The groundbreaking for the 7,000-square foot Planned Parenthood health clinic on South Claiborne Avenue on May 22 was the impetus for this article. The $4.2 million project has become the flashpoint in the Louisiana abortion debate. It is the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Louisiana that will offer the procedure. The state Legislature in early May passed resolutions meant to thwart the project’s progress and anti-abortion activists held a large rally May 20. Other states, notably Texas recently, have encountered legislative assaults on women’s access to safe and legal abortions.
While the politics of abortion has always been clear cut for me, I became painfully aware, as I contemplated this article, that I had not done enough moral soul-searching about abortion. It was not until I formulated a questionnaire, talked to friends and family, and wrote this piece, that my own moral clarity began to emerge.
by Orissa Arend
A friend asked me to write an article on the kick-off for construction of the Planned Parenthood Claiborne Avenue health clinic. Ninety-seven percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are dedicated to primary care, education and preventative medicine. Lord knows we need that with Louisiana ranking first in syphilis and gonorrhea infections and fourth in AIDS. These are health problems which City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell notes disproportionately fall upon African American women. Fifty percent of all pregnancies in Louisiana are unintended. Access to contraception has been shown to reduce abortion rates.
I knew I couldn’t interview people or even think about writing the article without confronting people’s feelings about abortion — and also my own. I didn’t want to do that. And because I didn’t want to, it gradually became apparent to me that I had to.
The way I wiggled into my decision about this writing was to devise a questionnaire. Cut to the difficult chase. What are your thoughts and feelings about abortion from a personal, moral, political/legal, professional, and spiritual point of view? Do any of these conflict? Have you had an abortion? What was the experience like? Should a father play a part in a mother’s decision about abortion? Do you consider a fetus a life with rights, a life without rights, a potential life, something else? Does the stage of the fetus influence your answer? Do you think that a fetus at any stage should have legal protection? If so, what penalties should apply and to whom? In a perfect world would you envision zero abortions? That was the only question to which I got a universal and unqualified “yes.”
I only interviewed people whose values I highly respect. Answers ranged from: abortion is never morally permissible even to save the life of the mother; to “it should always be the woman’s choice at any stage of pregnancy and for any reason.” The purity and consistency of each of those positions appeal to me. The former is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church according to the Catechism: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” The Catholic Church does, however, recognize as morally legitimate certain acts which indirectly result in the death of a fetus, for example, removal of a cancerous womb.
This is not my belief. But I can understand the outrage of my pro-life brothers and sisters because I would feel the same outrage if I thought our country legally and morally accepted infanticide. Laws vary from state to state about why and when abortion is permitted.
I have two grown children, and I had an abortion when I was 19, way back before abortions were legal. The abortion itself was not a scary thing for me. Nor was it fraught with moral angst – perhaps because I was so young and not a deep thinker in moral terms. For many at that time, seeking an abortion was a life-threatening nightmare. I was lucky.
What was scary for me was telling my Dad, deciding that I needed his help and knowing that it could put his political career at risk. Even though my step-mother asked if I really wanted to do this and my pastor advised me to live with the consequences of my actions and learn from it, I had no second thoughts. It was as if I missed a couple of periods and then had a particularly heavy period – after which my step-mom’s gynecologist did a D and C to make sure my uterus was back to normal. And the problem was solved.
I didn’t feel like I had destroyed a person. Still don’t. And yet I think my decision was at its root selfish. But trust the universe to offer me a parallel decision in due time. My daughter, at about the same age, thought she was pregnant. She’s unequivocal in her belief in a woman’s right to chose to terminate a pregnancy. But she would never do that herself. We discussed her options and we decided that if she was pregnant, she’d have the baby and I would raise it. Turned out she wasn’t pregnant. Today she is a superb gynecological oncologist. She has no problem performing abortions and is an adept healer and surgeon, as well as a new mom. Her technical expertise combined with her acute empathy for her patients as they are born, as they die, and they deal with disease, are an enormous inspiration for me.
But back to the fetus – this mystery of how and when a human being materializes out of nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. There is intercourse and some processes that are understood by some, but remain a total mystery to me. The moral rules of intercourse and how or whether to keep it from producing a fetus are beyond the scope of this article.
In the fifth century St. Augustine accepted the distinction between “formed” and “unformed” fetuses. He did not classify as murder the abortion of an “unformed” fetus because he wasn’t sure that it had received a soul. Thomas Aquinas accepted the biological theory that a human soul was infused only after 40 days for a male fetus and 90 days for a female. In Islam abortion is strictly forbidden after the fetus is a living being, which most Muslim scholars consider to be 120 days.
When I was 19, I figured that if a soul had attached in my womb, it could unattach and that God would probably find it a safer body to adhere to. Back then, that was as deep as my theological reflection went.
The Episcopal Church (to which I belong) sees “All human life as sacred from its inception until death,” and all abortion as having a tragic dimension calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community. It is to be used only in extreme situations. (69th General Convention 1998). I would call that pro-life and I would agree.
Yet the 71st General Episcopal Convention expressed its “unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state, or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of a pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.” I would call that pro-choice and I would agree.
A SAMPLE FROM MY SURVEY
Difficult as it was to broach the abortion subject with friends and family, I’m glad I did. I am deeply touched by the variation and complexity of how people dealt with moral and practical issues. One mom had insisted that her pregnant 26-year-old daughter who was addicted to heroin have an abortion. A single professional friend thought she couldn’t get pregnant and didn’t realize that she was until she was four months along. One man said that if his wife got pregnant from rape, he would want her to keep the baby.
Joe Morris Doss, an Episcopal bishop, spoke at the Planned Parenthood groundbreaking, pointing out that the opportunity for a woman to make a carefully thought-out difficult personal decision which is truly her own, enhances health and wholeness – emotionally, spiritually, and physically. “When people are told not to think about it but to follow the dictates of those who offer abstract and absolute rules, the chances of unhealthy consequences are greatly enhanced,” Bishop Doss said.
A young brilliant and successful African American friend strongly supports Planned Parenthood “because of the importance of young, Black women having control of their lives.” She has cousins who made huge sacrifices personally and professionally in order to have babies. She says that in her circles giving up a baby for adoption is not an option. Extended families suffer enormous stress when an unplanned baby arrives.
Jose Miranda abhors abortions. He served on the Planned Parenthood board for 12 years. He considers Planned Parenthood – with its educational programs and easy access — the number one anti-abortion organization in the United States. Jose, who has a strong opinion on just about everything, demurs here. He told me, “If you have a set of balls, you should not be allowed to have a moral opinion about abortion. It should be entirely the woman’s decision.”
He was grabbing a cup of coffee at the Rue de la Course before a Planned Parenthood board meeting when a young woman asked him for a ride. When she got in his car, she propositioned him. He politely declined and told her where he was headed. At his destination a little way down Magazine Street, he invited her to come in with him. She stayed about an hour for a session with an intake worker. “That,” says Jose, “is what Planned Parenthood is all about.”
Orissa Arend is a psychotherapist, mediator, and author of Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.