I have four kids. Two of them I bore myself, and two are adopted. I realized, not too long ago, that even the two I bore would today be good candidates for abortion. Paul, who’s the oldest, was conceived almost on my wedding night, when I was still an undergraduate. He did make it hard to finish my degree, I’ll have to admit, but there was never any question of not having this child. Thomas, born about four or five years later, came along right after the legalization of abortion. At the time I was pregnant with him I was in the middle of a marriage breakup, living at a Catholic Worker house, with an income of about $50 a month, and with another of the children living with me. There was strong pressure from the people in the Catholic Worker house for me to have an abortion. That’s not typical for Catholic Workers, but it’s what happened to me. It really wasn’t something that I seriously considered, because I wanted to have the child. But when I thought about it later I realized that both of those children would have been candidates for abortion today.
Having participated in several feminist support groups, I’ve had a fair amount of experience with discussion of abortion, as many of us have.
One of the most telling experiences happened in King County Jail in Seattle. A valuable thing about going to jail is that you meet people you’d never meet otherwise. In this particular instance, I was in jail for taking part in anti-nuclear actions of civil disobedience with eight other activists, all of us white. Everyone else in the jail was either black, Native American, or Hispanic; there were maybe seventy of us all told.
When you’re in jail, you do anything to get out of your cell – it’s boring in that cell! There was a women’s health collective that came in every two weeks to do education on health care for the prisoners; you could go or not, whatever you wanted to do. We always went, because at least it was a change of scene and something different to talk about.
One day we walked in and the presentation was on abortion. The two women who came in clearly believed what they were saying and felt that they were bringing something that would make life better. There’s no question – they were not out to do these women in. They had no financial interest that I know of in any decision these women might make. They really did want to share that abortions were normal, an easy thing, a very simple thing to do, that you really ought to consider it, especially if you were financially embarrassed. Everyone in jail is, of course. After the two women explained about abortion there was a silence. Then one of the women from the streets said, “But why would I want to kill my baby?”
The answer was, “Well, it’s not really a baby yet. It’s not a big thing – you might as well do this because then you won’t have little children to support.” One of the visitors finally said, “Well, you know, it’s simple: I got pregnant when I was writing my thesis and I just couldn’t do both, so I had an abortion, and it was fine, and I got my thesis in.”
What I remember about that conversation is the total puzzlement of the women in jail; there was a complete cultural divide, no meeting at all. And there is truth on both sides: there is an economic pressure that makes it very hard for people to bear children, especially people in the ghetto who have no option to get out. (Most of the women we were with were prostitutes.) There was definitely the truth of economic reality; on the other hand, there was a very instantaneous human response: Why would I want to kill my baby?
For me those truths sum up two important things: that society is evil, or fallen, or sinful, and it creates a struggle between the mother and the unborn, so the mother feels she must abort in order to survive. There is also a very basic truth in the assumption that the unborn is a developing child, and why would we want to kill it?
That leaves me with a lot of questions: What is it we’re trying to do? What are we working for, and where do we want to go with all this? Where do we want to end up when we’re done?
I’ve had some answers that are really visions. One is that we’re trying to create a new world – and there are a number of kinds of worlds that can be created by people’s energies. I’m aware that when I imagine a world where abortion is unthinkable, it isn’t necessarily what other people think of. I need to be specific when I say, “a world where abortion is unthinkable.” Why is abortion unthinkable; what makes it that way? I’ve met people who were projecting a world where abortion is unthinkable because we were so regimented and women were so oppressed into being breeders that there was no freedom; all children would be carried to term, and there were no other ways to decide. That’s not what I mean when I think of a world where abortion isn’t considered.
What I think of is a world where all people, all humankind, are valued just because they’re human, where they’re welcome just because they’re human. A world of generosity. I think of Catholic Worker homes, where there is always room to pull up another chair to the table, always a little more to go around, a world where there is welcome for people.
It would be a world of responsibility, where we think about what we’re doing and take the consequences of our actions. A world of peace, where it’s assumed that everybody will be sustained at a basic level, not a world where some people will be floating in superfluous wealth and other people starving. A peaceful world, where there are other ways of solving conflicts than killing each other, a world where rape is also unthinkable, and where economics do not force women into sexual activity.
It’s hard to imagine the kind of justice that would have to exist for there really to be a world where abortion is unthinkable. Not illegal: unthinkable!
I think, if we were able to create a world where those were the assumptions, it would go a long way toward making a world where abortion wouldn’t happen; it wouldn’t be in the picture and it wouldn’t be necessary. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the “beloved community.” That’s the kind of world we work for, where everybody is beloved. He talked about a world where black children and white children, Gentiles and Jews, Protestants and Catholics – and so on – everybody, all the children, could play together and work together and have enough to eat and be respected.
It’s hard to imagine the kind of justice, economic justice and justice for women, that would have to exist for there really to be a world where abortion is unthinkable. Not illegal: unthinkable! It’s a spiritual question. It’s as though our souls would have to be pulled out of our bodies and remade and put back in; we would need to change our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. When I’m talking about such a world, I’m a little bit shaky, because I know that somewhere deep inside there’s that one thing I don’t want to change, that I don’t want to give up, and I’m not sure what it is. But I know it’s there. It’s that one thing I have to fight and learn to give up before the new world can come to be.
One of the guidelines for nonviolence is that if you want to go someplace, you have to “go by getting there.” If you want the world to be one way, you have to live that way, and that helps the world become that way. Imagine a world where war and abortion are both unthinkable, and then start to live as if we already lived in that world – that moves us along the path.