"And thus, I don’t blog abortion," writes Hugo Schwyzer, making an exception because today is (did you know? I didn't) the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. (Thanks, codepoke, for linking here in the Comments. You made my day.)
(Schwyzer's an interesting blogger: a very male feminist, a reborn Christian, and a rescuer of ranch chinchillas! Strange headfellows!)
I've just finished reading two abortion-related things that have spawned rather opposite reactions in me. One was the New York Times Magazine's cover story (creepy blank-faced doll, looks for all the world like that dead guard trussed up on the cell bars by Hannibal Lecter in Tennessee) on the concept of "post-abortion syndrome" as a form of post-traumatic stress and the woman as the co-victim in every abortion.
It's hard for me to give words to my reaction to this. Although I harbor endlessly reverberating regret about the abortion I had, I've always resisted the consolation industry, the people who show up with Kleenex after plane crashes, or hold "post-abortive" workshops allowing you to "grieve, forgive yourself, and move on." But then, clearly, I'm not the demographic this movement is aimed at. The women described in the article have other deep, deep trouble in their lives: they're addicts, they're in jail, they were battered by their partners or sexually abused as children. This movement encourages them to pinpoint their abortion(s) as the fountainhead of all their disturbance, a devastating act they committed in powerlessness and ignorance, one foisted on them by a no-good man, by an evil lying abortionist who told them it was only a "blob of tissue," by a callous culture. Writer Emily Bazelon concludes the article:
And then there is the relief in seizing on a single clear explanation for a host of unwanted and overwhelming feelings, a cause for everything gone wrong. When Arias surveyed 104 of the prisoners she had counseled in 2004, two-thirds reported depression related to abortion, 32 percent reported suicide attempts related to abortion and 84 percent linked substance abuse to their abortions. They had a new key for unlocking themselves. And a way to make things right. “You have well-meaning therapists or political crusaders, paired with women who are troubled and experiencing a variety of vague symptoms,” Brenda Major, the U.C. Santa Barbara psychology professor, explained to me. “The therapists and crusaders offer a diagnosis that gives meaning to the symptoms, and that gives the women a way to repent. You can’t repent depressive symptoms. But you can repent an action.” You can repent an abortion. You can reach for a narrative of sin and atonement, of perfect imagined babies waiting in heaven.
It's complicated. Yes, female powerlessness is a major cause of unwanted pregnancy and abortion: women are forced into sex or are afraid to say no or they try to trade sex for love; they find themselves pregnant with bad, irresponsible boyfriends, no job, no money, and at best fragile plans to complete their education and make something of themselves. Sadly, choosing to end a pregnancy in such circumstances sometimes gives a woman almost the only feeling of power she''s ever had. Other times, she wants to hold on to the pregnancy (I did), but is pressured out of it by the man.
Nonetheless, I think, to try to coddle the woman and encourage her to think of herself as another innocent victim is to disempower her all over again. When pro-life women contacted me after I wrote my abortion essays, they mostly expressed only sweet sympathy for me (my old friend Juli Loesch Wiley, the pro-life, antiwar activist, was the almost refreshing exception: she got angry), and they flared with rage at the young doctor who performed the abortion and said to me "Good girl" for enduring the pain. You could hear the blame being shifted to the male, leaving the woman all pure, misled victim. I didn't blame the doctor, though now I can hear the bitter irony of his words; he wasn't unkind, he obviously didn't say what he said out of slavering, perverted enthusiasm for suctioning out uteruses. He was doing what I "wanted," or felt I had no choice (talk about irony!) but to do, and he was only commending my stoicism. He was the agent of my besieged and misinformed will, but my will, still. I could have acted differently if I'd had the guts and the clarity.
But was I traumatized? To make that claim reasserts an idea of women as natural mothers and nurturers, who can only be torn away from that nature- or God-given calling by psychological violence. I'm afraid that's too pretty a picture of us women, who certainly have that strand, that potential in our natures, but can also be hard-hearted, lustful, selfish, and more, especially if we were not tenderly mothered ourselves. In a better world we would all be infinitely sensitive to one another; in this real world we are subjected to many forces from within and without that either batter us numb to all but our own need or require us to desensitize ourselves to survive. No, I don't think you can depend on pure emotion to well up and make women put accidental motherhood ahead of their struggling, half-born selves. Emotion has to be taught and protected by principle. I think we all (women and men) need to have understanding and awe of what a new life is drummed into us; only then will we be more careful of both creating and discarding it.
Also, I don't want to forgive myself. First of all, guilt is not what I feel. I feel regret, which is appropriate and irrevocable. I don't torture myself or suffer psychological disturbance as a result of having had an abortion; I'm too healthy and probably too pagan for that. What I suffer is barrenness for myself and loneliness for someone who should have been literally as close to me as my own heart, whose face I never saw and whose voice I never heard. (The latter struck me only recently, and I wondered why I hadn't thought of it before.) What I suffer is being alone in the world and disconnected from life in the most primitive way. And that is appropriate. That is a fact. Those are the consequences of the choice I made.
I also know very well that my regret is completely particular to my situation. There are almost no valid generalizations in these realms. This was no flash-in-the-pan man, I'd been with the baby's father (however ambivalently) for a decade; his mother, whom I adored, had just died; I'd always wanted to have a child; I was 36 and might not (and did not) get another chance. Women who got pregnant in frankly bad or fleeting relationships and had abortions in order to keep the lives they'd planned on track frequently have no regrets at all. I find that sad because it rubs out the reality of a whole individual; this is a lie we tell ourselves in order to go ahead and do something which, if we really felt it, we couldn't do. I'm frightened by the power we have to tell ourselves a lie and disappear a life. I think we have to face the fact that we do have that power of life and death before we can decide how lightly we really want to use it.
I wanted to go on and write about the second abortion-related thing I'd just read -- Juli Loesch Wiley's wonderful new book Emma's Journal, a feisty, forlorn diary of marching for life and peace and looking for love in the 1980s that I devoured as if it was a thriller: will Emma find a man to love and marry? I especially want to recommend it to my Catholic friends, because it so beautifully portrays someone swimming upstream, insisting quixotically on the sacredness of sex and love in the midst of the recreational free-for-all our culture has become. Karen and Funky will feel reaffirmed; others may feel "naïve" old ideals and longings uncomfortably stirring. But I'll have to write more about it tomorrow, because it's gotten very, very, very late and I am very, very sleepy.
UPDATE: Hello Althousians!