Culture & Religion
June Tue 16, 2009
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The Washington Post published a letter by a medical student, Rozalyn Farmer Love, reporting her shift from an anti-abortion position to pro-choice. One of her classmates, Mandy Reimer, wrote a letter responding to some of Love’s points and inviting her to a dialogue on this dramatic issue. The Washington Post declined to publish her letter. Is this another example of one-way dialogue?
Understanding “Choice”: A Reply to Rozalyn Farmer Love
In response to the June 7th article “My Choice,” written by my classmate Rozalyn Farmer Love, I offer here what I hope to be the beginning of a fruitful dialogue amongst us and within our community.
Since the question of abortion is not first a political question, but a human one, we should dedicate ourselves to answering it as such. In this way, our discussion may have to take into account perspectives that we are not used to dealing with in the public-political (and often, medical) sphere. Such questions I hope to raise with my patients, particularly those troubled by an unplanned pregnancy: What is life for? What is happiness? What does it mean to love and be loved? These questions are not “peripheral” to the doctor-patient encounter in the Ob/Gyn clinic, but in fact offer us a method by which to approach the patient. Each of us has a fundamental need to answer these questions, and the extent to which they are not welcomed and pursued reveals a lack of humanity in medicine and our culture at large.
My first simple point, then, is that the questions at hand regarding abortion are deeper than those we so often reduce ourselves to in the public debate. This is not to say that those many facets of the issue shouldn’t be discussed – they should, with great patience and thoroughness. But to reduce our discussion solely to Love’s terms is to ignore the greater repercussions of the debate, a debate that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. In an effort to respond, I will try to say something regarding the points that Love has raised, and then will offer a few considerations at the end.
To begin with, I would like to address the starting point of Love’s article, namely the experience of having met Emily Lyons, the living victim of a tragic abortion clinic bombing. The introduction of Emily and the references to the recent murder of Dr. Tiller no doubt shed light on the severity of this issue in our culture. And yet, while recognizing the reality of these violent acts, the emotional plea on their behalf puts all intelligent and reasonable pro-lifers – of whom there are many – in a position to pounce. The great majority of us whose love for life propels us to see it protected from the moment of conception would likewise agree with Love that the vicious atrocities committed against both Emily Lyons and Dr. Tiller have no place in our world. But to use these events to fuel an argument on behalf of abortion is not justifiable.
This subtle accusation does not take into account the reasonability of our position, but rather attempts a clever fusion of all pro-lifers into the radical sect – a lump assumption that many of us find annoyingly offensive. Along these same lines, I would offer that the displays of fetal corpses on billboards fuels this violent antagonism and does all of us a great disservice, perhaps most of all the pro-life movement to whom the promoters of these images claim allegiance. The truth is beautiful. Pictures of aborted fetuses are not. In this way, regardless of the fact that those pictures portray an event that truly happened, they do not take into account the very nature of Truth, which always attracts rather than repulses. My point here is simply that the constant use of the ‘bloody victims’ on both sides of the debate puts us all on an automatic defensive, impinging upon our vulnerability in front of one another, and in the end limiting the possibility of our dialogue.
Secondly, Love comments, “When I advocate for reproductive rights, for choice, I don’t claim that abortion is morally acceptable. I think that is a very private, intensely personal decision.” Within this division between “morality” on the one hand, and “privacy” on the other comes the claim that a “private” decision is not worthy to enter the sphere of public discussion. I think we could all consider examples (such as child abuse, when done “in private”), for which we clearly would not want to make this division. And yet, perhaps Love would respond that the “private” in this instance is an exception, as it refers to the body.
Herein, it becomes necessary to broaden our discussion to address what we mean by “choice” as it pertains to the body. Particularly in America in the last half-century, we have come to assume a dualism between the “body” and the “I,” such that the physical body has been reduced to “vacant stuff” that exists for the service of my “I,” while my “I” is unattached to any particular nature inherent in the body. This has vast implications, particularly in medicine. By denying a particular order of nature intrinsic to the body, the body becomes an instrument through which “I” can choose what “I” want my body to be, i.e., pregnant, not pregnant, a surrogate baby-carrier, etc. There are too many situations to mention them all here. I would simply like to make the strong point that, in contrast to the way we often treat the body in medicine, particularly in the Ob/Gyn clinic with respect to reproduction, the body already bears an order that is not reducible to “choice.” Rather, the intrinsic nature of the body, understood most acutely in the sexual difference, reminds us of the body’s objective “relativity” to others. In this way, the very physical structure of the body reveals that the human person exists as a relation of love. Likewise with respect to the fetus: though without his parents he would obviously not exist, any effort of theirs to eliminate his existence fails because his “I” is not in the end reducible to their “choice.” He is an other than them – and radically so. A new person has burst into the world of being. Having the pleasure of knowing Rozalyn, I want to reaffirm her view that every abortion is a tragedy. I’m grateful that reducing the number of abortions is a goal we share. Yet what leads her to claim that abortion is still at times “necessary,” to the extent that she wants to provide this procedure as a doctor, does not follow from the totality of the tragedy that taking a life entails. While I do not doubt her feelings of desperation in front of the couple whose third-trimester child was diagnosed with a lethal congenital anomaly, I firmly disagree that “they needed Dr. Tiller.” In fact, their need was far greater. They needed to know that their suffering as parents, wrapped in all the hopes for the future of their child – a future that was not to be – was not meaningless. They needed family, friends, and a hospital staff who could remind them of how beautiful love is, even when the child breathes his last after only minutes in his mother’s arms. They needed hope that life is yet worth living, even after this tragic loss.
Finally, Love writes, “neither my family nor my church would welcome my questions or understand my struggle.” In response, I ask only that the questions continue. While these questions are better raised in the context of friendship, I hope that ours, and this discussion, will continue.
Mandy Reimer, M.T.S.,
University of Alabama School of Medicine, 3rd-year Student
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