I’ve been thinking about this post for some time. I was going to write it last January, on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but then I was busy being pregnant and tired and sick with a series of debilitating colds. I was going to do it in February, when I wrote a review of Kathryn Trueblood’s The Baby Lottery for mamazine, but I was still pregnant and sick. And then sweet Zoë was born and I was just too busy. It was easy to put off because I didn’t actually want to write the post. I knew it would cause controversy, and I was worried about alienating readers.
I can’t put it off any longer. I wouldn’t feel right. I can’t put it off any longer because it’s not only a personal issue, it’s a political one, and it’s an election year. And I can’t put it off any longer because McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Palin, like McCain, is anti-choice. This doesn’t surprise me—he wouldn’t have chosen her otherwise. Why does it bother me so much, then, that she is what she is? Is it because she doesn’t think abortion should be legal even in the case of rape? Is it because she went so far to say that she would not allow her own daughter to get an abortion if she had been raped? Is it that she says abortion is wrong in every case (except when a woman’s life is in danger), but opposes comprehensive sex education for young people, upholding that abstinence-only is the only sex education that kids should get? (Perhaps her own daughter would not be pregnant if she had received fact-based sex ed. Just a thought.) Is it because she failed to pass legislation that would support single parents by cutting funding for teen mothers in her state?
All of the above. All of these things bother me. And it bothers me that she claims some sort of moral high ground on abortion and everything else because she calls herself a Christian.
I hate to break it to her, but most religious Americans believe in treating woman as responsible moral decision makers. They believe in supporting women and families. They believe that abortion is a decision between a woman and her God. Indeed, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism all have official statements in support of reproductive choice.
Clergy even fought for a woman’s right to choose abortion before abortion was legal. Prior to Roe v. Wade, a group of clergy in New York established what was called the Clergy Counseling Service on Abortion, helping women find safe abortions. The counseling service expanded to include over 2,000 clergy nationwide, and after Roe v. Wade, became what is known today as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. If you have never seen From Danger to Dignity, a documentary film about the Clergy Consultation Service and the struggle to legalize abortion in this country, watch it. Watch it. Watch it—especially if you born after 1973.
Abortion, you see, is not a black and white issue. We like to say it is because in America things have to be bad or good, right or wrong. But that’s not really how we live. We live complicated, muddy, very gray lives. And the decisions we make about reproduction are also complicated, muddy, and very gray.
There are two books I’ve been thinking about in relation to this issue: Kathryn Trueblood’s The Baby Lottery and Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise. Trueblood’s novel is about five women, college friends in their late thirties, who find their relationships strained when one of them, Charlotte, decides to have a second-trimester abortion after delaying the decision in the hope that her husband will change his mind.
I like what Kathryn Trueblood said last winter, when I spoke to her on the phone about the book:
“Most people have some ambivalence about abortion, and are at least a little conflicted about it, but we never talk about those feelings, and it was important to me to present some of those feelings here. I think we, as a country, have not progressed in our discussion of abortion.”
The novel records the voices of Charlotte’s four friends as they struggle to bridge the gap between what they should feel and what they do feel about Charlotte’s decision. Charlotte is an alcoholic and wouldn’t make a very good mother. She’s in a sad, lonely marriage. But she could have terminated earlier, no? I went back and forth, disliking her and feeling sorry for her. It’s complicated. It’s muddy. There is no black and white in this story, just gray, and that’s why I respect it. It felt real to me.
Penny Wolfson’s book is a memoir about her son, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The book is about watching him grow up and deteriorate at the same time. It’s about genetics and what it means to know oneself on a molecular level. I have posted about her essay of the same title, which is one of my very favorite essays. The memoir is very good, as well, though I didn’t love it the way I love the essay. (I think this has to do with the longer form, and what happens when you turn an essay into a memoir.) I do think it is an important memoir, however. One of my favorite parts is the chapter in which Wolfson is pregnant with her third child. Girls are carriers of the disease, but it only affects boys. If prenatal testing shows the fetus is a boy and has Duchenne—a fifty percent chance if it’s a boy—she will terminate.
In this chapter, Wolfson responds to a column by Anna Quindlen in which Quindlen states her opposition to amniocentesis, saying, “The only compelling argument anyone had made to us for amnio, which is not entirely without risk, was made by my doctor, who asked us to consider the possibility that we could not devote sufficient time to the needs of the children we have now if we were looking after those of someone so much needier. We considered that argument, and let it go. Having more than one child always means a willingness either to give less to the others or to stretch yourself more.”
“I don’t completely disagree. But I am still, somehow, furious. If she’d had a child with a genetic disease, I think, she might not have felt the way she did. She might have known more about stretching herself, about how there are limits. How easy to think in black and white ways when the gray things haven’t occurred yet! If the gray stuff hasn’t happened, you can feel free to have that third baby or fourth or as many as you like. The future seems open.”
When she contemplates an abortion, she says, “Whatever pain, physical and otherwise, I can imagine from such a procedure pales beside the vision of another boy with muscular dystrophy, another boy genetically programmed to degenerate.”
(She did not end up terminating. The CVS showed her son would not have Duchenne.)
Wolfson is very brave, and I dare anyone to judge her. How can we judge something we have not lived? Unfortunately, we do it all the time. (I’m guilty of it, as well.) But this is part of the problem: we lack empathy. We lack understanding. We seem unable to move beyond our own narrow experiences in the world and imagine being in someone else’s shoes. This is a dangerous way to be.
Back to Palin: Another thing I dislike about her is how she uses her son (if, indeed, he is her son), who has Down syndrome, as part of her pro-life platform. I know hundreds of pro-choice women who would choose not to terminate a pregnancy because of Down syndrome. Pro-choice women and pro-choice families make this decision every day. It is the decision D and I would have made, and while I was pregnant with Zoë, we decided against the testing because we knew we would not terminate our pregnancy because of Down syndrome. This does not make me any less pro-choice. (Know that I would have terminated, however, if our twenty-week ultrasound had showed fetal anomalies incompatible with life.)
I like what Kate Trump O’Connor says at the end of her Brain, Child essay “Not One of Those Mothers,” which is about being the mother to a son who has Down syndrome:
“Since Thomas’ birth, I have struggled with the moral and ethical issues surrounding the increasingly early prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. I do not want to impose on the personal choices of other, and yet I do not want fear—the fear of difference and the fear of our own inadequacy—to make life and death decisions for us. We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s something Thomas, with his determination and persistence, shows me every day.”
Abortion is never an easy choice. I don’t know anyone who takes it lightly. I don’t know any pro-choice person who is pro-abortion. I think, as a nation, we need to do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions, and there are ways of doing this: by making contraception, family planning services, and emergency contraception available and affordable; by providing people living wage jobs and the resources they need to start a family if they choose; by providing holistic, comprehensive sex education to all of our young people.
It’s a muddy, complicated issue, so let’s address it as such. Let’s not force it into one-line slogans. Let’s not make it about religious people versus secular people. Let’s give the real lived experiences of women and families space. Let’s listen to their stories. Let’s try to understand each other and be empathetic. Let’s support common-sense public policies that will give women and families real choices. And as we do all of the above, let us not forget that making abortion illegal won’t reduce the number of abortions; it will simply kill women.