I have a friend who worked as a pregnancy counselor at Planned Parenthood's Howard Street clinic for 15 years in the 1970s and '80s. The recent shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado reminded me of an incident she experienced. A young woman came to the clinic for an abortion. She had grown up in a foster home where she felt loved, but upon her 18th birthday, the family put her out. She ended up with a man and became pregnant. Determined that no child of hers would experience what she had gone through, she sought an abortion. While that scared young woman was lying on the table in only a thin paper gown in the tiny back room where abortions were performed, my friend holding her hand, a group of abortion protesters barged into the room. Mercifully, they didn't have guns.
What would happen to that young woman today, and women like her, if congressional conservatives succeed in defunding Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, or abortion opponents continue to feel justified in committing violence?
From its very founding controversy has dogged Planned Parenthood. Jill Lepore wrote an excellent history in the New Yorker in 2011. She described how Margaret Sanger opened her birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 — the first in the nation. It was shut down after only nine days because Sanger was caught distributing illegal pamphlets on contraception. As a nurse working among poor immigrant women on New York's Lower East side, Sanger witnessed married women with many children who were desperate not to have more. Maternal death in childbirth was commonplace, and women's only legal option to prevent pregnancy was to abstain from sex.
Republicans initiated government funding for family planning programs including Planned Parenthood. President Nixon signed the Title X family planning law in 1969. He told Congress, "No American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition." Nixon also supported abortion rights in certain cases, such as rape. Publicly, however, Nixon railed against it at the urging of advisors who made a political calculation to create a Republican majority by recruiting Southerners and Catholics. That calculation worked, but it turned abortion into a partisan issue.
In an ideal world there would be no need for abortion. Everyone would always use contraception, the contraception would never fail, and no fetuses would be deformed. As Planned Parenthood emphasizes, every child would be a wanted child. But we don't live in that world. Life is messy.
The best discussion I've heard took place on the NPR program, "On Being." David Gushee, a pro-life evangelical Christian and a Christian ethicist at Mercer University in Georgia, and Frances Kissling, a long-time pro-choice advocate and founder of Catholics for Choice, engaged in a rare dialogue. Host Krista Tippett asked probing questions that brought out the humanity in both positions. Mr. Gushee expressed concerns about a society that depends on abortion as the answer to the consequences of modern casual sex, but he also said he wasn't convinced that overturning Roe v. Wade was the answer; that might actually lead to more abortions, he said -- particularly if there is a shredding of the social safety net at the same time.
Ms. Kissling condemned the pro-choice approach that essentially ignores a fetus' value and only considers what the woman wants — the idea that abortion is OK for any reason, however late in the pregnancy. She recognized that there is crassness on either side of the issue, noting that pro-choice advocates are crass about the fetus, and pro-lifers are often crass about women.
Together, they offer a nuanced and thoughtful way forward. Abortion would remain legal with restrictions and enhanced family planning programs for poor women, who have 60 percent of the nation's abortions, would result in a decline in abortions.
Most would agree that abortion shouldn't be used casually for birth control, but being forced to bring an unplanned child into the world can be a major burden on a woman and society. Sex is an essential part of being human, and the consequences of sex should be dealt with humanely for both women and their fetuses. Sadly, most politicians and activists refuse to engage in difficult discussions that acknowledge and respect life's messiness.
Julie Evans is a graduate student in professional writing at Towson University and works for a Presbyterian church in Baltimore. Her email is Jgevans3336@gmail.com.