My schoolmate Caleb Jones has written up a conversation he had with a Planned Parenthood volunteer that is earning him predictable applause on Facebook for his brave truth-telling. I think he did a good thing by at least trying, however unsuccessfully, to engage with someone on the “other side” of the issue. But where his commenters and friends see a compassionate attempt to communicate, I see a story that is dripping with self-righteousness and that is emblematic of the gulf between how pro-lifers imagine their arguments as opposed to the actual quality of their arguments.
I actually really liked the beginning of Caleb’s exchange with the volunteer. He told her that that abortion makes him uncomfortable even if it amounts to only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget. That’s his conviction, and I respect him for standing by it. But the conversation continues, and almost right away Caleb starts bludgeoning the volunteer with his moralizing and wondering why she doesn’t repent on the spot.
The moralizing, in particular, is his insistence that fetuses are babies being killed. That’s the motivational core of the pro-life argument, and Caleb has every right to be passionate about it. But his conversation with the volunteer reveals something all-too-common among pro-lifers: the conviction that no one could possibly disagree with them if that person were not indoctrinated, confused, or lying to themselves. Caleb, in his own description, forces the woman to confront the word kill rather than “let her hide the subject at hand with clichés and meaningless words.” Controlling the terminology of the debate is a classic propaganda strategy that both sides of the abortion issue deploy ferociously, and that’s exactly what Caleb is doing here. It appears that the Planned Parenthood volunteer is not well prepared to defend her views on the moral status of the fetus at the level Caleb is—in fact, she may not even have strong convictions about it. But once Caleb has “scored” against her by getting her to admit that aborted babies are killed, he says, with a fairly shocking degree of smugness:
You would think that at this point in the conversation the woman standing across from me with the clipboard and the umbrella would see the moral depravity laced throughout her organization, walk in a restaurant bathroom, turn her Planned Parenthood t-shirt inside out, and walk home right then and there. But she didn’t. The conversation went on.
Well, no, I wouldn’t wonder that at all, and neither would anyone who doesn’t already agree with Caleb’s dogmatic views. He has not revealed a hopeless contradiction in her position or really even communicated with her at all. He has insisted upon his own definition of what an abortion is, and considered himself the victor because his interlocutor doesn’t know how to respond. This is what he does for the rest of the conversation: keeps on saying kill, kill, kill without listening or trying to imagine the real world situation of someone who might seek an abortion as vividly as he imagines the inner life of her fetus.
Again, I’m not blaming Caleb for believing abortion is murder, even though I do not. I remain uncomfortable with abortion even though I strongly believe it should be legal. But what the volunteer is doing, and what I would have done in her shoes, is challenging his absolutist logic. The woman rightly points out that the world can be an ugly, violent place that all the platitudes about “endurance for the sake of righteousness” do little to salve. Fetuses can have horrific disorders, they can threaten their mothers’ lives, and they can grow into babies that are certain to be born into poverty, abuse, and neglect.
The woman Caleb was talking to has lived that—she has lived in 15 foster homes and knows what growing up in those conditions is like, and she believes its necessary for women to have the option to end an unwanted pregnancy in certain conditions. At the same time, Caleb’s story—he lives a valuable life despite having a genetic disease that could have made him a candidate for abortion—makes him believe every fetus should be given the chance he got, no matter what. I respect both of these positions, and it is ultimately why I believe every mother deserves the absolute right to decide what happens inside her own body. Only she really knows her situation and what she and her future child can survive. Caleb seems to believe that only his experience is valid, that everyone must be forced to make the choice he’s glad his mother made. It’s a difficult, painful reality to talk about, but I think any of us who considers it long enough, or listens to enough real-life stories, can imagine situations where that choice would not have had a happy ending. Caleb believes the world kill overcomes all of this complexity, shuts out the experience of others who have not reached his conclusion—just like he’s doing to the woman he met in the rain under the pretense of “communicating” with her.
I do not pretend, unlike many other people who support the legality of abortion, that this is not a difficult issue, that it doesn’t and shouldn’t come with sadness, regret, or the many other emotions it brings up in people who have been through it. I don’t even believe we can deny that abortion is violence or killing. (For more on that, please read Kristen Dombek’s amazing essay in Issue 10 of n+1, entitled “The Two Cultures of Life.” I’ll email you the PDF.) But the world is full of painful choices, and I ultimately cannot accept that the activist’s passion for the unborn should deprive the living, flesh-and-blood woman in a painful situation the right to make a choice that only she can comprehend. Pro-lifers, even passionate ones like Caleb and his many admirers, would do well to do more listening and communicating and less shutting down the conversation.
Update, 9:18 pm: Several commenters have chastised me for the meanness of my title. I tried to explain myself in various spots below, but I think they are right that it’s a poor choice for a post accusing someone else of smugness and condescension. More than that, judging motives and attitudes is more often than not unfair. I’m not going to try to erase my mistakes, but I apologize to Caleb for being less gracious than I should have.
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