of its life? Yes, indeed," said Ehrenreich. "And I have done it without qualm."
> "To say, 'I support the legal right but I'm against it morally' is still to deny women's equality," said Willis. "If you have some inherent moral bias in favor of fewses it becomes a moral bias against the woman. There's no way you can give the fetus a claim, even a relative claim, without denying the woman's selfhood. You make the woman a vessel."
At the risk of taking these women at less than their word, I can't help but wonder if they believe this-if they truly believe the moral questions are as simple as they say.
Katha Pollitt said, "It's hard for me to imagine circumstances in which I'd have an abortion at this time in my life," with this-time-in-her-life meaning at age 39, happily married, professionally established, and prosperous. But "not for moral reasons" she said. And she quickly insisted-twice-that she "would never condemn another woman for having an abortion."
Next, she conjured a hypothetical example. Picture a friend, five months pregnant. The friend's husband, Bob, runs off with a 19-year-old flame. The friend comes to Katha Pollitt for advice.
"I would tell her to go ahead and have it, I'll help you," Pollitt said.
Surprised, I interrupted her to ask why.
"A woman in the fifth month of pregnancy is going to have strong feelings," she said.
She mixed up her words. "The baby. . .the fews . . ." Then she paused and said she would tell her friend to have the abortion if she had a heart condition and would be bedridden or endangered by the pregnancy.
And if she didn't have a heart condition?
"Just because Bob is leaving-why shouldn't she have the child?" she said. "I'd say, 'Fuck you Bob, I'm going to go ahead and hire a lawyer and take you for everything you're worth.'"
When I asked her about this example a few weeks later-didn't her instinct to tell her friend to have the baby indicate the fews had some innate worth?-Pollitt said there'd been an unspoken assumption in the scenario: "What I was saying is that if she wanted to have the baby until this rat walked outwhy should he stop her?" But there seemed to be another unspoken assumption as well, that the fews had some interests of its own-not enough to overrule, say, the mother's heart condition, but not to be easily ignored either. And why-if abortion is so neutral-would Katha Pollitt herself now find it hard to imagine herself ever having on&
Biology and destiny
What the argument for abortion-without-qualm comes down to is this: the fetus doesn't exist unless we want it to. But the whole crisis over abortion is that we know precisely the opposite to be true. It's there physically, feminists say, but not morally. But how could it be one without the other-there to nurture one day (remember, plenty of fresh vegetables, we're eating for three: you, baby, and placenta), but free to dismember the next? Qualm-less advocates argue that all that finally matters is whether the woman, for whatever reason, desires to bring it into the world. Yet the fetus is already there, no matter what we plan or desire. Forces may conspire against a woman and leave her unable to bring it into the world, or unable to do so without a great deal of harm to herself and others. That is, other moral obligations may overrule. But it is suspicious in the extreme to argue-as the qualmlessness position does-that our moral obligations are nothing more than what we want them to be, a wish-it-away view of die world. Inconveniently fetuses exist, quite outside our fluctuating emotions and desires.
Finally, Ellen Willis's argument that by giving fetuses any moral statuas at all we reduce women to vessels breaks down because women are vessels. They're not just vessels. They're much more than vessels. But the attempt to reconcile the just desire for full female autonomy with our moral obligations toward fetuses by insisting that we have none attempts to wish away a very real collision; it refuses to acknowledge a (so far) inalterable conflict buried in biology. Willis argues this is precisely the oppressive "biology equals destiny" argument that feminism has fought to overturn. Biology doesn't equal destiny; but it does affect destiny, and it leaves us with the extremely difficult fact that women, for any number of reasons, get burdened with unwanted pregnancies to which there are no easy moral solutions. Something important is lost-female autonomy or fetal life-in either event.
There are two highly imperfect ways of dealing with this conflict. The first is abstinence (since birth control fails). But not much chance of that. The second is adoption-another imperfect solution. The first argument against it is that there aren't enough parents to go around, particularly for minority and handicapped children. Ironically those quickest to point this out tend to be those for whom putting up a child for adoption really is a plausible option-white professionals. George Bush's "adoption not abortion" line brought quick ridicule by Pollitt in The Nation and Ehrenreich in Mother Jones. He's wrong to suggest it as a panacea-babies would quickly outstrip parents, as Pollitt insists-but right to encourage its wider use. The real challenge for liberals and progressives would be to turn the thought back toward Bush, and demand the governmental support, in health care and other ways, needed to get through pregnancy, and needed to raise a child.
The second argument against adoption focuses not on demand but supply: nine months of illness culminating in a "physiological crisis which is occasionally fatal and almost always excrutiatingly painful," as Ehrenreich has written. And other worries follow; think of Lisa Steinberg. "It's almost unimaginable to me to think about giving up the baby," said Ehrenreich. "Talk about misery. Talk about 20 years of grief and ambivalence." The grief is real-particularly for people of conscience, like Ehrenreich. (And people of conscience are the targets of moral suasion in the first place.) But where does that argument lead? That in order to spare a child the risks of an adoptive life, we offer the kindness of a suction machine?
"A very scary time"
A few years ago, I was sharing an apartment with a friend who became pregnant just before breaking up with her fiance. Like many men-like the hypothetical Bob-he just walked away, dealing with the dilemma through denial. My friend dealt with it with a lot of courage. I called her recently to see how the experience seemed in retrospect, and perhaps she should provide the coda, since her view complicates both Ehrenreich's position and my own. Though she said that putting her child up for adoption was "the right thing," she said she "would never, ever, pressure someone to go through the same thing."
It surprised me to hear her say that abortion "crossed my mind several thousand times," since that was the one option she had seemed to rule out from the staff. When she realized she was pregnant, she said, she went riding her bicycle into potholes "trying to jar something loose. It was very, very easy for me to think of the sperm and the egg as having just joined. It was like a piece of mucous to me." She decided against abortion after about a a very lonely, very scary time."
"At some point, I realized I was old enough, and mature enough, that I could do it [have the baby]," she said, but she emphasized that this calculus could have been altered easily by any number of factors-including less support from family and friends, a less understanding employer, or the lack of medical care. She spent months in counseling trying to decide whether to raise the child or put it up for adoption, and the decision to give the baby away "was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do." Since the baby was healthy and white the adoption market was on her side-"I could have dictated that I wanted two Finnish socialists," she said-and her certainty that the new parents would not only love the child but pass on certain shared values was an essential thing to know.
"When I think about her," she said, 'Just the miracle of being able to have brought her into this life, even if she's not here with me right now, she's with people who love hen It's a miracle."
"When she left to go to her adoptive parents, it was the most devastating and wonderful thing," she said. "I kept thinking this is my child, and I love hen
"It always kept coming back to that-I love her."
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|Date:||Apr 1, 1989|
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