Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Abortion, Clean and Dirty

Via Matthew Lickona, this essay by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, a book review of The Choices We Made, in which women tell their stories of back-alley abortions before legalization:
In the middle of a hot New York summer 60 years ago, my mother and her two roommates were invited to spend a weekend at Fire Island. The three girls, recent nursing-school graduates, worked together at Bellevue and were sharing the rent on their first apartment. When a fourth young nurse of their acquaintance overheard them talking about the trip, she asked if she and her young man, a resident at the hospital, could borrow the apartment while they were away. In those days, lovers had to seize on those kinds of opportunities to be alone together. The apartment key was given to the friend, no big deal, and my mother and her roommates left for the beach.

They returned late Sunday evening, in a commotion of kicked-off shoes and set-down carryalls and switched-on lights. One of them pulled the string on the kitchen bulb, and her cry brought the other two. At first they thought a crime had taken place. Strictly speaking, one had: The boyfriend, a kid with a year or two of medical training under his belt, had performed an abortion on his girlfriend. Literally, a kitchen-table abortion. There was blood on the table and the floor, and there were wadded-up bloody towels in the sink.
Or, consider this:

The quality of the criminal abortion that a woman received depended largely on where she lived and how wealthy she was. Reports a woman who got pregnant while a student at Barnard in the 1930s: “The actual abortion was comfortable, clean, the absolute tops.” On the other hand, here’s a description of an abortion the actress Margot Kidder had as an 18-year-old in the mid-1960s. Her boyfriend, John, made the arrangements, “all done with great secrecy and a great sense of evil and sordidness”; the couple were told to check in to a certain hotel room where the abortionist, a woman, would meet them. After gaining their assurance that they would never go to a hospital if something went wrong, she began the procedure.

I was told to undress and lie in the bathtub, which I did. John was in the other room. There was no anesthetic, of course. She jammed something through my cervix. It was incredibly painful. I was screaming and crying; I had no idea what was happening to me. Then she used what looked like a douche to shoot some sort of solution up through my cervix.

The woman had filled Kidder’s uterus with Lysol.

The horror of both these stories is compounded by the fact that in each case the woman's boyfriend, the father, was present. What did John think, what did he do, when he heard his girlfriend screaming in pain and fear? Did the young nurse continue to see the boyfriend who performed an abortion on her and left the bloody mess for her friends to find?

The raw squalor of these stories stand in stark contrast to the carefully sanitized tone of this piece from The Atlantic dating back to 1965, in which "Mrs. X" writes in chillingly clinical, impersonal language about her decision to obtain an illegal abortion.

I set out recently to find an abortionist in the large Eastern city where I live. My husband and I are in our mid-forties and have three children. When I discovered that I was pregnant for the fourth time, my husband and I considered the situation as honestly as we could. We both admitted that we lacked the physical resources to face 2 A.M. feedings, diapers, and the seemingly endless cycle of measles, mumps, and concussions of another child. Years of keeping a wary eye on expenditures (a new suit for my husband every two years and one for me every five) had allowed us to set up a fund which we felt would enable the children to attend reasonably good colleges away from home if some financial assistance in the form of grants or scholarships could be obtained. Since my husband's income has reached its zenith, it was plain that one of the four would have to forgo all or part of a chance at higher education. The part-time secretarial work which I had been doing for some years to augment our income would have to stop since the revenue it produces would not cover baby-sitting fees. We have no rich uncles likely to make our children their beneficiaries. We have also had sufficient experience living to acknowledge that while the Lord will sometimes provide, He may be busy looking after somebody else when you need Him most.

...The operation was successfully concluded as scheduled. Forty-five minutes after I entered the doctor's office for the second time, I walked out, flagged a passing cab, and went home. Admirably relaxed for the first time in two weeks, I dozed over dinner, left the children to wash the dishes, and dove into bed to sleep for twelve hours. The operation and its aftereffects were exactly as described by the physician. For some five minutes I suffered "discomfort" closely approximating the contractions of advanced labor. Within ten minutes this pain subsided, and returned in the next four or five days only as the sort of mild twinge which sometimes accompanies a normal menstrual period. Bleeding was minimal.
Did Mrs. X ever regret her decision? Did she ever lay awake at 2 AM and cry, since baby wasn't there to do it for her? Did her children ever discover the true cost of their college education, and would they have thought it worth the sacrifice? And here once again, the father of the child is involved and is complicit in the abortion.

Mrs. X waxes as eloquent as she gets about the marvels of medical technology which moves abortion from a sordid, back-alley business to a efficient, sterile procedure:
My operation at least was performed with what seemed to me incredible proficiency, speed, and deftness, with sterile instruments designed for the purpose for which they were used.
But Caitlin Flanagan finds herself struck by another, newer kind of technology, one that puts a human face on the matter:
But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate.
This "human face", this "beating heart", these "waving hands" were on the business end of that syringe of Lysol, or the gleaming scalpel. We must never lose sight of this fact. Clean or dirty, abortion has the same outcome: a woman is bleeding and a child is dead.


Alishia said...

I'm always struck by people who support the reasoning behind abortion, having participated in that reasoning and deeming it necessary to their situation, yet are not so convinced of the normalcy of the act that they cannot attach their name to their (probably much-needed) confession. People can be pro-choice, but most people don't want to admit to having one. Why is there shame if it's supposed to be socially acceptable, even economically advantageous? It is that natural shame that speaks volumes.

Unkown Caller said...

First, I have really enjoyed your writing as of late.

Second, the starkness of the illegal abortions is chilling. What complete horror these young girls must have had to allow a complete stranger perform a medical procedure on their most intimate body parts with the added promise NOT to go to the hospital if something went wrong.

But then there's that human face... that face which communicates not just life but human ensoulment.

That then reminds me that St. Therese was of the Holy Face of Jesus.