When Abortion Stopped Making Sense, Pt 1
At the time of the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, I was an anti-war, mother-earth feminist hippie college student. That particular January, I was taking a semester off, living in the D.C. area and volunteering at the feminist ‘underground newspaper’, Off Our Backs. As you’d guess, I was strongly in favor of legalizing abortion. The bumper sticker on my car read ‘Don’t labor under a misconception– legalize abortion,’ The first issue of Off Our Backs after the Roe decision included one of my movie reviews, and also an essay by another member of the our group, criticizing the decision. It didn’t go far enough, she said, because it allowed states to restrict abortion in the third trimester. The Supreme Court should not meddle in what should be decided between the woman and her doctor. She should be able to choose abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.
But at the time, we didn’t have much understanding of what abortion was. We knew nothing of fetal development. We consistently termed the fetus ‘a blob of tissue’, and that’s just how we pictured it, an undifferentiated mucous-like blob, not recognizable as human or even as alive. It would be another 15 years or so before pregnant couples could see and show sonograms of their unborn babies, shocking us with the obvious humanity of the unborn.
We also thought back then that few abortions would ever be done. It’s a grim experience, going through an abortion, and we assumed a woman would choose one only as a last resort. We were fighting for that ‘last resort’. We had no idea how common the procedure would become; today, one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion. Nor could we have imagined how high abortion numbers would climb. In the 43 years since Roe v. Wade, there have been 59 million abortions. It’s hard even to grasp a number that big. Twenty years ago, someone told me that, if the names of all those lost babies were inscribed on a wall, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the wall would have to stretch for 50 miles. It’s 20 years later now, and that wall would have to stretch twice as far. But no names could be written on it because those babies have no names.
A woman who had an abortion told me, ‘Everyone around me was saying they would be there for me if I had the abortion, but no one said they’d be there for me if I had the baby.’
We expected that abortion would be rare. What we didn’t realize was that, once abortion becomes available, it becomes the most attractive option for everyone around the pregnant woman. If she has an abortion, it’s like the pregnancy never existed. No one is inconvenienced. It doesn’t cause trouble for the father of the baby, for her boss, or the person in charge of her college scholarship. It won’t embarrass her mom and dad. Abortion is like a funnel–it promises to solve all the problems at once. So there is significant pressure on a woman to choose an abortion rather than adoption or parenting. A woman who had an abortion told me, ‘Everyone around me was saying they would ‘be there for me’ if I had the abortion, but no one said they’d ‘be there for me’ if I had the baby.’ For everyone around the pregnant woman, abortion looks like the sensible choice. A woman who determines instead to continue an unplanned pregnancy looks like she’s being foolishly stubborn. It’s like she’s taken up some unreasonable hobby. People think, ‘If she would only go off and do this one thing, everything will be fine.’
But that’s an illusion. Abortion can’t really ‘turn back the clock’. It can’t push the rewind button on life and make it so she was never pregnant. It can make it easy for everyone around the woman to forget the pregnancy, but the woman herself will struggle. When she first sees the positive pregnancy test she may feel, in a panicky way, that she has to get rid of it as fast as possible. But life stretches on after abortion, for months and years, for many long nights, and all her life long she may ponder the irreversible choice she made. Abortion can’t push the rewind button on life and make it so she was never pregnant. This issue gets presented as if it’s a tug of war between the woman and the baby. We see them as mortal enemies, locked in a fight to the death.
But it’s a strange idea, isn’t it? It must be the first time in history when mothers and their own children have been assumed to be at war. We’re supposed to picture the child attacking her, trying to destroy her hopes and plans, and picture the woman grateful for the abortion, since it rescued her from the clutches of her child. If you were in charge of a nature preserve and you noticed the pregnant female mammals were trying to miscarry their pregnancies, eating poisonous plants or injuring themselves, what would you do? Would you think of it as a battle between the pregnant female and her unborn, and find ways to help those pregnant animals miscarry? No, of course not. You would immediately think, ‘Something must be really wrong in this environment.’ Something is creating intolerable stress, so much so that animals would rather destroy their own offspring than bring them into the world. You would strive to identify and correct whatever factors were causing this stress in the animals. The same thing goes for the human animal.
WHAT WOMEN WANT?
I changed my opinion on abortion after I read an article in Esquire magazine, way back in 1976. I was home from grad school, flipping through my dad’s copy, and came across an article titled ‘What I Saw at the Abortion’. The author, Richard Selzer, was a surgeon, and was in favor of abortion, but he’d never seen one. So he asked a colleague if, next time, he could go along. Selzer described seeing the patient, 19 weeks pregnant, lying on her back on the table (That is unusually late; most abortions are done by the tenth or twelfth week). The doctor performing the procedure inserted a syringe into the woman’s abdomen and injected her womb with prostaglandin solution, which would bring on contractions and cause a miscarriage (This method isn’t used anymore, because too often the baby survived the procedure, chemically burned and disfigured, but clinging to life. Newer methods, including those called ‘partial birth abortion’ and ‘dismemberment abortion’, more reliably ensure death). After injecting the hormone into the patient’s womb, the doctor left the syringe standing upright in her belly. Then, Selzer wrote, ‘I see something other than what I expected here… It is the hub of the needle that is in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish.’ He realized he was seeing the fetus’s desperate fight for life. And as he watched, he saw the movement of the syringe slow down and then stop. The child was dead.
Whatever else an unborn child does not have, he has one thing–the will to live. He will fight to defend his life. The last words in Selzer’s essay are, ‘Whatever else is said in abortion’s defense, the vision of that other defense [i.e., of the child defending its life] will not vanish from my eyes. You cannot reason with me now about abortion. For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?’
The truth of what he saw disturbed me deeply. There I was—anti-war, anti-capital punishment vegetarian, and a firm believer that social justice cannot be won at the cost of violence. Well, abortion sure looked like violence. How had I agreed to make this hideous act the centerpiece of my feminism? How could I think it was wrong to execute homicidal criminals, wrong to shoot enemies in wartime, but alright to kill our own sons and daughters? That was another disturbing thought: Abortion means not killing strangers, but our own children, our own flesh and blood. No matter who the father, every child aborted is that woman’s own son or daughter, just as much as any child she will ever bear. We had somehow bought the idea that abortion was necessary if women were going to rise in their professions and compete in the marketplace with men.
But how had we come to agree that we will sacrifice our children as the price of getting ahead? When does a man ever have to choose between his career and the life of his child? Once I recognized the inherent violence of abortion, none of the feminist arguments made sense. Like the claim that a fetus is not really a person because it is so small. Well, I’m only 5 foot 1. Women, in general, are smaller than men. Do we really want to advance a principle that big people have more value than small people? That if you catch them before they reach a certain size, it’s alright to kill them? What about the child who is ‘unwanted’? It was a basic premise of early feminism that women should not base their sense of worth on whether or not a man ‘wants’ them. We are valuable simply because we are members of the human race, regardless of any other person’s approval. So do we really want to say that ‘unwanted’ people might as well be dead? What about a woman who is ‘wanted’ when she’s young and sexy, but less so as she gets older? At what point is it all right to terminate her?