We didn’t know.
When the United States Supreme Court first legalized Roe v. Wade, Frederica Mathewes-Green had a bumper sticker on her car: “Don’t labor under a misconception; legalize abortion.” She’s since changed her mind about that. Reflecting in 2016, she wrote: “At the time, we didn’t have much understanding of what abortion was. We knew nothing of fetal development. We consistently termed the fetus ‘a blob of tissue,’ and that’s just how we pictured it — an undifferentiated mucous-like blob, not recognizable as human or even as alive. It would be another 15 years or so before pregnant couples could show off sonograms of their unborn babies, shocking us with the obvious humanity of the unborn.”
I’ve been rereading Mathewes-Green in the middle of all the yelling about the Alabama law essentially outlawing Roe in that state. The fact of the matter is that we know now. But clinging to our miserable politics still is what we know best. And so, while you don’t hear “blob of tissue” as much, you do hear euphemisms. And sometimes creativity. Actress Alyssa Milano suggested that, rather than talk about a heartbeat within the womb, we should refer to “fetal pole cardiac activity.” The ardent activist for legal abortion actually described herself as “pro-life” the other day on CNN, and I confess I welcomed what she said to the extent that she seemed to capture (even if unintentionally) something that is so underappreciated in American life, something that the Democratic party (save for the increasingly rare, Bill Clinton “safe, legal, and rare” political moment) has increasingly missed: Americans don’t like abortion. Which is why doubling down on late-term abortion and even infanticide in talking about infant survivors of abortion, as we’ve seen lately in New York and Virginia and among some Democratic presidential candidates, was a step too far, according to polls (the Knights of Columbus have some of the most consistent and best windows into this, with their work with Marist polling and analysis). Such a course would also create the conditions for something of a populist uprising among Americans who quite self-consciously consider themselves pro-life at a time when some momentum is in the air and some legal dreams are in sight.
This is part of what Frederica Mathewes-Green would reflect on in an essay in 2016 at National Review Online and in her book Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion (2013). Back when she was pro-choice, she could have never imagined how much abortion would become a part of American lives and culture and politics. Here is more of what she wrote:
We also thought, back then, that few abortions would ever be done. It’s a grim experience, going through an abortion, and we assumed a woman would choose one only as a last resort. We were fighting for that “last resort.” We had no idea how common the procedure would become; today, one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion.
She offered the image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Since Roe, Americans have had more than 60 million abortions. “Twenty years ago, someone told me that, if the names of all those lost babies were inscribed on a wall, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the wall would have to stretch for 50 miles. It’s 20 years later now, and that wall would have to stretch twice as far. But no names could be written on it; those babies had no names.” This, after “we expected that abortion would be rare.” Now we’re getting closer to half a century of legal abortion.
We may know. But we look away. Not just from the facts, from the life within, but from the solutions. The hard work of support.
There were two news stories in recent days, one about a horrific crime in Chicago, where a teenager was murdered for the child within her womb, and another about Pennsylvania lawmakers grappling with policies that could help families step up to the plate to become foster parents and also help children aging out of foster care to get a college education. We know this is all heartache. Life is full of it, so of course the issue that gets to the heart of human life would be. It’s life and we value it. Even many of those who describe themselves as pro-choice. So how can we work together to make abortion implausible?
Lisa Wheeler has been one of the publicists working on the movie Unplanned, about one Planned Parenthood clinic worker who became a pro-life activist (and who has helped hundreds of others who wanted to leave the abortion industry). She’s also been the foster mother of over 15 children. On her Facebook page, Wheeler made a plea:
Children are not in foster care because they are unwanted. God wants them. I want them. I know many of my friends longing for motherhood want them. Children are in foster care because we have forgotten how to love one another. It’s time — right or left, pro-life or pro-choice — that we stand in the gap to help the mothers and the children who need us the most.
Whatever you think of the prudence of that Alabama law, let’s meet here. Whatever your history. Our differences can help us be more sensitive to one another’s pain, rather than further divide us.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.