Combating Roe
One word at a time


On January 23, opponents of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling will gather as they have for almost 40 years now, to protest the decision. To keep a record of these dark years for human life, The Human Life Review was established. They have a volume, The Debate Since Roe, that serves as a reference and primer for any student of this issue — a must-read for the voter, the activist, the undecided. In an interview about the volume, the Review’s managing editor, Anne Conlon, talks openly about real life.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Didn’t the concept of “The Debate Since Roe” sound like it could be an utterly depressing project?

ANNE CONLON: Jim McFadden, the late founding editor of The Human Life Review (he died in 1998), believed there had to be a record of the abortion debate so no one could claim, as some Germans did about the Nazis, that they didn’t know what was really going on. Distilling a 37-year record into a single volume, a pro-life reader of sorts, was a challenge. What was somewhat — not utterly but somewhat — depressing, during my long trek through the archive, was the growing realization that all the important arguments against abortion were being made, and eloquently so, from the very beginning of the debate. It makes me nuts, for example, that anyone could have ever entertained the feminist claim that unborn children were simply “blobs of tissue.” I chose to include in the book Sen. James Buckley’s 1973 Senate address introducing his Human Life Amendment (a few months after the Roe decision), not simply because of its historical significance, but because in it he quotes an extended passage from the work of a researcher in fetal physiology whose description of the physical and biological characteristics of the unborn child is as illuminating as any sonogram.

LOPEZ: Why did you start with eugenics? 

CONLON: The book is largely, though not completely, chronological. I thought Mary Meehan’s “The Road to Abortion,” written several years after Roe v. Wade, was the right place to begin because it supplies important context for how such a culture-rupturing decision could have happened in the first place. Meehan, who’s one of the most formidable researchers about the eugenics movement — she spends a great deal of time in public libraries and private archives, excavating important facts and details from dusty old boxes of personal papers and correspondence — shows in that essay how the abortion movement of the Sixties was both peopled and paid for by supporters of an earlier eugenics movement, one very much committed to breeding a “better” human race. This included not only people like Margaret Sanger and Alan Guttmacher of Planned Parenthood fame, but also establishmentarians like John D. Rockefeller Jr. and George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak).


LOPEZ: You contend that in the years since Roe, the “bitterness” has “intensified.” What accounts for that? Pain?

CONLON: That’s a hard question. And I’m not sure I have a good answer. But here’s a roundabout way of telling you what I think. I’m 60 years old. When I was a freshman in college, in 1970, a dorm mate who suspected she might be pregnant breezily assured me that if she were she’d just go to New York and get an abortion. It wasn’t legal yet (it became so in New York in 1971), but loopholes in state law made getting an abortion there pretty easy, or at least that’s what she thought. I was shocked that she would even consider having an abortion, but it didn’t occur to me to think of her as a bad person.

Ten years later, when I was working as a copywriter at an ad agency, a colleague confided that while she would never have an abortion herself, she didn’t think she had the right to tell someone else she couldn’t have one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my introduction to the “personally opposed, but” abortion credo. And for a while, “personally opposed, but” pretty much described my attitude, too — though I would never let anyone get away with assuming I was pro-abortion, an assumption most people at my agency would make whenever the subject came up (there aren’t many pro-lifers on Madison Avenue). One day when I was about six months pregnant, my boss, the creative director of the agency, matter-of-factly asked if I’d had an amniocentesis yet, as I’d want to make sure everything was “okay.” No, I told him, I would take what I got.

That was in 1986. My obstetrician, of course, also expected I’d have an amnio and insisted I sign a note saying I had refused the test — why have it, I said, if I wouldn’t have an abortion. I didn’t know then that this doctor, who subsequently got my son safely through a tough delivery, was also dismembering the unborn children of her patients who didn’t want to give birth. I found that out after I started working for the Review in 1995, when on hearing about my new job, she replied, “Well, of course you must know that I do abortions. But only up to eight weeks.” She even assured me she had counseled patients carrying children with dwarfism not to abort them for that reason. Well, I hadn’t known about her abortion practice and I was shocked. But, because of our personal history I suppose, I couldn’t bring myself to think that even she — an abortionist, for heaven’s sake — was a bad person.

I saw her a few weeks ago. It happened to be my son’s 25th birthday and we recalled how what had begun as a routine induction ended 20 hours later in a 4 a.m. emergency Caesarian for a baby in acute distress. “The umbilical cord is wrapped around his neck and arm,” I heard her say as she went about rescuing him from what had become a lethal lifeline. She’s no longer delivering babies, and I’m not sure she’s still doing abortions, though something she said about “the Pope who wants to put us out of business” made me think that she is. She said it with a smile, but it was a bitter remark — and one which evoked a bitter feeling in me. Like me, she doesn’t think I’m a bad person because I disagree with her about abortion, but my disagreement, I realized at that moment, causes her pain, just as hers causes me pain. There is no way to compromise on the matter of killing human beings. But today, in navigating a culture permeated by abortion, most of us have at least some people in our lives with whom, on this contentious subject, we have in essence agreed to disagree. But there is a cost for this uneasy agreement, and that cost is a massive suppression of pain — on both sides of the debate. So getting back to your question: I don’t think pain by itself causes people to become bitter. I think the suppression of it does.