where’s the compassion gone?

02Dec09

My senior year, in government class, we debated abortion. I don’t remember how this topic related to that day’s lesson (likely some link to Roe v. Wade). I also don’t remember what part of the school year this was, whether it was before or after the election and Bush v. Gore. I was still heavily involved in my southern baptist church and I still would have identified myself as a Republican (though too young, just barely, to vote), albeit a liberal one. I bore little resemblance to the liberal I’ve become, even though the seeds of my current political beliefs were starting to emerge even then.

At some point in this debate, I trotted out my main concern about making abortion illegal, something that I, a 17 or 18 year old virgin who believed life began at conception and who never knew anybody who had become pregnant or who had needed an abortion, believed to my core: making abortions illegal wouldn’t end them, it would just move them to back alleys where women would use coat hangers to get rid of their babies. I grew up incredibly sheltered so I have no idea where I learned about back alley abortions but the thought of them terrified me, especially since, at the time, I was planning to be a physician.

The girl I was debating also shared a similar background, only she was white and her family presumably was better off than mine. She brushed off my point, saying that that wouldn’t happen all that frequently. To which I responded with my standard rejoinder: “One is too many.”

I don’t remember where the conversation went from there. She wasn’t going to change my opinion, I wasn’t going to change hers. But the conversation stuck with me.

I bring this up because of the recent New York Magazine article about abortion. Jennifer Senior’s main point is that the US is significantly less pro-choice than it used to be and less pro-choice than most people think it is. But of particular interest to me was what Senior had to say about my generation (18-29 year olds).

First, she writes:  “The youngest generation of voters–those between the ages of 18 and 29, and therefore most likely to need an abortion–is the most pro-life to come along since the generation born during the Great Depression, according to Michael D. Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of Millennial Makeover, who got granular data on the subject from Pew Research Center.”

She continues by noting that over 66% of all abortion providers are over 50, a statistic that’s very worrying. I read something several months ago right after Dr. Tiller was murdered that noted that the skills doctors like Tiller had are vital aside from their use in abortions. The skills Dr. Tiller had are also used to remove fetuses that have already died from pregnant women. This is not the article I read but this article says the same thing. Martha Mendoza’s baby died at 19 weeks but so few doctors in her community know how to perform the dilation and evacuation she needed (and also the safest procedure for her) that she had to wait a week for the procedure while her baby rotted inside her. The details are harrowing.

Further on in the article, Senior returns to this issue of how my generation views abortion:

“As GOP strategists Christopher Blunt and Fred Steeper have pointed out, this group came of age during the partial-birth debate and was the first to grow up with pictures of sonograms on their refrigerators. The major development in reproductive technology during their lifetimes wasn’t something that prevented pregnancies but something that created them: IVF. These kids have no idea—none—what it was like to live in a world without abortion rights. (“This generation’s knowledge of Roe is like, ‘Roe vs. what?’ ” says Keenan.) And they feel much more strongly about personal responsibility than the generations preceding them: Didn’t use birth control? The burden’s on you.”

It’s this last bit that resonates most strongly with me, the callousness with which we beat people over the head with the personal responsbility stick. Not every woman is in the position to demand the use of condoms every time she has sex. We’re lying to ourselves if we think otherwise. But what’s most concerning to me is just how little compassion is found in our current politics. It goes well beyond the abortion debate: a lack of compassion or empathy lurks in all corners. The fact that we’re seriously having a debate over whether everybody should have access to healthcare shows a lack of compassion. The way we treat illegal immigrants: the same. I won’t even get started on the homophobia that runs through so much of our political discourse on both sides of the aisle.

I grew up conservative but even as a sheltered teenager, the impact that a ban on abortion would have on the lives of women gave me pause before accepting the pro-life position I’d been taught to promote. Nothing’s changed. My increasing identification as a liberal, maybe even a progressive, has come from my inability to ignore the impact certain conservative ideologies have on real people, especially racial minorities, women, and gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. I’m deeply saddened by how cruel we’ve become as a nation and I’ve grown deeply pessimistic at our chances of becoming a more compassionate, kinder country that treats all the people who live in our borders with the respect they deserve.

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2 Responses to “where’s the compassion gone?”

  1. Thanks for a sensitive and heartfelt post. I’ve always been pro-choice simply because of a basic philosophical belief in my own individual bodily autonomy (and I’ve never been religious). I also support voluntary euthanasia/assisted suicide, (given suitable protections against abuse by unscrupulous relatives etc.) It just makes no rational sense to me that anyone else can tell me what to do with my own body
    I’m a good deal older than you and so possibly more influenced by my own experiences (not in the US) of marching in the streets for the right to abortion/contraception on demand in the 1970s. I fear that any roll-back of those rights is the thin end of the wedge. What will be next? Restricting various forms of birth control? Making certain sex acts between consenting adults illegal again? Making attempted suicide a criminal offense? I think it is that wider human-rights-based argument that younger people just aren’t being exposed to at the moment, and instead they’re having their heads filled with emotive polemic about ‘murdering babies’.

  2. This is a good post. I hate when people try to divide the abortion argument into black and white terms – you are either pro-choice or pro-life and you cut your arguments so they fall into those categories and it’s clean and neat.

    I would consider myself pro-choice, in that I believe every woman has the right to chose if she will bear a child and if she will change her life with a child. Just like every woman has the right to decide if she will give a child up for adoption. But I’m also pro-life in the sense that I would likely choose to keep a child if I ever found myself accidentally pregnant. I don’t think people who are pro-choice devalue life the way pro-life protesters like to paint them out to be.


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