The abortion debate continues and it makes me frustrated, angry and sad. I thought it had finally been settled-that abortion was legal, available to all women
and a matter of private consent. Alas, in Parliament and the media distinguished voices are again being raised—arguments defending the rights of the fetus, but failing to distinguish them from the rights of the fetus-carrier. We have photographs of childless toys weeping, and pen portraits of selfish bourgeois women who refuse to bear children. Childless women who can’t conceive and philosophers with ancillary interests cry out against the moral wrong of destroying new life.
How can I defend something that is genuinely, morally wrong? I can’t so much defend it as explain it, because if I
fail to admit that abortion is the destruction of life, I destroy the basis of logic as well as that of morality. I have to take the practical, utilitarian view that abortion, however immoral, has always existed and is a regrettable part of the reproductive cycle, and less undesirable than infanticide. It’s not that women are immoral, but simply that biology doesn’t understand morality. Furthermore, in addition to being immoral or amoral, biology is also crafty.
Men can cry “never” and “Get thee behind me, Satan” and the other things they say about and against abortion
because they are men. Their biological drives are in favor of producing as many of their own species as possible. They have not, by the time they are 24, had at least 100 opportunities to become pregnant. Instead, they’ve had a million chances to impregnate someone, or, if they are profligate, many someones. Depending on their personal morality, they may have restrained themselves and been critical of people with a looser code. They may also have love and hate for women mixed up, and suffer from the child’s desire to see “Mum” captive in the kitchen forever. They may find that women who are not tied to children are a threat to their exclusive power.
Yet women spend their adult lives close to their fertility cycles and have to learn to control them in order to survive. Our great-grandmothers, hardy products of natural selection—there were no antibiotics or incubators in those days— may have had their children in tens and dozens, but they passed down to us an inkling that this wasn’t the best way to get along in the world. In a society without servants, the mother’s energy lasts only long enough to look after the first two or three children well. After that, in most houses, it’s a free-for-all.
My generation is pre-Pill; when I was young, we put on dime-store wedding rings and went to a doctor to get birthcontrol help. Girls who didn’t like lying either played Russian roulette with their boyfriends (which resulted in many shotgun marriages, some of which were happy), stayed out of bed, or got caught with young men who said, “Well, if you did
it with me, you must have done it with someone else . . . .” Since by the time we were seniors in university our hormones were often stronger than our characters, nasty recipes for things you could do with double-jointed elbows, knitting needles and castile soap got passed around the women’s residences. It was repulsive, but unfortunately there was no other way out.
Philosophically, supporting abortion is justifying the bad in terms of the worse. And that’s what women’s lives have always been about, and why most women have been unwilling to spiral to abstract moral heights on this issue. The first thing you learn about sex is that sperm is amoral. Surges of sexual desire accompany the female reproductive cycle: one wants to go to bed, one wants to make babies, whether the moment is suitable or not. Oblivious to morality, religion or politics, egg and sperm seek each other out. The young are
fertile as trout, and those of middle age dream of finding babies under boardwalks and rush out, against all sensible instincts, to reproduce for the last time.
Regardless of convenience, the soaring cost of living, or whether the fetus-carrier is a naïve 11-year-old or a 40year-old with a history of thrombosis, the reproductive urge acts itself out through men and women. The world is the same seething mass of fertility it has always been. The rational principle has to intervene at some point, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t sometimes find it intervening too late. Some
women, for reasons that are called selfish by those who resent this choice, choose to terminate their pregnancies. When abortion is legal they can do this safely, and in such a manner that their fertility is not impaired. They can have another baby at a better time if they want.
Men are often horrified by abortion. Artist William Kurelek has a powerful painting entitled My Lai, The Massacre of Highland Creek, depicting aborted fetuses on the banks of Highland Creek. It is a violent and bloody vision that fails to take into account the fact that most women are almost infinitely impregnable, and that the termination of pregnancy is not some kind of selfish dance, it’s a form of chosen rape: an alternative that leads to stress and unhappiness and guilt, but still an alternative. Not something one chooses for fun.
When we give in to Kurelek’s vision and vote to delegalize abortion and remove it from the list of treatments covered by hospital and medical insurance, we give in to a vision that is both nasty and unreal. We see women as selfish and immoral and predestined to child-nurture exclusively. If, on the other hand, we gently and regretfully allow abortion to have a place in our society—not as a compulsory measure, but as one of a number of choices—we are subscribing to reality as well as civilized regret that the reproductive system is not always easily controlled.
Marian Engel is an author and journalist whose latest book is Lunatic Villas.
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