Abort My Baby: The Role of Reason in the Fight for Fetuses
It’s tempting to think I learned nothing from my education. A few years ago I received a new copy of my college transcript and was distressed to find I have almost no memory of most classes on it. I remember signing up for Weather on Other Planets and cheating my way through the whole course just by copying my roommate’s homework and making sure I sat next to him during the midterm and final. The abiding fact I learned from the class had nothing to do with chemistry and the mathematic models affecting the climate of Neptune, but rather that the professor, a lascivious Australian man who wore colorful button-down shirts and had shaggy shoulder-length gray hair, would sometimes stare at me during lectures for what I felt was an inappropriately long time, grinning like a rockstar to a hopeful young girl at a concert. Then there was Introduction to African History, a class for which I wrote 25 pages of hard-researched essays and earned an A, and whose lone-remaining imprint is an off-hand remark our professor made about how delicious goat stew in Eritrea was.
Finding these old ghosts on my transcript was like discovering stamps in my passport from countries I can’t remember visiting, the record made official by capital letters commemorating that, not only did I pass through their borders, but that I performed well enough therein to receive commendation. I passed through me almost in a blackout, I took nothing from them and have no memory of even wanting something from them.
For a long time I thought the purpose of education was not to learn but to become disciplined. When I collected my Bachelor’s degree after 16 and a half years of school I felt mostly empty, discovering a dearth of useful facts to draw on in argument or professional advancement. At 14 my mother had told me about the final exam my cousin had gone through in a Danish high school, delivering a 20 minute oral presentation on the Spanish Inquisition and then standing for another 20 minutes of questioning by her teachers.
At 22 I’d never even studied the Spanish Inquisition. I’d graduated with a sprinkling of cum laude and college honors and hadn’t studied history since high school. Instead of a general understanding of the historical achievements in human intellect, creativity, and aggression, I’d finished school with an ability to fill a pipeline, to use my short-term memory and argumentative tendencies to create the illusion of a position, while meeting deadlines and managing my time between the tedium of pipe-filling and the more interesting, though not much less amnesiac, pursuits of drinking with men and trying to figure out how to be naked with women.
In my senior year of high school I learned an interesting idea about abortion in my Government class, which even today supplants any other fact I retained from that year. Our teacher was called Scoville and he was bitterly sarcastic in a helpless and defeated kind of way. This quality, in conjunction with his Francophone name, made me suspect he was Canadian. He wore his black hair in a flattop with the wispy tendrils of a mullet creeping down his neck. Big black-framed glasses that seemed only a few years out of fashion hung around his neck. He bragged once about having been given a free microwave after test driving a Cadillac. I thought he was pathetic and wanted to escape from his gloomy gray room as soon as class began. I’d picture him drinking imported light beer and retelling the story of his new microwave to one of Fresno’s bejeweled ex-wives who’d wait for some sign of desire in the sad bars that passed for posh in Central California.
Never trust a politician who talks about abortion, he told us. Abortion has nothing to do with civic bureaucracy, he said. It’s an issue whose primary effect is to incite anger, which makes it irresistible as a political weapon. In the four decades since Roe vs. Wade, we seem to be mostly content with this resting point, the private choice made by a person and their caregiver has higher standing than the enforced morality of politicians and their constituents. And while fetuses are indeed life, humans, babies in beginning, the contortions of logic and science required to prove they have sentience, feeling, consciousness, and independence separate from the womb they depend on for life, the distinctions are so unclear, morally and medically, that the choice of whether to kill this founding fetus before it wakes is better left to the individuals directly involved. I may already have had the materials to put this argument together for myself at 17, but hearing it from Mr. Scoville catalyzed it in terra firma. I still don’t know what the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution is, but I know that as a rallying cry for expanded government regulation, abortion is bullshit.
Last year I accompanied a friend to Planned Parenthood to have an abortion, the first such appointment I’d ever been to. Her pregnancy was unrelated to my pelvic history but I went for support. If it can be claimed that there aren’t any atheists in foxholes, it should likewise be said that there aren’t any assholes in abortion clinics. They are, contrary to the cryptic mythology of their political opponents, nurturing places. These are not halls where life is degraded and made light of, but places where people seem acutely sensitive to the grueling dilemmas one must choose their way through in the natural course of a lifetime. It was disconcerting that such a place should be locked behind a security door with a buzzer press required for admittance.
There were a surprising number of couples inside the waiting room. I don’t know why I should have been surprised to see couples at an abortion clinic. I didn’t think I’d been so influenced by the cultural superstition about abortion, always implying moral chaos and relational decrepitude as the precondition for it. Instead there were men and women holding hands, resting heads on shoulders, and whispering softly to one another. The women that weren’t encoupled were with friends, sisters, and, I presumed with one teenager, a mother.
Those opposed to abortion see the act in a particular way, taking place in a shadowy horrorbox with deluded victims tricked into having their bodies operated on. They transpose the identity of a toddler onto a fetus, seeing little angels with fully formed brains and organs wailing in their last moments of life. And sure enough, it has the beginnings of eyes and fingers, a brain, and even a heart beating in its sonogram ghost world. It’s alive, but not exactly awake, nor even conscious in any way we might recognize. Moreover, those little bodies, translucent prologues of a person and a history that might or might not act itself out, are indeed loved. No one understands this more than a woman having an abortion.
It always seems redundant when political apparatuses insert themselves into these rooms. The most recent example comes from Virginia, where a reclassification and re-regulation of abortion clinics has complicated access to a procedure that, very often, can be completed just by taking some pills. Virginia’s state legislature first moved abortion clinics into the same category as hospitals, then the Department of Health subsequently issued a new requirements for the dimensions of hallways, pre-op rooms and operating rooms in order for abortion clinics to continue legal operation. Elsewhere, states have mandated waiting periods and, in some cases, force women to be shown sonograms of the fetus before being allowed to fully commit to the choice. As if redoubling and amplifying the thoughts a woman will already have had by that point could do more than prolong their anxiety.
61% of women who have abortions already have at least one child. They likely know better than any bureaucracy what is being gained and sacrificed in the choice. Abortion is at all times a choice between equivalent futures. Every choice about a pregnancy is abortive, forcing a woman, and the people most intimately bound to her, to forgo one future for another. Anyone who has ever had a child will surely know that keeping a baby is its own kind of sacrifice. Which is why it shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that abortion clinics are places of compassion and kindness. These are the rooms where women are given to choose between two sacrificial futures. Women live with this, and men sit at their side and dumbly speculate about what it might be like.
There is an emerging argument in social science that logic and reason evolved in humans not so that we might learn what is true about our circumstances, but rather as means to acquire power and social standing. We argue not to be right but to win, and so to enjoy the benefits of being considered an authority. This explains our propensity toward confirmation bias and the tendency to remember facts that are familiar rather than facts that might be truer but are less personally recognizable.
In this light, I might consider my education a process of taming rather than factual acquisition. In my imperial adolescence I didn’t need to learn how to externalize my whims and hunches, every random thought was expressed, every mundane discovery was revolutionary, and every emotional storm was a cataclysm. Even after two decades of studying a mountain of forgotten books with disappearing facts, I’d barely just begun (in some ways higher education for an English major is like a second childhood, indulging whims of interpretation and mundane trumpetry not indulged in harder sciences).
In taming one side of my wild and selfish brain, I was becoming the master of another, capable of impressing people, vindicating myself at the expense of their beliefs and experiences. I was becoming simultaneously more civilized and more obnoxious. As a child I’d had the power to ventilate my thoughts and feelings, but I began to see they could also be weaponized, turned into battering rams that could move through any social impediment if constructed carefully enough.
Years later, a woman I’d been seeing missed her period. She’d spent almost a week privately considering the fact that she might be pregnant. She didn’t tell me until the day her period finally came, the spots of blood and contracting muscles agreeing with her hopeful thoughts. “No,” she told me. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
A few weeks later we were having sex without a condom. I knew we were going to break up soon. I loved her and didn’t want to let her go. As I drew nearer to coming I remember a thought ebbing upward: I could come inside her and then she would become pregnant. I could keep her there with me, the natural consequence of that runaway moment of our joined pelvic narratives. I could get what I wanted, if only I agreed to let go of all of the facts and reason I’d have in sober, clothed conversation. I’m free, I thought. I’m right. I’m so close.
And then I pulled out, unseen muscles spasming inside me, bringing forth a little spurt of white fluid that fell in a puddle on my inner thigh. I felt embarrassed for a moment, and thought maybe I should say, “I’m sorry.”
*Image via Wikipedia
**Are Virginia’s New Abortion Rules the Worst? (via Mother Jones)
Facts on Induced Abortions in the United States (via The Guttmacher Institute)
Reason Seen More As Weapon Than Path to Truth (via The New York Times)
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