A History of (Pro-Life) Violence
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
When I was sixteen years old, I was pretty sure I had knocked up my girlfriend. We had been together for a year, having sex for half that time, and suddenly her period would not arrive.
A week went by, then another. We were good kids, horny but well behaved, with college and all the rest still to come. It was spring. I was waiting to hear from schools. Neither of us slept.
Heading into week three, we finally sought the counsel of my mother, who calmly suggested that we make an appointment with a gynecologist - immediately. My girlfriend was given a pregnancy test, which came back negative. Another five days went by. I pledged never to have sex with her ever again. I pledged to stop whacking off.
The morning before appointment number two, she called to tell me that her period had arrived at last.
I've been thinking about this episode recently for a couple of reasons. First, of course, because Judge Samuel Alito has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Barring an outburst of moral courage by the Democratic leadership, he will be confirmed and the Court will begin an assault on various civil rights laws, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other such radical notions. The big prize will be the reversal of Roe Vs. Wade, meaning abortion will again be outlawed, at least in certain states.
The main reason I've been thinking about my high school pregnancy scare, though, is because of an odd email I received a few weeks ago. It was from a young college student in a Southern state. She had read some of my work for class and, as an aspiring writer, she wanted me to know she enjoyed my writing, though she found some of the graphic material difficult to handle, given that she was both a Republican and a Christian who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage.
I sent her a note of thanks, which (stupidly) included my observation that the current administration did not strike me as particularly Christian, insofar as Christ preached non-violence and ministered to the poor.
Her response began like so: "I must ask, do you believe in abortion? I do realize that it is a liberal stance, but I also realize that not all liberals assume it. If you are, I just don't understand why you feel it's okay to murder innocent babies who just 'didn't come at the right time' or who 'interfere' but don't think it's okay to defend our country from terrorists who have slaughtered countless Americans for their own pleasure?"
I am quoting her because her sentiments reflect, in a refreshingly unfiltered way, the posture of the Religious Right when it comes to abortion. And because I'd like to understand why a virtual stranger would accuse me of being a baby killer.
The answer is this: because doing so is one way of locating her murderous impulses within another. It is a radical example of what psychologists would call projection. This is one of the hallmarks of the Right in this country: an abject refusal to face their own rage. Any act of aggression is invariably framed as self-defense. (See, for tragicomic effect: Bush's claim during the first presidential debate that Iraq attacked us.)
Abortion simply exaggerates this impulse. It allows people to stand outside health clinics and emotionally abuse young women. In extreme instances, it allows individuals to murder doctors and nurses and to view themselves not as terrorists, but saviors. Obviously, not all anti-abortionists kill or harass people. But all of them share a histrionic view of themselves as heroic rescuers (the term pro-lifer says it all) aligned against Godless fornicators.
Ah yes, the fornicators. Embedded in the anti-choice stance is the basic notion that sex for pleasure is wrong. Sex is for procreation, which is why every fetus (in some minds every sperm) is holy. But most people, even Christians, want sexual pleasure a lot more than they want children.
This is why the anti-abortion movement emphasizes the most gruesome aspects of abortion; all those placards with dead babies aren't just there to spook the clients of Planned Parenthood. They are reminders of the horrors that await those of the faithful who fall prey to carnal desire.
Which brings me back to my correspondent. Let's be honest here: any virgin who sends me fan mail is probably a pretty conflicted individual. In some sense, this young horndoggle needs the specter of being a baby killer to keep her from â€¦ impure thoughts. Her note is also typical of anti-choiceniks in its flabbergasting solipsism. It seems never to have occurred to her that there might be a world outside her own beliefs; that a pregnant woman's body is her own property, not that of the state or any religious interest group; that the issue here is one of individual liberty, not ideology.
Nor has it occurred to her that those women who get abortions suffer considerable anguish, that they are not sex-crazed degenerates who waltz into the stirrups whistling "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Da." In fact, the feelings of the mother, the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy, mean nothing to anti-abortionists. All that matters is the unborn soul, which becomes the object onto which they project all their tender wishes about this fallen world.
It is here that the rage of the anti-choice movement gives way, briefly, to despair. They want to believe in a world where every soul truly is precious, as God promised, in which every fetus -- if allowed to come into the world -- will become part of His divine plan. The unborn child becomes, in other words, a powerful object within their emotional cosmology, a means by which they can connect to their own quasi-divine nobility, the sanctification of potential life over actual life.
The problem is that unborn children eventually get born and must live in the actual world. In this sense, "pro-lifers" are like the baby daddies of the spiritual world: full of promised love for the abstraction, and nowhere to be found when the kid shows up. They don't want to deal with the fact that some children in this country grow up starved of love, and warped by poverty.
It should come as no surprise that the anti-choice movement is ascendant at the moment. The Bush era has marked, above all, a dramatic shift away from the tragic complexity of the world. Instead, the citizens of this country have been encouraged to indulge their most childish impulses: rage, hypocrisy, self-absorption. What is surprising is the abject failure of the left to call them out on this crap. Cowed by the infantile rhetoric the Religious Right, slavish after those elusive swing voters, Democrats have refused to frame the debate as one over reproductive rights.
Which brings me to a final story. A few days after the last presidential election, I found myself talking with a friend of friend who lived in suburban Virginia. She was a single woman of about thirty. She and many of her friends had had abortions. And yet she voted for Bush. I asked her if she had any idea what Bush's views on abortion were. She replied that she didn't know what either of the candidates thought about abortion. It hadn't been a big issue.
I was astounded by her ignorance. But then I thought about the way the campaign had unfolded. When questioned in the second debate, Kerry had been careful to make clear his personal objection to abortion. He seemed almost ashamed to add that he didn't believe the state should regulate the bodies of its female citizens.
In the weeks to come, the usual pro-choice suspects will dutifully argue on behalf of a woman's rights to choose. That's not going to be enough. The leadership of the left has to recognize that those who oppose choice are not simply benighted crusaders, but bullies who are exploiting the abortion issue to exalt their pathologies.
The choice to abort an unborn child is, without a doubt, a modern tragedy. Forcing poor women to seek out illegal practitioners is a medieval one.
Steve Almond is the author of the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal and the nonfiction book Candyfreak.