Friday, April 30, 2004
Peggy Noonan had a piece yesterday about going to see A Raisin in the Sun. Most of the review is a gush about the play and about most of the cast. And then there's this:
An important moment in the plot is when a character announces she is pregnant, and considering having an abortion. In fact, she tells her mother-in-law, she's already put $5 down with the local abortionist. It is a dramatic moment. And you know as you watch it that when this play came out in 1960 it was received by the audience as a painful moment--a cry of pain from a woman who's tired of hoping that life will turn out well.
But this is the thing: Our audience didn't know that. They didn't understand it was tragic. They heard the young woman say she was about to end the life of her child, and they applauded. Some of them cheered. It was stunning. The reaction seemed to startle the actors on stage, and shake their concentration. I was startled. I turned to my friend. "We have just witnessed a terrible cultural moment," I said. "Don't I know it," he responded.
And I can't tell you how much that moment hurt. To know that the members of our audience didn't know that the taking of a baby's life is tragic--that the taking of your own baby's life is beyond tragic, is almost operatic in its wailing woe.
But our audience didn't know. They reacted as if abortion were a political question. They thought that the fact that the young woman was considering abortion was a sign of liberation. They thought this cry of pain was in fact a moment of self-actualizing growth.
I remember Harper's Magazine did a symposium about a decade ago, where they asked various intellectuals, celebrities, media types and such to opine on what they would do if a friend revealed she planned to have an abortion. Most of the symposium I remember not at all, but two answers I remember well: the best, and the most horrible.
Noonan's was the best precisely because it was real, human, and true. She wouldn't hide from her friend what her beliefs are, and she would tell her about her connections vis a vis adoption and so forth. She'd do everything realistic she could for her friend to make it possible for her to have the baby. And if her friend still decided to have the abortion? Then she'd cry with her and try to help her through it.
Is that a "pro-life" response? Well, it's not quite what Marilyn Quayle said in one of her husband's campaigns (I forget which) when asked what she'd do if her daughter got pregnant and wanted an abortion. (She said, in effect, that she'd lock the kid in her room for the term before she'd let her have an abortion.) If Noonan really believes that having an early-term abortion is exactly equivalent to murdering a month-old baby, then her answer is peculiar, to say the least. How could she help her friend through a murder?
But it's not a "pro-choice" response either. Abortion isn't a "choice" in Noonan's moral universe but a tragic decision. By her own religious lights, it's always or nearly always a wrong decision; there's never a good reason to have an abortion. But the idea that it's a morally neutral choice for anyone, regardless of religion, is an appalling thought to Noonan. Whatever we believe about whether some abortions are the lesser evil (and I definitely believe they sometimes are), they are all evil, and all tragic. And so they can never be "choices."
I can't say I've been as good a friend as Noonan was. I know more than one person who has had abortions; in at least one case, I can say the decision was absolutely justified by health considerations, but in others I have real misgivings. And no, I have not done whatever I could to make it possible for these women to make the decision to have the child, and no, I have not helped them through whatever decision they ultimately made. More often than not, I withdrew, and a wall built up between us that probably cannot be got over. That just makes Noonan a better person than I am, I guess.
As I said, hers was the best response. I remember the worst response, too. It was from an old classmate of mine, Rebecca Walker, daughter of the author Alice Walker. Rebecca Walker had had an abortion herself, and was proud of it - defiantly proud. And her advice to her hypothetical friend in the symposium was: go for it. Not only is it her right to have an abortion, it is her obligation to do so, if she has any doubt about wanting her child, because if this right is not exercised then it will not be defended. She came close to suggesting that it would be a good thing if all women had abortions, just so they would feel solidarity for one another and all know the importance of having the right to have one.
John C. Calhoun had not the audacity of this woman, I thought, and still think. But there are many Rebecca Walkers in this generation, and these are the folks Peggy Noonan heard cheering in the audience. They would not cheer if a woman had her dog put to sleep for its own good, and no one seriously denies that a pet owner has the right to make that decision on a pet's behalf. They would not cheer if a woman decided to end other than palliative care for her dying mother. They would not cheer in any other instance where a healthy person made a decision that another innocent being should die, even if that death were necessary and justified. But abortion? Go for it.
Very sobering indeed.