Reading the coverage of today’s March for Life in DC reminded me of some writing I did ten years ago on my now-closed blog Sursum Corda. That year was the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I wrote a week of daily reflections on the subject. You can read the originals here if you are interested.
The following piece was probably the post that generated the most reader commentary, both positive and negative. I read it again today. The advantage of writing regularly is that it allows you to look back and see where your head has been. I’m not sure I’d write it exactly the same way today, but all in all I don’t think my views have changed that much. I offer it as one more contribution to the dialogue.
On a random Saturday morning in the Spring of 1989, you could often find me in front of an abortion clinic. My colleagues and I would get up before sunrise, gather in a parking lot, and wait to receive a call telling us where we would be heading. The word would come, we would load up, drive to the clinic, and fan out to begin our work.
But I was not there to stop abortions. I was there to prevent others from stopping them.
In the Spring of 1989, trying to stop Operation Rescue from shutting down abortion clinics was just one of many ways that I was involved in the abortion rights movement. I was among a small group of people who founded a coalition of abortion rights organizations in a large East Coast city. I served on the steering committee of that coalition, and edited its newsletter. Over a two-year period, prior to my returning to graduate school, I attended more demonstrations then I can remember, many of which involved heated exchanges with demonstrators on the other side.
Those of you who have been reading along for the past week might be a little surprised by this history. I recount it primarily to prove a point: people can change their minds on this issue. I’ve probably changed my mind too much for some, and not enough for others, but it’s hard to deny—although I did for several years—that there hasn’t been some serious movement.
So what happened? Did my deepening religious faith play a role? Sure it did. But it wasn’t one of those deals where I woke up one morning and said “I’m a Catholic, I need to be pro-life.” In truth, I’ve found that Protestant theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Hays have been more helpful to me in thinking through this issue than any Catholic writers I’ve read.
But my faith did force me to think about abortion, and once I started to think about it, I found that it was difficult to stop. I read everything I could get my hands on about embryology and fetal development. The more I learned, the more the boundaries that the abortion debate had imposed on fetal development—birth, viability, trimesters, etc.—seemed highly artificial.
It was the birth of my son in 1998 that probably pushed me over the edge. It wasn’t the ultrasound, although that was a piece of the puzzle. It was seeing how completely helpless and dependent he was after birth. In many important ways, he was still as much “potential life” as when he was in the womb. If you could justify abortion then, could you justify infanticide now? It was something to think about.
The more time I spent thinking, the more some of the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement started to drive me crazy. The problem, we were told, was that pro-life politicians “didn’t trust women to make choices.” But the issue wasn’t about choice in principle, it was about the moral content of a very particular choice. Do laws against child abuse suggest that politicians don’t trust parents to raise their children?
One of the things I came to realize that my work outside the clinics in 1989 had essentially been a lie. It was a lie because while I believed I was there to protect “choice,” the only choice I was offering was abortion. I was willing to walk with a woman for the two minutes it took her to walk from the car to the clinic door. But I wasn’t offering to walk with her if she changed her mind, to walk with her for months, or years if necessary. Rather than enabling her freedom, I was merely one more link in a chain, one more wall in a maze.
I’m still not convinced that bringing back the pre-Roe abortion laws is the answer. Maybe it’s a lack of nerve, a refusal to follow my logic to its inevitable conclusion. I have some serious doubts about whether those laws could be effectively and equitably enforced, particularly in the face of determined opposition (and believe me, my erstwhile comrades are quite determined). I am attracted to the way that a number of European countries have approached the problem, with abortion regulated but available early in pregnancy, and progressively more difficult to obtain as the pregnancy progresses. Those countries have abortion rates that are much lower than the United States. It’s not a perfect solution, but it may be a workable one.
But in some way, my hesitation has a lot to do with those women I remember from the clinics, the look on their faces as they ran the gauntlet of screaming protesters from both sides. Having failed them once, the idea that I would now run to the police and the courts to remedy my failure seems cowardly. It’s hard to extend a hand to someone when you are holding a club behind your back.
So does that make me pro-life? Pro-choice? All-pro? Frankly I don’t really care at this point. When people ask me what I think about abortion these days I tell them my views are complicated and they don’t fit on a bumper sticker.
To be truthful, watching the pro-life and pro-choice movements engage each other in the political realm tends to drive me nuts. I particularly detest the insistence of activists on both sides in using unflattering names to describe the other side. Pro-choice activists insist on calling pro-life people “anti-choice” or “antis,” while pro-life activists tend to favor “pro-aborts” to describe their counterparts. I find this behavior infantile, particularly considering the gravity of the issues at stake. Sometimes I think that if I hear one more pro-life reference to the Holocaust, or one more pro-choice reference to the Taliban, I will explode.
My heart, if I have one, belongs to initiatives like Project Gabriel, local pregnancy centers, and groups like Feminists for Life who are trying to provide real, concrete assistance to women with crisis pregnancies. That work dovetails well with my own understanding of the demands of Christian discipleship. As Christians, I don’t think we are called so much to legislate the alternative as to be the alternative. I don’t think we are called so much to block clinic doors as to open other doors, to help people find strength within themselves that they don’t know is there. I think we are called to be the kind of community where the act of choosing life becomes not merely possible, but joyful.