Thursday, April 19, 2012


April 19, 2012:

Lorraine and I happened to be in Virginia when the business came up about forcing women who wanted abortions to have an ultrasound probe inserted painfully in their vaginas beforehand--and be forced to look at whatever state the foetus was in. While we were there the Governor began to back down, but it was clear that it wasn't because he thought the proposed law was outrageous. It was because he was catching too much flack in the national media. A number of other states already have this or a similar law trying to limit a woman's right to an abortion; and of course there are laws about contraception getting passed, too, and it's becoming clearer and clearer that the Republican party is growing increasingly aggressive toward the right of women to control their own bodies.

I have written about this subject before, objecting on constitutional grounds to the imposition of religious beliefs on American citizens. Abortion is essentially a religious issue; certain religions claim that the foetus is a "person" at conception, because that, supposedly, is when God implants the soul into the foetus, and therefore to destroy the foetus is murder. How human beings are supposed to know what God does when is never explained, because it can't be explained; it's nothing more than a belief, and like all beliefs it is no absolute. It has a history, even in the Catholic church, where one finds it at its most strident. St. Thomas Aquinas had no problem with abortion before the "quickening," which is when the infant starts to move and kick inside the mother's body. It wasn't until much later, the nineteenth century, if I remember correctly, that the church decided to condemn abortion no matter when it was performed. And at all times in history women have found ways to terminate pregnancies despite beliefs or the law. Before I was born in 1936 my own mother tried to abort me, using herbs and hot baths and whatever else she could find in the stock of traditional abortifacients; my parents already had a child, they were struggling to survive, they didn't think they could afford me. Obviously I made it into the open, but I have never blamed her. It wasn't personal. I wasn't who I am yet; I was just tissue. And after I was born they loved me with as much tenderness and care as they loved my brother.

I read an article some years ago written by a philosopher that put this business in what I thought was proper perspective. Suppose, this writer said, that you woke up one morning to find yourself hooked up with tubes and whatever else was required to keep him alive to a famous violinist, and standing over you was a policeman who said, "Here's the story. It's your job to nurture this violinist here for the next nine months, when you'll be unhooked and free of him; but in the meantime you have no choice, he's yours, you're his, and that's that." As this writer correctly pointed out, no court in the land would enforce such a situation. No one is obliged to sacrifice one's freedom for the sake of another, even at the cost of that other person's life. You may choose to do so, but that's entirely up to you. You cannot be forced. Not in law.

So on what grounds can we force women to do precisely this when they're pregnant? Even if they were carrying a famous violinist, manifestly a person, you could not force them. And there's no proof, indeed no evidence, that the foetus is a person. That's merely a belief, specifically a religious belief, and the Constitution separates religious belief from the state definitively.

In life as it is lived women will get abortions no matter what. Including women who don't "believe" in abortion. I read a story recently about a woman who demonstrated every day opposite an abortion clinic against abortions, bringing a stepladder to the demonstration so she could make her voice heard more loudly. Then one day she showed up inside the clinic. She needed an abortion. She got one. Two days later she was back on her stepladder. I heard another story from a friend of a friend about a Mafia wife who was also dead set against abortion, until she found out that her teenage son had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. She herself drove the girl to the abortion clinic. Did she change her opposition to abortion? Guess what: no.

The level of hypocrisy on this issue is, in other words, high. As women are fond of pointing out, if men got pregnant too this would not be an issue at all, and abortions would be routine everywhere in the U. S. Make abortions illegal again, and the same thing will happen as before. People with money will send their daughters abroad for their abortions, or their doctors will hook them up with reliable private abortionists, while the poor will go to the back alleys and get it down with clothes hangers. I know a woman driven to that; it was a botched job; she could never have children after. I know another who had such an abortion and had to submit to a rape first, by the abortionist. And let me tell you my story, or rather my first wife's story. She was two weeks pregnant when she was in an automobile accident, her skull was fractured and bones in her knee were broken. The ambulance rushed her to the hospital where, unconscious, she was x-rayed from head to toe to find out what had happened to her body. She did not know at the time she was pregnant. But she was a nurse, and she did know that x-rays have a 50-50 chance of causing major deformities in a foetus so undeveloped. She was a working mother; I was a working father. Abortion was illegal in this country. It had just been legalized in England, however. We found a group of sympathetic Protestant ministers--religious people, got that?--who were referring people in our situation, or situations like it, to doctors in England; we got in touch with them; a Methodist minister talked to us, gave us a phone number, we put our kids in the care of my parents, and within a week we were in London. The doctor wanted to know why we needed the abortion. We told him why. He scheduled it for the next day.

America is a barbaric country in so many ways, violent, ignorant, full of unreason, but surely the religious absolutism that infects so large a proportion of the population is one of its worst character traits. We constantly talk about freedom, but do not hesitate to impose our belief systems on others. The hardest thing to find on the religious right seems to be compassion. One looks at the sayings and teachings of Jesus and then at vaginal ultrasound and you wonder how they can go to church and pray to that gentle man, or pretend to believe they can be like him. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Oh, really? Well then, if you were poor, would you hope somebody would help you? Or would you be OK with tax laws that grotesquely favor the rich and beat up on the poor? Walk a mile in the shoes of a jobless poor man. Walk a mile in a woman's shoes, get pregnant, give birth to children you can't support, can't educate, can't give a decent life. A rich man has as much chance to get into heaven as a camel has of getting through the eye of a needle. So why do you worship wealth, worship the Almighty Dollar, bend all policy to favor the rich? Morally it is more than grotesque; there's a kind of active evil inside these policies, a crescendo of hypocrisy that leads on the political level to deep disgust, and the terminal cynicism that brings nations down. Count on it: if your daughter needs an abortion, you're going to get it for her no matter what your ideology, or your so-called religous belief, or whatever other authoritarian impulse drives you. The Founders had vivid memories of what governments steeped in religion do to people, and the First Amendment is very clear on the subject. Are you religious? Fine. Believe whatever you want. But keep it to yourself. Don't try to impose it on the rest of us. You have no right.