Still uncomfortable, 40 years after 'Roe'

Gail Collins is my favorite New York Times columnist (in, yes, a not-very-crowded field). She's funny and she's smart; she does the "writing lightly about serious matters" thing so well it makes me wonder all the more that the same paper should publish someone as bad at that very thing as Maureen Dowd. (She's also good at politely telling David Brooks why he's full of it.) When I read Collins carefully I can see the impressive amount of work that has gone into a seemingly breezy 800 words, but the result is never effortful. She's a master.

The only time my fondness for Collins takes a hit is when she writes about abortion, and not only because we disagree. On that subject I find she writes, like so many other progressives, as though there are no difficult questions left, and support for unrestricted access to abortion is the only decent position a right-thinking, non-woman-hating person can hold. Obviously I'm a bit insulted by that approach. But I'm also disappointed whenever I encounter it. It doesn't sound like an earnest attempt to grapple with a tough issue; it sounds to me like an attempt to convince oneself that there is no more thinking to be done. Coming from either side, self-satisfied absolutism is a dead end.

A couple weeks ago, ahead of today's Roe v. Wade anniversary, Collins published a column with the headline "The Woes of Roe." Somewhat ironically, Collins put her finger on an aspect of what I just described:

Americans are permanently uncomfortable with the abortion issue, and they respond most positively to questions that suggest it isn't up to them to decide anything.

But Collins did not acknowledge any of the reasons I can think of that people might still, all these years after Roe, be "uncomfortable" with abortion. Instead she catalogued the "crazy new rules" that are plaguing the nation's abortion clinics:

In Texas, the Legislature is considering a law that would require that all abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers. When the state passed that requirement for pregnancies beyond 16 weeks in 2004, every single clinic doing that procedure was forced to shut down. Only a handful managed to reopen in a state that encompasses more than 261,000 square miles.

It so happens that I read that column shortly after my own sixteenth week of pregnancy.

I had an ultrasound at sixteen weeks, and my husband came along we got a sitter for our older child because we knew from experience that it would be worth it. At sixteen weeks, we could see our new baby's face, start the predictions about whom he or she will look like. (We still don't know the sex, but only because we asked the technician not to tell us. At sixteen weeks we could have found that out, too.) We saw a spine, curling and uncurling; kicking legs; perfectly formed fingers and toes. "This baby is going to be a hand model!" the technician laughed, because every time she tried a new angle our baby flashed us a wave. We heard the heartbeat, stronger and louder than it was the first time I heard it, ten weeks earlier. We counted the chambers of the heart and studied the developing brain. Everything is as it should be, we were told. Our baby is healthy. And they gave us pictures to bring home, to hang on the fridge and show our family.

With those images in my mind, I read that paragraph from Collins and thought, "It should be difficult to get an abortion after sixteen weeks." Sixteen weeks is a long time to be pregnant; a long time for a baby to grow. Within a day of that ultrasound I could feel my baby kicking. Is it any wonder that people remain uncomfortable with the idea that aborting a baby that far along should be a routine procedure? I can imagine situations in which a woman might feel compelled to end the life within her -- for example, if she received awful news about her child's health instead of the good news I was lucky enough to get. It's not a choice I would or could ever make, but I can understand it. But I can't see why making such a choice shouldn't require a lot of effort, at the very least. "Over the last 40 years," Collins complains, "women seeking abortions have been put through a lot of unnecessary trauma" like long trips to clinics, or being forced to have ultrasounds before aborting their babies. I guess I'm supposed to be thinking, "Those poor women," and if I were convinced that abortion had no moral dimension I suppose I would be able to see it that way. And I'm not ready to speak up in favor of any particular regulation, not without knowing the specifics. But in general, I found myself thinking again, "It should be hard."

Collins, like a lot of prochoicers, has a gloomy sense that the abortion-rights movement is struggling more than it should be at this point in history. I'm not out to give advice to abortion advocates, but it does seem to me that the "abortion, to a right-thinking person, is no big deal" approach is never going to win the day. Too many people have had ultrasounds and not experienced them as trauma. Too many people are not ready to be told that their discomfort with abortion is just a matter of their not thinking about it the right way. It's true, as Collins writes, that even in a conservative state, voters will eventually object to "politicians messing with a womans private business." But I suspect it's also true that widespread discomfort about abortion is, as Collins herself says, permanent, and it seems to me that "the nervous, ambivalent, uncomfortable public" is going to stay that way so long as they find no room on either side of the abortion debate for the full range of things that they are nervous about.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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