EVERYTHING WAS going swimmingly on the panel. The subject was politics and faith, and I was on stage with two clergymen with progressive spiritual leanings, and a moderator who is liberal and Catholic. We were having a discussion with the audience of 1,300 people in Washington about many of the social justice topics on which we agree -- the immorality of the federal budget, the wrongness of the president’s war in Iraq. Then an older man came to the mike and raised the issue of abortion, and everyone just lost his or her mind.
Or, at any rate, I did.
Maybe it was the way in which the man couched the question, which was about how we should reconcile our progressive stances on peace and justice with the “murder of a million babies every year in America.” The man who asked the question was soft-spoken, neatly and casually dressed.
First Richard, a Franciscan priest, answered that this is indeed a painful issue but that it is not the only “pro-life” issue that progressives -- even Catholics -- should concern themselves with during elections. There are also the matters of capital punishment and the war in Iraq, and of HIV. Then Jim, an evangelical, spoke about the need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, and the need to diffuse abortion as a political issue, by welcoming pro-choice and pro-life supporters to the discussion, with equal respect for their positions. He spoke gently about how “morally ambiguous” the issue is.
I sat there simmering, like a samovar; nice Jesusy me. The moderator turned to me and asked quietly if I would like to respond. I did: I wanted to respond by pushing over our table.
Instead, I shook my head. I love and respect the Franciscan and the evangelical, and agree with them 90-plus percent of the time. So I did not say anything, at first.
Then, when I was asked to answer the next question, I paused, and returned to the topic of abortion. There was a loud buzzing in my head, the voice of reason that says, “You have the right to remain silent,” but the voice of my conscience was insistent. I wanted to express calmly, eloquently, that pro-choice people understand that there are two lives involved in an abortion -- one born (the pregnant woman) and one not (the fetus) -- but that the born person must be allowed to decide what is right.
Also, I wanted to wave a gun around, to show what a real murder looks like. This tipped me off that I should hold my tongue, until further notice. And I tried.
But then I announced that I needed to speak out on behalf of the many women present in the crowd, including myself, who had had abortions, and the women whose daughters might need one in the not-too-distant future -- people who must know that teenage girls will have abortions, whether in clinics or dirty backrooms. Women whose lives had been righted and redeemed by Roe vs. Wade. My answer was met with some applause but mostly a shocked silence.
Pall is a good word. And it did not feel good to be the cause of that pall. I knew what I was supposed to have said, as a progressive Christian: that it’s all very complicated and painful, and that Jim was right in saying that the abortion rate in America is way too high for a caring and compassionate society.
But I did the only thing I could think to do: plunge on, and tell my truth. I said that this is the most intimate decision a woman makes, and she makes it all alone, in her deepest heart of hearts, sometimes with the man by whom she is pregnant, with her dearest friends or with her doctor -- but without the personal opinion of say, Tom DeLay or Karl Rove.
I said I could not believe that men committed to equality and civil rights were still challenging the basic rights of women. I thought about all the photo-ops at which President Bush had signed legislation limiting abortion rights, surrounded by 10 or so white, self-righteous married men, who have forced God knows how many girlfriends into doing God knows what. I thought of the time Bush appeared on stage with children born from frozen embryos, children he calls “snowflake babies,” and of the embryos themselves, which he calls the youngest and most vulnerable Americans.
And somehow, as I was answering, I got louder and maybe even more emphatic than I actually felt, and said it was not a morally ambiguous issue for me at all. I said that fetuses are not babies yet; that there was actually a real difference between pro-abortion people, like me, and Klaus Barbie.
Then I said that a woman’s right to choose was nobody else’s goddamn business. This got their attention.
A cloud of misery fell over the room, and the stage. Finally, Jim said something unifying enough for us to proceed -- that liberals must not treat people with opposing opinions on abortion with contempt and exclusion, partly because it’s tough material, and partly because it is so critical that we win these next big elections.
It was not until the reception that I finally realized part of the problem -- no one had told me that the crowd was made up largely of Catholics.
I had flown in at dawn on a red-eye, and, in my exhaustion, had somehow missed this one tiny bit of information. I was mortified: I had to eat my body weight in chocolate just to calm myself.
But then I asked myself: Would I, should I, have given a calmer answer? Wouldn’t it have been more useful and harder to dismiss me if I had sounded more reasonable, less -- what is the word -- spewy?
Maybe I could have presented my position in a less strident, divisive manner. But the questioner’s use of the words “murder” and “babies” had put me on the defensive. Plus I am so confused about why we are still having to argue with patriarchal sentimentality about teeny weenie so-called babies -- some microscopic, some no bigger than the sea monkeys we used to send away for -- when real, live, already born women, many of them desperately poor, get such short shrift from the current administration.
Most women like me would much rather use our time and energy fighting to make the world safe and just and fair for the children we do have, and do love -- and for the children of New Orleans and the children of Darfur. I am old and tired and menopausal and would mostly like to be left alone: I have had my abortions, and I have had a child.
But as a Christian and a feminist, the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life, and reproductive rights for all women is a crucial part of that: It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.
During the reception, an old woman came up to me, and said, “If you hadn’t spoken out, I would have spit,” and then she raised her fist in the power salute. We huddled together for awhile, and ate M&Ms; to give us strength. It was a kind of communion, for those of us who still believe that civil rights and equality and even common sense will somehow be sovereign, some day.