Sunday, August 10, 2008

This Time, It's Personal

The debate over abortion in the United States is no big deal for me. I don't have a religious prohibition against it to live up to, and not being a woman, I'm immune from being pregnant. So it's a fight that I don't really have a dog in. Which is good, because I've always felt that the single biggest obstacles to any lasting resolution to the issue are twofold.

The first is that the opposing sides have staked out, generally speaking, mutually exclusive positions. Either abortion on demand is legal, or it isn't. You could make the point that allowing for abortion in life-threatening situations is a compromise, but the really ardent activists on both sides would still find fault with it. The radical pro-choice activists would see it as too restrictive - it wouldn't account for hardship or lesser health concerns than death, and the radical pro-life activists would see it as too liberal - there is a pro-life stand that expects the mother to give her life for the child, if that what it comes down to.

The second, and the one that is relevant here, is that it often becomes personal. Those on one side or the other see the rejection of their arguments, eventually, as an attempt to delegitimize them as people, and they often strike back with arguments designed to delegitimize their opponents as people. Even people who are otherwise thoughtful and tolerant, fall into this trap, as recently happened to John McGuinness. It's pretty easy to see that he feels personally slapped by the Democratic Party's proposed platform on legalized abortion, and retaliates making the uncharitable accusation that Democrats favor abortion rights because it results in fewer people enrolling in expensive social programs. Ouch.

But for all that, I understand the thoughts involved.

I was standing on the El platform at Howard Street one day, many, many years ago, when I encountered a young lady with a button that read "Abortion Free and Legal Now!"

"Free?" I asked?

"Yes," she replied. If I recall correctly, her rationale was that it did little good to have a right to something that one couldn't afford.

"What about other medical procedures?" I asked. "Like removing kidney stones? Should those be free?"

It was a trap, and the poor woman walked right into it, saying something along lines of "I don't think so."

I pounced. "So people should be allowed to die in excruciating pain, while elective abortions are free?" Of course, what I was really saying (if only to myself) was: "So I should have to come up with the money to pay for treatment of a very painful and potentially fatal condition that landed on me out of the blue, while paying taxes to provide money for tramps like you to be carelessly sexually active?!"

While she couldn't read the subtext of my comments, she quickly realized that she'd stepped on a land mine, and turned away, while I sneered at her in self-satisfaction. But it wasn't ten minutes before I repented what I had done as grossly unfair. Her point wasn't that abortion was more important than life-saving surgery, and I knew it. Her point was that abortion should be readily available to people who weren't ready or able to be parents, regardless of their financial circumstances. But rather than engage with her on the appropriateness of public funding for what I felt was normally an elective procedure, I'd taken it as a personal affront. So I'd ambushed her, given her an opening to delegitimize me, and then slammed her when she took the bait, calling her out as thoughtless, and thus delegitimizing her in turn.

We were both in our early twenties - she'd likely given no more thought to the broader implications of her position than I did about things that I thought should be public policy. And she likely knew nothing about kidney stones. I'd first read about them in high school, in a medical encyclopedia that my parents owned, but even with that, I was completely unprepared for the experience of actually having them in my sophomore year of college. She'd likely never heard of the condition - may parents hadn't, the first time it happened to me.

But I chose to see her button, with its simple position statement, as personal, and responded in kind. And, likely, given or reinforced a negative impression of abortion opponents (the really ironic part, since I didn't and still don't, have a principled objection to the procedure). I wondered, for a while, if I'd done nothing more than add to the heat, rather than the light, of the issue.

No comments: