Real Politics

In 1973, just long enough after Roe v. Wade for the abortion clinics to have opened, a close friend of mine got his girlfriend pregnant and she had an abortion.  My friend and his girlfriend were both Catholics and had just gotten out of high school the year before.

The two of them were very immature and had been careless.  In retrospect, over forty years later, it is clear that they didn't know anything about relationships much less anything about sex. Their parents were not available to help them.  Their fathers were hopeless alcoholics who had divorced their mothers.  Their mothers, both relatively poor and unequipped to take on any more responsibility or support, would have agreed (however reluctantly) with the abortion decision.

As far as the ethics of abortion, both of my friends (who were mass going Catholics despite their non-church going families and who had gone to Catholic high schools) would have claimed, before facing the actual decision, to be against abortion.

The boyfriend consulted with no one about the decision, probably out of embarrassment and worry that whomever he talked to would insist that he had a moral obligation not to go through with it.  The girlfriend only spoke to her gynecologist (who had happened to also be Catholic).  The doctor tried to talk her out of the abortion, not for moral reasons, but because she felt that white people having abortions would tip the population balance between white and black people in the United States.  This was in 1973, when people talked like this more openly.

The boyfriend went with his girlfriend when she went to the clinic for the abortion.  The waiting room was rather full of depressed looking young couples and depressed looking young men waiting for their girlfriends to finish.  On the wall was a large poster of a pregnant Lucy yelling "G**d**n you Charlie Brown!"  While legal abortions were safe, they were definitely not pleasant and any relief that the young couple felt by the termination of the pregnancy was more than offset by their feelings of guilt and confusion.  They vowed to stop having sex, a vow that they kept for three months.

And within nine months, she was pregnant again, this time due to an "equipment failure".

There was very little discussion this time.  There would be another abortion.  Since they had been through one already, they simple followed the program and tried not to think about it too much.  This time the boyfriend didn't go with his girlfriend, claiming that he couldn't get out of work.  But in fact, he was attempting to distance himself from the abortion.  He didn't understand how this worked morally.  Was he culpable for the abortion too if he wasn't the one physically having it?  Or was he just being a moral coward?  It probably didn't matter. She had the abortion.  Their relationship continued under a sort of auto pilot.  In later years, he would realize how relationships could sort of do that; putter along at a flat moral and experiential level, never really developing, hitting occasional moral crises as though they were speedbumps that might or might not overturn the entire cart.

At about the same time that this all too common moral catastrophe was happening, the boyfriend had a best friend who had a younger sister who was also made pregnant by her boyfriend.  This girl (for she wasn't quite out of high school) and her boyfriend were very much going to opt for an abortion.  They were Catholics too, but they were terrified and felt that they were far too young to have children.  A difference in her case, however, was her father, who was a very serious Catholic.  He was very upset at the idea that his daughter would have an abortion and at first he tried to argue her out of it by appealing to Catholic teaching and morality.  But he found that this did not make a dent, except to make her feel more guilty and upset.

So her father made a decision.  I don't know how far under the surface this decision had been, but I do know that it meant a great deal of personal sacrifice for him, for he was of an age where he and his wife were too old for new children and were already planning for retirement.  The father took the daughter out alone, sat her down, and said "I know you are afraid to have this baby.  But if you do have it, I will take it and raise it.  You will need to take no responsibility for it nor will you have to marry the baby's father (it was 1974).  And I will still love you and not hold anything against you.  You made a mistake, but we can fix it."

She listened to her father and kept the baby, a girl.  And she ended up marrying its father and having more children.  While her marriage to this teenager may not have been a great marriage, they are married still.

Each person in this account was morally responsible for their actions, and I don't want to imply that their backgrounds, their fears, their ages, or anything else made them otherwise.  All of them came from Catholic families and all of them had had Catholic educations. We can speculate what might have happened if abortion had been illegal.  But in 1973, illegal abortions were fairly easy to find, at least in the North, at least in the cities.  I suspect that the abortions would not have been stopped by a lack of access to a provider.

In my own experience of morality, I have found over the years that whatever people tell themselves and each other, they don't really know what they will do until they are personally faced with the crisis themselves.  I think that we can be hard line about moral rules (in terms of what they are in principle), but we can't be judgmental about the people facing moral choices, unless we have been in their shoes ourselves or are truly willing to make the concrete sacrifices we expect them to make.  In the case of the abortions (and non-abortion) above, one thing that stands out to me is that the girl who had the support of her Christian father, who was lovingly willing to let his life go wherever it was going to go by backing up his beliefs, made all the difference in her case.  In a way, it seems to me that true faith requires us to pursue what is right not by calculating how we could get something done, but by having faith that we can get it done. And then be willing to do it.  The politics of abortion is, to me, really centered on this.  We can push for laws banning or limiting abortions, but especially in our times, where abortions are available just across the border, the law won't be enough. What is necessary is a community of people like the father above who are willing to take on the risk in the name of God.  In a way, the whole thing boils down to Fear versus Faith.  It is possible that people who vote their fears in the name of "morality" are in fact moral cowards in the very same sense as people who, at the crucial moment, give in to their very human fears.  The politics of abortion or war or racism or anything else comes down not to elections, but to the choices we ourselves are willing to make and our compassion for those who are in fear.

The couple who had the abortions did not last.  They broke up and the boyfriend lost track of her almost four decades ago.  He still thinks about the two lost children, who would be in their early forties now.  He thinks of them, for some reason, as boys.  When he married and had children of his own, he often though of them aging along with his own children.  While the abortions cannot be said to have defined his life, they were key moments in the development of his morality and spirituality.  He believes that he would now be like the father of the woman who helped her keep her baby.  And he knows that the experience (for which he believes he will never really be forgiven) has made him into a more compassionate person.

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unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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