Even if you’ve heard more than enough about Terry Schiavo, it seems useful to consider why Bush’s political grandstanding backfired. Over seventy percent of Americans, including solid majorities of self-described evangelicals, opposed the intervention of the White House and Congress.
Those surveyed mistrusted the Bush administration’s blatant disregard for local control, the rule of law, and the right to be protected from a capricious federal government.
Their responses also speak to a broader shift in how we deal with difficult end-of-life issues. For twenty years, gradually increasing majorities have agreed that for all our technological inventiveness, what some people need most is the right to die in peace.
You’d think that this belief–that the most difficult intimate decisions must be our own–would also raise support for maintaining the right to abortion. But it hasn’t. In the 30 years since Roe v. Wade, support for keeping abortion legal, and without onerous restrictions, has stayed even, at most, and new onerous restrictions keep getting imposed.
The difference comes, I suspect, from the stories we tell-and those we keep hidden. Many American families have wrestled with end-of-life choices, or see these choices on their own horizon. These are personal, often wrenching decisions, involving complex webs of responsibility. But they’re brought on by the illnesses and aging of our loved ones, not by our own actions. No one judges us for having a sick parent as they might for our sexuality. So we’re likely to talk in public, or to a wider circle of co-workers and friends, about the choices we face around end-of-life decisions. As a result, our fellow citizens have more of a sense of what these choices entail.
But most women and girls don’t publicly discuss their abortions, except sometimes with their most intimate female friends. A third of all U.S women have abortions by age 45, of whom 27 percent are Catholic (Catholics represent 22 percent of the US population) and 13 percent born-again or Evangelical Christians. But they’re more likely to view the dilemma as product of their own failures-to use adequate birth control, to have the financial or emotional resources to afford another child, to have enough of a supportive relationship. They’re more likely to be judged critically by those who still view women’s sexuality as stained by Eve and Jezebel. They’re more likely to feel shame.
When the movement to legalize abortion began, advocates talked about the human costs of prohibition-the consequences for the women involved and those who tried to help them. They told the complex stories of why women would choose to value their own lives, choices, and possibilities over the potential life of the fetus they were carrying. They framed abortion as an act of compassion, even if one sometimes tinged with sadness. We see this in Mike Leigh’s powerful recent film, Vera Drake, whose working-class protagonist in post-war England views her actions “helping young girls in trouble” as part of the same ethic of caring as looking after her aged mother and comforting sick neighbors. Pro-choice activists told their stories powerfully enough to begin convincing their fellow citizens that America’s abortion policies had to change-that the cost in unwanted children, closed-off options for mothers, and lifelong loveless relationships was simply too great.
Since Roe, these voices have quieted, drowned out by those speaking for the humanity of the fetus. Some oppose abortion from genuine compassion, standing up for what they view as the voiceless and vulnerable. In other cases, those who also campaign against sex education, access to birth control, and financial support for poor families, the motive seems more like punitive vindictiveness. As the lives of the actual women involved faded to invisibility, the reasons why women have always made make this difficult choice–and will keep doing so–got told far less often, in public and personal conversations.
The head of Albany, New York’s Planned Parenthood chapter even described to me how several abortion clinic picketers got unexpectedly pregnant, found themselves on the opposite of the clinic doors, “and somehow justified it because the three exceptions that most everyone seems to agree on are ‘rape, incest, or me.'” Afterwards, some even returned to picketing. Others drifted away. But none of their stories went public, no more than most of the others who ended their pregnancies at the clinic.
Maybe the differences in shifting public sentiments come from inherent differences in the two issues-a sense that fetal life has more value and potential than someone lying in bed dying. But that isn’t what the right-to-life advocates are saying. Many conservative Catholics and fundamentalists are involved in both issues. Both revolve around fundamentally unknowable questions about when life begins and ends, and the degree to which we should be masters of our fates or accept a path that seems handed to us divinely.
For those of us who believe, as I do, that abortion must always remain an available choice for all, even as it continues to be a morally impossible choice for some, we have to start telling the stories. That means those of 15-year-olds and grandmothers, married and single women, those unsure whether they’ll ever have children and those who have more than they can handle.
Planned Parenthood’s recent distribution of “I Had an Abortion” T-shirts and Jennifer Baumgardner’s film of the same name are good beginnings. But the process of telling the stories has to be extended further. For only by giving flesh to the abstractions and getting into the heart of the difficult decisions and consequences individuals face, can we convince our culture to deal with these choices with true compassion.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of fall 2004 by the History Channel and American Book Assocation. See www.theimpossible.org. A shorter version of this ran in USA Today.