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Life Begins at Conversation


Those of us who support reproductive rights like to say that polls show most Americans are on our side. The truth is that they are on our side, but.

I’ve been an opinion columnist for 15 years, and the public debate that has advanced least during that time is the one about abortion. (For the record, the discussion of gay rights has come the farthest.) From the time Roe v. Wade was first handed down by the high court, leaders of the opposing sides have been frozen into polar positions. Autonomy versus maternity. Coat hanger versus cradle. Constitution versus church.

Those are oversimplifications, but too often oversimplification has seemed to be the ruling principle on this extraordinarily complex issue. And so many of the discussions of abortion from both sides have felt remote from everyday concerns. Maybe you know someone who watches the little stick turn blue and sits down on the toilet to think about a culture of life or the right to privacy. I don’t. Lots of women have decided to end a pregnancy wondering why the so-called debate seems to have no connection to what they’re thinking, feeling and doing.

We talk about how the country became so bitterly divided. Abortion is the issue that first set the template for this schism. The public dialogue hardened into ice long ago. In the most recent issue of Conscience, the journal of Catholics for a Free Choice, the leader of the group tries to break the impasse with a wise and provocative manifesto. Frances Kissling asks those who believe in legal abortion to publicly acknowledge competing interests, writing, “Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time; of valuing life and respecting women’s rights?”

She goes on to raise some compelling questions. Is it helpful to concentrate solely on legal arguments when moral imperatives are so much a part of the equation for many people? Is it useful to refuse to consider the emotional pull of the fetus even as we conclude that the rights of the mother ultimately take precedent? Is there a dangerous disconnect between our public positions and our private sentiments, a disconnect the public suspects is dishonest?

Kissling makes some excellent arguments in support of legal abortion, in which she believes deeply. To the charge that a culture in which abortion is permitted will devalue respect for all life, she counters with the example of Romania under Ceausescu, where abortion was forbidden yet children were abandoned in record numbers. But she also takes note of how troubling some potential allies have found the seemingly automatic support for later procedures, writing, “Is there nothing, they ask, that concerns pro-choice people about abortion?”

Those of us who support reproductive rights like to say that polls show many Americans are on our side. The truth is that they are on our side, but. But they are troubled by what they’ve heard about certain methods. But they’re concerned about what they can see on the sonogram. How come, they ask, an unaccompanied 14-year-old can’t get a tattoo but can get an abortion? How come when you want it it’s called a baby and when you don’t it’s called a fetus? And how come they’re made to feel unreasonable and ignorant when they ask such questions? How come we don’t call it as they feel it?

Difficult questions should not be met with silence or slogans; they should be met with speech, speech and more speech. The abortion-rights agenda should be set, not by the opponents, but by the interested onlookers. Kissling wrote her essay before the election results were in. Today those who work to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal may be tempted to harden their positions even further under renewed fire from the right. That would be wrong.

Sure, it’s alarming that the new senator from Oklahoma is an obstetrician who believes abortion should be outlawed and the death penalty applied to abortionists. Tom Coburn objects to legal abortion in the case of rape, noting that his own great-grandmother was raped by a sheriff, and he opposes abortion for what he calls “convenience.” Yet he performed two abortions himself on women with heart disease.

There’s hours worth of useful discussion in that one paragraph. What if those women had had, not heart conditions, but mental illness that made them suicidal in the face of pregnancy? Should public policy for all rape victims be based on one family’s history four generations removed? And what constitutes convenience? If you are destitute, is it convenient to have an abortion, or realistic? As the National Catholic Reporter concluded in a recent editorial, opposing abortion is “cheap grace” for those politicians who don’t support policies that make it easier for women to bear and raise children.

People will keep on reducing this discussion as best they can: God and freedom, rights and wrongs. But this will never be an easy issue to parse. It can’t be; instead of fitting neatly into black-and-white boxes, it takes place in that messy gray zone of hard choices informed by individual circumstances and conscience. People of good faith need to talk about it just that way, to advance the dialogue even in the face of rigid opposition. We insult women by suggesting that this issue is easily encapsulated in aphorisms. We insult ourselves by leaving its complexities unexamined.

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2004 issue of Newsweek.

Catholics for Choice