Under Bush, Questions About the Unborn Are Born Again

It has been a month of mixed news for the fetus-confused

signals, coming from unexpected directions.

One of the clearer signals came from the left. The week of

Martin Luther King Day, the nation witnessed the agony of Jesse Jackson. With

both King and Mr. Jackson enrolled in the ranks of tomcats, it begins to look

as if the class act among the black political clergy is Al Sharpton.

But I come not to bury Mr. Jackson, but to praise him-for

the only good thing in the whole sad episode was the fact that he and his

mistress chose to have their child. By saving the girl’s life, or at least

acquiescing in her birth, Mr. Jackson came full circle. As he himself

(self-servingly) told us, he was illegitimate, the son of Helen Burns, a high

school student in Greenville, S. C., and Noah Robinson, a married man who lived

next door. What he did not tell us was that his mother had thought of aborting

him, until a minister persuaded her not to.

Early in his public career, when he was still only a Chicago

celebrity, he referred to abortion as “murder.” As soon as he began making

symbolic runs for President, he of course changed his tune; he could not hold

down a career as a Democratic Party tummler

while being pro-life. But after almost 20 years of inauthenticity, when the

choice came to him and his lover, they chose life. Maybe his daughter will grow

up to be a wiser person than he is; maybe she will be worse, though that’s hard

to imagine. But at least she will grow up.

Across the aisle in Right World, the G.O.P., the party that

claims (depending on who is listening) to be pro-life, was feinting so many

ways it looked as if it might lunge into its own end zone. The new first lady,

Laura Bush, told an interviewer that she did not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned, while in the Senate, John

Ashcroft, the pro-life Pentecostalist nominated to be Attorney General,

informed his former colleagues that the judgment of Roe was the settled law of the land, not to be questioned by mere

cabinet members. A friend of mine from Missouri, showing the class stigmata of

his upbringing, wondered if Ashcroft had ever spoken in tongues? I suggested

that perhaps his testimony was a burst of liberal glossolalia: John Peter

Zenger, Areopagitica , defend to the

death your right to say it, alleluia!

Whatever the truth of the

matter, it looked like important Republicans were engaging once more in that

old G.O.P. culture-war two-step: keeping the snake handlers in line, while

giving a wink to the rich old babes at the country club, fingering their pearls

and their martinis.

But first ladies and donors do not make policy (at least

not, let us hope, in this administration); direction will have to come from

President Bush. One of his first acts in office was to repeal a Clinton-era

executive order which allowed federal money to go to groups that advocate

aborting foreigners-a tidy little gift to Planned Parenthood and its friends.

(Maybe they can make up the shortfall from the Chinese, whose one-child policy

makes them obvious soul mates.) That was a welcome sign.

But what will George W.

do about abortions in this country? Unless he finds a conservative black

lesbian, he will have a hell of a time getting anyone on the Supreme Court. He

can say all he wants that every child should be “welcomed in life,” but

politicians do not welcome continuous battle on all fronts. If he has to cut

taxes, revive the military, reform education and give the elderly cheap drugs,

then an easy defensive perimeter on the abortion question-no subsidies, no

killing babies who are already poking out, but no help for the million-plus per

year who are caught in the womb (gotcha!)-will seem very attractive to him.

On the other hand, as a friend who knows George W. told me,

admiringly, “He’s a prick.” Meaning, beneath the aw-shucks and the extra

syllables, he stubbornly pursues what he wants and doesn’t care much about

criticism, or at all about his critics. At the same time, it is true that he

wants to lower partisan tension, dismantle the Clintonian attack machine and

woo the undecided voters who broke so steeply against him over the last weekend

of the campaign. He is both a tough guy and a healer. Better to be that than

Richard Nixon, who was abrasive without being terribly principled.

Maybe the pro-life movement is entering a period in which

its greatest gains will not be made in the realm of politics. The fight for

life is often compared to the fight against slavery: Both were waged against

people, many of them self-interested, but many of them decent, even noble, who

could not see the humanity of the parties at issue. Since the earlier struggle

ended in fratricidal war, it is to be hoped that the comparison does not extend

to the narrative level; I don’t know what Cardinal Egan thinks, but I am not

ready to refight the Battle of the Wilderness just yet. So events between 1830

and 1860 may have their modern parallels out of sequence. For a period,

abolitionists spurned politics, relying entirely on moral suasion. John Jay

Chapman’s biography of William Lloyd Garrison describes the electric effect of

a gesture so simple as walking down a Boston street with a black man and

introducing him to one’s friends, including one’s lady friends, as one would

any white stranger.

No one can meet a fetus. If we call and leave our cards, the

visit will not be returned. But six months later, or six years later, or 16

years later-the visit could be returned then. The nameless being will not have

grown into a manatee, or a tumor, or a toenail. It will be Jesse Jackson,

dishonest, impossible and occasionally eloquent. Or it will be his daughter. Or

it will be you, hypocrite reader, my double, my brother.