Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Whole Thing

Women who have had an abortion might want to hesitate before reading this post. I don’t think I am in the least condemning, but it may bring up thoughts that are painful.

After reading Neo-neocon’s poignant stories of unmarried women who had gotten pregnant in the 60’s, I thought it wise to rethink my rhetoric. I have been harsh with feminists who have made abortion the defining issue as to whether someone is “for” women. I have played off the illogic of that, pretending not to understand why it became so central. But I do understand, at least a bit. Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I can go part way down that road before taking a different turn, rather than not seeing that road at all.

To switch metaphors, it is not that those cards have no value, but that there are other cards which trump them.

So. Should I start with the explanation of my shared understanding, or with my objections? There have been two recent examples of respectable outlets publishing deranged essays, both of which illustrate the illogic of Prolife + Anything = Anti-woman; there is also an essay over at lawblog Volokh Conspiracy showing how abortion is a dead issue legally, except skirmishes at the edges (it is entitled, appropriately enough “It’s All Over But The Shouting”). And there’s plenty of overheated rhetoric you can find on your own. But I think I’ll just leave those as links, for you to engage or not, as you choose. I’ll talk about the other side.


Abortion is not the only women’s issue, but pregnancy is a place where many other women’s issues come to a hard point. This was even more true in the early years of feminism, when abortions were difficult to obtain. That was my generation – I was born in 1953 – and some memories are yet green. I have much less understanding of why the issue has such symbolic importance for women a generation (or two) younger, because the ground is different now. I don’t intuit why they regard limiting abortion as equivalent to rape, for example. That springs from some other part of female psychology tied into body questions of sexual experience, and childbirth, nursing, and dependence. I don’t get that.

But for my own generation, I think I understand something of how the issue looked to everyday women of my era.

We grew up in the first generation of widespread prosperity, and also the first generation in which many women might aspire to careers other than the Big Three: teaching, nursing, and secretarial. They were raised to aspire to having a small business, or some training after high school, or going to college, or even – gasp – graduate school and the professions. Yet the old world was still quite visible, and girls were very aware that they were fortunate to have these chances. Their mothers and aunts hadn’t, nor even their older cousins. There was a bright new world, which they might not make it to, but could at least consider and try for.

Or you could sink back into the old world of a woman’s lot for hundreds of previous generations. We see that differently now, knowing that there are other, less direct paths to our goals. Those indirect routes were available then as well, but were less common, and less visible. There was a sense that you were only going to get so many chances to grab the brass ring. I think this was especially true of girls who were the first females in their families to go to college – and college women were the bulk of early feminists. To have a baby was to leave school, probably never come back, and have your sights lowered, presumably forever. Your college sisters who hoped to become more than “just a housewife” would now look at you as “just a housewife” – if they ever thought of you at all. Even if you went home you would have to make new friends, because your friends from high school were away at college.

Plus, you would feel you had let your family down. They also had had hopes you might do something different. You had not only sinned, you had failed, and it would be tough for them to take - or admit to their friends.

Having babies was seen, and still is in some circles, as an admission you couldn’t hack it in the new world. You were one of those women who had to retreat to the old ways – not one of the smart, capable girls who succeeded.

If you “went away” to have the baby, a lot of people would guess what had happened, but you had some chance of keeping the secret half-hidden, especially if you moved and started again.

This sounds disappointing, but not particularly terrible. A little bleak, but not tragic. There was another cultural current that made everything even more precarious, however.

In the old world, the boy had to marry you. “Had to” is a loose term, because some didn’t, but those boys then had complications of their own, usually having to move away and start off somewhere else. Usually, it was easier for everyone to just get married. He was, after all, your boyfriend, so you must have liked him somewhat. She was your girlfriend, so you must have seen something in her. Everyone knew that there were grimmer situations of rapes, unfortunate liaisons with people who shouldn’t be married, or denials of paternity, but because these were a minority of cases, society could regard the hasty-marriage solution as basically solving the problem. It covered most situations. (Abortion was always the unspoken option in that horrible minority of cases, because they were already so grim that little could make them worse.)

People knew those marriages were less likely to be happy, but that was the price you paid. You couldn’t say it was a horrible life, because it was awfully similar to the life everyone around you had. It wasn’t the new life that other people were getting to move into, but it was familiar, endurable – perhaps even for the best. Sure I wanted to be a chemist. But I wanted to be Wonder Woman when I was four, and a ballerina when I was nine, too. Life changes. It’s okay.

Those rules were changing. Because the boy in question also had dreams and expectations, and was perhaps the first in his family to go to college, he was more likely to balk at giving up those dreams as well. A girlfriend’s pregnancy might be the prime moment for a boy to reveal what an irresponsible jerk he was. Having the baby meant marrying the jerk or being an unwed mother and see your marriage prospects really drop. An abortion solved that. You would not only get a reprieve on your career path, you would also dodge an unhappy marriage. Birth control gave the illusion of being bulletproof, and pregnancy was seen as an unfair role of the dice. What kind of job could I (or he) get now? We’re half-trained for something, fully-trained for nothing but low-paying jobs.

If for good reasons or bad you were not going to marry the father, then you were not just moving one step down in your expectations, but two or three. You were now facing a life you had never mentally or emotionally prepared for. If I seem in any way to be minimizing that, I apologize. I don’t think that a small thing. Young people may overdramatize, and we can see in retrospect that Her Whole Life was not at stake, but it certainly looks that way at the time. It is at least partly true.

Let me interrupt myself to note that this cultural shift is not a rigid distinction. The past scene I have painted is not unknown now, nor were modern choices completely unavailable then. It’s a continuum, varying in different families and regions.

All this conspired to keep the more abstract moral notions out of the picture. Having an abortion might be wrong – some people thought so, some didn’t; but being humiliated, giving up your dreams, failing – those were definitely wrong. Everyone agreed on that. Weighing how wrong one thing was versus another is extremely difficult when you are actually in the situation.

The act of getting an abortion has one more aspect which pulls it away from moral reasoning. At the last, it is passive. It is something that someone else actually does. The woman has it done to her. There are good studies about decision-making that reveal we make a distinction between actively harmful and passively harmful acts. The Trolley Problem illustrates that we view the morality of events not only by their probable outcome, but by the actions we actually have to perform. Allowing the man to die on the trolley track is permissible; pushing him onto the track is not, though the outcome is the same. If the abdomen were transparent, perhaps abortion would be more rare. But it is not transparent.

In 1969, as now, it was not pregnancy that was an unfairness to women. But pregnancy highlighted many other inequities. Women got worse jobs and got paid less; a baby was more work for her; the sexual double standard delivered more social opprobrium to a female; her secret was more difficult to hide; the fall from grace was much farther and more lasting.

Is that fully encompassing moral reasoning? Of course not. Very little that any of us do is. But it is understandable that some women could see the abortion question as The Whole Thing.

1 comment:

colorless.blue.ideas said...

Thank you for your thoughts. Please allow me to add another observation. Over the years I have discussed this with many people all over the spectrum on the abortion issue.

Without a doubt, the most virulently pro-life and anti-abortion people have been women.

Yes, males have opinions, but they tend to be closer to the middle, whether or not they are pro- or anti- abortion. The females, hoeever, are more often solidly and passionately in one camp or the other.