Monday, June 2, 2014

When Life Becomes Trivial

I have very strongly held views on matters of life and death, as do most of us. Some of my views I make known explicitly here, especially when it comes to the violence of war. But I tend to err on the side of life in just about every ethical situation.

It's probably for that reason that I felt myself having a highly visceral reaction to the video making the rounds on social media of the woman who filmed her abortion procedure.

I don't like to promote people looking for their 15 minutes of fame, so I won't mention her by name or link to the video. Nor do I want to drag out the usual talking points surrounding abortion, because we've all heard them a thousand times, and no one's mind is going to be changed by hearing them for the 1,001st time.

But what struck me was the woman's cavalier attitude to the whole thing. Before the procedure, she smiles into the camera and proclaims, "I'm going to have an abortion tomorrow morning!" In a Cosmopolitan article, she said she called her supervisor and said, "Excuse me, I am going to need to schedule one abortion, please" -- as flippantly as if she was ordering a burger and fries at the drive-through. She smiled and hummed to herself during the procedure, as if she was doing nothing more than getting a manicure. And sometime afterward, she faces the camera, still trying to be upbeat but honestly looking as if she's struggling to still put a happy face on the event, and proclaiming how she's in awe of the fact that her body can make a baby.

Yeah, except that you ended that baby's life. There's that.

But the clincher? When she says, "I knew what I was gonna do was right, because it was right for me, and no one else."

The selfishness and narcissism wrapped up in that sentence are deeply emblematic of where I think we're heading as a culture. There are few things we do in life that don't affect other people, and this woman's decision was undeniably a decision for two people, not just herself. Yet she proclaims, "It was right for me, and no one else." Certainly not for the life that was growing inside her, obviously.

In one sense, I feel sorry for this young lady. She's obviously been conditioned to think of terminating a pregnancy as little more than a slightly invasive medical procedure that carries no ethical weight, as if it's no different from having a wart removed. I imagine that if you worked in an abortion clinic, you'd have to find a way to rationalize what happens there, lest the reality eat away at you. And it's not as if an abortion clinic is going to actively try to talk anyone out of the procedure. That would be bad for business.

Look, I know lots of women end up in these clinics out of desperation, and I'm not making light of that. But then that's one of the problems I have with the cheery flippancy of this woman's video. It trivializes what is surely a gut-wrenching decision for many women who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

I also acknowledge that I can't control the choices other people make. I would just hope that if women find themselves in a difficult situation such as this, they'd approach a life-or-death decision with a little more reflection and solemnity.

Equally upsetting about this woman's story is that she works as an abortion counselor yet admits she did not use contraception before her pregnancy. Contraception is so cheap, and so readily available, that there's virtually no need to resort to abortion as a form of birth control. The irresponsibility of someone who knew better is astounding, and certainly not something to hold up as an example to follow. Our actions have consequences.

I think what bothers me most about this story is that it undermines an unsettling truth about our modern world: Life is disposable. It's obvious in the way we emotionally insulate ourselves from thinking about the pain and suffering of the women and children who get in the way of the drone bombs we drop on sovereign nations. ("Collateral damage." "The kid probably would have grown up to be a terrorist anyway.") It's obvious in the way we think taking the life of a convicted killer somehow evens the score. It's obvious in the way we don't bat an eye when we bite into a steak or a chicken leg.

Nor do we have much reverence for life. If we did, we wouldn't abuse and neglect our children and elderly. We wouldn't think violence is the answer to every solution. We wouldn't be choking our own planet to death with our destructive actions toward the environment.

And we deal with it all by turning a blind eye. We don't want to see the scorched, disfigured, lifeless bodies of children killed by our bombs. We don't want to see animals screaming and struggling for their lives as their bodies are prepared to be dismembered for the sake of our appetites. We don't want to think about a fetus being torn from the womb and then discarded as if its suffering meant nothing.

We dehumanize the things we want to distance ourselves from. That's why abortion advocates talk about "choice" and speak in broad terms of "clumps of cells" and lack of viability. But what we're ultimately talking about is the termination of a life. Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarians. Similarly, if people saw what actually happened during an abortion procedure -- and, notably, this woman's abortion video shows only her reaction from the waist up -- I think many of us would change our views on just what this "choice" really entails. The pictures are out there online, readily available. I'm not going to show them to you or link to them. If you want to find them, you can. But you have to be ready to confront the consequences of this particular kind of "choice."

As the humanitarian Albert Schwietzer once said, "Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight."

Understand that I don't come at this from a right-wing Christian point of view. When it comes to matters of peace and social justice, I'm as aligned with the political left as anyone you'll ever see. Yet the abortion issue is for me the big disconnect on the left, and one of the biggest reasons I'll probably never consider myself part of the "liberal" camp. It's always struck me as odd that on things like war and the death penalty, the left takes the side of life and peace. And the left also usually takes a strong stand on behalf of those who are defenseless, voiceless, and powerless. Yet when it comes to abortion, the rhetoric immediately shifts to "choice," and any discussion of life and advocacy for the unborn is denounced as the ravings of right-wing religious fanatics at best, and an expression of hatred of women at worst.

I don't get it, and I never will.

I understand that the woman's (alleged) purpose in making this video was to show women that abortion doesn't have to be scary. But I think most women who resort to abortion aren't there hoping they can smile and hum through the procedure. They're there because they feel they have no other options. They may have no resources, no support network to fall back on. I don't really think putting a happy face on the whole thing is particularly helpful no matter what side of the debate you take. What we need are things that support women so they can avoid having to end up in a clinic in the first place, and alternatives so they don't think it's their only option. Better maternity leave policies, more flexible work schedules, the promotion of adoption, better education about sexuality and contraception -- all these things can help. Women deserve better than this, and their children deserve a chance at life.

But banning abortion won't make it go away, and that's something the political right doesn't seem to understand. What we need is to foster a culture in which women get the support they need, in which fewer pregnancies are unwanted, and in which other options are available and attractive. Under those conditions, abortion might become practically obsolete, regardless of its legal status. 

Trivializing abortion as if it's no big deal, as this woman's video does, isn't helpful. We need a culture that upholds and respects life, not one that constantly finds answers in death.

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