Abortion

  “We didn’t finish our discussion from last week,” said Vic, as they settled down in the sun. “I want to hear you talk about one other thing.”

   “I feel like a trap is about to be sprung. And that thing is…?”

   “Abortion.”

   “Abortion! Talk about taking me out of my comfort zone! You know that abortions are completely illegal in most states, including Idaho?”

   “Of course, I know it. That doesn’t mean they don’t occur. It doesn’t mean that high school girls don’t talk about them, and – I suspect in a couple weeks - I will learn that college women talk about them, too. So, talk.”

   “Wow!” Greg just shook his head. “Look, Vic, this really is way beyond me.”

   “Greg, you are a compassionate man, whose opinions I respect, and I want you to try.”

   “Okay.” He still hesitated.

  “Greg, talk!”

  “Okay, but reluctantly…”

  “But you love me, and would do anything for me, including taIking about abortion.”

  He sighed, theatrically. “Okay, but I don’t know what you want to know. I know something about the history of abortions in the U. S., and I certainly have some opinions on the subject. Just remember that I may not know what I’m talking about.”

   “Greg, dear, I always assume you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

   That got to him. “Okay, with that caveat, here goes. Did you know that there were no abortion laws in the United States from our founding until the 1850s?”

   “No. Is that true?”

   “Yes, that is one fact you can trust me on. Abortions were commonplace and, by the then current medical standards, fairly safe. We brought English common law with us to this country, and it allowed abortions without limit up to what was called ‘quickening’ – the first indication that a fetus was moving around. That normally comes at about four months in the pregnancy, I think.

   “About 1850, the American Medical Association was formed, and not long after they started campaigning really strongly for abortion bans.”

    “Why would they do that if abortions were considered safe?”

   “I don’t know for sure. Neither of the reasons I’ve heard has anything to do with the safety of the procedure, and neither shines a very favorable light on the medical profession.”

   “So, what was the reasoning?”

   “Remember, this is just what I’ve gleaned from various sources, in college and in the news. It may not be right – no, I take that back. It probably is right, but it may not be the whole story. Anyway, the medical profession – if you can call it a profession at that time – was a mix of trained doctors and people who performed medical functions without formal credentials. One of the big groups consisted of midwives, women who assisted pregnant women, including helping with abortions. The AMA wanted to get rid of these so-called non-professionals, and make medicine all about formal college training. They figured if there were no legal abortions, there would be no need for abortion assistance.”

   “That’s horrible!’

   “It is, but the other reason is even worse. Remember that, no matter how much we talk about equality, our nation was founded by White males. By 1850, those ‘founders’ were still considering that women had only one role: to produce babies, and then raise them. It was mostly White women who were getting abortions, so White family size was shrinking. Coupled with that fact was that slaves and various groups of immigrants were producing kids at high rates. White males – and the AMA was almost entirely of that group – were beginning to worry that non-Whites were adding to the American population at much greater rates than they were. They did not want to find themselves a minority in their own country!”

   “Can that really be true, that they would make their wives into baby-producing slaves to preserve their majority?”

   “I think they would. We live in a wonderful country in many, many ways, but some of the things that have been done in this wonderful country don’t bear close scrutiny. Anyway, to continue the story, the AMA campaign worked, and more and more states declared abortions illegal. By the turn of the century, there was no legal abortion in the United States, except for a relatively few cases in which a doctor said that a woman’s health could be jeopardized if a pregnancy wasn’t terminated. It was men making the decisions for women, again, and I’m sure they limited their exceptions to physical health, not mental health.

   “So the AMA won, but it was like that cartoon in which the satisfied surgeon comes out of the operating room, and declares ‘The operation was a success, but the patient died.’ There were no legal abortions, but there were thousands of illegal ones, often done by unqualified people, by outright charlatans, or by the pregnant women, themselves. Hospitals filled up with women having serious medical trouble after botched abortions, and many women died.

   “The many deaths did cause some people to be alarmed at what was going on, but not enough, and there wasn’t any change. Then, in the late 50s and early 60s, we had the thalidomide problems. Do you know about thalidomide?”

   “A little bit. That was the drug they gave to pregnant women that caused deformed babies.”

   “Yeah, it was supposed to help with morning sickness-type nausea. I guess it did, but it resulted in horrible deformed fetuses. Almost none lived after delivery. With almost no hope of your baby being normal, if you’d taken thalidomide, illegal abortions went up again. It was out in the open again, and when one television newswoman ended up very publicly going all the way to Sweden before she was able to get an abortion, more people and lawmakers began to pay attention. Just a couple of years ago – maybe 1952 - a national group of lawyers, judges, and others developed a proposal for a legal code to abortions. It called for abortion to be legal when a pregnant woman’s life or health was at risk, but also when the pregnancy had occurred because of rape or incest, or if the fetus was known to be severely damaged. Nothing has changed, so far, but I guess a number of states are considering loosening their restrictions. I saw in the paper a couple days ago that Colorado may be one of the first to partially lift their ban.”

   “That would be a start.” Vic was pensive. “I don’t understand any of this. Well, I think I understand the male lawmakers a little better, after what you said. It’s despicable, but I can see it. What I can’t understand – even a little bit – are the women who are so vocal against abortion. Do they just think that it has nothing to do with them? Do they just forget their daughters, and the daughters of others? Do they not know that, for women – maybe especially women in my category, teens and 20s – rape isn’t some nightmare that pops up in a dream, sometime. In this greatest country in the world, it’s an ever-present possibility for us. Also, there are enough reports in the newspapers to make it clear that incest is not a rare happening, either. And the kids who make one mistake: are all those girls supposed to suffer in shame and sometimes revulsion for nine months, because… Well, because why? That’s what I don’t get!”

   “No, I don’t, either. It seems like when people devote their whole life to a cause like stopping abortions – especially if they can make the cause seem like some kind of religious mandate – they lose all perspective. I don’t think Americans in general are opposed to abortion – polls consistently show that people want some restrictions, but they don’t want it banned. Anti-abortion is often made to sound like it’s a Christian cause but, again, many Christians are okay with abortion with restrictions, just like the rest of the country. The odd – and sad – thing about the really rabid anti-abortionists is that they are often the same people who are against birth control (which limits the need for abortions!), and often vote against government funding of prenatal or postnatal care, daycare services, and aid for poor and minority families with children. Their care for life seems to end as soon as a child is born, and actually starts living!

   “You asked for my opinion on abortion. Well, I don’t think we need any laws; shouldn’t a woman and her doctor be able to make the appropriate decision? No legitimate doctor is going to do something that he thinks is unethical or ‘murder,’ and I can’t believe that many women are becoming pregnant just because they know abortion is available. That seems unbelievably stupid to me – which I know women aren’t – particularly when safe forms of birth control are available. If there has to be a law, I think the proposal made by the attorney group is good, assuring that abortion is available in case of rape, incest, threats to the mother’s health – both physical and mental! – and fetuses that are not viable. The old ‘quickening’ concept of allowable abortions through about four months would probably be okay, but if I remember  my biology correctly, a fetus can’t survive outside a woman’s body until about six months.

   Greg ran out of steam, but he sensed Vic still had something on her mind. He asked. “I get the feeling that this topic wasn’t just some random discussion item to you. You have something in particular you want to talk about. Am I right?”

   “You’re right. I wanted to hear what you know, and what you think, and now I have a story to tell you. Do you want to hear it? It’s kind of long.”

   “Of course, I want to hear it. And you’re worried about taking too long after I have been blabbering away for over an hour? What’s this about.”

   She relaxed a little. “Okay, there’s a little background, first. As you probably know, there’s not a lot for high school kids to do out here in the sagebrush, so they do things that might get them in moderate trouble. I’m pretty sure there are drugs in the school, but I don’t think there are many. The kids drink too much beer but, other than being a danger on the highways, they aren’t into anything harder. That leaves one sure way for both boys and girls to get in trouble, and that’s sex. We hear mostly gossip and rumor, but there are enough facts to suggest that there’s a lot going on. Girl talk around the school is that there are more than a few pregnancies, and that there are abortions, too, even though they are illegal. One girl we know got pregnant, because she stayed in school, had the baby, and graduated. It’s hard to tell about the rest of the gossip, but I think some of it is true.

   “There’s a case that Mandy and I knew about personally, and that’s the one I wanted to talk to you about. The boy is my age, but this happened a year or so ago, so he was maybe seventeen, or maybe still sixteen. The girl is a year behind Mandy, so she was probably only fifteen, at most. They’d been going steady for several months, at least, but she said they had never had sex – that this was the first time for both of them. I believe her.

   “My Mom says that getting pregnant the first time you have sex isn’t always easy. She said that, with both me and Mandy, it took quite a few tries after she and Daddy decided they wanted babies. (She also said that they weren’t unhappy it didn’t happen right away, because they had a lot of fun, trying. But I probably shouldn’t have told you that, because you might not concentrate on the rest of my story.)

   “I’m trying.”

   “Thank you. In the story I’m telling you, they tried it one time, and that’s all it took. She told her parents just as soon as she suspected. They were not supportive. The boy took responsibility for his part, but what could he do? Her parents wanted to throw him in jail, or something, but the school convinced them – for the sake of the kids – not to make it more public than it already was. Then, the parents talked about making her carry the baby the whole term, as ‘punishment.’ Can you believe that? Punishment! They reneged, but only after traumatizing her for a couple weeks. Then, her dad took her somewhere, and got an abortion. I think he went out of state, but of course it was still illegal. The girl is still in school, - and seems okay - and the boy graduated, so it’s kind of a non-story. But, of course, it isn’t. To put a couple of teens through all that for one lapse in judgment is inexcusable, as far as I’m concerned, and wouldn’t have been necessary if we had any kind of humane abortion law.”

   “As you said, it’s not a non-story. There were a number of ways it could have been lovingly handled, if not for the law.”

   “Situation ethics,” said Vic.

   “Exactly.”

   She was quiet for a moment, but she had more on her mind. “What you hear all the time from people opposed to abortion is that it’s murder. Is it?”

   “I guess if you believe it is, you’re not going to be convinced otherwise. I don’t think it is. As I said, a fetus may have life, but it can’t survive outside of a woman’s body until it’s five or six months old. I would hope that any woman who carries it beyond that to actual birth wants to have the baby. If she wants – or needs – to abort before then, I think it’s her body and her business.

   “As a biologist, I guess I’m pretty clear about this.  Of the hundred kazillion sperms and eggs  that humans produce every day, many have the potential to be part of the creation of a human being. That potential is seldom realized because most sperms never have a chance to meet most eggs, either because they are never in proximity to one another, or because steps have been taken to assure that their meetings will not be fruitful. (It’s called ‘birth control.’) Occasionally, sure-fire birth control turns out not to be sure-fire. Sometimes, passion trumps planning, and the unlikely becomes unplanned reality. Sometimes, birth control is not available, sometimes because the same religious people who don’t want abortions don’t want people to have ready access to birth control, either. And sometimes, the worst happens, when viable sperm meets viable egg as a result of sexual assault – rape. Pregnancy is not an expected, or hoped for, outcome in any of those cases. Where is the morality in punishing any of those individual events? For any ‘Christians’ against abortion in those cases, I suggest they re-read their New Testament, and ponder the words of Jesus.”

   Greg laughed, a little wryly. “Here I am, going on and on about sex, something I have no experience with. Yet it seems to me that – between those who want to outlaw birth control, and those who seek to keep abortion illegal – that some want to make sure that sex is just about making babies, and not about making love.”

   “Well, they can’t succeed, because you have made a certain promise to me.”

   “What promise did I make?”

   “I’ll remind you, when the time comes.”


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