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On Abortion: The Woman Comes First

This is going to be a tough column to write, but too bad. Anyone who’s ever loved their mother has beliefs about abortion.

I not only loved my mother, who was a bit of a hellcat and not always easy to love; we couldn’t help but love this gentle, soft-spoken, highly opinionated conservative, whose many sins somehow got outweighed because dammit, when she was right she was right.

She was kind of a pretty gal; I hope I have a picture I can put up of her.

Her life story was one of three determinative events that shaped my view of abortion: It’s never a good thing, but sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes it’s even the most moral choice.

On March 31, 1927, a young woman named Thelma Rees gave birth to a girl. This was my mother, whom her parents named Betty.

Thelma then died of a heart attack, and my grandfather mourned her to his grave.

Childbirth is very hard on women; this is why old 1928 Book of Common Prayer contained a service from the late Middle Ages called the “Churching of Women.” It’s very strange when read out of context today, but its formal name indicates what it was about: The Thanksgiving of Women After Childbirth.

It doesn’t celebrate the new life the woman brought forth; the baby is barely mentioned. What it does is profoundly thank God that the mother didn’t die giving birth to her.

And so Thelma died. Should she have had an abortion?

Maybe so; she couldn’t have known what would happen, and the technology of medicine was primitive then; but on a moral basis, maybe she should have had an abortion.

You have to weigh two things in your scales: the person you have, and the person you might have.

One is here now; one may be here later. Some babies are stillborn; some never make it.

If Thelma Rees had known in advance that giving birth to a baby would kill her, would she not have been justified in saving her own life?

I’m very glad she had that baby; I wouldn’t exist if she had not, and the baby she had, hellcat and all, was well worth knowing.

But we’ve always missed Thelma. Why didn’t she have a right to life?

Fast forward to 1949: My mother married an incredible loser and World War II veteran (Battle of the Bulge, POW) who kept fighting the war in his own little house; the definition of domestic violence. He couldn’t provide for himself, much less his wife and child and a new baby; he didn’t have the money for another kid.

My mother was scared to tell him she was pregnant again. She figured he would blame her for the pregnancy; she figured he would kill her.

I know my father; she was absolutely right. I spent my entire childhood trying to prevent a “Murder-Suicide in Indiana” headline.

It was 1948; she considered an abortion—of my brother Steve!

She didn’t tell me about this for many years later, but it was still shocking. Where would I be without my Steve?

She didn’t do it; she found a way to break the news to my father so he could accept it. (That is, she timed it perfectly. How often do women have to time the news perfectly?) Dad didn’t kill her; Steve got born. So did I, three years later.

We all ran around the house trying not to get killed, but I found out that sweet-talking Dad calmed him down; especially if he also got a Noctec.

Would Mom have been justified if she’d sought to abort my brother? Damn right she would have, and I defy anyone on this point.

Domestic violence is the principal cause of abortion.

It’s the most common crime in America, and most cops don’t give a fuck. (A few do; thank you.)

Fast forward again, 1971: manning the phones of the Lafayette Crisis Center, a suicide prevention place, which I’d turned to because of a seriously crazy dad. I got trained, almost thrown out (“uptight, anxious, unable to feel, not enough empathy, who the hell are you?”), then finally accepted after a miraculous unloosening, in which I really did feel all the terror of being 14 and Gay and having a dad trying to kill my whole family.

One of my first shifts off probation, meaning I was allowed to be there on my own, I got a call from a woman who put Drano up her vagina because her boyfriend would kill her if he found out she was pregnant.

Man, I worked those phones. “911” didn’t exist then, I had to beg for an ambulance to get to her address, which she didn’t want to give me.

The morality of abortion is this: you go with the one you have, not the one you might have.

I knew my lady’s name, and I searched the obituaries for a month, fearing I lost her. Drano, I mean, Drano.

She did not die. I suppose it’s possible the whole thing was some kind of put-on; but I’m the one who heard her voice, and knew how scared she was.

If it were her life or the baby’s, which do you choose? That’s what it comes down to.

Still, the decision is highly fraught; we’re talking about my brother Steve.

There was a piece in The New York Times recently in which a young woman purported to choose abortion because pregnancy was inconvenient. That really made me mad.

She claimed she was accepted into an extremely competitive graduate program that wouldn’t let her miss a single day and didn’t give a damn about a woman’s health; that she’d aspired to this program for years and couldn’t possibly turn it down; so this baby she was carrying was inconvenient. She couldn’t give it up for adoption because she was so attached to it; but she couldn’t miss a day of class, so she would abort it for the sake of her career.

I didn’t believe a word of this, but she turned to The Times for affirmation of her decision; and by and large she got it. Most people thought it was fine to X-out the baby because, after all, grad school’s important! And the program punishes people who get sick for even a day.

I’d sue their fucking asses in a heartbeat. There’s no graduate program on earth that’s quite that heartless.

But it was a good exercise in discovering the extremes of abortion. This woman didn’t make a lick of sense; she’s attached to the baby so she can’t give it up for adoption, but not so attached she can’t kill it?

And the women of The Times thought she was right? Her graduate education is that important?

I think in law the option for abortion has to be there; but the women who find pregnancy inconvenient don’t deserve graduate school.

Don’t fuck if you’re not ready for the consequences. But no one said that to her; no one. She made a baby, but she chose grad school. She loved that baby so much she wouldn’t give him to someone else; so she murdered him.

The law should find a way to distinguish between Thelma and Betty and the bitch who found her child inconvenient.++

3 Responses

  1. Abortion is a really hot topic… people feel so strongly on both sides.
    I believe that abortion is wrong… but I also know that life is not black and white. I can’t even comprehend how tough a decision it must be for some women.

    But people like the woman in the Times article… disgusting! So sad to see how in this world of convenience we are willing to coldly murder children…
    We are truly messed up!

  2. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified all this to try to tell a story in a blog post, not a magazine article, but I do think that in these horrible moral conundrums, the ethical decision-making process really has to be a balancing act. There are goods and bads on both sides. (What if my mother had grown up to cure cancer? Was it still ethical if Thelma had aborted her?)

    As I see it, you have a full, live person here now, a pregnant woman, vs. a possible live person if everything goes right nine months from now. So you have to choose the person you’ve got, the live woman, if it’s her life and health against the baby’s. And that includes pregnancy as a result of rape or incest.

    I don’t know how the girl who was kidnapped years ago and forced to live in a tent city in her rapist’s backyard managed not to go crazy having his children – though it’s probably also true that she loves her little girls and wouldn’t give them up for anything.

    As for this grad student in The Times, the balance has to swing the other way; by having sex and getting pregnant, by a guy she broke up with soon after, she’s now responsible for another human life which doesn’t threaten her health, only her career plan. That’s not good enough.

    She has all kinds of fantasies about the good humanitarian things she might do when she gets out of grad school; she apparently thinks she’s going to save the world, because of course this program is so death-defyingly strict it turns out geniuses who leap tall buildings in a single bound. Humbug. All we’ve got here is a scared, immature 20-something gal who got herself in trouble. If she’s such a genius, the grad school will readmit her two years from now, once she has her act together.

    She’s structured her conundrum with great skill (though with contradictions too numerous to point out), then chosen the least moral option and discussed it all in the newspaper, where almost every reader said she was absolutely right because, y’know, no one should prevent a woman from going to grad school.

    My mother had to fight like hell to get an education, but she did it the right way to her circumstances – after her youngest child was in first grade. I was that child, and though I didn’t like losing my mother for four years while she went off to college, I at least recognized later that she did it the right way. If she’d been like the woman in The Times, she might have just walked out the door when I was two, sailed off to Radcliffe never to be seen or heard of again.

    That’s what heterosexual men do, you know, they just take a walk and don’t come back. Surely that’s as immoral as anything above.

    It’s very hard to be an unwanted, inconvenient child; I should know.

  3. If I’d been born a little girl, that would have changed everything. Mom adored little girls; she’d have taken me with her to Radcliffe. Getting a Gay boy out of the deal was the worst possible outcome.

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