There were a couple of guys standing outside the Planned Parenthood book sale yesterday, talking together. My impression was they didn’t really know each other — one guy was older, had that sort of liberal artsy-intellectual look I associate with docents at museums; the other was maybe in his late 20s, comfortably scruffy, zippered hoodie over a Raygun t-shirt. Both guys were white, probably considered themselves to be progressive. They were just standing there, hands in pockets, idly talking, probably waiting for somebody who was inside buying books.
I’d already bought my books and was heading back to the car. As I passed them, I smiled and nodded. I’m also a white guy, I think of myself as progressive, and on the docent-scruffy metric I probably fall somewhere closer to scruffy. I suppose these guys could be considered part of my tribe. After I passed them I heard the younger guy say something like, “Oh, well yeah, I think women should be allowed to decide for themselves.”
And I kept walking. I shouldn’t have. I should have stopped and turned and spoken up. I should have stopped and said, “Allowed? Did you just say allowed?”
Yesterday, before I left for the PP book sale, I made a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. The post was about sexual harassment. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was something to this effect: words matter. Language is critically important in shaping the way we perceive and understand the world. A few hours later, I had a chance to put theory into practice — and I didn’t do it.
Allowed. See, that’s the thing. That younger guy probably thinks he’s being — I don’t know. Supportive? I’m sure, if confronted, he’d have back-pedaled furiously. I’m sure he would have said — and said with sincerity — that he didn’t really mean ‘allowed’. In his defense, ‘should be allowed’ is better than ‘should NOT be allowed’, but only in the sense that diluted poison is better than concentrated poison. ‘Allowed’ is still poison.
I’ve avoided writing about abortion. Partly, I admit, because I don’t want to deal with the tiresome ‘abortion is murder’ crowd. But I’ve avoided it mainly for another reason: I can’t write about abortion without indulging in what will at first appear to be a tangent. This is the tangent.
I was a medic in the military. In my very first duty station I was assigned to a general medicine ward of a large medical center. The wing that housed the ward also housed the hospital’s medical waste incinerator. Medical waste has to be incinerated. If, say, a person has a foot amputated, you can’t just chuck the foot into a dumpster; you burn it. Somebody has to be in charge of the incinerator. Somebody has to accept the medical waste, check to be sure it’s what it’s supposed to be, log it, put it in the incinerator, then push the button.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. For about six months, one of my duties was to be the incinerator monitor. An aborted fetus, in that state (maybe in all states, I don’t know), was technically considered medical waste. My job required me to inspect the medical waste, then incinerate it.
But words matter, right? I didn’t incinerate medical waste; I incinerated amputated limbs and tumors and appendixes and chunks of ulcerated intestine and occasionally aborted fetuses. It was…unpleasant. The image of an aborted fetus in a blue plastic tub is one of dozens of images I wish weren’t banging around in my brain. I was 19 years old.
That’s when my opinions on abortion were formed, and they haven’t changed in the decades since. Here’s my opinion: 1) abortion is a legitimate and legal medical procedure, 2) it’s not a procedure anybody would undertake lightly, 3) it’s a procedure that should be rare, 4) in order to make it rare, we need to encourage folks to plan for pregnancy, 5) which also means folks should plan to avoid pregnancy, 6) which means we need to make birth control easy and affordable, and 7) these are decisions that can only be made by the women involved with consultation with their doctors and perhaps their religious leaders.
I don’t like abortion. But I recognize that sometimes it’s necessary. I don’t like abortion, but I completely support a woman’s right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I don’t like abortion, and that’s exactly why I support Planned Parenthood. I don’t like abortion, but I recognize that everybody has the right to control over their bodies.
I don’t like abortion. I don’t like it. But the term ‘allow’ doesn’t belong in the discussion.