[Dallas Morning News, March 10, 2001]
Listen. Do you hear the turmoil simmering over the nations’ most painfully divisive issue? Do you hear protesters and counter-protesters clashing in the streets? Do you hear opposing sides contending in a battle of rhetoric and passionate will?
Me neither. Pretty quiet out there. Once there were magazine covers devoted to the abortion debate, panels earnestly arguing on TV, politicians sweating out meticulously vacant sound bites.
No longer. The issue is fading away. Alert readers noted a milestone last fall, when Newsweek ran a six-page survey of the presidential candidates’ views on various issues, yet did not include a section headed “abortion.”
As someone who hopes to see abortion laws and attitudes change, I think this is a good thing. That might sound illogical; you’d think that the time for change is when ideas are in ferment. But there’s such a thing as too much ferment. After twenty-something years of debate, nobody was listening any more. The lines had divided as sharply and simply as at a football game. When the abortion topic came up, people wanted only to know which was the home team, and then they didn’t want to think about it any more.
Who can blame them? It’s unpleasant to think about. The procedure itself is appalling and grisly. The women who seek abortions have complicated and tragic stories. The two opinionated sides are locked in a spitting, flailing embrace that any sensible outsider would drive two miles out of his way to avoid. No wonder public attention sidled away. Someone commissioned to figure out how to make people stay interested in the abortion debate would face a real stumper.
So there’s a moment of silence. And in the silence some thinking can begin.
This is why the fading of controversy is a good thing. As a pro-choice friend once said, “Every thinking person has to be deeply ambivalent about abortion.” As that ambivalence begins to surface it can teach us many things.
For example, it can help us realize how queasy we have always been about abortion. We know what’s inside those garbage bags behind the clinic. We’ve seen our friend’s sonogram, so we know.
We can admit, as well, that women don’t leave abortion clinics whistling. For years we’ve had the circular idea that, sure, abortion kills babies, but it’s what women want. But we know that it’s not what women want, not in any reasonable sense of the word. It’s what women choose when they run out of choices. They want it like a cancer patient wants to lose a breast. But this is even worse, because what you lose is your own child.
Time doesn’t make this dandy. Abortion hurts women and breaks their hearts. We’ve seen our friend’s face, so we know.
So a moment of silence is a good thing. In the quiet you can hear attitudes that were encased in ice begin to crack free. According to a recent Gallup poll, the balance is shifting on how people identify their beliefs. Between 1995 and 2000 the percentage of people using the “pro-choice” label fell nine points, and those who identified as “pro-life” rose twelve points.
This change is especially notable among the young. While graying Boomer women still run the feminist movement, the same Gallup poll found that young people 18 to 29 were the age group most likely to favor further restrictions on abortion. The average member of Planned Parenthood is almost ten years older than a member of the National Right to Life Committee. The pro-life movement is becoming a movement of the young.
A year ago I was a guest speaker at a Rock for Life concert. As a graying Boomer ex-feminist myself, I felt a little out of place looking out at a sea of teen and twenty-somethings with tatoos, piercings, and black “Abortion is Mean” t-shirts. This is not your grandfather’s pro-life movement.
When I was their age, I thought abortion meant liberation for women. For them, abortion means violence against children. The meaning of abortion is changing, and as it does, minds change as well. It’s not surprising that this change would begin with the young. After all, it is their generation that is under attack: anyone under the age of twenty-eight could have been killed this way. A fourth of their generation was.
A moment of silence can only help the pro-life movement, as it enables rethinking to begin. But there’s another reason, or rather forty million of them, why a moment of silence is appropriate. And for that may God have mercy on us all.