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.