Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Stammering about abortion" by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy of the Worcester CW for the Jan 16 issue of the NCR

Jan. 16, 2010

National Catholic Reporter


Stammering about abortion


By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy lives with her husband Scott and children at

the Saints Francis and Therese Catholic Worker House  in Worcester,

Mass. and writes frequently for NCR. She can be reached at theresecw2@gmail.com.


In mid-November, the New York-based Human Rights Watch weighed in on

the Stupak amendment to the U.S. health care reform bill. If signed

into law, the amendment would prohibit using a federal subsidy to

purchase an insurance plan that includes coverage of abortion except

in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest. The bill’s restriction,

Human Rights Watch argued, “would effectively eliminate abortion

access for millions of women and threatens women’s human rights.”


I love Human Rights Watch, the international organization that

monitors the violations of human beings all around the world. I

consult them whenever I can. With their careful cataloging of

persecutions, their reports remind me of the ineffable truth that

human beings are made in the image of God and as such don’t deserve to

be bombed, raped, demeaned or disregarded. But the organization’s

classification of unrestricted and subsidized access to abortion as a

“human right” has left me stammering, for when considered in detail,

abortion does not evoke a sense of possibility, my typical response to

a right realized. Instead, I feel despair.


In “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse’s Story” (Harper’s Magazine, October

1987), Sallie Tisdale writes with heartbreaking and brutal precision

about her work at a clinic that averaged 100 abortions a week. A

believer in the telescopic view, she is unflinching in her description

of the “disarmingly simple” abortion procedure, describing how her

patient lies bare, feet in stirrups, while a doctor inserts a tube and

sunctions the uterus. The machine thumps softly, and then in the basin

Tisdale holds, curd-like clots of blood reveal “an elfin thorax,”

beside which swim a translucent arm and hand. She also tells of the

doctor who reached into the uterus of a five-month pregnant woman to

manually crush her child and of the induced delivery that yielded a

20-week-old fetus, whole and intact. “It was just like a kitten,” said

the nurse who caught the child. “Everything was still attached.”


Tisdale admits to having “fetus dreams.” She dreams of “buckets of

blood splashed on walls” and “fetuses crawling in the trees,” and then

wakes and thinks of kitchen tables, coat hangers, and women “clutching

a pillow in their teeth to keep the scream from piercing apartment walls.”


Here are the worrisome details for those of us opposed to abortion.

Maternal mortality rates tend to be higher in countries where abortion

is illegal. According to “My Rights, My Rights to Know,” a 2008 Human

Rights Watch report on abortion access in Peru, the country prohibits

abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk or she faces serious

and permanent damage to her health. The report notes that even in

those instances where abortion is permitted, women are rarely

informed. Despite the restrictions, the practice is widespread. One

study estimates the number of abortions performed annually to be at

325,000, or one per live birth. Peru also has the second highest

maternal mortality in Latin America. “Women have a right to life,”

says the report. And they do. As do the preborn.


Established in 1972, Feminists for Life opposes abortion and its

criminalization. “We can do better” is their motto. The organization

rightly recognizes that in making abortion access the defining right

for women (the National Organization for Women calls it the “most

fundamental right for women, without which all rights are

meaningless”), we spare ourselves from asking the crucial questions:

Why do so many abortions occur and what are the alternatives? I

recently read a biography of an illiterate Lebanese woman who fled an

arranged marriage to marry the man she desired. Their union was

passionate and the woman found herself carrying more children than she

wanted. Scattered between her seven live births were self-induced

miscarriages brought on by throwing herself out of bed and drinking

potent teas. Access to abortion might have facilitated the termination

of her pregnancies, made the process safer, but would it have

rectified her fundamental problem -- a disconnect from her body? Would

it have empowered her to make a choice in the bedroom?


“Women have abortions,” writes Tisdale, “because they are too old and

too young, too poor and too rich, too stupid and too smart. I see

women who berate themselves with violent emotions for their first and

only abortion and others who return three, five times, hauling two or

three children, who cannot remember to take a pill or where they put

the diaphragm. We talk of choice. But the choice for what? ... And

there is freedom. Freedom from failure, faithlessness. Freedom from biology.”


Maybe autonomy is a delusion. The “our bodies, ourselves” movement

rightfully fought to elevate women above the classification of breeder

or sexual commodity, but, perhaps in the process, bought into a

stunted understanding of what it means to be a human being. In their

defense of abortion, the early feminists often asked, “Is biology

destiny?” Yes, it ultimately is. For women. And for men. Creatures of

the natural world, we harbor wombs and eggs, and fertile sperms that

enable us to procreate. We age and degenerate. We die and decompose.


The founding mothers of the women’s movement did not regard their

bodies so hostilely. They unanimously opposed abortion, referring to

it as “infanticide.” Far from regarding abortion as a woman’s “human

right,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organizer of the first women’s rights

convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., thought it regressive. “When you

consider that women have been treated as property, it is degrading to

women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of

as we see fit.” Years ago, I heard ecofeminists critique abortion as

yet another example of the male notion of employing technology to

rearrange and control the natural order.


The Human Rights Watch report urging better abortion access in Peru

recounts two stories of women who conceived children that were

discovered to be malformed while still in uteri. The children were not

expected to live and the mothers wanted to avoid laboring into a loss.

Reading these, I thought of Frida, the firstborn of my friend, a young

mother in New York. Frida was born with fatal deformities revealed

only after an arduous, unproductive labor and C-section. This had been

a midwife-monitored pregnancy with few ultrasounds. The infant lived

nine hard days before dying peacefully in her mother’s arms. My friend

admits the meaning of her daughter’s brief life remains a mystery to

her. Asked if she would have aborted had she known what lay ahead, she

thought a moment and then said, “No. Probably not.”


Abortion advocates and opponents speak fervently, as they should,

about the right to life. But life, when fully lived, is capricious and

far larger than we imagine. Albert Einstein once described human

beings as “part of the whole, called by us a universe. Although we

regard ourselves as “something separate from the rest,” this is “an

optical delusion of consciousness,” a “prison” restricting affection

and desire. Our task, he believed “was to widen the circle of

compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in

its beauty.” St. Paul advised similarly when he said to see Christ in

all. It is this larger life each of us has a right to and this right

will never fully be realized through law, only through love.





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