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David Mills on Abortion in the Real World
Walking down Constitution Avenue on a cold day last January 21 with tens of thousands of other pro-life marchers, I saw ahead of me a big heart-shaped sign with a pink rim. The sign said in big pink letters, “God loves Barbies and we do too.”
For a pro-life sign, I thought “God loves Barbies” was a rather creative way of speaking, even “edgy.” I assumed “Barbie” was a new nickname for those young women, usually executive secretaries and salesgirls in the better stores, who had not wanted to settle down after college, who now wanted a husband and a home and a life like the Cleaver family’s, who were sweet, sincere, and morally careless.
Barbies were the young women who might easily find themselves pregnant, and, finding themselves pregnant, were likely to find themselves also alone and desperate. Being so “middle class” they were of no real interest to the pro-choice crowd, and being so frivolous they were of no real interest to some pro-lifers either. The sign told them that God loved them and so did his people, even if it did call them “Barbies.”
I looked again and saw that the sign said, “God loves babies and we do too.” I was disappointed, but as I reflected on the mistake, I came to think that the “Barbies” are a symbol, perhaps the poster children, of a society in which to live is to enjoy sex at will, and of what happens when you do.
Love That Lasts
In the checkout lines at the grocery store down the hill, the owners have put the women’s magazines at eye level, where their headlines, almost always advertising sexual pleasures of one kind or another, will entice the impulse buyer. In bright, big letters at the top of one I saw recently was the headline “10 Dates Before Sex!?” for an article on “Secrets of love that lasts and lasts and lasts.”
As the punctuation indicates, you are supposed to believe that this is a surprising and very difficult requirement, though it amounts, at one date a week, to moving, in a little over two months, from meeting a stranger to giving him entrance to your body, with all that involves. This, the magazine promises, will make him love you more, which I suppose may sometimes be true, though it probably will not make him love you for very long.
I assume this magazine and the 10 or 20 magazines just like it, whose circulation is in the tens of millions, know what their readers want. There is something ineffably sad in the desire of their ideal young woman to have a free sex life and yet have a man love her and stay with her, and in the breezy, carefree, willfully open way she tries to talk about it.
That millions of these young women really do exist helps explain the great demand for abortion in America. If sex is the way you can get a man to commit himself to you, you will have sex, probably more often than you intend. If you have sex, you will have babies. (Even oral contraceptives sometimes fail.) If you want to have sex and you do not want to have babies, you must have abortion.
If you do not want abortion and you do not want to have babies, you must give up sex. The women who read magazines with headlines like “10 Dates Before Sex!?” are not going to give it up, not least because they believe it will lead to “love that lasts and lasts and lasts.” Nor are the men who want sex and do not care if their partners—even the word “girlfriends” may suggest more commitment than they have—must have abortions to let them have it.
This is the reason the rhetoricians of choice keep using phrases like “a woman’s right to control her own body” and even vaguer, and therefore much more useful, phrases like “a private decision” or “a matter between a woman and her doctor.” They do not want anyone to ask what choice it is that they are defending, and they often become hysterical or abusive if you press them for an answer.
For them, one does not choose whether to have sex but whether to dispose of the product thereof. These are people for whom having sex is no more a choice than breathing.
The Truly Marginalized
As we kept walking down Constitution Avenue, I saw another picture, displayed at several points along the route of the march. The picture showed a baby’s perfectly formed hand, ripped from his arm and lying on a dime. The hand, which is quite beautiful, is half the size of the coin.
The picture stays with you. I cannot get it out of my mind. I suppose this is why the title of the article in the women’s magazine struck me so.
The argument over abortion is an argument about what is real and what is not. The sexualized world of the women’s magazines and the pro-choice apologists is an unreal world trying desperately, and not at all successfully, to keep reality at bay. This is the world of the breathless idea that waiting just 10 dates to go to bed with a man will bring you love that lasts and lasts and lasts. This is the world that insists that an abortion is only the removal of “tissue.”
The reality is that if you let a man enter your body, you may find yourself carrying his child. The reality is that making him wait 10 dates to do so will rarely bring him to ask for your hand in marriage. The reality is that living the life the women’s magazines approve—which is only a slightly crasser version of the life promoted by Ms. magazine and the National Organization for Women—means that a little boy whose hand is only half the size of a dime will have it ripped off his arm.
The argument over abortion is an argument about reality. Now note who in America sees the reality and who doesn’t. The educated and affluent, the people who are supposed to guard the culture, are the people least likely to see the truth.
You can bring a suburban party to an embarrassed silence by saying that you’ve just come back from the march in Washington. It is not done, to march for the unborn. It is not done even among the overtly religious. I know of some famous Evangelical Episcopal parishes whose rectors have discouraged their people from forming a chapter of the Episcopal pro-life organization NOEL, because it would “divide the parish” or “distract us from mission.” (There are, of course, exceptions.)
As we marched down Constitution Avenue, I looked at the people around me. From their dress and their speech, one could easily see that most of the people marching with me were of the lower middle classes—department store clerks and factory workers and secretaries. Almost all of them seemed to be either Catholics or conservative Evangelicals, though a small group of rabbis could be seen, as well as a small number of men and women (courageous, I think) from a homosexual pro-life group. I even saw one sign advertising a group of pro-life atheists.
The great majority of the people marching in January, people of the religious lower middle classes, are members of perhaps the most socially and culturally marginalized group in America. It is the only group a television show can safely insult.
They were marching because they recognized the killing of the unborn as a violation of the natural law and the Christian revelation, two realities not often (if ever) recognized at centers of elite religious culture like the Episcopal Church Center in New York. If you asked Arnold the truck driver and Helen the housewife about the humanity of the unborn child, you would hear a better theology of the human person than from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and his peers.
Listening to the Marginalized
A member of a mainline church is always being lectured on his responsibility to the marginalized and the need to listen to their voices, but you will not find people like those marching being asked to join official church committees where their voices might be heard. The approved list of marginalized groups does not include such people as Arnold and Helen. That list includes racial minorities, the poor, and homosexuals, not the lower middle class.
But even that list has a further qualification. To have a voice that “needs to be heard,” one must not only belong to an approved group but also hold the approved opinions. The average liberal Christian does not really care to hear the voices of black people. He wants to hear the voices of black people who agree with him and who fit his idea of what a black person should be and do and say and think.
The majority of black people in America are pro-life. But theirs is not a voice that “needs to be heard,” because they do not say what is wanted to be heard.
The presiding bishop is more intelligent, more learned, and more articulate than most of the people marching on that cold January day, but on this matter he knows much less than they do. He will talk, in a sophisticated-sounding way, of “pluriform truths,” and there is something to the idea, but the words only obscure certain realities that Arnold and Helen see and he does not. Whether he can not, or will not, see them, I do not know.
They are better theologians than far better-educated bishops because they see what is there, and competent theology begins with reality. They see, for example, that the evacuation of a fruitful womb is a sin and not a method of self-actualization or an act of liberation or even a “tragic necessity.” They see that killing the innocent is always and everywhere wrong, and that on this matter there is only one—a uniform—truth.
These are not mysteries. These are truths that could be no more easily seen were they written across the sky. But notice how you instinctively cringe when someone says bluntly, without all the qualifications and apologies we expect, “abortion is murder.” And notice also that if you ever hear someone say this, he will almost certainly say it with an unfashionable accent.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.