My Personal Journey on the Abortion Issue

In November 1972 I turned 14. The next month, I finished the process for becoming a member of my monthly meeting. Meanwhile, I carried on with my heavy activism—mainly against the war in Vietnam, but also on other crucial issues of the day. When the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion came down in January 1973, it was only a minor blip to me. I regarded it as good news, since it would put the back-alley butchers out of business, and I didn’t think much more about it.

A letter to the editor did give me pause. It suggested the unborn child was being dehumanized in the same way African Americans and Native Americans had been, and that this was just as wrong. This awoke in me the understanding that abortion shouldn’t be treated lightly and should only be performed when the birth of the child led to a greater evil. I still believed it was better that women who insisted on doing it not be subjected to the back-alley butchers.

The 1970s wore on and I became especially active against nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, as well as earning my bachelor’s degree from Earlham College with a major in Peace and Conflict Studies. I remember at Earlham a discussion on abortion where another woman student said that men just didn’t understand what the experience of pregnancy was like—and she was making this as an argument against abortion. That interested me, since it was usually made as an argument for its availability. Later, I came to understand viscerally what that really meant.

With these small nibbles in the background, in 1979 I ran across a recently formed group called Prolifers for Survival (PS). The “for Survival” commonly referred at that time to nuclear survival of the human race, with the Mobilization for Survival being a major coalition of antiarms- race groups. But with PS, here was a whole new viewpoint that started with the observation that different forms of violence are connected. Dehumanization, euphemisms, and rationalizations work in a similar way across a variety of issues. As a pacifist with a degree in Peace Studies, I was well aware of this— it’s a common way of looking at, say, war and the funding of human needs or environmental destruction or injustices inflicted on workers, the poor, minorities, people with disabilities, and women. The new idea this group presented was that this applied to fetuses as well— and fetus is Latin for unborn child.

The group’s founder, Juli Loesch, tells the story of how she was giving a house party to explain what was wrong with nuclear energy, and discussed how radiation hurts the child in the womb. A woman asked her, if this bothered her, whether having a curette (a curved surgical knife) deliberately going after that same child would bother her. As Juli tells it, she responded by cheerfully fudging the answer. But it did get her to thinking.

And what about those back-alley butchers? The case of Richard Mucie in my home town of Kansas City startled me. He fit the description, having killed a woman in 1968 in a horrifying way, the details of which I will spare you. The jury gave him the maximum sentence for manslaughter in the woman’s death. Being wealthy, he managed to get out of prison early, but he opened an antique shop and as best we know was out of the abortion business. Then came Roe v. Wade in 1973, and he was back in business, opening shop literally on Main Street.

Another member of my monthly meeting, Reva Griffith, who worked at Planned Parenthood, told me they would never refer patients to him because of his low medical skills. But women picking someone out of the Yellow Pages would get no such warning. There are of course abortion providers who are more conscientious, but then, that was true in the illegal period as well. The court decision that I had thought put the more incompetent out of business actually in some cases put them back in.

So when the National Right to Life Committee held its convention just up the road from me in Omaha in the early 1980s, I attended with the Pro-lifers for Survival contingent. It was quite a cultural difference; in those days, we peace folks commonly had backpacks at conferences, and people there remarked upon mine as an oddity. Not that it bothered them; it was just outside their normal practice. We took a large banner to the conference’s outdoor rally that said “Ban the Bomb, Not the Baby.” We were questioned by one man who was immediately satisfied when we assured him we were pro-life and not counter demonstrators, and we were otherwise welcome. The press, in what I would come to understand as a long-standing pattern, preferred to focus on small scribbled signs wanting Phyllis Schlafly for Secretary of Defense, this being an upcoming matter. As usual, the press preferred what fits the stereotype, and commonly ignored those of us who didn’t match it.

Soon thereafter, a small group called Feminists for Life needed new officers, and we had a scratch-and-claw election. (That is, no matter how much we scratched and clawed in protest, they made us officers anyway.) I spent the next decade (1984-1994) being their president. That included doing over 100 radio interviews, a couple dozen college speaking engagements, and otherwise engaging in dialogue.

Meanwhile, I went to a Pro-lifers for Survival meeting in 1987 in which it morphed into the Seamless Garment Network (now with the new name of Consistent Life). This broadened the coalition as well as the issues being addressed, beyond merely war and abortion. Added also were death penalty, euthanasia, racism, and poverty. Many more issues are relevant when brevity is not needed; the principle applies broadly. When violence is presented as a quick way to solve problems, this is not merely unethical but mistaken in premise. Violence generally ends up causing more problems than it solves.

My son was conceived by artificial insemination by an anonymous donor, a point that makes it clear my pro-life position is not tied to sexual rigidities (the same can be said of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, All my pro-life friends were supportive, whether they approved or not; Protestant friends took the attitude that as long as I was doing it out of wedlock, at least I didn’t fool around, whereas Catholic friends wondered why I couldn’t at least have done it naturally. What startled me, though, was that it was among my pro-choice friends that I found disapproval. (I should put the pro-choice in quotation marks because, after all, to be consistent, they would have been supporting my choice.) And of course many did. But to some, choice means not accepting having children under less than ideal circumstances. This attitude showed up even among my friends. It’s even more common in other circles, where people have contempt for “welfare mothers.” There the term “choice” gets used as a way of covering up what is really intolerance for not choosing what they think ought to be chosen.

During my pregnancy in 1984, a nuclear energy restriction measure was on the ballot here in Missouri. So I met a lot of friends I hadn’t seen in a while. They would ask how I was, and I would say, “I’ve succeeded in doubling the population of my body.” No one had trouble understanding what that meant.

In fact, I made a practice during all the many interviews and speeches on abortion to assume that everyone understood we were talking about the killing of a child. Starting there, I would say that more often than not it took sexist pressures to get their mothers to allow this to happen. I kept track, and it was roughly one time in five that someone would challenge me on whether it really was the killing of a child. I was delighted then, because to my mind, this ought to be the whole case. If the fetus is not yet a human being, but a clump of tissue, then of course it ought to be left up to the woman entirely as to whether it remained in the uterus. Case closed. While we could make a case for abortion being a problem by being overuse of female-organ surgery by sexist male doctors, as with hysterectomies and C-sections, that would not lead to bans, but only be a matter of education.

If the fetus is a human child, to my mind the pro-life case is made on the basis of the insights of nonviolence and the Testimony on Human Equality. With this difference in mind, it was in fact disheartening to me how many people simply went along with my characterization of abortion as child-killing and found it justified anyway.

But then, what about the mother? My experience with women who’ve had abortions has varied over the years, but women who understand themselves to have been traumatized by the experience— often coming to understand it this way long after the event— are naturally prominent for me in that I work with pro-life organizations. Such women are a major constituency group of the movement, and hearing about personal experiences is common. Unjust and sexist pressures on women, male-dominated sexual relationships, and callous employers or high school counselors came to my attention frequently, along with unsafe conditions in legal clinics.

But what about the women who are quite sure that abortion was the right thing for them? I’ve met many of those, and many remain quite clear about it. Yet I’ve also found that when such women present to me and assure me they feel no guilt, and then I respond with a sympathetic ear and an opinion that it’s unjust and sexist pressures that often push women into it, it’s not at all uncommon that I get agreement. My experience is that a great deal of therapeutic conversation can arise when it’s known that a sympathetic ear is available— not judgmental against her for having the abortion, and not judgmental against her for having negative feelings afterward.

What about the abortion-providing staff? Do they respond to their work as if they were killing, or merely as if they were doing ordinary medical care? As I was contemplating the question back in 1995, it occurred to me that psychologists have studied how the human mind responds to killing, in what used to be called “battle fatigue,” but which now has the more technical name of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As I mused about this, I realized I was assuming that battle fatigue resulted from killing, since, after all, that’s what soldiers do in battles. But that wasn’t a shared assumption. The term PTSD has been applied to victims of all sorts of trauma, ranging from concentration camps to car accidents, and has been expanded to include rescuers as well. But even in the original focus on combat veterans, therapists and researchers primarily thought in terms of being shot at and seeing buddies shot, as opposed to doing the shooting. The few studies that considered the effect of doing the shooting mainly thought of those committing atrocities, as opposed to the kind of killing that’s regarded as militarily justified.

So I had a lot of work to do. I went back to school and earned my PhD in Psychology. I studied: combat veterans, those who carry out executions, police who shoot in the line of duty, criminal homicide, Nazi records, and the small evidence available for groups like torturers and those pursuing blood sports like bullfighting.

So what was my conclusion regarding abortion staff? I did find plenty of case studies and a couple of quantitative studies clearly indicating trauma symptoms. While some data came from former abortion staff who had now become active in the pro-life movement—and there are many of those, which is remarkable when you consider what they have to admit to—there was also evidence from those still practicing and advocating abortion availability. The dreams especially fit the pattern of trauma and offer actual content. Trauma symptoms were clearly described both at times when the public controversy was seen as settled and when it was flaring. I’ve collected the evidence in my book Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, published in 2002.

I’ve continued with my love of peace studies, having also authored or edited books on peace psychology, as well as staying organizationally active there. The current politics and portrayal in the media of the abortion debate as being a gaping right-wing/left-wing divide has been personally painful, and it appears to me that it has all the problems that normally go with the “us vs. them” way of dividing humanity up. Inasmuch as I can figure out what “left” and “right” are supposed to mean, I see left-wing and right-wing reasoning on both “sides” of this debate. I’m still waiting for someone to give me a definition that fits what I see. I made friends not only with fellow pacifist, feminist, and GLBT pro-lifers, but also with pro-lifers who self-identify as right wing or conservative, and of course with plenty of pro-choice friends with whom I share interests on other issues. All these friendships are precious to me, and enrich my life.

On only two occasions have I participated in an organized discussion of the abortion issue among a group of Friends where we could share our personal journeys and reflections. One was at an FGC Gathering and very well done. The other took place many years ago at my own meeting and was sabotaged by two people announcing that they didn’t wish to discuss it and were not satisfied simply to go elsewhere to avoid discussing it but remained to insist that the rest of us wouldn’t either. It appears to me that many of us are missing many opportunities to interact with sincere people of tender conscience with a concern for children in the womb and those who work hard on providing services to pregnant women and new mothers. There are so many things we can do for peace if we are more inclined toward the positive approach of working this through that I saw at that long ago FGC Gathering, and if we do this more frequently within our own monthly meetings.

Rachel MacNair is a member of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City, Mo. She is the author of The Psychology of Peace: An Introduction and Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. She edited Working for Peace: A Handbook of Practical Psychology. She is director of the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, the research arm of the nonprofit organization Consistent Life. She also coaches dissertation students on statistics. She graduated from Earlham College with a bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, and she received a PhD in Psychology and Sociology from University of Missouri at Kansas City.