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Maya Angelou’s Place on the Pro-Life Left


As my colleague Tim Cavanaugh and others have pointed out, Maya Angelou spoke with ease about her use of guns for self-defense. It was remarkable. You would not expect it of her given her biography and demographic profile: Literary celebrities aren’t usually associated with sympathy for red-state values. A cosmopolitan African-American woman who at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration recited a poem she wrote for the occasion, Angelou campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008 and then for Barack Obama in the general election.

Jay Nordlinger has written about the surprise we feel when we learn that someone who looks liberal turns out to be conservative, or vice versa. His observation does not apply to Angelou in toto, of course, but it does fit her thoughts on a couple of hot-button issues. You already know about the guns.

Kathryn Jean Lopez reminds us that Angelou had an opinion about abortion, too. Who doesn’t? In the 1990s the acclaimed poet lent her name to this pro-life statement, which appeared in, among other places, Mother Jones:

We, the undersigned, are committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, the arms race, the death penalty and euthanasia.

We believe these issues are linked under a consistent ethic of life.

We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected.

Angelou was joined by the Dalai Lama, Nat Hentoff, Martin Sheen, Sargent Shriver, the Berrigan brothers, a Greepeace official, and about 80 others, whose affiliations, a disproportionate number of which were religious, involved a generous sprinkling of the word “peace.”

Granted, the cogency of the statement was damaged by the inclusion of everything and the kitchen sink. The idea, apparently, was to pad the list with Bad Things that the Left assumed it owned the exclusive license to oppose. The equation of abortion with war wasn’t exact, but it was obviously closer than the equation between abortion and racism (although the role of eugenics in the origins of the abortion-rights movement leads some to feel strongly about the causal link they see between racism and abortion). The effect would have been intellectually more compelling had the aim been to focus attention more narrowly, on the degree to which pacifism and anti-abortion sentiment mingle — not that they are linked by an iron logic. They do, however, share a sensibility.

That is the intersection where we find, for example, devout Mennonites, like the Hahn family, small-business owners who have taken to the Supreme Court their objection to the HHS “contraception mandate,” which forces them to participate in the procurement of birth-control drugs that may act as abortifacients. In a different context (say, the Vietnam War era), the political identity that the world would assign to such individuals would be flipped: Invoking the same principle, against the taking of human life, they would register their conscientious objection to military service, and the Left would praise their courage.

Angelou wrote movingly of her decision, when she was 16, to bring to term her pregnancy, whom we know now as her son, Guy: “Back then, if you had money, there were some girls who got abortions, but I couldn’t deal with that idea. Oh, no. No. I knew there was somebody inside me.”

Apologists for abortion used to try to justify it by calling it a “tragic necessity.” They were half right. It’s tragic. The full phrase would be more appropriate to the gun rights for which Angelou demonstrated her commonsense respect. “Guns are necessary to self-defense,” Mona Charen noted recently, in a different context, the aftermath of the killings in Santa Barbara. “The right to own them is enshrined in the Constitution. Enough said. Let’s not worship them.”


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