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Chicago Tribune

Most Perceived Shades of Gray in Abortion


Never again, vowed Mark Twarogowski after his college girlfriend became pregnant and she decided to have an abortion. Never again would he behave so irresponsibly or turn his back on a life he had helped create.Ask Twarogowski today how he views abortion, and he expresses distaste. “I don’t know any person who thinks abortion is a good thing, or even that it’s really OK. It’s not,” said the 39-year-old, who is dean at an elementary and middle school in Denver.

And yet Twarogowski strongly embraces Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the United States 30 years ago this week, and he considers himself a committed supporter of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she so chooses.

Sound contradictory? Perhaps. But people like Twarogowski don’t see the nation’s wrenching debate over abortion in terms of black and white. To these people in the middle, this issue leads to a gray zone of complicated feelings and competing values, of vexing moral questions without easy answers.

This group represents the majority of Americans, though their voices are rarely heard in the polarized public discourse on this subject. They think neither that abortion should be legal in all circumstances, like 25 percent of respondents in a May 2002 Gallup poll, nor that it should be altogether illegal, like 22 percent–the opposite extremes of the abortion controversy.

Instead, they are the 51 percent of people who told Gallup’s pollsters “yes, but”: Yes, abortion should be legal, but only in certain circumstances.

Over the years, experts have called this difficult-to-categorize group the “mushy middle” or the “muddled middle.” Whatever the label, their significance in the nation’s ongoing abortion debate is crystal clear.

These are the potential swing voters who anti-abortion advocates would most like to pull over to their side with rhetoric emphasizing the importance of children and the sanctity of life. And they’re the group the abortion-rights supporters most need to keep as allies if they hope to prevent the pendulum of public opinion from swinging against them.

For people in the middle, the old slogans of the abortion wars–“our bodies, our rights” or “abortion stops a beating heart”–aren’t convincing. “They respond to a more nuanced set of messages,” said Heather Boonstra, senior public policy associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization specializing in contraception issues.

On both sides

They are men and women who often describe themselves as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” marrying the two seemingly irreconcilable sides of the controversy in ambivalent compromises. “Pro-life emotionally, pro-choice politically,” is how Vera Lord, an anti-abortion advocate in Pittsburgh, describes them.

Many in this middle group believe abortion is the taking of a form of life; it’s not the murder of an unborn baby, as some would argue, but the extinction of something living nonetheless. Personally, they would not accept it as an option except under extreme circumstances such as rape, incest or a threat to a woman’s health.

A significant number of them don’t want to see abortion practiced as a form of birth control. They believe women and men should take more responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies. And they have serious doubts about abortions after the first trimester has ended and the fetus starts to have recognizable eyes, arms and toes.

Still, this middle group doesn’t want the government deciding this most intimate of issues: whether to bear a child. They don’t want a return to the days of back-alley abortions. Knowing how complicated the circumstances surrounding an unwanted pregnancy can be, they believe abortion should remain a legal right.

A great disappointment for the anti-abortion movement is that “we can’t figure out how to reach this middle,” admits Frederica Mathewes-Green, an anti-abortion writer. “Nothing we’ve done has been successful. We’re baffled why our arguments aren’t working. It seems the mushy middle is not particularly persuaded by logic.”

‘Is this a life?’

The logic to which she is referring is the core of the anti-abortion position: the argument that if you admit a fetus is alive and you permit it to be aborted, you are endorsing murder. “Everyone on the pro-life side is focused on ‘is this a life,’ and there is almost no ambivalence,” Mathewes-Green said.

That’s where the middle defies abortion opponents’ expectations. Many in this group tend to think of abortion differently, with factors that deserve varying consideration under different conditions, explains Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice. “Some say the only moral question is: Is the fetus alive and when? To us, there are other pressing moral questions as well, all of which have weight: What are our responsibilities to ourselves? To our existing children or our children yet to come? To our partners? To our communities?” Kissling said.

Other factors that go into this group’s thinking include a woman’s marital status, her capacity to sustain a pregnancy and care for a child, her faith, her social supports, her socioeconomic status, her physical and mental health, her age and the stage of her pregnancy, Kissling noted.

One of the most significant changes she has observed in the three decades since Roe vs. Wade–and probably one of the greatest challenges to people in the middle–is “a much greater sensitivity to the question of life.”

Aided by ultrasounds that show tiny fetuses, technology has changed the terms of the debate for many people from “it’s only a glob of tissue” to “it’s alive, and I need figure out what I think about that,” she said.

“It creeps me out,” said Colleen Flynn, 21, a student who recently watched an ABC program on fetal sonograms with a mixture of fascination and some distress. “That question–when is it a life?–I guess I think if I think about it too much, I’m worried I’ll pass judgment on other people.”

It’s not for her to say whether women who choose to have abortions are doing something right or wrong, said Flynn, who considers herself a supporter of abortion rights. “I know it’s a hard choice for people, emotionally and physically, and they don’t need any crap from me.”

For her, though, abortion isn’t an option.

“Right now would not be a good time for me to become pregnant. I’m not mature enough,” said Flynn, who shares a Denver apartment with her boyfriend of two years, whom she hopes to marry. “But I don’t know how I could tell my kids, ‘Guess what, when your dad and I were together years ago, I had an abortion.'”

Flynn doesn’t see a contradiction between her personal feelings and her political convictions. What’s right for her isn’t necessarily right for others, she said.

The consequences

Flynn’s close friend, Jenny Heit, 21, considers herself to be on the anti-abortion side of the debate, though she also expresses some views in support of abortion rights.

“I think a baby is a baby once it’s been conceived. It’s a living, human thing,” said Heit, a Roman Catholic who grew up in a conservative religious household.

“If you’re young, you have to live with the consequences of what you’re doing. You can’t just say I goofed up and leave it at that,” said Heit, who also said she would like to see more young people choose to have sex more responsibly.

Heit says she would never have an abortion. Still, she concedes, “I don’t feel comfortable judging someone else unless I’ve been in her shoes.” How can she understand what it would be like to be poor, unmarried and pregnant, she asks. Or 14 and pregnant? Or raped and pregnant?

“I’m in no position to choose for other women,” Heit said.

Sometimes one choice can lead to a very different choice the next time around. It happened that way for Aimee Twarogowski, 39, now married to Mark.

Just as Mark knew he didn’t want to participate in another abortion after going through the experience in college, Aimee had come to the same conclusion. After getting pregnant and having an abortion at 18 during what she calls her “party girl” period, Aimee had decided that becoming an adult meant accepting responsibility.

While Aimee and Mark were dating, she became pregnant. “I’m having this baby with or without you,” she told Mark, who not long thereafter proposed marriage.

Now, the two struggle with a mix of feelings they didn’t have when they were younger. After hearing the heartbeat in her womb and then giving birth to a daughter, Aimee realized that “you have to come to terms with the fact that if you’ve had an abortion you’ve stopped a life.”

Mark feels the same way, but he adds, “It’s a life shared with another human being, as long as it’s unborn. That makes it different.”

He knows that if his daughter, now 11, ever became pregnant as a teenager, he would want someone to tell him so he could be there by her side. Not notifying parents is “far-left nonsense,” he said.

The Twarogowskis think the government should do everything it can to prevent abortions, “short of making them illegal.” But the final decision has to be private, like theirs was, with the government staying out of people’s most intimate business, they say. Aimee said nothing will ever shake this bedrock conviction.

Mark is a little less sure. In the end, the abortion dilemma comes down to a long list of pros and cons for him that ends up “on the pro-choice side by a little bit.” Here’s a slogan that fits his hard-to-categorize position, he suggests: “pro-choice, pro-life, pro-family.”

This article courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.


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