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A death in the life of a controversy
By George A. Ricker

This is Barbara’s story, and it’s true.

Except, Barbara was not her real name. I won’t give you that because her parents are still alive out there somewhere, and while I would assume they have come to terms with what happened after all these years, I would not want to cause them any more distress in the, admittedly remote, chance that this should somehow find its way into their hands.

But back to Barbara’s story.

She was 16. He was older.

By any definition of the words, she was a “good” girl. Her family practiced the Catholic religion. They were devout. They brought their daughter up the same way.

As sometimes happens, even to “good” girls, Barbara got caught up in the heat of a teenage romance, and things got out of hand. In a few months, she discovered she was pregnant. The boy proved to be just that and left her to deal with the problem as best she could.

For a lot of reasons—even though it was legally available—abortion was out of the question for her. It was unthinkable not only because of her parents’ attitudes but also because of her own. What also was unthinkable was having the child. She could not face her parents, could not face her friends, could not face herself. The solution Barbara found to her dilemma should have been unthinkable as well, but desperate people do desperate things.

Dad had a revolver. She used it.

End of problem.

End of baby.

End of Barbara.

I tell you the story not because I think it proves anything one way or the other on the subject of abortion but because it suggests that, outside the political posturing and the pat answers, there is an underlying reality seldom addressed by either side in the abortion controversy. That reality is found in the lives of the people who have to deal with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. People like Barbara and Barbara’s parents. I doubt they find much comfort in simplistic answers and poster slogans.

Of course, the easy solution would have been for Barbara not to have had sex with her boyfriend. And for the sanctimonious that’s usually the whole answer. But by all accounts Barbara was not promiscuous. The young man in question was her first—and last—lover. She made a mistake. One she lived just long enough to regret.

Then too, she might have used a contraceptive to prevent pregnancy. Obviously, she did not, or if she did, it didn’t work. Besides, most of the contraceptive techniques available would have been against her religion too.

Why she didn’t feel comfortable talking to her parents about the situation, I don’t know. Why she dreaded it so much that she found suicide a better answer is beyond my ken. But I do know there are an awful lot of children out there—even in our enlightened age—who have the same difficulty.

Another thing I know is that the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade had no impact on her solution. The legality or illegality of abortion in Barbara’s case was irrelevant. She aborted her own life as well as the baby’s.

Her classmates cried when they heard the news. She had been bright and popular—a favorite of students and teachers alike.

“How could she do that?” they asked. Like me, they found no answers.

Frankly, I have little sympathy for the spokespersons on either side in the abortion debate.

Like most Americans, I am opposed to abortion on general principles. Also like most Americans, I believe women should have the right to make their own decision about whether or not to obtain one. According to most of the polls I’ve seen—and they have been fairly consistent since the Supreme Court decision that so polarized our views on the issue more than three decades ago—those two attitudes are shared by the majority of the people in the nation, incompatible though they may be.

Where I part company with the “Pro-Choice” crowd is in their absolute unwillingness to admit that when talking about abortion we are talking about the termination of a human life. Maybe it’s only a newly started human life, but there is no question that if carried to term what will be born will be a human being, not a spot of protoplasm, a zebra or a goldfish.

I think we are too casual about the matter of abortion. It’s a serious business that requires serious reflection, not glib answers and political propaganda.

However, let it be clearly stated, I oppose all efforts to criminalize abortion or to put legal roadblocks in the way of women obtaining them. The way to reduce the number of abortions in our society is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And the way to achieve that goal is through better sex education and better availability of birth control methods. This approach also could go a long way toward reducing the number of sexually transmitted diseases prevalent in our society, an additional benefit that is certainly worth pursuing. Abortion should not be made illegal. It could be made less necessary.

On the other hand, the rhetoric coming from the “Pro-Life” partisans is clearly dishonest.

Contrary to their propaganda, abortion in the United States did not suddenly begin with the Supreme Court decision. In fact, in the last year prior to Roe v. Wade, there were almost 600,000 legal abortions performed in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Interestingly, many of those legal abortions were obtained in the state of California whose governor, Ronald Reagan, had signed one of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws. By 1972 a number of states had decriminalized abortion. The Roe v. Wade decision, handed down in 1973, simply sped up the process.

So it is dishonest to attempt to make the case that the estimated 1 to 1.2-million abortions performed annually are all the result of Roe v. Wade. The so-called “right to life” postulated by the anti-abortion lobby also seems questionable. It’s useful to note that the Founding Fathers, all of whom presumably understood that children were not delivered by the stork, had no confusion over fetal personhood. In the U.S. Constitution they stated clearly that rights were conferred on citizens born or naturalized. No rights for the unborn were ever mentioned or discussed. This was at a time when abortion was readily available for those who could afford it and was not illegal in most parts of the country.

Historically, there were no laws against abortion in this nation until the 1820s, and abortion was not illegal generally until the mid-nineteenth century. But, whether legal or not, a substantial percentage of pregnant women have practiced it throughout our history. According to Richard Shenkman’s Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History, it’s estimated that in the second half of the nineteenth century one out of six pregnancies ended in abortion and in the 1920s reports indicate one in four pregnancies were terminated by abortion—this at a time when abortion was illegal in most parts of the country.

There is no method I can find to construct a theory of rights for the unborn, and that is—or ought to be—the real issue in the debate, not when life begins, but when rights begin. To suggest that an unborn child has a set of rights that exist independent of the wishes of its mother is, in my view, absurd and leads to a Pandora’s box of legal complications in an already complicated legal situation. If the “right to privacy” is a legal fiction, as some in the anti-choice movement claim, then what in the world is “fetal personhood?”

In truth, the pro-life position has more to do with religious extremism than legal rights or wrongs. It is about punishment for sexual activity and the control of women. It’s also a dandy fund-raising issue for the Religious Right and their captive politicians.

I’m afraid neither side in this harangue would have offered much help for Barbara. What she needed most was simple compassion and a genuine attempt to understand her situation.

And I guess that’s what I’ve found most disquieting in the debate over abortion in this country. There has been very little compassion on either side, whether one is talking about the unborn or those faced with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy, and very little effort made by either side to appreciate the other side’s point of view.

But then compassion never has been the strong suit of zealots of any stripe.

They’re usually too busy passing judgment.

Author’s note: The original version of this column first ran in the Sebastian Sun about 15 years ago. Remarkably, the issue continues to be controversial. This version is longer.
© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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