Minds of Metal and a “March for Life”
In January of 1979, I boarded a chartered bus in the A&P parking lot in my hometown in New Jersey along with dozens of other teenagers, all bound for the “March for Life," the annual protest in Washington DC against abortion, then in its sixth year. Most of the kids on that bus were from area Catholic youth groups, and I recall that the mood was festive and flirtatious; boys and girls together on a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride. It is safe to say that we were more focused on the adventure than the cause.
I have not thought about this trip in many years, but the memory of it resurfaced when I learned today that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. This morning, I found myself wondering, what happened to the other members of that strange Children’s Crusade to the capital? We were mostly strangers to each other, so I have no way of knowing for certain, but we are all in our late fifties now, many of us no doubt parents and grandparents. I can easily imagine the various life trajectories that unfolded afterward—the early sexual experiences; the pregnancy scares; the actual pregnancies; the marriages and divorces; the children we have had, many of them now grown or still teenagers themselves; the miscarriages; the teenage daughters who needed birth control, and got it, because mom and dad didn’t want to raise grandchildren before their children had graduated from high school; and of course, the abortions.
And because we were mostly Catholics, I can also imagine the various trajectories of faith—those who followed straight lines of devotion to tradition throughout their lives, raising their own children in the Church; those who ceased believing but carried on with religious practice out of a sense of duty or obligation; the ones who now vehemently declare they are "ex-Catholics" and "Catholics in recovery"; and those like me who wandered far afield, meandering and exploring but never feeling the need to publically renounce the religion of their childhood.
Against this backdrop of ordinary lives playing out in messy, heartbreaking, beautiful, unpredictable ways, it seems surreal to me that the people who organized that protest have finally, 43 years later, won their holy war against the law that made abortion legal in all 50 states. While we were all living our messy, meandering lives, the antiabortion movement remained laser-focused on its goal. Holy wars are always like this, waged in the service of unbending principles, and the people who wage them often possess minds of metal---devout Parmindeans who believe in a world that does not change. Religious authoritarians will forge a perfectly straight iron rod as a compass needle for their sense of moral righteousness, but then they will wield it like a sword to snuff out the lives and freedoms of others.
Human history is full of these stories, from the Crusaders slaughtering nearly the entire Muslim and Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1099 to the recent spectacle of ISIS fighters pushing gay men off rooftops to execute them for their supposed sexual immorality. And in the shadow of these spectacular outbreaks of extreme brutality, a million laws, prohibitions, sanctions, codes, bans, and penalties concocted by the morally righteous to control the lives, bodies, and destinies of believers and nonbelievers alike.
Also surreal is the audacious doublespeak of religious conservatives, who can talk of promoting freedom in one breath and then blithely advocate for a form of womb slavery in the next, all the while professing a kind of stultifying innocence, expecting us to believe they have never contemplated the negative consequences of making abortion illegal. It is possible that some of them have not, in fact, considered the consequences. Many fervent Christians are so addled by their theologically tortured understanding of human freedom that it is impossible for them to discuss the concept in any meaningful, intellectually honest way. For example, I’ve heard evangelical Christians say with complete conviction that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1) This puzzling statement about freedom is always followed by awkward explanations about what Christians are “freed from” and “free to” do by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But when I ask how the Christian conception of freedom applies to people who do not believe in Christ, we hit a wall. The wall comes from the sense of entitlement some Christians have for the entirety of American culture, society, and history. They simply cannot understand why it would be wrong to impose their religious morality on others. It seems silly to have to say this, but for most Americans, freedom and bodily autonomy have nothing to do with what Christ will or will not allow.
Evangelical Christians are not the only religionists to blame for a catastrophic failure to understand the true nature of freedom and bodily autonomy. I was raised in a faith that was opposed to abortion and artificial birth control, a seemingly paradoxical configuration of moral teachings that could only have been designed by a regime of celibate men. Even as a child, Catholic teachings on human sexuality felt like they were being beamed in from another universe where the only acceptable outcome for sex was to produce children. Catholic teachings on sex were all about regulating the body, women's bodies in particular.
The worldview of the antiabortion movement is surreal because it erases the complexity and nuance of lived human lives—women’s lives—underlying the choice to end a pregnancy. I saw this firsthand on the trip to Washington. When we filed off the buses, there were tables overflowing with antiabortion literature, including pamphlets and lurid photos depicting fetuses that had been smashed and eviscerated and dumped out with medical waste. The purpose of this propaganda was clear: I was supposed to be shocked into a state of permanent moral outrage. But in my case, it had the opposite effect. I quickly surmised that all of the context had been stripped from these images because revealing the actual stories behind these fetuses might engender sympathy for the people who had chosen to terminate their pregnancies. I was repulsed by these images because they were so clearly designed to manipulate me. A nagging voice inside of me kept saying, ’this is too simple. There is more to the story than this.’
I do not believe many of the things I believed when I was riding on that bus to Washington, and I am grateful for this. In the case of abortion, my attitudes evolved. The nuance would come later, in college and afterward, in my conversations with women who had had abortions. My mind continued to change and mature during the four decades in which the antiabortion movement continued to point its compass needle due North. Like so many other people in my age cohort, I have become less judgmental and more tolerant with age, and as a consequence, less willing to interfere in the private affairs of others. The libertarian motto, live and let live, is alive and well in me.
The holy warriors won this particular battle. Holy wars are always surreal because they appear on the surface to defy the dialectical forces of history. But zealots are always fighting against entropy, and this is, fortunately for the rest of us, a losing battle.