Not A Womb In The House

Sometimes the pictures do tell the story. There was a raft of wire-service photographs of invited guests saluting the president as he signed a bill banning a late-abortion procedure. Scarcely a working uterus in sight, not a person who could become pregnant and be tortured and overwhelmed by the future. Orrin, Rick, Jerry, Tommy, John: the functional equivalent of signing a bill affecting black Americans amid self-congratulatory white guys. Did no one notice the essential disconnect of having a bunch of gray-haired men passing judgment on the bodily functions of a nation's young women? Or was it just too tough to get female leaders to show up for the celebration?

I am so tired of abortion. Discussions of it are the most meretricious in modern public policy. Even as the president was vowing to sign a bill that would outlaw a procedure that accounts for a handful of the terminations in America, he was opining that the country was not yet ready to make abortion illegal. He was using one hand to corral the right wing and another to wave off the concerns of moderates. How dare the father of two daughters play politics with the womb?

I am so tired of abortion. Its opponents too often have a hidden agenda. Some of the men at that bill-signing support not only a ban on all abortions, but the rolling back of other rights for the women of America. They are people who have indicated by word and deed that modern women have forgotten their proper place. They are clergy who have twisted the word of God to turn it into an instrument of gender bigotry. And they have clearly taken note of the fact that women who can control their fertility are more able to control their future.

But those of us who support legal abortion are not immune from criticism, particularly in the current debate over a procedure of half delivering a fetus and crushing its skull, a procedure that has to repel and unnerve even the staunchest believer. Say what you will about the slippery anti-abortion slope: this is not the place to ask Americans to make their stand on this issue. We can argue all we want that doctors should be able to make their own decisions about what procedure to use. We can argue all we want that this procedure is rare, and performed only under wrenching circumstances. But by seeming to lump these abortions with other, earlier ones, we have lost credibility. Because that is clearly not how reasonable people see this.

Abortion-rights supporters have not kept pace with the technology. As sophisticated sonograms become more widely used, as it is possible to see the face of a fetus clearly, it will become ever more important to be painfully honest about what really happens here. Something dies when an abortion is performed. It is not yet a baby. It is not remotely anyone else's business. But something does die. In the tension between woman and fetus, the woman has the right to choose. But she cannot really choose to ignore that there are two important parts to this equation. Biology tells her so.

By contrast, abortion opponents have never understood the psychology. They do not understand that there are times when an embryo is an embedded blessing, and times when it is an incubus, a nightmare, a curse. They do not understand how deeply felt is the notion that the right to the processes of your own body is the great inviolate right. How can they? How can President Bush understand this issue when he stacks the seats with people who can never know what it feels like to be pregnant? Say this for President Clinton: when he vetoed this same bill, it was with five women who had had late abortions at his side, to testify to their feelings, their reasons and their pain. How many ordinary women has George W. Bush ever heard discuss this matter? Why was his wife not by his side when he signed this bill instead of Dennis Hastert and Cardinal Egan?

It is like so much else in public policy: deciding what to provide for the poor without speaking to poor people, deciding what to do for the citizens of other nations without having any idea what they want themselves. It is paternalistic and insulting. Like those photographs. How can those men sit and smile and clap their hands when somewhere a woman with a horribly deformed fetus may have to face a more difficult and perhaps disfiguring procedure if she cannot bear to wait until the end of its gestation to watch it die?

I am so tired of abortion, tired of the dishonesty of the arguments, of the intractability of the conflict, mainly of the insensibility of those who pass judgment. No matter what is legislated, adjudicated or pontificated, women will continue to find a way to end pregnancies that they cannot bear to turn, by the hospitality of their own bodies, into children. They always have; they always will. Knitting needles, caustic chemicals, medical residents, unlicensed doctors, sympathetic nurses, bootleg curettes.

Let those old men try to comfort the parents and the children of those women after they are dead. Let them offer them their version of the words of God and see how much good they do. Let them say, "I understand." They will never understand.