The Rights of the Born

I have nothing more to add to this fantastic editorial. Read the whole thing:

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.

First Richard, a Franciscan priest, answered that this is indeed a painful issue but that it is not the only “pro-life” issue that progressives — even Catholics — should concern themselves with during elections. There are also the matters of capital punishment and the war in Iraq, and of HIV. Then Jim, an evangelical, spoke about the need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, and the need to diffuse abortion as a political issue, by welcoming pro-choice and pro-life supporters to the discussion, with equal respect for their positions. He spoke gently about how “morally ambiguous” the issue is.

I sat there simmering, like a samovar; nice Jesusy me. The moderator turned to me and asked quietly if I would like to respond. I did: I wanted to respond by pushing over our table.

Instead, I shook my head. I love and respect the Franciscan and the evangelical, and agree with them 90-plus percent of the time. So I did not say anything, at first.

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.

A cloud of misery fell over the room, and the stage. Finally, Jim said something unifying enough for us to proceed — that liberals must not treat people with opposing opinions on abortion with contempt and exclusion, partly because it’s tough material, and partly because it is so critical that we win these next big elections.

It was not until the reception that I finally realized part of the problem — no one had told me that the crowd was made up largely of Catholics.

I had flown in at dawn on a red-eye, and, in my exhaustion, had somehow missed this one tiny bit of information. I was mortified: I had to eat my body weight in chocolate just to calm myself.

But then I asked myself: Would I, should I, have given a calmer answer? Wouldn’t it have been more useful and harder to dismiss me if I had sounded more reasonable, less — what is the word — spewy?

Maybe I could have presented my position in a less strident, divisive manner. But the questioner’s use of the words “murder” and “babies” had put me on the defensive. Plus I am so confused about why we are still having to argue with patriarchal sentimentality about teeny weenie so-called babies — some microscopic, some no bigger than the sea monkeys we used to send away for — when real, live, already born women, many of them desperately poor, get such short shrift from the current administration.

Most women like me would much rather use our time and energy fighting to make the world safe and just and fair for the children we do have, and do love — and for the children of New Orleans and the children of Darfur. I am old and tired and menopausal and would mostly like to be left alone: I have had my abortions, and I have had a child.

But as a Christian and a feminist, the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life, and reproductive rights for all women is a crucial part of that: It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.

During the reception, an old woman came up to me, and said, “If you hadn’t spoken out, I would have spit,” and then she raised her fist in the power salute. We huddled together for awhile, and ate M&Ms to give us strength. It was a kind of communion, for those of us who still believe that civil rights and equality and even common sense will somehow be sovereign, some day.

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17 comments for “The Rights of the Born

  1. February 12, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    I wrote a post entitled “Teaching Men New Tricks” about the timelineness of Anne Lamott’s essay in the same week that Australian senator Lyn Allison made a similar public disclosure.

  2. February 13, 2006 at 12:44 am

    Very good article. Nothing more needs to be said. I think you were right in letting it speak for itself.

  3. February 13, 2006 at 2:07 am

    Anne Lamont really touched a nerve in my former Catholic self. I too lost it. I started writing a comment and it turned into a post that, anyway, I’ve wanted to write for a while now :
    It was me who said, “let there be a child”, not a man nor a god but me, Woman.

    It should appear in the morning.

  4. CKB
    February 13, 2006 at 3:21 am

    Exactly. That buzzing, if-you-don’t-share-the-truth-you-might-strangle-the-bastard feeling is so much more common during my discussions these days…

    What happened to caring about people in the here and now?

  5. February 13, 2006 at 6:07 am

    I felt sad when i read this post. I thought about what happens for wimmin when they actually feel the rage they/we theorize about so much as feminists. When red hot anger at the very real oppression in our lives floods over us and bids us speak. Speak with a clarity our tongues are unaccustomed to. Speak with a clarity we are not, by virtue of our very oppression as wimmin, not encouraged to reach for through speech. Rage, clarity, articulateness, a lethal combo that can be wielded in our struggles against even the most soft spoken and courteous oppressors. This woman couldn’t even say she was angry at that seemingly soft spoken, “gentle” little man who nonverbally referenced the emotional torment, social stigma and death of so many wimmin who had had or hadn’t been able to get or had been fearful of having abortions due to the “work” of communities like the one this old man draws his support and ideas from. He nonverbally referenced the cold-blooded murder of abortion doctors as an acceptable means of stopping the supposed “murder of millions of babies”. He pushed buttons no conscious woman would have been able to back down from. And yet, this woman tried to deny her very real, very valid feelings. She tried to maintain silence and was mortified when she couldn’t. She tried to be a “good” woman and was met by a stunned room when her feminism and her conscious gave her a path and she chose to follow it. I thought about the many times I have spoken from a place of clear consciousness and the political, wielding my truths as a sword and a shield before me in ways only men are allowed to do and still be considered acceptable and still be clapped on the back by many and still be verbally lauded by many. Wimmin’s work even in feminist circles is still to stifle, to remain silent, to deny emotion and to live with the effects of this gruelling contructed role…she had to eat her own body weight in chocolate, eat inappropriately, eat obsessively to reground from the effects of and the expression of her own rage? This is not a good thing.

  6. Gordon K
    February 13, 2006 at 9:06 am

    Darkdaughta, it’s not about “woman’s work” being to stay silent, even in feminist circles. It’s a fight that anyone who works in political circles faces – knowing that, at times, it may be wiser in the long run to shut up. To gain allies by not pressing an issue that you all know is present. Yet on the other hand, these issues press to be heard. The author had a choice; whether she made the right decision or not remains to be seen.

    Again, we see this in all political fights, but most particularly in fights where one group is oppressed. I fight for my rights as a disabled person in a society where disabled are passively ignored and actively held back; in my fight to improve the situation for disabled as a whole, and to get the accomodations I need as an individual, it is sometimes necessary for me to accept that I can’t speak out at the moment, that I have to wait. But that acceptance always feels like a betrayal of what I know is true, right, and just.

    Disability services at my university has all sorts of very personal information about me that they really shouldn’t have, but I don’t fight it because I need them as allies. They sometimes interfere where they have no business, in ways that are patronizing and may prevent me from assimilating as I would like, but I can’t say anything. In order to get paratransit services from the state, I need to deal with dispatchers and drivers who are patronizing as hell, but I don’t speak out because, again, I need to be on their good side. I may be wronged by one group, but then feel unable to speak out because I need their cooperation later. Or I may be unable to accept the price of speaking out at the moment, and be forced to hold the issue on a backburner until the situation is more stable. It is a political reali

    This is not to say that this woman made the wrong choice. Not having been there, not knowing the situation, I really can’t say, and the choice of when to let things slide like this (or rather, when to decide to fight it on another battleground) is a very personal one. Instead, what I’m trying to say is that when injustices occur, we are often faced with the choice of responding with all the emotion – all the anger, all the pain, all the righteousness – we feel, or ignoring the injustice, temporarily or permanently, in favor of a different issue. That choice is never easy, and either decision can bring strong emotions. To me, this article was about the need to speak when injustice occurs balanced against the need to cultivate allies with whom we may not agree on every conceivable issue – and the sturm und drang those needs cause.

  7. Gordon K
    February 13, 2006 at 9:07 am

    My quote got cut off – what I was going to insert just before the last paragraph was: “It is a political reality that all disabled face. On the more universal scale, it is a reality that anyone who needs to play politics faces.”

  8. February 13, 2006 at 9:41 am

    I think the most important statement is the last. “If you hadn’t spoken out, I would have spit.”

    Yes, our stories create visceral responses, and they should. We have spent so much time and effort trying to be respectful of people who do not respect us that we have stopped telling our truths, and have ceded the emotional argument to those who oppose us.

    The right for a woman to choose whether or not to be pregnant is *not*, under any circumstances “morally ambiguous”

    Do we need to win the upcoming elections? Yes, but not by denying women their rights. No more backing down, backing away from this fight, we need to start speaking out, answering back, stop being silent.

  9. February 13, 2006 at 9:56 am

    We have spent so much time and effort trying to be respectful of people who do not respect us that we have stopped telling our truths, and have ceded the emotional argument to those who oppose us.

    This is particularly true with like with the Coretta Scott King funeral. It was “rude” to talk about the war in Iraq and wiretapping and poverty and social justice, not because it was Scott-King’s funeral, NO! But because it made George Bush uncomfortable.

    Priopriety, civility, manners. They are all called up by the Republicans when prominent citizens criticize them for their culture of curruption, torture and war.

    Fuck propriety.

  10. February 13, 2006 at 10:26 am

    Maybe we should throw an abortion party. A real one where people tell their stories about the choices they have made about whether or not to have an abortion. Told in our own words, expression our very real emotions.

    We should send copies of those stories to every representative and every newspaper we can think of. Audio and video should go to every radio station and tv station in the country.

    Every pro-choice person would ideally have a copy of these stories, so that when some anti-choice yahoo opens their mouth and starts spewing nonsense about “millions of babies being killed” we can respond with a story. A true story. An honest story.

  11. kate
    February 13, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    I found that when I was an activist, many middle class white folks have a serious problem in dealing with anger.

    I think there are two factors at play: The first being that an angry woman is considered undesirable and unattractive, the second being that anger calls attention to the powerlessness that many people feel when confronted with issues they cannot immediately solve or figure out an answer to, or that by doing so, challenge the very priviledges they enjoy.

    Righteous anger expresses a direct challenge to change the status quo. I truly believe that many persons see social justice as a good thing to do, whether for religious convictions or ego building, but who have a hard time when confronted with the the gritty truth of social injustice.

    THey’d rather we all talk politely, beg and compromise then go home. What they dont’ want to know is that many can’t just go home, their lives are irrevocably damaged or destroyed by the present system and they don’t enjoy any comfort.

    Therefore, in my mind, a true activist need not feel the need to sooth the sensibilties of those who can ‘just go home’ and forget about the other half until they feel like jumping in and doing a good thing again.

    Someone has to tell the stories, someone has to tell the truth. There are plenty of apologists, compromisers and white washers out there to dilute our stories, why should we have to in order to help others with their icky feelings?

    And I’m sorry, my response to those who claim doing so will piss of the powers that be: Thou protesteth too much.

  12. February 13, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Don’t you just LOVE Anne Lamott? I get to see her this Friday and Saturday here in Richmond at Womankind (.pdf). I’m very excited. I’m also gonna see if she’ll be the keynote speaker at another event but that’s not gonna be until 2009. My mom saw her in DC in mid-January. This just makes me even more excited to see her on Friday!

    Like her, I’m so tired of having this discussion because it centers around something that doesn’t quite exist yet, whereas the real women/girls who are going through this do.

  13. Broce
    February 13, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    . A real one where people tell their stories about the choices they have made about whether or not to have an abortion. Told in our own words, expression our very real emotions.

    I think part of the issue is that many of us are *not* emotional about our decision to terminate a pregnancy, and we’re somehow expected to be.For many of us, it wasn’t a decision we *struggled* with. We knew from the instant we suspected we were pregnant that we’d terminate. We didn’t intend to get pregnant, and did not intend to stay pregnant against our will. It’s just not all that interesting to listen to a bunch of people say “Yes, I had an abortion, so what? It was just the right decision for me at that time, and I am glad it was legally available”

    What I get emotional about isn’t having had an abortion, it’s the probability that soon, other women won’t have that option available.

  14. February 13, 2006 at 6:52 pm


    But those unemotional decisions, those matter-of-fact stories, are important as well.

  15. February 17, 2006 at 7:18 pm

    nice job on your comment on that panel. you had the floor, you said your piece, you were powerful and logical and emotional at the same time, and i’m sure you gave some borderline supporters food for thought. i especially like how you just won’t give in to the assumption that any united sperm and egg make a human. at the risk of self-promotion, my take is #6 on my list of 20 soundbites for liberals on my blog:

    Conception and embryonic development is not a mystical, spiritual, or religious process. It becomes mystical, spiritual or religious when a pregnant woman decides of her own free will to make a commitment to loving and caring for the child that the embryo or fetus will become.

    keep on doing whatcha gotta do.

  16. February 17, 2006 at 7:19 pm

    uhhhh oops…didn’t notice that it wasn’t you. but excellent article, and all those things apply to the writer. heh, sorry.

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