While we’re on the subject…

The New Mexico Nurse has passed along this essay by Caitlin Flanagan, concerning “abortion and the bloodiness of being female.”

“About 15 years before my mother took her weekend trip to Fire Island, she was a little girl living in Brooklyn in a bad situation. It was the Depression, her father was an unemployed laborer, and her mother—28 years old, a young woman from Coal City, Alabama, very far from home—had a toddler, a 3-year-old, and my mother, age 8. One day, according to the great and fearsome legend that shaped my mother’s life and so much of my own emotional life, my grandmother did something very ordinary: She ate a can of tuna fish. The can of tuna fish was tainted with botulism poisoning. She began to have great pain in her abdomen, and—this is a very important part of the story—the doctor wouldn’t come. Apparently he sent word that the woman in question had gas, and that she would be better in no time. She was dead in no time. ‘That’s why I became a nurse,’ my mother said so many times in her life that it would have been a stock phrase, except for the anger and sorrow of the way it ended: ‘so that they couldn’t do to anyone else what they did to my mother.'”

Except maybe not. Flanagan later learned that her grandmother died of gangrene, and that led her to wonder. “Maybe my grandmother ate bad tuna fish—or, according to an alternate version of the story, bad peaches—and the food killed her. Or maybe she was 28 and living through one of the greatest disasters in American history, with no end in sight, trying to feed and look after three small children, and she found herself pregnant again, and she just couldn’t cope. Maybe someone in that Brooklyn neighborhood knew someone who could help her out. Maybe the reason the doctor refused to see her is that he knew what she had done, and he wouldn’t go near her. It turns out that badly canned food—with its risks of ptomaine and botulism poisoning—was an ideal culprit on which to blame the sudden death of an otherwise healthy young woman: My family would not be the first to contain such a face-saving legend. In any event, my grandmother died, her husband was overwhelmed with misery, and the children were put on trains and scattered to relatives, and that was the end of that little family.

The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them. The Choices We Made is a compendium of such stories, and while you could read it in an afternoon, you should not make the decision to do so lightly: It will trouble you for a long time afterward. In it, women whom we know for the large space they occupy in the world—writers Grace Paley, Linda Ellerbee, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and actresses Polly Bergen and Rita Moreno among them—tell us about a time in their lives when they were reduced to begging for a simple medical procedure that, because of the circumstances in which it was performed, almost killed several of them and left at least one infertile. Abortionists in those days included a handful of merciful and scrupulous doctors willing to risk prison, and more than a few monsters who considered groping or sexually assaulting their patients a droit du seigneur. Who would complain? And who didn’t have it coming? In those days, it was not uncommon for a woman to receive a D & C without anesthetic shortly after being lectured about the wages of being a slut.”

And then, against The Story, she sets The Image: “But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate.”

Do read the whole thing. I had some difficulties with some elements of the piece, but NMN is right to point out the bravery of this juxtaposition – the expression of genuine sympathy for both sides.


  1. notrelatedtoted says

    Interesting how she ties abortion up with sex, love and child bearing. Most modern commentators want to consider abortion in a vacuum – just another procedure, like having a tooth pulled.

    And to think – all those backwards Catholics and that “no sex before marriage” stuff….

  2. Matthew,

    It would have been honest, at the very least, had the author at least acknowledged that there’s a flip side to abortion, which liberals seem to want to hush up in shame every bit as much as pre-RvW families wanted to hush up the shame of pregnancy out of wedlock: the pyschological effects of abortion on women.

    While many women turn to drugs and the bottle, not a few also become sex addicts in their search for refuge from their guilt.

    Of course, pick your addiction, but it usually comes to the same disastrous end. Except for those women who happen to find Rachel’s Vineyard or some similiar outreach program. Perhaps not so odd, Planned Parenthood denies the psychological effects of abortion or at best looks at abortion as only a contingent cause.

    This article would have been more impressive had the author provided equal space to “Forbidden Grief:The Unspoken Pain of Abortion” by Theresa Burke or some simmilar study of abortion’s traumatic effects. Perhaps women were in bad shape back before Roe V. Wade, but can we really say they’re in better shape now?

    This is typcial of the arrogance which secular humanism has exhibited since rejecting any telos beyond the materialism of modern science. “Yessir, we’ll fix nature’s wagon, alright…”

    Ah, well…


  3. As the mother of an adopted child (and more to come, I hope), my heart just aches to think that these women who saw abortion as the only answer were not able to choose to allow their babies to bring infinite joy to a childless family. I am sorry for the pain of the women in the piece – but every baby is wanted by someone. There is always a choice.

  4. Matthew Lickona says

    Do read the whole piece if you haven’t already – the author also treats of adoption in a couple of places. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I did find this article to have more depth and balance than I anticipated, but I was still taken aback by the vicious response to adoption. Having some heart felt personal experience in this area, I know this is not easy…but to think that a woman would find the destruction of her child preferable to its life without her is still difficult to comprehend.

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