June 8, 1981
By Walker PercyA View of Abortion with Something to Offend Everybody
ovington, La. -- I feel like saying something about this abortion issue. My credentials as an expert on the subject: none. I am an M.D. and a novelist. I will speak only as a novelist. If I give an opinion as an M.D., it wouldn't interest anybody since, for one thing, any number of doctors have given opinions and who cares about another.
The only obvious credential of a novelist has to do with his trade. He trafficks in words and meanings. So the chronic misuse of words, especially the fobbing off of rhetoric for information, gets on his nerves. Another possible credential of a novelist peculiar to these times is that he is perhaps more sensitive to the atrocities of the age than most. People get desensitized. Who wants to go about his business being reminded of the six million dead in the holocaust, the 15 million in the Ukraine? Atrocities become banal. But a 20th century novelist should be a nag, an advertiser, a collector, a proclaimer of banal atrocities.
True legalized abortion--a million and a half fetuses flushed down the Disposall every year in this country--is yet another banal atrocity in a century where atrocities have become commonplace. This statement will probably offend one side in this already superheated debate, so I hasten in the interests of fairness and truth to offend the other side. What else can you do when some of your allies give you as big a pain as your opponents? I notice this about many so-called pro-lifers. They seem pro-life only on this one perfervid and politicized issue. The Reagan Administration, for example, professes to be anti-abortion but has just recently decided in the interests of business that it is proper for infant-formula manufacturers to continue their hard sell in the third world despite thousands of deaths from bottle feeding. And Senator Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority, who profess a reverence for unborn life, don't seen to care much about born life: poor women who don't get abortions, have their babies, and can't feed them.
Nothing new here of course. What I am writing this for is to call attention to a particularly egregious example of doublespeak that the abortionists--"pro-choicers," that is--seem to have hit on in the current rhetorical war.
Now I don't know whether the human-life bill is good legislation or not. But as a novelist I can recognize meretricious use of language, disingenuousness, and a con job when I hear it.
The current con, perpetrated by some jurists, some editorial writers, and some doctors is that since there is no agreement about the beginning of human life, it is therefore a private religious or philosophical decision and therefore the state and the courts can do nothing about it. This is a con. I will not presume to speculate who is conning whom and for what purpose. But I do submit that religion, philosophy, and private opinion have nothing to do with this issue. I further submit that it is a commonplace of modern biology, known to every high school student and no doubt to you the reader as well, that the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that thenceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism.
Such vexed subjects as the soul, God, and the nature of man are not at issue. What we are talking about and what nobody I know would deny is the clear continuum that exists in the life of every individual from the moment of fertilization of a single cell.
There is a wonderful irony here. It is this: The onset of individual life is not a dogma of the church but a fact of science. How much more convenient if we lived in the 13th century, when no one knew anything about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were legitimate. Compared to a modern textbook of embryology, Thomas Aquinas sounds like an American Civil Liberties Union member. Nowadays it is not some misguided ecclesiastics who are trying to suppress an embarrassing scientific fact. It is the secular juridical-journalistic establishment.
Please indulge the novelist if he thinks in novelistic terms. Picture the scene. A Galileo trial in reverse. The Supreme Court is cross-examining a high school biology teacher and admonishing him that of course it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized human ovum is an individual human life. He is enjoined not to teach his private beliefs at a public school. Like Galileo he caves in, submits, but in turning away is heard to murmur, "But it's still alive!"
To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you're not going to have it both ways. You're going to be told what you're doing.
Walker Percy's latest novel is "The Second Coming."
Return to the Books Home Page
Among the largely unacknowledged truths of contemporary female life is that women’s foundational relationships are as likely to be with one another as they are with the romantic partners who, we’re told, are supposed to complete us.
My relationship with Sara had a low-slung thrum of beer, cigarettes and the kind of quotidian familiarity we think of as exclusive to long-term mates, or possibly siblings. We played cards and watched award shows and baseball and presidential debates together; we shared doctors and advised each other on office politics; we gossiped and kept each other company when the exterminator came to behead the mice. (Seriously: This was the exterminator we both used, and he beheaded mice.)
Together, Sara and I had a close network of four other friends with whom we vacationed, but also maintained separate relationships with our own circles. Without realizing it, we were recreating contemporary versions of very old webs of support. The historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has written about women’s relationships in the 19th century that “friends did not form isolated dyads but were normally part of highly integrated networks.”
Friendships provided the core of what I wanted from adulthood — connection, shared sensibilities, enjoyment. Unlike my few youthful romances, which had mostly depleted me, my female friendships were replenishing, and their salubrious effect expanded into other layers of my life: They made things I yearned for, like better work, fairer remuneration, increased self-assurance and even just fun, seem more attainable.
Female friendship was not a consolation prize, some romance also-ran. Women who find affinity with one another are not settling. In fact, they may be doing the opposite, finding something vital that is lacking in their romantic entanglements, and thus setting their standards healthily higher.
Four years after we first met, the man Sara had been seeing was offered a job in Boston. They dated long distance for a year. But then they had to make a decision; he was intent on staying in Boston, even though it was not a city that offered her much professional opportunity.
Watching Sara wrestle with her choices was painful. It was the kind of upheaval, in our late 20s, that was messy enough to make me consider whether early marriage might have been wise after all. When we’re young, after all, our lives are so much more pliant, can be joined without too much fuss. When we get older, the infrastructure of our adulthood takes shape, connects to other lives. The prospect of breaking it all apart and rebuilding it elsewhere becomes a far more daunting project than it might have been had we just married someone at 22, and done all that construction together.
The day Sara moved to Boston, after weeks of packing and giving away her stuff, a bunch of friends closed up the U-Haul and gave long hugs and shouted our goodbyes as she drove off. When she was gone and I was alone, I cried.
Make no mistake: I believed that Sara should go. I wanted her to be happy and I understood that what we wanted for ourselves and for each other was not only strong friendships and rewarding work, but also warm and functional relationships with romantic and sexual partners; both of us were clear on our desires for love, commitment, family. Yet at the time, I was so gutted that I wrote an article about her departure, “Girlfriends Are the New Husbands,” in which I contemplated the possibility that it’s our female friends who now play the role that spouses once did, perhaps better than the spouses did.
Historically, friendships between women provided them with attention, affection and an outlet for intellectual or political exchange in eras when marriage, still chiefly a fiscal and social necessity, wasn’t an institution from which many could be sure of gleaning sexual or companionate pleasure.
Because these relationships played such a different role from marriage in a woman’s life, it was quite realistic for commitments between women to persist as emotionally central after the marriages of one or both of them. Even the happiest of married women found something in their associations with other women that they did not have with their husbands. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton, devotedly wed and mother of seven, once said of her activist partner, Susan B. Anthony, “So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences” that when separated, “we have a feeling of incompleteness.”
SIX months after she moved to Boston, Sara came back.
She came back because the relationship she’d traveled to Boston for wasn’t fulfilling. More important, she came back because the life she’d left in New York — her work, her city, her friends — was fulfilling. She came back for herself. She says now that it was a New York job listing that was the beacon: “It was telling me to return to the life that fed me, my circle of friends, to return to myself.” I was sad that her relationship hadn’t worked out, but happy that she had built a life on her own that was satisfying and welcoming enough to provide her with an appealing alternative. And I was thrilled to have her back.
But divides can creep in between friends just as easily as they do in marriages. Maybe because she was nursing painful wounds as she rebuilt her New York life, and was resistant to simply falling back into her old patterns; maybe because, after the pain of having to say goodbye, I was gun-shy about giving myself over so completely, our friendship was never again quite as effortless as it had once been. “It was a rough re-entry,” she said recently of that time. “I knew of course that your life had continued while I was gone and that your circles of friends had expanded, but I was sad that we couldn’t slip right back into the space where we had left off.”
Then, a couple of years after her return, it was I who fell in love, I who suddenly couldn’t go out multiple nights a week with my girlfriends, because I had met a man with whom — for the first time in my life — I wanted to spend those nights.
When I met Darius, I was stunned by how much time I wanted with him, and also by the impossibility of living my social life as I had before. And once I took out the constancy of communication with my female friends, the dailiness and all-knowingness, the same-boatness, the primacy of our bonds began to dissipate.
We have no good blueprint for how to integrate the contemporary intimacies of female friendship and of marriage into one life. In this one small (but not insignificant) way, I think, 19th-century women were lucky, with their largely unsatisfying marriages and segregation into a subjugated and repressed gender caste. They had it easier on this one front: They could maintain an allegiance to their female friends, because there was a much smaller chance that their husbands were going to play a competitively absorbing role in their emotional and intellectual lives.
Sara says now that she was surprised to see me disappear so completely into a relationship, after having known me for years as the one who didn’t have (or need) a stable romantic partnership. I was the one who was far more into my work and my friends, the one who was so rarely in a relationship that I’d already begun planning to have a child on my own, the one who was familiar with the turning away of friends toward traditional relationships. Now hereI was, making that turn myself. “I was happy for you,” Sara told me. “But it felt like we’d switched roles; I woke up one morning as the independent feminist and you were the girl who was so into her boyfriend.”
The worrywarts of the early 20th century may have been right about the competitive draw of female friendship, about the possibility that it might inhibit or restrain a desire for marriage, especially bad marriages. But the real consequence of having friendships that are so fulfilling is that when you actually meet someone you like enough to clear the high bar your friendships have set, the chances are good that you’re going to really like him or her. That’s what happened to me.
For many women, friends are our primary partners through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses. Even for women who do marry, this is true at the beginning of our adult lives, and at the end — after divorce or the death of a spouse.
There aren’t any ceremonies to make this official. There aren’t weddings; there aren’t health benefits or domestic partnerships or familial recognition. There has not yet been any satisfying way to recognize the role that we play for one another. But, as so many millions of us stay unmarried for more years, maybe there should be.Continue reading the main story