EVERYTHING WAS going swimmingly on the panel. The subject was politics and faith, and I was on stage with two clergymen with progressive spiritual leanings, and a moderator who is liberal and Catholic. We were having a discussion with the audience of 1,300 people in Washington about many of the social justice topics on which we agree–the immorality of the federal budget, the wrongness of the president’s war in Iraq. Then an older man came to the mike and raised the issue of abortion, and everyone just lost his or her mind.
Or, at any rate, I did.
Maybe it was the way in which the man couched the question, which was about how we should reconcile our progressive stances on peace and justice with the “murder of a million babies every year in America.” The man who asked the question was soft-spoken, neatly and casually dressed.
Then, when I was asked to answer the next question, I paused, and returned to the topic of abortion. There was a loud buzzing in my head, the voice of reason that says, “You have the right to remain silent,” but the voice of my conscience was insistent. I wanted to express calmly, eloquently, that pro-choice people understand that there are two lives involved in an abortion–one born (the pregnant woman) and one not (the fetus)–but that the born person must be allowed to decide what is right.
Also, I wanted to wave a gun around, to show what a real murder looks like. This tipped me off that I should hold my tongue, until further notice. And I tried.
But then I announced that I needed to speak out on behalf of the many women present in the crowd, including myself, who had had abortions, and the women whose daughters might need one in the not-too-distant future–people who must know that teenage girls will have abortions, whether in clinics or dirty backrooms. Women whose lives had been righted and redeemed by Roe vs. Wade. My answer was met with some applause but mostly a shocked silence.
Pall is a good word. And it did not feel good to be the cause of that pall. I knew what I was supposed to have said, as a progressive Christian: that it’s all very complicated and painful, and that Jim was right in saying that the abortion rate in America is way too high for a caring and compassionate society.
But I did the only thing I could think to do: plunge on, and tell my truth. I said that this is the most intimate decision a woman makes, and she makes it all alone, in her deepest heart of hearts, sometimes with the man by whom she is pregnant, with her dearest friends or with her doctor–but without the personal opinion of say, Tom DeLay or Karl Rove.
I said I could not believe that men committed to equality and civil rights were still challenging the basic rights of women. I thought about all the photo-ops at which President Bush had signed legislation limiting abortion rights, surrounded by 10 or so white, self-righteous married men, who have forced God knows how many girlfriends into doing God knows what. I thought of the time Bush appeared on stage with children born from frozen embryos, children he calls “snowflake babies,” and of the embryos themselves, which he calls the youngest and most vulnerable Americans.
And somehow, as I was answering, I got louder and maybe even more emphatic than I actually felt, and said it was not a morally ambiguous issue for me at all. I said that fetuses are not babies yet; that there was actually a real difference between pro-abortion people, like me, and Klaus Barbie.
Then I said that a woman’s right to choose was nobody else’s goddamn business. This got their attention.
Now that’s more like it. Whether this is the optimal strategy, I don’t know; I’m inclined to agree with Amanda that Saletan’s “pro-choice war on abortion” may have some tactical advantages but is bad strategy. (I also should make it clear that pro-choicers should continue to support policies–access to contraception, rational sex ed, good childcare for poor working mothers, etc.–that will tend to lower abortion rates, and it’s fine to point out these consequences to expose the contradictions of the “pro-life” position.) But I do know that I certainly think that Lamott is right, and when you’re dealing with a critical right I think that substantive merits matter. Since most pro-lifers aren’t willing to act as if they actually believe that abortion is “murder,” I continue to think that there’s no reason for pro-choicers to play lip service to to the claim. I’m happy that people like Lamont are willing to actually start speaking truth to received “wisdom.”
(Cross-posted to Sisyphus Shrugged.)