Chances are, you don't remember reading about Gladys Burr, who made news headlines some years ago. Burr had been involuntarily confined to a mental institution in 1936, with an incorrect diagnosis of mental retardation and psychosis. (Her family didn't want her and had her committed.) In spite of repeated letters to the authorities, no one paid any attention to her requests for freedom for 42 years. "I asked to get out of there so many times," Burr said on her release in 1978, "but they didn't respond, they didn't seem to care."
Today we don't hear about the many Gladys Burrs who were warehoused in institutions with little hope of ever being released. We don't hear anymore about the mentally disturbed individuals who spent far longer in mental hospitals for committing minor crimes than they would have spent in prison. These injustices have been corrected. Today, we hear different stories, about other injustices demanding society's interest.
Thus, in 1985, the same year that Gladys Burr won $235,000 in compensation for her lost life, Sylvia Seegrist went on a rampage in a shopping mall, killing two people and wounding eight others with a semiautomatic rifle. Seegrist had been hospitalized 12 times in 10 years for violent assault, and had recently been let out after a four-month confinement for stabbing someone. Her parents and psychiatrists had been unable to commit her against her will.
Stories like these are the heart and soul of human life--and of the news. We think in stories. We respond emotionally to stories. They enrage, inspire, amuse and motivate. The case study is an indispensable tool for the psychotherapist, the reporter, the novelist and the teacher, for it makes dry statistics live and dull theories vivid. This fact of mental life makes it difficult, however, for educators in the critical-thinking movement, who are forever trying to explain to students the dangers of arguing by anecdote, let alone of trying to form social policy on the basis of one good story.
We cannot live without stories, but we must do our best to avoid basing law and reforms on them. One person's story may be true, but it is rarely the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I was thinking of the power of anecdote and of Gladys Burr when I read Dr. George Flesh's recent essay on this page, misleadingly titled "Why I No Longer Do Abortions." (Actually, he said that he will perform some early abortions under certain conditions.) It was a touching personal essay, accompanied by a vivid, emotion-evoking photograph of a fetus. The essay contained several vivid, emotion-evoking anecdotes about women who said they wanted abortions for trivial reasons--they hadn't finished remodeling the kitchen, or they wanted a trip to Europe before having a baby. The anecdotes conveyed the impression that women who have abortions are vain, self-involved and petty. Why should abortion be legal, if women like that are going to have them?
I don't doubt Flesh's story, which may be true for him, but it is not the whole story. What we no longer see in the media is the kind of essays and photographs that were published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before Roe vs. Wade.
I remember the horrific photograph of a naked woman, crouched on a bare floor, dead of hemorrhaging from a self-induced abortion. I remember doctors writing essays, as passionate as Flesh's, about why they would perform abortions if the law allowed: so that hospital wards would never again be full of women with perforated uteruses, women recovering or dying from botched illegal or self-administered abortions.
Entire wards were full of such women. They aren't in hospitals anymore, so we don't have pictures of them.
No social program or law is perfect. Any system we devise to solve any problem will produce people who manipulate it, who cheat, who turn it to their advantage, or who fall through its cracks. Efforts to correct cases like Gladys Burr's, for example, created cases like Sylvia Seegrist's.
Today, because of legal reforms, it is very difficult to hospitalize people involuntarily for longer than a few weeks, even those who are dangerous to themselves or others; it is even difficult to keep patients who want to stay. And so reformers must go back to the drawing board, to think of better ways of protecting the public from people who are dangerously disturbed without forcibly incarcerating people who are not.
Similarly, I have no doubt that some women have abortions for reasons that other people disapprove of. We will hear these stories as long as abortion is legal. To avoid arguing by anecdote, however, we must also ask about the stories we aren't hearing. In the case of abortion, what stories will follow when it is not legal?
The answer, throughout history and in every country, has been clear: Millions of women will try to have abortions anyway, for reasons of desperation rather than vanity. I realize that anti-abortion activists care less about these women than about the millions of fetuses that are aborted, which is their prerogative.
For me, it is more significant that every two minutes, every day of the year, somewhere in the world a woman dies having an illegal abortion. That is not an anecdote; it's a statistic, the kind of evidence on which issues--especially emotional issues--should be decided.