Today is the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion—through all 50 states, for any reason whatsoever. When I was a college student, back in the 70’s, I was in favor of legalizing abortion. I wasn’t a Christian then, but I was a feminist, the first feminist in my dorm, and I was loudly in favor of social revolution and women’s rights. I took it for granted that abortion was necessary, if women were ever going to be equal to men.
Entries in Pro-Life (71)
Fans of Bella and Juno will be glad to welcome Expecting Mary, another film showing how an unexpected pregnancy can lead to a happy ending. This time around the mom-to-be is Mary, a 16-year-old runaway; she is headed for California and her dad who, she thinks, will be more understanding and “cool” than her uptight mom.
“I’m only having it because they [her mom and stepdad] don’t want me to,” she tells another character. Is that because of financial pressures, and too many mouths to feed? No, Mary replies, her parents are rich, and “could afford to feed twenty more mouths.” Mary has spent her life in fancy boarding schools while her parents traveled the world. The pregnancy is unacceptable to them because it is an embarrassment, considering their social circle. “They said, ‘Come home, have an abortion, we’ll say it was appendicitis.’” Instead, she ran away.
I was the first feminist in my dorm. It was 1970, and there wasn’t a lot of feminism in South Carolina, noteven at the state university. I was proud to be one of the pioneers.
One of our goals was to repeal the laws against abortion. I had a bumpersticker on my car: “Don’t labor under a misconception: Legalize abortion.” A couple of my friends who had unplanned pregnancies went to New York for an abortion, at the time the closest place where it was legal. I cheered them on. Abortion was to me proof of feminist commitment, evidence that you would lay your body on the line for the cause of liberation.
[National Review Online; January 22, 2009]
Just two days after the inauguration, another crowd filled Washington streets, the pro-lifers who gather each year for the “March for Life.” This January 22 marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v Wade, and after so many years with little change or improvement, the nation has grown a bit blasé about this annual demonstration against abortion. We still say abortion is a “hot issue”— but if you think about it, it’s not as hot as it used to be. The abortion controversy used to command cover space on magazines, and TV networks showcased hour-long debates. You don’t see that anymore.
You could say that people just got tired of hearing about it. Year after year the two sides said mostly the same thing, and nothing much changed. Eventually, public attention was bound to sidle off to a newer, more exciting topic (gay marriage, anyone?). When attention drifted, it was the pro-choice side that had command of the status quo.
And you could say that that settles that; from now on there will be less and less talk about abortion, and we’ll just get used to things the way they are.
But I can imagine things going a different way. Not soon—maybe not till the baby boomers have passed from the scene—but it’s possible that a younger generation will see abortion very differently. And the reason is, as the saying goes, “Nobody knows when life begins.” With abortions now running around 1.2 million per year, the total number of abortions since Roe v Wade is about 49 million. That’s a big number—about a sixth of the US population. It’s a especially big number, if you’re not absolutely sure that it’s not a real loss of human life.
After all, if you saw a little girl hit by a car, you’re going to yell, “Get an ambulance!” not “Get a shovel!” It’s in the very fabric of humanity to be on the side of life, if there’s the faintest hope that life exists. We don’t throw children away when we’re not sure whether they’re alive or not. And, as the pro-choice side never stops saying, it’s not that they’re positive a fetus is “not alive” – it’s that they’re not sure.
When I was a young fire-breathing college feminist in the early 70’s, we didn’t see abortion as a melancholy private decision—it was an act of liberation. By choosing abortion, a woman could show that she was the only person in charge of her life, and bowed to no one else’s control. But this formulation turned sour as the grief felt by post-abortion woman began to accumulate. The flip side of autonomy is loneliness, and for many women, their abortion decision was linked to emotional abandonment.
And then there was the advent of ultrasound technology, enabling live images of a baby moving in the womb. In 1989, word went round the pro-life movement to order the tape of pollster Harrison Hickman’s presentation at that year’s NARAL convention. On it he said, “Nothing has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about that fetus in much different terms than they did 15 years ago. They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer how to cure.”
So there are some reasons to think that the abortion question has not been settled, but has merely gone underground. That might be a necessary step. It has to go away so that it can be rediscovered, and seen in a fresh light.
I don’t expect that reconsideration soon: my Boomer generation will never see abortion as anything other than the wise and benevolent gift we bestowed on all future generations. We still control the media, the universities, and so forth, and it will take time for all of us to topple off the end of the conveyer belt.
But the time is coming when a younger generation will be in charge, and they may well see abortion differently. They could see it, not as “a woman’s choice” but as a form of state-sanctioned violence inflicted on their generation. It was their brothers and sisters who died; anyone under the age of 36 could have been aborted (and somewhere around a fourth or a fifth of all pregnancies, in fact, are aborted). A younger generation might feel a strange kinship with the brothers and sisters, classmates and coworkers, who are missing.
And I’m afraid that, if they do see things that way, they aren’t going to go easy on my generation. Our acceptance of abortion is not going to look like an understandable goof. The next generation can fairly say, “It’s not like they didn’t know.” They’ll say, “After all, they had sonograms.” And they may judge us to be monsters.
Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe future generations won’t think twice about abortion. But even we who have grown sick of talking about it still harbor some doubts. In particular, people who think of themselves as defenders of the weak and the oppressed must have many a quiet moment when they wonder, “How, in this one issue, did I wind up on the side that’s defending death?”
There’s a lot of ambivalence out there, and a lot of unspoken grief too, I think. So you never know. Pro-choice may have won the day—but sooner or later, that day will end. No generation can rule from the grave. When that time comes, another generation will sit in judgment of ours. And they are not obligated to be kind.
[Ancient Faith Radio, October 23, 2008]
Today’s podcast is going to be one that I expect will be a continuing topic here, “Why CS Lewis is just so irritating.”
Why CS Lewis *is* just so irritating is because, he already said everything. And he said it better than I’ll ever say it. I find when I read him that I’m simultaneously just delighted and thrilled because he’s just put it perfectly, and it’s such a wonderful, original thought, and it’s even a little deeper, and then I think, darn it, if I’d had enough time I could have come up with that! Curses! Foiled again! I just have to not read him, because I just get so frustrated, because he says everything, and he says it better and more concisely and more delightfully, easier to grasp, and all that. I think this is probably similar to the scientist who thinks, Darn it, if Einstein hadn’t said E=MC2, I would have thought of that! Just give me enough time!
[First Things, July 29, 2008]
Though I’m not very informed about the Intelligent Design debate, the idea sounded inoffensive enough: scientists have not discovered a Designer, and neither can they prove there’s no Designer, so why not leave the question open? But the concept of Intelligent Design was greeted with outrage; clearly, it struck a nerve.
When I tried to picture why, I thought of a page in Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat,” one that comes near the end. “Sally and I” have been standing by helplessly while the hatted Cat, with his Thing One and Thing Two, made havoc of the house. The toy boat is in the cake and the cake is on the floor, the rake is bent and mother’s new dress has gone sailing through the room on a kite string. The fish has been trying to warn us, but we have stood by bewildered.
[Ancient Faith Radio; January 23, 2008]
I’m recording this on January 22nd, 2008, the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion all through America—through all 50 states, through all nine months of pregnancy. People question that sometimes, because the Roe decision says that abortion should be available to a woman under any circumstances, until the point of viability. It said that, after that, states can begin to have some laws protecting the unborn child, after viability. But there’s a companion decision to Roe v. Wade, called Doe v. Bolton. It came down the same day, and it governs how that proposed post-viability period can be legislated in the states. It says that states may do nothing to restrict a woman’s access to abortion if she wants the abortion for some aspect of her health. Well, the result is that you can have a legal abortion at almost any point in pregnancy if you are willing to travel for it. There are specialists who go into these post-viability late-term abortions, that’s what they specialize in offering.
[Human Life Review, Summer 2007]
Shortly before Christmas, I got an email from the journalist and Slate.com editor Emily Bazelon. She said that she was writing an article for the New York Times magazine about “women’s experiences post-abortion.” She said she hoped to talk to me that day or the next, and apologized for the short notice. Since I was in and out of the office a lot those pre-holiday days, and thought we might not connect by phone in time, I drafted a quick email it hopes she could mine it for some quotes. Here’s what I wrote her:
[National Review Online, May 18, 2006]
An ordinary man – a professor, say – gets caught in a deadly game of mystery and murder. He’s thrown together with a cool, attractive young woman who may be more than she seems. After many chases and escapes, the two wind up safe in each other’s arms.
Alfred Hitchcock gave us goosebumps with that theme and variations. Ron Howard’s “The DaVinci Code” turns similar material into a big yawn. What happened?
[Sojourners, April 2006]
On a November evening a couple of weeks after the 2004 election, the regular monthly meeting of Orthodox Young Adults was held at my house. These 20 or 30 college students and young professionals are Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area.