When I was seven years old, my notoriously conservative state elected a Democratic, pro-choice governor. The child of conservative evangelical parents in a conservative evangelical community, I recall bursting into tears when I heard on the radio that this candidate had won the election. When my parents asked why, I said that I was afraid she was going to force my mother to abort the baby sister my mother was carrying at the time. That was basically my understanding of the abortion debate: Democrats wanted to kill babies. A few years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton along with a (painful to recall) poem about how babies were people and therefore didn’t deserve to die because adults made mistakes, etc.
Yes, I was a child who had internalized the values and prejudices of the adults surrounding me, but it wasn’t until midway through college that I finally turned around on the abortion issue as well as gay marriage, abstinence only education and a host of other socially conservative positions. That was also the point when I decided–three months before the 2004 election–to do the unthinkable: vote for John Kerry. I was terrified that my parents would find out.
I am not proud of the positions I held when I was younger, and it makes me cringe with shame to remember some of the things I said about rape victims, gay and lesbian people, trans people, single mothers, and unemployed people back when I still thought Dr. Laura was a reasonable human being. I often feel distinctly under-qualified to comment on social justice issues due to the fact that I am still learning. I find it is helpful, however, to remember that person whenever I find myself wishing that certain conservatives might be consigned to some god-forsaken portion of Hell for coming up with shit like HR 3.
HR 3, the bill that would restrict the federal “funding” of abortion to draconian new levels, preventing even rape victims from using Medicaid to pay for abortions unless they can prove that their rape was “forcible” (whatever that means), is a human rights fiasco. Yet I am reminded that once upon a time, I thought abortion was a human rights fiasco for one simple reason: it killed babies. From my perspective at the time, it had nothing to do with the desire to curtail the rights of women or run roughshod on the rights of rape survivors or participate in slut shaming. It was just that the plights of even unborn babies seemed immediately, palpably, even if only symbolically “real” to me at the time, whereas the plights of the women for whom pregnancy meant economic, social, psychological, and even physical death were not. Babies were visible. Rape survivors were not. I was incapable of imagining circumstances in which abortion might be the lesser of two evils because those circumstances were so far beyond my experience and the experiences of anyone I knew.
That’s privilege for you: the ability to walk blithely through life without having to bear witness to the sheer extent of human suffering that exists in the world and the ability to allow the limits of your own experience to define the options available to everyone else. Because here’s the thing, as a conservative religious person, I was only capable of articulating the freedoms of others according to the terms in which I understood my own freedoms. I was not allowed to have sex before or outside of marriage, and I fully expected to be punished if I did. For me, the fact that I was struggling to “remain pure” with my boyfriend was not (at least initially) a story about how my values had become untenable and needed to be reconsidered. It was a story about how I was a sinner who had to overcome this particular struggle. And in order to rationalize the pains I was going to, those standards had to be universal, otherwise what was the fucking point? Because I could not imagine circumstances in which it would be ok for me to get an abortion, therefore it was not ok for anyone to get an abortion.
This is why I so frequently vacillate between hope and despair when it comes to convincing people like the ones who support this bill that they are so deeply, unimaginably, and inhumanly wrong. When she talks about the stases of argument in rhetoric class, a professor of mine frequently uses the abortion debate to demonstrate just how difficult it is to overcome disagreements that occur at the level of definitions, of what things actually are. For pro-lifers, abortion is murder. For pro-choicers, abortion is health care. It is difficult to imagine a rhetoric that would be able to overcome that monumental difference. It is difficult to imagine methods of mass persuasion that might make those who think they are saving the lives of babies realize that the lives of millions of women are at stake as well.
There were two essential factors in my “conversion.” First, I finally realized that the whole abstinence thing just wasn’t going to work out for me. Once I had removed the limits on my own expression of sexuality, it became easier to imagine a broader range of options for other people. The second thing that happened was that a member of my family came out of the closet, and the humanity of a group I had previously been taught to fear therefore became immediately relevant and sympathetic to me. Other factors were at work: attending a feminist and politically liberal college, spending a summer internship in a notoriously liberal major city, a crisis of faith that made me question the whole foundation of my morality, etc. But the biggest factor was that the invisible became visible to me. Suddenly, I was capable of sympathizing with, respecting, and validating the experiences and choices of people who were vastly different from me.
And I have seen other members of my once very conservative family turn around on these same issues for very similar reasons. People we grew up with and love and respect turned out to be gay, and we found we still loved and respected them. People who once seemed righteous in our eyes now appear to be hate-filled human nightmares. Marriages we once thought were invulnerable turned out to be living horrors. The invisible became visible.
The anti-choice right has been very successful in convincing their followers that unborn babies represent an invisible class of people whose rights must be recognized, a class of people that pro-choice advocates wish to exterminate. As I said, aside from the deeply personal transformations, the re-evaluations of possibilities and moral priorities that I underwent, it is difficult to imagine a rhetoric that would change their minds. That is why I fervently hope that the organized left is able to make the plights of people who would effectively be consigned to the darkness by HR 3 visible.
Also, go check out Tiger Beatdown’s Twitter campaign, #DearJohn.
(Image found at What’s Wrong with the World)