Foetuses: how did they get so big? - Both the anti-abortion and pro-choice forces are up in arms; abortion will be an explosive election issue

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN I was a kid, people in America whispered about abortion the way they whispered about cancer and Communists. In the Fifties, as far as I can remember, it barely existed at all as a public issue. It was a terrible secret grown-ups murmured about, but only in euphemisms, in the way the family communicated with each other about the uncle who had the big C, or a family friend who had been interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court upheld a 1989 Pennsylvania law so restrictive that the precedent set means the right to abortion is under greater threat than ever. Although there is still some room for manoeuvre, as a result of the Supreme Court decison both the anti- abortion and pro-choice forces are up in arms and abortion will be an explosive election issue.

How did it happen? What does it mean? How did abortion as an issue come to stand for almost everything in American life, for individual freedoms and religion, for sex and politics and class? For most Americans (and the majority favour abortion), this is another step back towards life in the Fifties - George Bush's period of choice. Invoking Family Values, Bush's pit puppy, Dan Quayle, evokes a kinder, gentler time. In his wish world, however, with the white picket fence you sometimes get gangs who fire-bomb abortion clinics.

In the real Fifties, when abortion did not officially exist at all, even illegitimate pregnancies were the stuff of True Confessions. Lying under the piano, I would read about 'bad' girls who bore their shame at homes for unwed mothers. Even in sophisticated families, crackpot myths were perpetuated. At 13, a friend discovered the family au pair was pregnant. The au pair went away; she came back; she was no longer pregnant. My friend's mother, who had arranged an abortion for the girl, said flying could sometimes make you lose a baby.

At my house there was a rumour, I think, about a doctor my mother had known when she was a young nurse. He had 'helped' a girl; he had gone to jail for it. There was a whisper of admiration for his bravery, but this was Greenwich Village. Mostly when I was growing up, the country was so profoundly conservative that even to be a Democrat was faintly suspect.

By the early Sixties you would hear of 'trips' to Puerto Rico or Sweden, or was it Yugoslavia? In Love With The Proper Stranger, Natalie Wood visited a back alley abortionist and the picture was a sensation. For rich girls there were 'vacations'. For poor women there were babies; for others there were abortions on bare tables without anaesthetics. Some used coat hangers. A few bled to death.

I went to college, Dylan went electric and girls ironed their hair. It was the Sixties, but although the Pill was available, not everyone could use or get it; gynaecologists were reluctant to dole it out to single women. There were accidents. There were lies. Girls got pregnant. When I left for college, my mother reminded me that she was a nurse, that if I got into 'trouble' I was to come to her. She never spelled it out, but the message was clear. I wouldn't have told her a thing.

At college, everyone knew when there was someone in trouble. A girl got sick every morning and then disappeared. Everyone knew about the doctor downtown who could 'fix you up' for cash. Sometimes the boyfriend would help; sometimes he


And then, after the years of misery and pretence and heartbreak, it was over. In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned, the Supreme Court, in the case of Roe v Wade, established a woman's fundamental right to abortion. It was like waking up on the other side of the looking glass. It established women's rights in a way nothing else ever had. Simply, it gave you power; it made you feel free.

I had a legal abortion not long after Roe. I probably ought to say that it was a difficult decision or painful or traumatic, but there was no melodrama. The doctor was straightforward and practical. I went to a clinic in the afternoon. It was quick, cheap and painless. Afterwards I went home with a friend and had a pizza.

Things changed. I don't have any great overview, but by the late Seventies, after Watergate and Vietnam, America had become middle-aged and cynical. Was it weary of sowing its own wild oats? Was there a sense that easy abortion was part of some breakdown in values? Was it just that the rednecks preferred their women barefoot and pregnant, or was there a radical backlash against all women?

The right, disenfranchised and discredited by Watergate, despised by hippies and yippies and bra burners, as they saw us, were fed up. They saw the main chance in the evangelicals, in an alliance they could call the Moral Majority. In America, where Catholic schoolchildren still prayed for the souls of little Communists, who would testify against a coalition that was moral and a majority? This was propaganda genius. Ronald Reagan bought it and it played. Abortion was its centrepiece, a showy issue, with a stunning label and thrilling prop. Who could deny you if you were 'pro-life'? What politician would not love babies?

Reagan paid his debt to the extreme right, and so did his heir. George Bush had once been pro- choice, but political opportunism was always his motive. After a dozen years of Reagan and Bush, the Supreme Court was packed with conservatives. Through the Eighties, I watched, marched, worried as the anti-abortion movement threw up its grotesques: Operation Rescue, which urges little children to take part in prayer services and funerals for foetuses in tiny satin-lined coffins; Pro- Life Anderson (his actual name) of Reno, Nevada, who, according to the Washington Post, said at a rally in April that he changed his name legally a decade ago. 'Wearing a plastic foetus on a gold chain, a cowboy hat with a sticker reading 'Protect the Unborn' and playing a tape of someone saying the rosary, the 65-year-old Anderson said the Supreme Court decision was in God's hands,' the paper reported. In June, John Cardinal O'Connor held an anti-abortion vigil at St Agnes church in New York and led a march to a local clinic, where he, too, said the rosary.

Without getting into the complexities of the federal system, the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Pennsylvania law will set a precedent for the whole country. Some of its details are worth noting. It imposes a 24-hour waiting period on women wanting abortions; it requires parental consent for women under 18, it requires doctors and counsellors to provide information, as often as not colour brochures showing highly developed foetuses.

Although the Supreme Court struck down one of the Pennsylvania requirements - that a woman notify her husband before an abortion - Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's only woman, and a moderate, made a chilling point. She asked Ernest Preate, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, if with certain forms of birth control such as inter-uterine devices (which act as abortifacients by preventing implantation of the egg), the state could protect its interest in preserving foetal life by requiring all women to inform their sexual partners of their use. Mr Preate hesitated, then said it could legitimately require that kind of notification. The implications are hair-raising.

And there is this: in some quarters, the idea is promoted that the foetus is a 'person'. If so, under the Constitution, states could be required to treat abortion as harshly as murder. No justice on the Supreme Court has endorsed this idea yet, but the newest member of the bench has expressed support for an article with this view. His name is Clarence Thomas.

The other night there was a new commercial on CNN, all dappled sunlight and happy families in a pretty suburb. At first, I thought it was for milk or sneakers or Volvos. 'Choose Life]' it proclaimed. Then I got it and it made my flesh crawl, this peppy coercive commercial, which is as deceptive as the dream world of the Fifties.

(Photograph omitted)