02 August 2015

The political is the personal

I came very, very late to the pro-life camp.

To be honest, it was one of those issues that I’d never given a lot of thought to. And of course my knowledge of how these things worked was presented to me entirely in the abstract. Even as I was beginning to question the language of ‘rights’ as a culturally-determined category, I was still thinking in terms of ‘bodily integrity’, of the philosophical question of when an infant life began, in accordance with highly abstract and rights-bound rubrics. Even when I began to question those rubrics, my fallback was still upon philosophical, rationalistic Hegelian abstractions that allowed me to hedge somewhere in the muddled middle, that allowed me to avoid staking out a conscientious position. The feminist charge that men can only understand these issues on an abstract, detached and intellectual level, and that such abstract understanding is necessarily more attenuated than that of a concrete connexion, applied in spades to me.

It was a woman who changed that for me. Well, two, actually.

Eleanore Guiane Dorothy was neither expected, nor planned, nor convenient. She did not happen within wedlock. She happened when the two of us were being ‘careful’, with everything that noisome nominalist sex-educational sense of the word can be taken to imply. I didn’t know how to react when my girlfriend, now my wife Jessie, came into the bedroom with her pregnancy test in hand, and showed me the bright blue stripe that told me she was there. Both of us were graduate students, with more classwork, research and other projects on our hands than either of us knew how to handle rightly in addition to a pregnancy. Neither of us had immediate job prospects. There was the problem of immigration for Jessie. There was the problem of applying for state assistance. There was the problem of paying medical bills. And there we both were, wondering and yet still unable to articulate the depth of the problem we were in. Frightened out of our wits. Still to my shame, Jessie’s parents knew about Eleanore well before mine did.

It was Jessie who told me forthrightly that she didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy, because she was worried how it might impact her health. And I supported her as best I knew how at the time. But it wasn’t until I saw her – Eleanore – for the first time, on an ultrasound screen at a community health centre on Craig Street, that I understood who it was growing inside Jessie. Who. Not what. Not a clump of cells. Not a blob of protoplasm. Not a mistake. Not an option.

I don’t want to make this sound like some instant flash of insight, some thunderbolt revelation, because it wasn’t. It wasn’t some like some stentorian voice from the heavens opened up and told me: ‘Behold, your daughter.’ I’m too much of a blockheaded bookworm to have believed it anyway; the one ‘conversion experience’ in my whole life to which I can legitimately lay claim happened when I was reading Berdyaev. It’s weird to say – it was more of an æsthetic experience than a theological one. It was a feeling that was completely this-worldly, concrete and biological. I’d never really bought into the pro-life rhetoric about fingers or toes or eyeballs being important. (And actually, I still don’t. Still pictures simply don’t convey the emotional impact.) But seeing that ultrasound was like seeing one of the statues at the WaterFire summer festivals leap suddenly, shockingly, to life, and realising that actually under all the polystyrene prosthetics and make-up that there is an actor, a person, beneath it. On the computer screen in that clinic room, the whole and not just the head and hands and feet, what I was seeing was unmistakeably human. Breathtakingly beautiful. And unmistakeably my daughter.

And I understood then that I wouldn’t be able to bear to let her go. Neither would Jessie.

Eleanore, if ever you happen to read this: your mother and I never planned to have you. But you happened. And then you were wanted, very much so. And you are deeply, deeply loved.

Intellectually, this æsthetic, emotional, biological experience began gradually shaping my social thinking. If Eleanore was just as she appeared to Jessie and me, then the same could hold true of all her fellows who were not yet born. Being a consistent leftist and truly valuing equality in a defensible cosmic sense, then, meant being beholden to the idea that every such unborn child was also unmistakeably human, beautiful and connected. Cosmically speaking, there is no such thing as an ‘unwanted’ pregnancy, for the same reason that there is no such thing, cosmically, as an ‘undesirable’ or ‘unclean’ person, or an ‘untouchable’ caste. And from there, I evolved a Dickensian revulsion to the entire language of ‘unwanted’ children.

Even now, my reaction to the ‘reproductive rights’ lobby’s entire model of operation – their latching onto needy neighbourhoods and women in states of financial and personal desperation; their dissection of their progeny; and their ghoulish carting off of the pieces to laboratories for money – is a Dickensian one. If the abortion lobby ever offended me on a theological level, it offended me on a social-justice level first. And the arguments that Richards and company have so far rallied in their own defence are but parodies (and rather shoddy ones at that) of the same sort of Victorian attitudes which sent poor proletarian children, ‘unwanted’ and otherwise, to work twelve-hour days in workhouses with their possibly-lethal conditions all for their ‘health’, for the social good and for the good of their parents. Though many such workhouses, ostensibly public institutions, were being run for private profit behind the scenes.

Just as Victorian England with its Poor Laws thought that the workhouses constituted a ‘solution’ to the problems of the supposedly over-fecund poor created by an industrialising capitalist society, the late-capitalists of post-Roe America seem to think these grisly charnel-houses are some sort of ‘solution’ to the problems of poor women. They are no such thing, however they may present themselves. Honestly, we need more real community clinics which provide real healthcare at no or nominal cost to the patient. We need legally-protected paid maternity leave. We need a living, family wage. We need stronger unions for the working class, which will aggressively promote the interests and benefits of members who are women and married men.

It really is true what they say about the political being the personal. It’s personal for me.

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