Monday, October 21, 2002

Less Than Meets the Eye

I had hoped to execute one of my inimitable news roundups of various events both ordinary and odd, but last week I found an opinion column in my email box that, in the digesting of it, so stuck in my craw that I've decided to bag the news and just beat up on the column. It comes by way of Kathleen Parker, by way of, an avowedly conservative internet gathering place. The article is entitled "Abortion is more than meets the eye," and starts off interestingly enough: "Seldom do the consequences of one's actions present themselves with such blunt force as when Nicola McManus came face-to-face with a jar containing the remains of her just-aborted, nine-week fetus.

"McManus was still in the Glasgow, Scotland, hospital where she had induced her own miscarriage with the RU486 abortion pill, talking to her husband on the telephone, when her eyes rested on what the hospital, in a subsequent apology, chillingly referred to as 'the products of conception from your termination.'

"The jar, awaiting pick-up and delivery to the pathology lab, was labeled with McManus' name. 'I was mid-conversation and saw it,' she said. 'I told (husband) Frank and he tried to comfort me but I wasn't listening anymore. I was crying.' "

Ah, thought I, this was going to be one of those hope-inspiring, grace-bestowing, life-changing stories of redemption that happily befall a woman who, if even by accident, sees the truth of what she has consented to, and the truth sets her free. Well, not so fast. Before she can finish Mrs. McManus's story, Ms. Parker veers off into some irrelevancy about the time she toured the Mutter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a place well known for its collection of "some 20,000 medical and pathological specimens, including fluid-preserved body parts." She mentions several of a rather bizarre nature, the last being "baby deformities." As she stood before this display of pickled curiosities, a companion on tour with her wonders if "people would change their mind about abortion if they saw aborted fetuses displayed this way." If you think her friend meant to say "aborted babies" but perhaps forgot, I think you'd be wrong, and why you'd be wrong will become clear. Ms. Parker uses her friend's comment to smoothly segue into the following revelation: "He and I both belong to that soft-spoken cadre of journalists and others who oppose abortion but support choice. We are the bane of both sides of the debate, whose members view us as equivocal and unprincipled. You can't have it both ways, they say; pick a side. Yes, you can have it both ways, and we should."

Did you follow that? If we were able to observe aborted "fetuses" preserved in jars of formaldehyde, "we" might change our minds about abortion. And who is this "we?" Pro-lifers or pro-choicers? Both? She doesn't say. Maybe it's all of us, both the sides to which she is "the bane." After gazing raptly at the jars' contents, the level of horror unvaried, "we" might be privileged to discover the exquisitely reasonable sensibility of Ms. Parker and her friend. We might then join them on that highly desirable middle ground, unequivocal and principled, where we can have things both ways. In short, we can become hypocrites, deploring a particular crime as a matter of personal conviction while espousing in public the right to commit it.

The problem, you see, is the "no-compromise position" maintained by both sides, from those "trying to protect live birth abortions" on the one hand, to those "insisting that abortion is murder under any circumstance" on the other. These extreme positions "make nearly impossible the only route to rarity, which is honest and balanced education." As we empathize with Ms. Parker in our attempt to stand the middle ground alongside her, certain questions naturally arise. Who is it she wishes to educate? Since both sides are wrong, what is it she wants to teach us? She doesn't say. Well then, why isn't abortion murder? She doesn't say. Well, why does she want it to become rare? Because, she says, "Abortion is a bad choice that confers on many women a lifetime of soul-staggering baggage." And why does it do this to them? She doesn't say. But she does say that the solution "may be found in Bill Clinton's empty but accurate campaign statement that he wanted to make abortion legal, safe, and rare, " wherein she condemns and compliments the Great Prevaricator in the same breath. Well, if you want to make it rare because it's a "bad choice," why would you want to make it legal, which seldom contributes to rarity? Because, she says, "the fetus is not just a 'blob' or a cluster of cells, and abortion is not just a procedure of dilation and curettage, requiring a couple of Tylenols for 'discomfort' and a few uttered words of feminist validation. Women who've had abortions or carried a baby to term know this." They do? Then why do we need to educate them? And why was Mrs. McManus so surprised by what she saw in her jar?

Ms. Parker is not pleased with the level of that education in schools and women's clinics where, she believes, the disquisitions should "include information on emotional as well as the physical ramifications of abortion." Uh-huh. For whom? She does not say. I can empathasize with the emotional and physical problems of a woman who has had an abortion without being able to claim the experience for my own, which is precisely the way the feminists want it, in their desire to preclude men from having any say on the matter at all. But, though I have never been dead, I think I can speak with some authority on behalf of the baby (or, in popular Parker parlance, the "fetus"): following an abortion, an unborn child will have neither emotional nor physical problems because it has no emotional life because it has no physical life because it is dead. Therefore, I presume the "education" must be for the woman, who needs to know...what? That the "fetus is not just a blob or cluster of cells." All right. Fair enough. Please, Ms. Parker, educate me: if it is not either of those, then what is it? She does not say. We know only that the killing of it must remain legal, safe (for the woman, of course), and.....rare? She admits that over the past thirty years at least "25 million women have had one or more abortions." Notice that she gives us the number of women having them, not the number of babies killed, which is much higher. I'm beginning to think it's all about the woman, not the baby, whose value in this equation amounts to no more than, say, a blob or cluster of cells.

And if you're beginning to think we've been moving in circles, you're right. The argument goes like this, as best I can make out: we need more "honest and balanced education" on the matter of abortion because women who have them suffer terrible psychological (and sometimes physical) burdens because they are unaware that the fetus is more than a blob because they suffer from a lack of education. This is called a circular argument, compelling the obvious question: if a woman is unaware of the true nature of what she is doing, why does she suffer any burden at all? But, Ms. Parker might protest, that is where the education comes in. If the woman knew, she wouldn't get the abortion in the first place, and that would make it rare. If she knew what? I would ask in return. Ms. Parker doesn't say, and we're back where we started, running in place.

She claims not to be "a fan of zealotry or displays of fanaticism." She averts her eyes when confronted with pictures of aborted fetuses. She would never "suggest that women face their jars." She wants education, but not if the picture is worth a thousand words.

In the end, Ms. Parker stands guilty, on her high middle ground, as originally charged of being "equivocal and unprincipled." She is not, as she fancies, the "bane" of either side. The one side, yelling "nonentity" where Ms. Parker thinks there is one (at least more than a blob), is perfectly happy to tolerate her vague moral cavil on abortion as long as she remains committed to its legality. The other side, crying "murder" where Ms. Parker thinks there is none, simply considers her a member of the the first side, for her cavilling will save no child. She is the bane of none but the unborn.

And what of Mrs. McManus's story? What realization did she come to? We are never told. Parker doesn't pick up that story again until the very end: "McManus is right to be outraged at the careless hospital workers who left her consequences in plain view. On the other hand," she says, trying to have it both ways, "the experience forced her to say what is true: 'Women need more counseling before abortions, not less. I will never get over what happened to me.' " Ah, what happened to her. To me. The "me decade," long past, has melted into the "me century," which will give birth to the "me millenium." But what did happen to Mrs. McManus? I guess we simply cannot know, but we do know what happened to the baby in the jar.

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