Monday, January 24, 2011

Why My Children Went to Washington

The following is an excerpt from an article of mine appearing in this month's issue of Lay Witness magazine:

“Mom?” The six-year-old appeared at my elbow. His face wore a questing expression which typically preceded remarks like, How can that line I just drew on my paper contain an infinite number of points?
“Mom?” he said again. “What exactly are abortion rights?”
I stopped peanutbuttering in mid-swipe. Exactly? You want to know exactly?
Yes, he did want to know exactly. After all, this phrase recurred hourly on the radio, alongside the hurricane news, so it must mean something at least as interestingly important as phrases like Category Three.
So, figuring that an honest question deserved an honest answer, I told him. His older sister turned up while we were talking, so I told her, too. I said that abortion rights meant that in our country it is legal for a pregnant mother, who may feel frightened or unready or as though nobody will help her, to have a doctor kill her unborn baby.
 “You’re making that up,” they said.
“I wish I were,” I replied.
They were outraged. It was as if I had revealed that their father and I were planning to cook them for Christmas dinner. I could see their thoughts travel into the living room, where their toddler brother was shaking a floor lamp to pieces, then back to me, and to the baby inside me, whose movements they had been tracking as they tracked the hurricanes, as we waited for her to make landfall.
This is a true story.  In the intervening years, I have often wondered whether I did my children a favor by answering their questions straightforwardly, but at the time, cornered like that, I couldn't think what else to do. Abortion rights is part of our linguistic currency;  why shouldn't they know what that phrase means, and without the icing of euphemism?

I did not, after all, tell them anything like this. But what I did tell them -- that in America it is perfectly legal to kill an unborn child -- was, without embellishment, enough.

[T]hat if I lost my mind, as must at times have seemed an imminent and inevitable development, the baby inside me was the last person any authority would protect:  this revelation was like a gash in the underbelly of their world, a wound which dripped with unimagined poison.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that this conversation, many years ago now, changed my children's lives. It made pro-life activists of them, though that wasn't really what I'd set out to do, not being especially pro-life myself at the time. On reflection, what I'm writing right now is, as much as my children's participation in March for Life, a consequence of the same discussion. Conversation/conversion;  I don't have time at this moment to explore etymologies, but by a slip of the fingers, I might just as well have typed one for the other.

 Pro-choice had been my default setting since college. Though each successive pregnancy taught me all over again the humanity of the unseen person -- feeling somebody turn his or her head in the halo of your pelvis while you're standing in the grocery checkout line will do that --  and though I'd settled in my mind, and with sometimes-incredulous doctors, that I would not under any circumstance have an abortion myself (thus saving myself a world of hassle with the kinds of diagnostic tests designed to make you consider having one, because what the hell else do you do with information like that?), that was as far as my thinking had gone.

A friend of mine once put her own ambivalence regarding abortion this way:  "While I was pregnant, I knew that I would let nothing on this earth harm the child in my womb. But I can't tell somebody else what to do."

At the time, this sounded reasonable to me, even sensitive. Now, I think:  do other children not deserve protection? Because that is what it comes to. Each year that one of my children was born, four thousand -- on average -- died.  (I got this number wrong. The truth is that on the DAY each of my children was born, roughly four thousand other children died.)They died because their mothers were poor.  They died because their fathers or their grandparents said, "Get that taken care of;  otherwise it's your problem." They died because they had Down Syndrome, or cleft palate -- or tests indicated that they might.

Though the reasons and rationales vary, in the end, those people died, frankly, because our culture believes that death is preferable to the potential for unhappiness. At nine and six, my children could see this for the outrage that it is. This year, when my oldest child graduates from high school, four thousand other people will not graduate, because our culture believes that death is preferable to the possibility of dropping out. (Again, the true number is more like 1.37 MILLION)

My kids didn't go to March for Life to make things worse for women. Nor did they go simply because of one unbelievably gruesome story  recently come to light, however blandly the mainstream media has reported it. They went because even the cleanest, most efficient abortion clinic tells, behind its sterile facade, the same story of the throw-away-ness of human life, the story that really, children are better off dead.

More on the unbelievable story of Kermit Gosnell here. 
No more mental retardation?
Tens of thousands? Uh, count again.
How I Became Pro-Life, plus
a photo-essay from the West Coast March
Not Safe, Not Rare. Just Legal.
Eve Tushnet on Abortion as Horror Subgenre (H/T)


Dorian Speed said...

That's such a toughie - I am waiting for the same question from my kids, and I know it is going to break their hearts.

Jan said...

I was not yet 13 when Roe v Wade was being decided. I have a recollection of hearing about abortion in church one Sunday and asking my mother what it meant. She gave me a somewhat vague response that it was about "killing babies" - as was typical for me, I didn't press it.

But it didn't make the impact on me that it might have - that took my own first pregnancy and subsequent viewing of a miscarried fetus while I was in nursing school to finally drive that nail home.

I guess you could say pro-choice was my de facto setting as well, during my Planned Parenthood years.
It does seem compassionate - not forcing a woman to carry an unwanted or forcibly conceived pregnancy. But that's a shallow, even hollow, compassion.

And yeah, I tell my kids the truth, too.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for this, Sally.

"While I was pregnant, I knew that I would let nothing on this earth harm the child in my womb. But I can't tell somebody else what to do."

I used to hear this a lot in my old life, and, especially as a post-abortive woman, it made me insane. Because it's an acknowledgment, without coming out and saying so, that abortion *is* an intrinsic wrong in a way that even someone pro-choice can feel in her very bones. And why is that intrinsic wrong, which is categorically NOT okay for you, okay for someone else? And why is something you would eschew for yourself also something you will fight for for another woman? Being pro-choice, which is supposed to be an emblem of feminist sisterhood, is in fact a sad lack of fellow-feeling, or even of understanding, for one's sisters.

Yes, we think we're being compassionate, because if someone else wants (or, as the rhetoric usually goes, needs) an abortion, then it can't be wrong *for them*. And I have the feeling that some self-styled pro-choice Catholics believe it makes them extra courageous to lead poor women to abortion, because they are not holding their noses and disdaining something that is repellent to them personally, but accepting other choices (which they would never make) and the necessity of enabling them.

Just sad.

Sarah said...

"...our culture believes that death is preferable to the potential for unhappiness." Exactly right.

I'll never forget taking calculus at our local community college as a home schooled teenager. A Mom with a teenaged daughter of her own sat behind me, and repeated a conversation they'd had when her daughter told her there was a possibility she might be pregnant. "I sat her down and said 'well, if you're pregnant, you could abort the baby and just take care of the problem, or you could keep it. But if you keep it, it'll probably mean you won't finish high school and you'll ruin your life, etc.'" The daughter asked "isn't there another option? couldn't I give it up for adoption?" To which the mother responded, full of indignation "and how do you think I would feel, knowing you GAVE AWAY my grandchild. How could you?" The logic and truth twisting that negated any possibility of single-parenting, and implicitly preferred killing one's grandchild to having him/her live in someone else's loving home boggles my mind to this day.

Sally Thomas said...

Yes. Better to kill it than give it away.

Longtime readers here know that I'm married to a man who was born, thank God, before that formulation became enshrined in law. Had abortion been more readily, legally available in 1962, he might well have died in utero, rather than -- at great cost to his birth mother, I have no doubt -- being granted a life and a future, which included bringing joy to a couple who could not have given birth and friendship, help, support, and ministry to many people. Oh, and marrying me.

Every time I think of his not having life, I think of my not having *this* life, with him, and of the four other people who would never have been born (and their children, and their children's children), had his birth mother and her mother had the conversation Sarah describes: "You can kill my grandchild, but for heaven's sake don't let somebody else bring him up."

Pentimento said...

The only way comments like this can be comprehended is by accepting that the grandmother, like many others, truly did not see abortion as killing.

Susan said...

Sally, I think it's more like 4000 abortions per hour.

The Cottage Child said...

We're just now sidling up to the subject with our elementary aged children. I am a huge believer in erring on the side of a soft late rather than too soon when it comes to this sort of information, but as my daughters look and act less and less like small children, I feel they have a right and a need to know what's up, especially since it's a topic of discussion, occasionally, between my husband and I. I do not want to become the source of euphemism and shadow over the matter.

While I dread the conversation because I can't imagine it not being frightening subject matter, even when delicately broached, I cherish the opportunity to be able to explain to them in a new context that their Dad and I, and most importantly God, love them, and understand their value to be absolute. They cannot be reduced to merely a choice we've made, and I hope we'll pray, and act, as a family that others will know the same truth.

You're so awesome - what a great piece, I needed this today and didn't even know it. Thank you.

Sally Thomas said...

Susan, you're right. The stats I looked up just now said 3,700/day; 1.37 million/year (in 1996). There have been upswings and downturns in those numbers, but as a general picture, yes. Correcting myself pronto. Guess I was going for the less-horrifying-sounding number . . .

CC -- thank you for the kind words. I really don't regret having been honest with my children, though it's a little alarming to be asked point-blank by a 6-year-old (who was a very penetrating kind of 6-year-old -- he was also given to remarks like, when listening to NPR news in the car taking his dad to work, "I know who NPR wants to win this election.") I didn't provide details, and I was very anxious not to demonize mothers who had had abortions -- I pointed out to them that people will do what seems like the most reasonable thing, when it's being offered and people are pressuring them, or they otherwise feel scared and as if no one would help them if they had the baby.

They weren't traumatized by this knowledge as much as they were simply angry. The idea of killing unborn children hit them very close to home, especially since they'd just been through the gestation and birth of their younger brother, and we were expecting their little sister shortly. It was all very, very real and firsthand to them. And, as I say, though I was not trying to make activists out of them, that was the outcome.

catechesisinthethirdmillennium said...

Great article. God Bless You!

Megan said...

This is a fabulous article, your words rang true in several instances. My own 8 year old, while watching for his sisters during the coverage of the March, asked me what abortion was. I too, answered him honestly. He was shocked. He was angry, and asked when he could go to the March.

Allison Welch said...

Amazing article. You are a gifted writer. Thanks for sharing.

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

I've been meaning to comment over here, but this is a fantastic and helpful post. My 6-year-old is a very inquisitive child and has already started asking some tough questions. I need posts like this (and the Holy Spirit!) to guide me in formulating a proper response.

Sally, I always enjoy your writing. You have a gift. Keep sharing it with us!

God bless.

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks, Kate. And I do think you'll have the right words for the moment when it comes. My own philosophy -- about answering lots of kinds of questions, actually -- is to answer truthfully, but with the understanding that they don't need *that* much information, necessarily. In the case of abortion, of course, even the most basic of answers is almost more than enough, but I think that if they're old enough to ask, they're old enough for at least the outline of a real answer.

Teresa said...

My little sister once asked me "What does abortion mean?" I said to her, "It means when a woman is pregnant but doesn't want to have the child so she kills it." My sister immediately burst into tears at the very idea.

I recently told this story to a college friend, who scrunched up his face at me and said something along the lines of, "Don't you worry that by phrasing it that way you prejudiced her and made her think it was bad? Maybe if you hadn't used those words she wouldn't have thought it was bad." My response? All I did was give her the facts. If a lack of rhetoric makes it offensive, maybe it is offensive.

Anonymous said...

My parents said something very similar to me when I was nine. From that point on, I was pro-life. They didn't go into gory detail or anything, but they just laid the situation out clearly. I'm thankful they did.

Victor said...

Sally, you've always been a great writer when you write from the heart and I don't want to imply that you don't always write from the heart but then again which writer really does all the time?

I remember when I first commented when you were a steady writer on "First Things" and while I was reading your reply, "IT" was as if your spirit was present and reading along side with me.

I hear ya! You did send my spirit back home Victor and "IT" tells me that I might still be a regular if I wouldn't have been so honest with you. :)


NO! Just kidding and if you don't believe me just ask Joe.

Joe Who? :)

I again here ya! NOW be careful!

God Bless Peace