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Monday, April 30, 2007

More Story Talk

by digby

Atrios and Ann Friedman have been discussing the need for real stories about abortion and it reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago during the Schaivo circus and it seems like a good one to add to the mix today:

Matt Yglesias over on TAPPED makes a good point about the new parental notification law. It pretty much clears up any remaining notion that repealing Roe vs Wade will solve the abortion issue once and for all so we can put all that unpleasantness aside as various progressive states will do as their constituents require and everybody will live happily ever after.

Pro-lifers are driven by a very serious moral commitment to the idea that aborting pregnancies is a serious wrong. They're not going to be happy sitting idly by while Virginia women travel to Maryland or the District of Columbia to have abortions any more than they're happy with inter-state travel to avoid parental notification laws.

That is correct. I don't know how long it's going to take Democrats to understand that those who vote one way or the other on that issue alone cannot be finessed. We can try to sound sympathetic to the "ick" factor and whittle away at the rights of women over time until there is only the most bare right to abortion if the woman's life is threatened and it won't make a difference to those who believe it is a fundamental issue of morality. We have to fight this one on the merits.

This reminds me of an interesting article by Paul Rogat Loeb in USA Today from a while back in which he writes that one of our problems with abortion is that we have not told personal stories:

Even if you've heard enough about Terri Schiavo, it seems useful to consider why President Bush's political grandstanding in her case backfired. More than 70% of Americans, including solid majorities of self-described evangelicals, opposed the intervention of the White House and Congress. Those surveyed mistrusted the Bush administration's disregard for local control, the rule of law and the right to be protected from a capricious federal government.

Their responses also speak to a broader shift in how we deal with difficult end-of-life issues. For 20 years, gradually increasing majorities have agreed that for all our technological inventiveness, what some people need most is the right to die in peace. You'd think this belief — that the most difficult decisions must be our own — would also raise support for maintaining the right to abortion. But it hasn't. In the 30 years since Roe v. Wade, support for keeping abortion legal has stayed even, at most, and new onerous restrictions keep getting imposed.

The difference comes, I suspect, from the stories we tell, and those we keep hidden. Many families have wrestled with end-of-life choices. But they're brought on by the illness and aging of loved ones, not by our own actions. No one judges us for having a sick parent as they might for our sexuality. So we're likely to talk in public about such choices.

But most women don't publicly discuss their abortions. Although a third of all U.S. women have abortions by age 45, they're more likely to view the dilemma as a product of their own failures — to use adequate birth control or to have the financial or emotional resources to afford another child. They're more likely to feel shame.

When the movement to legalize abortion began, advocates talked about the human costs of prohibition. They told the complex stories of why women would choose to value their own lives, choices and possibilities over the potential life of the fetus. They framed abortion as an act of compassion. We see this in the recent film, Vera Drake. Its working-class protagonist in postwar England views her actions "helping young girls in trouble" as part of the same ethic of caring as looking after her aged mother. Pro-choice activists eventually told their stories powerfully enough to convince America that its abortion policies had to change.

Since Roe, these voices have been neutralized by those speaking for the humanity of the fetus. Some oppose abortion from compassion and conviction. The motive of others, who also campaign against sex education, access to birth control and financial support for poor families, seems more like punitive vindictiveness. As the stories of the women involved faded, the reasons why women have always made this difficult choice, and will keep doing so, got told far less often.

Schiavo was a soap opera that everyone could understand in narrative terms. And most people underestood that it was a complicated story in which all of the characters were drawn in various shades of heroism, love, selfishness and grief. The discussions around the Easter table in many homes, I suspect, were characterized with sighs and stories of "remember your Aunt Millie's first husband Bill back in Baltimore? She had to pull the plug and her son wasn't happy about it at all" kind of dialog. "Morality" was probably not the frame in which this topic was overtly discussed because the morality of the issue was so complicated.

Abortion, I think, has always been difficult to talk about because it had to do with sex --- and therefore, in some people's minds, sin. But I do remember back in the day that one of the things that made abortion finally come out of the closet was the willingness of people to talk about the issue. The stories were of the horrors of the back alley abortions they endured and the complexity of circumstances that led them there. For instance, here's just one example from Gloria Feldt's book "Behind Every Choice is A Story" of a complicated situation and the horrible way the women was forced to deal with it:

In 1970 I had a back-street abortion. I had a young daughter of 18 months at home and was separated from an abusive husband. When I found out I was pregnant with another child right after finally having the courage to leave an abusive man, I cried and cried. This was before abortion was legal. I told a close friend who said she knew of a doctor who performed these abortions.

I went to his clinic, which was dirty and sleazy underneath an underpass in Metairie, Louisiana. I was treated as a criminal and so were all the other women in the room. You had to give $150 in cash before they would even speak to you. I was led to a back room where there was no caring or anesthetic to be found. It was very painful and I threw up immediately and kept throwing up for over an hour after the procedure. My girlfriend who went with me was worried as I did not come out right away as others had. She inquired about me and was led to the back room where she saw that I was in pain and throwing up. She held my hand and got a washcloth to wash my face and help me. She asked the nurse if there wasn't something wrong and she replied "this is how some of them get." My girlfriend was horrified at the coldness and uncaring atmosphere of the place. We left sometime after and she drove me home and called a friend who was an intern at the time. He came to the house and prescribed some antibiotics and pain medication. He was very kind.

This ABC News poll says that 81% of the public believe that abortion should be available to rape and incest victims. That is not an absolutist "culture of life" position. However, 57% of the public believe that abortion should be illegal if the reason is to end an unwanted pregnancy. The question, of course, is what does "unwanted" mean and who decides? If you were to tell that personal story, a woman with a toddler already and an abusive husband she is trying desperately to leave, would 57% agree that this particular unwanted pregnancy should be dealt with in that horrible back alley situation? Should she have been forced to have this child under those circumstances? I doubt it.

Certainly, a fair number would say "tough" --- that women should have to carry the preganacy to term and give it up for adoption. But suppose that meant that the abusive father would have the right to take full custody? And, after all, how easy is it to give the sister or brother of your two year old up for adoption? And what about money or health care or legal fees? People don't want to think about the practical, financial aspects of having a child under stressful stituation, but it is likely to be a primary concern of the person who is going to have to pay the price. I know that in the discussions I had about the Schiavo case, the issue of cost was somthing that came up in every single conversation. Who pays and where will the money come from are things that real people talk about when they deal with these issues.

I understand the impulse of those who say "I'm not sorry" as a way of expressing their right to dominion over their own bodies. As a knee jerk civil libertarian, I am very sympathetic to a straight forward expression of individual rights. But from a political point of view, it makes far more sense to present this issue as one of complicated morality which individuals see differently in different circumstances and which politicians are much too craven and self-interested to intervene.

There are probably cases in which large numbers of people would see abortion as repugnant on some level. But there are many, many cases that would evoke the dinner table conversations that happened around the Schivo case if people knew the stories. 16 year old girls who made mistakes and 34 year old struggling mothers of two whose birth control failed and women who have no money and low paying jobs and medical students with a mountain of debt and a year to go. These stories may or may not meet every single person's criteria of what constitutes a "good reason" for having an abortion. But every single one of those women might very well decide that the circumstances are so dire for them that they will take their chances with a back alley abortion if a legal one is unavailable. That is the stark, dramatic choice that this country faces in this debate. And as Matt says, don't count on being able to just drive to California or Canada (even if you can come up with the money) because repealing Roe vs Wade will not be the end of it. They will not stop until it is outlawed nationally.

It is important to introduce back into the dialog the fact that this is not an abstract moral issue, but a multi-dimensional, intensely human dilemma. When people understand things in those terms they are far more likely to want the government to step back than step in. It seems they know instinctively that the blunt instrument of government in the hands of moral absolutists is a bad idea.

Update: And yes, it would have been very helpful if people knew the horrible situations in which some of these young girls affected by the new parental notification laws find themselves. Parental notification laws do not hurt the healthy families that just want to help their girls make a good decision. Those kinds of families can deal with complexity and have probably built up a lot of trust over the years. These laws hurt the girls whose families are cruel, violent and authoritarian. Many adult women have had their lives ruined because they were forced to bear the burden of their parents' obsessive religious or political zealotry.

Update II: Friedman points out that the pro-choice movement has been publicizing these stories, but they don't seem to be able to penetrate the mainstream media.