Monday, October 12, 2009

fetal photos

For starters, let me say that I am fiercely, avidly, utterly pro-choice. I have little doubt that, had I ever become pregnant, I would have had an abortion. No woman should ever have the law, or her financial limits, make the decision of what to do with an unchosen, undesired pregnancy. To that extent, I view with suspicion any action that the “right to life” movement takes.

Periodically the action taken by the opponents of choice takes the form of standing as close to an abortion provider’s venue as possible, holding signs with pictures of aborted fetuses to scare away women going in for the procedure. Most reporting of this, from the moderately liberal to the left, tends to portray these people as fanatics, doing something seriously disreputable.

Maybe. But the reason they are able to be at all effective is that they too often represent the first sight a woman has had of what an aborted fetus looks like. And that, I am convinced, is the fault of society at large.

A bloody fetus is pretty awful looking. Partially that’s because anything removed from inside the body is pretty awful look—an organ, a tumor, even a wisdom tooth. A bloody mass is scary looking.

But add to the bloody mass the knowledge that it was something on its way to being a human being, and at some point, it very logically looks like a human being. That’s a serious addition. A fetus, as they are fond of telling us, isn’t a tumor or an appendix, any more than it’s a baby. It’s a unique entity somewhere between life and not-life. That’s why many women choose not to abort, and it’s why some who do abort later regret it. And when we don’t acknowledge that, and deal with it, we simply empower the image when the anti-abortionists herald it. To be suddenly, starkly reminded of what is in her body and what she is having removed from her body is a hell of a thing for a woman to be confronted with as she is about to implement an often already painful decision. And we have no equally scary image to remind her that women who keep and raise unwanted children sometimes regret what they’ve done, as do women who birth children and give them up for adoption. Once a woman is pregnant, she has very little time to research options and their possible long-term effects on her psyche. There are no dramatic pictures to hold up showing the consequences of maintaining an unwanted pregnancy and raising or putting up for adoption an unwanted child.

What we need to do is to make the whole range of possibilities clear to every schoolgirl, in sex-ed or health-ed or whatever class in school. We need to publish honest literature for teens that their parents or friends can give to them. If that sounds gross, so be it. Any fertile woman can get pregnant, and she needs to know what pregnancy is about in which situations. We can tell her she’ll have free choice, but without adding real, specific information –visual as well as verbal—about what each choice may entail, we haven’t really done our jobs. No amount of preparation can keep away the shock of unwanted pregnancy or of its possible resolutions. But it might help a woman to make the choice she can be comfortable with for the rest of her life. The woman who chooses abortion has a right to know what it means, just as she needs to know what her other options mean. Maybe she’ll be freaked out by those pictures, but if she ends up seeing them for the first time in front of an abortion clinic, she’s more likely to freak out—and very possibly she can be deeply scarred if the first time she sees them is months or years after her abortion. That a teenager may be repulsed and vow never to have an abortion is possible. Equally possible she might feel otherwise a few years later if she finds herself pregnant.

Sadly, we live in a society of verbal and visual euphemisms. We don’t get old; we become seniors. We’re never victims; we’re survivors. Our soldiers are always heroes—regardless of what their actions have been. Occasionally we get the brash figures who like to tell us what it “really” is, and then come up with-- what word is right...counter-euphemisms.....? the in-your-face cruelty and viciousness of a Rush Limbaugh or a reality show contestant. And we’re all vulnerable to it, because we’ve encased ourselves in what we hope are painless evasions. But they aren’t painless; they’re only numbing. They are the pseudo-clothes of the naked emperor. We need that courageous child who tells us that the emperor indeed has no clothes on. And then perhaps reminds us that there’s really nothing wrong with nudity.

Honesty is essential if we are to make real choices. I am convinced that for most women who choose abortions, it doesn’t end up being emotionally easy. That doesn’t mean it’s a wrong choice, or that she wouldn’t suffer more if she made a different choice. Whatever choice any woman makes entails the risk of later regret. I’ve seen the pain of a birth mother years after she put her child up for adoption. And remember that Dear Abby (or Ann Landers) column some years, in which she discussed the reactions from hundreds of readers who answered, anonymously, her appeal for letters from mothers who regretted have children? Though many wrote it to tell her they had never had such regrets, at least as many wrote thanking her for giving them a place to admit the guilty secret that they did regret it, and would never make that decision again. One wonders what would happen in a society in which girls were raised to understand that it was great to have children and great not to have children. We suffer for all the lies of commission and of omission we have grown up with.

So while I dislike the guilt-mongering of the un-violent abortion opponents who confront their victims with horror pictures of bloody fetuses, I dislike far more the power we give to those pictures. I would like to see the day when a young woman, facing such a protester yelling, “Do you know what this is?” can say, sadly but calmly, “Yes I do,” and go on her way to do confidently what she has, with no illusions, chosen.

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