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by Frederica Mathewes-Green
Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1994.
(256 pages: $8.99)
reviewed by Helen Hull Hitchcock
When a crazed failed hairdresser opened fire in two Boston-area abortion clinics a few days after Christmas, killing two receptionists (one an alumna of Catholic Boston College) and wounding several others, a veritable Kristallnacht of verbal violence seemed to shatter the prolife movement. Predictably, prochoice activists accused prolife rhetoric of inciting the murderous rampages of John Salvi and Paul Hill, another loner, recently sentenced to death for killing an abortionist. Even the amazing election sweep that returned every prolife congressman to office and gave Republicans control of both houses for the first time in forty years—a clear repudiation of the militantly prochoice Clinton administration—could not offset the effect of such lunacy. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law instantly called for a moratorium on peaceful prolife demonstrations, for “mutual respect” and prayer (then canceled a prolife Mass)—and was supported by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights and Catholics for a Free Choice. The noise of confusion, dissension, and disarray within the prolife movement will probably ring in our ears for some time. But this makes it even more important that the established prolife groups and newer promising efforts be vigorously supported. One such effort is the National Women’s Coalition for Life (NWCL), an association of more than a dozen independent prolife women’s organizations with a common commitment to defend life.
The book Real Choices is the outgrowth of a project by that name that was undertaken by the National Women’s Coalition for Life to hear the voices of women who have undergone abortions in the hope that better understanding of women’s reasons for seeking abortions would lead to greater insight for those seeking to provide alternatives to abortion— real choices. The book’s author, Frederica Mathewes-Green, is one of the most recent voices to emerge within the prolife movement and among the most eloquent. In college she was a proabortion feminist, she says, and her views changed when she became a Christian about twenty years ago. (She is a recent convert from the Episcopal Church, along with her clergyman husband, to the Orthodox Church.) She relates with compassion and fidelity the sometimes alarming and often poignant and always fascinating stories she heard from women gathered in the “listening groups” arranged for NWCL by pregnancy care agencies in seven U.S. cities (Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Phoenix, Tampa, and Boston).
Interspersed with the listening session accounts are the author’s discussions of sex and pregnancy prevention, the attractions and pitfalls of welfare and other material support for women with unwanted pregnancies, the problems with men and their relationships with their family members, dealing with grief, adoption, schooling and careers. Liberally amplified by statistics and appendices, including surveys conducted among pregnancy care center clients, the book should be of value to all who teach, write, debate, or counsel on prolife and family issues. The intervening chapters are full of useful information, intriguing opinions, and frequent highly quotable tidbits.
Altogether, Mrs. Mathewes-Green provides such an ample feast, so skillfully and enthusiastically prepared—rare and most welcome in the midst of our decaying culture’s famine—it seems almost ungrateful to find any fault with the book. Perhaps our expectations are raised too high at the outset, beginning with the subtitle’s almost glib promise of “offering practical, life-affirming alternatives to abortion,’’ as if this were not one of the primary objectives of most prolife efforts since Roe v. Wade. In fact, the book suggests that the proabortionists’ stereotype of prolifers as being concerned only or primarily with the baby, not with the pregnant mother, is accurate. This seems to betray the very pregnancy care centers who provide NWCL with both a locus and subjects for the Real Choices study. The book applauds the provision of material support (baby clothes, medical services) by these centers, but suggests that they are deficient in providing for the emotional (“relational”) needs of the women. This may be true, but, as most of the women’s stories reveal, this kind of care is often rejected.
Prolifers in general are faulted in the book for not being concerned enough about the distress and suffering of the pregnant women. This ignores, also, the immense (if underfunded and unsung) efforts of families who have taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pregnant girls or women into their homes precisely to provide emotional support and security. The many independent shelters for pregnant women run by dedicated volunteers and/or underpaid staff whose main effort always has been to be life-affirming of the woman both before and after her baby’s birth, and to address the needs of the mother in every aspect should not have been ignored. Why these have not always succeeded is not due to a lack of generosity or of vision, but it may be found in the testimony of many of the women interviewed for the Real Choices project. The women may never have given them the chance to help. The author acknowledges that the expected objectives of the Real Choices project—to identify the problems of women who seek abortions to solve them—were not achieved precisely because the motives for choosing abortion were far more complex and widely varied than anticipated. In fact, it is very likely that the problem of abortion cannot be resolved unless (or until) there is a cultural conversion—as massive and dramatic as the cultural revolution that created the present matrix within which permissive abortion is seen as necessary, as a right.
The Real Choices project’s objective to focus attention on the pregnant woman’s motives for seeking abortion can provide helpful information that can be useful to many prolife workers and activists. This idea is not an innovation. It is a serious oversimplification to suggest that lack of success in getting the kind of help a woman needs to dissuade her from her desire to be “unpregnant” is due to a deadlock of “women’s rights” versus unborn children’s rights. That suggestion perilously and unfairly approaches the exasperating proabortion stereotype of prolifers (“you don’t care about the woman, all you care about is the fetus”). This forbidding stereotype of prolifers as condemning the unhappy pregnant woman, in fact, increases the difficulty of getting life-affirming services, counseling, and help to pregnant women. It must be overcome.
Surely all but a radical fringe in the prolife movement are convinced that we should be willing to give almost any kind of aid, counseling, friendship, and so forth, to any woman who needs us. But the person who needs help also needs to accept it—even ask for it. If I knew my knew daughter’s best friend was pregnant, I would be willing to help her in every possible way, including spending hours talking with her, with her parents, encouraging her, and so forth. But she probably does not want me to know she is pregnant and will not come to me for help. Moreover, if she knows I am prolife, she also may have absorbed all the negative rhetoric about prolifers who “care only about the fetus,” and (as some of the testimony in Real Choices confirms) I may be the last person she would go to for help, precisely because of that! This impediment cannot be overcome simply by my good will.
Mrs. Mathewes-Green urges that adoption be promoted as an alternative to abortion, and notes that most people agree. Her observation that there is much antiadoption propaganda being generated these days certainly rings true. However, the women’s stories clearly show that most would not have considered adoption as an option. Why? Because the overwhelming problem with a “problem pregnancy” is not simply—or even primarily—the prospect of overwhelming responsibilities connected with the baby after birth. It is being pregnant which is most often rejected. And because of this, again, as the testimony of the women reveals, the pregnancy is often concealed—even from family members—until it has been terminated.
Why do women get abortions? It seems that in virtually every case, the reasons given can be distilled into one: Fear. Abortion is a means of further victimizing troubled women who may be under extreme and complex psychological and physiological pressures and fears. Many women feel driven to seek abortion as a final solution out of fear—fear of abandonment and rejection by the unborn child’s father, fear of financial problems, fear of the responsibilities of motherhood, fear of giving birth to a handicapped child, to name a few.
There is no freedom in fear. Vulnerable pregnant women are entitled to society’s protection from fatal choices forced on them by such fears.
To assert that abortion (“reproductive rights”) somehow promotes true liberty for women who are beset by fear is to ignore the genuine distress an unwanted pregnancy causes, which everyone, whether prochoice or prolife agrees is the primary reason a pregnant woman seeks abortion. Ready access to abortion is a cheap way out for the man who made her pregnant; for her family or friends who may feel responsible for her financial and/or psychological welfare and support; and for society, which not only may have to foot the bill for abandoned and indigent women and their dependent children, but which also suffers the dreadful and incalculable loss of the contributions of its lost future members.
It is frequently suggested that abortion is a choice that troubled women freely make. But it makes a mockery of a woman’s freedom to suggest that the only way she can be free is through the taking of another’s life thereby ending for her child, often in the most physically agonizing way, the possibility of the most essential freedom—the freedom to live. Many women who have abortions, in fact, say that they have no choice other than abortion. A woman who believes she has no choice is under severe duress, and her responsibility for her actions is, to this extent, diminished. A woman chooses abortion because she believes that she is not free to give birth to her child.
Most Christian women are—and should be—particularly sensitive to the unique way in which the lives of others are entrusted to women. Women are most often the nurturers and teachers of the young. Women are most often caregivers to the old and to the sick. And, of course, all pregnant people and all mothers are women. Every pregnant woman, every mother should be affirmed in her irreplaceable role in bringing forth, nurturing, and educating children, and every father should protect his family—for this is the foundation and source of hope for the future of mankind.
As a matter of justice every woman is entitled to protection from pressure to abuse her own life-giving power from pressures that may force her to submit to abortion. Abortion always is destructive—it always causes the suffering and death of at least one defenseless victim. Abortion damages not only the woman’s spiritual and physical integrity, but also, in harming women and children, harms men, the family, and society, as well.
Failure to get help to a troubled pregnant woman deepens the abandonment and abuse she already may have suffered by being “inconveniently” pregnant. We must never turn our backs on her needs and on those of her child or children, nor can we force her to pay the price alone when she is weakest and least able to defend either herself or her unborn child.
Unborn babies are not the only victims of abortion, as Real Choices shows dramatically and clearly. While we must never abandon our effort to find real alternatives to abortion, we hope in vain for revolutionary breakthroughs in our sick society without a comparably revolutionary change of hearts. For this conversion we must pray.
Contributing Editor Helen Hull Hitchcock is President of Women for Faith and Family, a Roman Catholic organization dedicated to upholding the family and traditional Catholic teachings. Her article, “Entrusted to Women,” was published in the Summer 1994 issue of Touchstone.