Published on Monday, April 4, 2005 by USA Today
Stories Sway Personal Choice
by Paul Rogat Loeb
Even if you've heard enough about Terri Schiavo, it seems useful to consider why President Bush's political grandstanding in her case backfired. More than 70% of Americans, including solid majorities of self-described evangelicals, opposed the intervention of the White House and Congress. Those surveyed mistrusted the Bush administration's disregard for local control, the rule of law and the right to be protected from a capricious federal government.
Their responses also speak to a broader shift in how we deal with difficult end-of-life issues. For 20 years, gradually increasing majorities have agreed that for all our technological inventiveness, what some people need most is the right to die in peace. You'd think this belief -- that the most difficult decisions must be our own -- would also raise support for maintaining the right to abortion. But it hasn't. In the 30 years since Roe v. Wade, support for keeping abortion legal has stayed even, at most, and new onerous restrictions keep getting imposed.
The difference comes, I suspect, from the stories we tell, and those we keep hidden. Many families have wrestled with end-of-life choices. But they're brought on by the illness and aging of loved ones, not by our own actions. No one judges us for having a sick parent as they might for our sexuality. So we're likely to talk in public about such choices.
But most women don't publicly discuss their abortions. Although a third of all U.S. women have abortions by age 45, they're more likely to view the dilemma as a product of their own failures — to use adequate birth control or to have the financial or emotional resources to afford another child. They're more likely to feel shame.
Voices for change
When the movement to legalize abortion began, advocates talked about the human costs of prohibition. They told the complex stories of why women would choose to value their own lives, choices and possibilities over the potential life of the fetus. They framed abortion as an act of compassion. We see this in the recent film, Vera Drake. Its working-class protagonist in postwar England views her actions "helping young girls in trouble" as part of the same ethic of caring as looking after her aged mother. Pro-choice activists eventually told their stories powerfully enough to convince America that its abortion policies had to change.
Since Roe, these voices have been neutralized by those speaking for the humanity of the fetus. Some oppose abortion from compassion and conviction. The motive of others, who also campaign against sex education, access to birth control and financial support for poor families, seems more like punitive vindictiveness. As the stories of the women involved faded, the reasons why women have always made this difficult choice, and will keep doing so, got told far less often.
Maybe the differences in public sentiments come from inherent differences in the two issues — a sense that fetal life has more value and potential than someone lying in bed dying. But that isn't what the right-to-life advocates are saying. Many conservative Catholics and fundamentalists are involved in both issues. Both revolve around unknowable questions about when life begins and ends, and the degree to which we should be masters of our fates or accept a path that seems handed to us divinely.
For those of us who believe, as I do, that abortion must always remain an available choice for all, even as it continues to be a morally impossible choice for some, we have to start telling the stories.
Planned Parenthood's recent distribution of "I Had an Abortion" T-shirts and Jennifer Baumgardner's film of the same name are good beginnings. But the process of telling the stories has to be extended further. For only by giving flesh to the abstractions and getting to the heart of the difficult decisions and consequences individuals face can we convince our culture to deal with these choices with true compassion.
Paul Rogat Loeb is author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear.
© 2005 USA Today