Okay. Let’s talk about abortion.
I’d rather not. I am not a controversialist. I’d much rather stay at home in Bag End and smoke my pipe and eat large, rich dinners. But there are times when we must venture forth.
When I was fifteen or so, one of my favorite books was The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I’m not actually a hundred per cent sure I ever finished it, but I fully embraced its vision. Plus I definitely saw the movie, which had Natasha Richardson in it.
Atwood’s dystopia was my dystopia: her worst case scenario was mine, pretty much. And here was her worst case scenario: conservative Christians (exagerations or extrapolations of conservative Christians, as Orwell’s party was of the Communist party) have come to power in America. They have remade it as she imagines they would really secretly like it to be: a place where women have no rights whatsoever, and where men have wives and also official concubines who are breeders, because most of the upper-class, or wife-class, women are infertile. In this world, women’s bodies are instruments that the male conspiracy uses to play its games of power. It’s as though men were the European powers of the late 19th century, and women’s bodies were the contested continents– Asia, Africa, South America– terrain only valuable if it has value to its colonial overlords. And a key instrument in their domination was, of course, the absolute prohibition of abortion.
The golden past that the main character cannot quite remember, the past before the zealots came to power, was the woman’s movement of the 1970’s and 80’s, and a key feature of that past, it is implied, was free access to abortion.
I don’t know if Atwood actually believed that this scenario is what They– the Christians, the conservatives– really want. Probably not: it’s satire, reducto ad absurdam and all that. I’m pretty sure, though, that I believed it– that on some level, a level where I enjoyed being the prospective victim of such a conspiracy, enjoyed the guilt-capital that would give me, I did buy it. I believed, or played with believing, that that’s what a lot of men, maybe most men, certainly most conservatives, were really hoping for.
Look, I was fifteen.
This is what I meant, if I meant anything, when I went to the pro-abortion march on Washington in 1992. That’s what I was thinking of, I think, when I talked about a woman’s right to choose, when I wanted the bumper stickers that said “Keep Your Laws Off My Body.”
Well, that was a piece of it, anyway. I don’t want to oversimplify.
And that’s why I think that one of the best things we can do as human beings who disagree with other human beings is to understand our opponents’ worst case scenarios, the wacky far fetched chilling things they picture when they imagine what would happen if we “had our way.” Don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his boots– that’s the idea, except that in this case, it’s Don’t judge a man till you’ve spent an afternoon wearing the tinfoil helmet he uses to keep the Council on Foreign Relations from beaming his thoughts up to the mothership.
You may not end up agreeing with each other. I can never think that it is right to abort a baby, and on that subject I will have an irreducable disagreement with someone who does think that it’s okay. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about having a right to do something that wrong. (If, God forbid, it comes down to a choice between the life of the mother and the life of the baby…I can only pity anyone in the position to make such a choice, and pray that I’m never there.)
So, you might not end up agreeing. But you might end up seeing that at least in some cases, your minds are not as alien to each other as they seem at first glance. No conservative Christian I know– no one I know– could react with anything other than horror to the society described by Atwood. I do not, as a conservative Christian, have the same view of men’s and women’s roles as I did when I was a liberal. But no Christian can deny women’s human dignity, their part in bearing God’s image, and still remain orthodox. No one I know could look at anyone being treated as the women in The Handmaid’s Tale were treated and judge that a good thing.
The lie I believed when I marched on Washington in ‘92 was, then, twofold. The first part was that people who believed that abortion should be illegal actually secretly wanted to subject women to slavery. I don’t think I really believed this, not on the deepest level. But here’s the thing about conspiracy theories: the emotional weight of things you don’t really totally with your rational mind believe can be nearly as great as the emotional weight of a well-considered, well-reasoned and accurate beliefs. The oomph, the fear, remains as energy: energy that wants to be used against The Conspiracy, even if you don’t actually believe The Conspiracy exists.
The second part of the lie was that the choice in front of us, as a society, was between enslaving women and denying their humanity, or being pro-free access to abortion. I wasn;t in favor of the first option, so I figured I was in favor of the second.
But if you think about it…this is crazy. None of us has the right to do whatever we want with our own bodies, let alone with other people’s bodies. We’re not allowed to hurt other people, even if they are utterly dependent on us for survival– indeed, we have a sense that it’s when a child is utterly dependent on us that we have the greatest connection to her, the greatest obligation and also the greatest delight in caring for her. Calling us to affirm the dignity of all human beings, their right to life and to respect, does not diminish our own dignity or chip away at our own sense of our value as human beings. On the contrary: seeing the value in all other humans, however dependant, however undeveloped, allows us to see our own value more clearly. What we do to others, we implicity say it’s okay for them to do to us, just as when we call something that someone else does wrong, we implicitly say that it would be wrong if we did it as well.
Anyway. That’s what’s been going through my head lately, among other things. I really like getting along with people, and I really don’t like acrimonious debate. I’m not writing this to start a debate, acrimonious or otherwise. I’m writing it because it’s been on my mind and heart. I would like to know what other people think about this, but please don’t yell at me. Or use all caps, which is the internet version of yelling.