In 2009, the abortion rate in New York City was 41 percent of all pregnancies -- twice the national average. That's a lot of abortions. So many, in fact, that New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has joined with other religious leaders in an effort to decrease the number. The fact that so prominent a member of the always-abolishionist Catholic Church would be involved in a push to simply lessen the incidence of abortion was heartening to me. It shows a degree of pragmatism coming from the religious institution I left as a teenager.
On the issue of abortion, I'm ever on the fence, or, at most, an inch or two to either side. My most firmly held value is what Albert Schweitzer termed "reverence for life." I take this seriously; many would say that because I extend it to nonhumans, I take it too far. I don't eat animals. I rescue strays and take injured pigeons to the wildlife rehab. I carry spiders and wasps outside in a cup covered with a 3x5 card. It would only follow that I'd take pause when contemplating the abrupt and apparently brutal ending of a tiny human being's life, or even a potential human being's life.
However, I am also a woman. I know that pregnancy protection can fail. It happened to me once. I was widowed, a single mom making ends meet -- just meet -- as a freelance magazine writer. I had a boyfriend and a libido, and the diaphragm (I was trying to be "natural") didn't do its job. I had an early miscarriage. If that hadn't happened, I can't say what I'd have done. I do know that women in that situation have, for millennia, found ways to abort pregnancies. Behind the centuries of witch burnings was fear of the village wise woman. Her herbs could cure diseases, and she could both bring new life into the world and, when the mother willed it, prevent that life from coming. That's a lot of power in the hands of the "weaker sex."
The traditional lack of power, combined with the anatomical reality that, in a physical altercation, any woman without a black belt is at a distinct disadvantage, fuels the pro-choice, get-your-hands-off-my-body argument. I understand this from a unique perspective: I was almost aborted. In those days, there was (at least as my mother tells it, so I'm not claiming 100 percent accuracy here) a law on the books in Missouri that, although abortion was illegal, one could be performed if two physicians and the father agreed that doing so was in the best interest of the mother who, remarkably, did not have to be consulted in the matter.
Whatever the legislative specifics, my mother was in the hospital in her first trimester, suffering from kidney stones. She'd just been sedated in preparation for surgery when the bedside phone rang. It was Dr. Edna Banks, a female obstetritian who made it in a man's world by wearing trousers. "If you want this baby," Dr. Banks told my mother, "You'll call a cab and get out of there. They're taking you up for a therapeutic abortion." My groggy mom phoned for a taxi and snuck out a side door. She knew the hospital well because my father was a young doctor there. He was evidently horrified at the prospect of parenthood, and he had arranged for the procedure with a couple of colleagues.
Obviously, the procedure never happened. This gives me, perhaps, a cockeyed view of "pro-choice": When the woman has the choice, she might have the baby. Or not.
And there's more. My father himself performed abortions for thirty years prior to Roe v. Wade. He'd started in medical school when he was desperate for money. Later, women sought him out who were desperate for the service. I was nearly grown when I learned about "my father's other job." That's the name of the one-person show I'm developing about growing up amid uncanny events, such as the week-long hotel stay in my hometown of Kansas City when I was eight. I thought this local vacation was just a special treat. Turns out, it was because my father had terminated the eleventh pregnancy of a woman for whom ten babies were enough. Her husband, a fiery Irish police officer, was threatening to kill me the way my father had, in his view, killed his child.
When I was seventeen, still unaware of my father's other job, he botched an abortion. A college student, not much older than I was, died. My father went to prison but obtained (that is, bought) a governor's pardon. It makes for quite a story and, I'm hoping, a gripping show. But as I write it, and rehearse it, and live in it, I'm still on that fence about the topic at its core.
I suppose this is why I'm so pleased that Archbishop Dolan and other clergy are saying, in essence, "While I am doctrinally opposed to abortion in almost all circumstances, I understand that it's going to happen. What can we do to ensure that it happens less often?" This is similar to something that has long gone on in the animal protection community: the debate between the "rights" people (espousing a vegan lifestyle, no animal experimentation, no exploitation of any kind) and the "welfare" folks (let's make the lives of food animals more comfortable and the cages of lab animals bigger; let's keep an eye on the circus and marine parks so that egregious abuse does not occur). These days, the two factions have come closer together -- agreeing on the the ideal of ending all animal suffering at the hands of humans. They accept, however, that since it won't happen this week and perhaps not this century, we can certainly work to mitigate the suffering now.
And my calling, as one imperfect human, is to celebrate and uphold life every time I get the chance. I believe I'm supposed to forgive everybody's shortcomings -- starting with my own, then my dad's, and moving out from there. And I need to finish My Father's Other Job, rent a black-box theater that seats two-dozen and start to tell my story.