I should first say that I am not a full-time pro-life activist or counselor. I’m not trained in crisis management. I don’t think I’m even particularly good at “on the street” scenarios. But I have gone to abortion clinics in Jackson, MS and now Lakeland, FL on a semi-regular basis to pray, sing psalms and hymns, and try to speak to the folks in the parking lots and offer them help and other options.
I grew up in a politically moderate household. I won’t tell you how everyone voted, but I was raised to believe that abortion was a pretty tragic situation which women would only ever consider if all other options had been exhausted. I was taught that we needed to be careful not to berate them, judge them harshly, or fail to show them compassion. Based on my experience attempting to follow precisely that advice, however, I have to say that the narrative is all wrong. Abortion, at least today, in the Southern states, is not some sort of last ditch effort to preserve one life, which would be legitimately threatened, at the tragic but necessary expense of another. Instead it is a projection of strength on the part of the would-be mother.
What do I mean? Abortion is today a way, not to get help in a difficult situation, but to avoid needing help. It is a way to “take control” of one’s life and prove self-sufficiency. This is why it is pitched as a form of “women’s equality.” Abortion is what it takes to see to it that a woman is not inferior or weak. It prevents her from being at someone else’s mercy. This is also why it is quickly becoming a sort of “human right,” something which must be provided by all just governments. To not provide it for women is basically framed as an injustice, a lack of fairness and equality. In short, it is a legal device to prevent the need for charity or other concessions to a weak situation.
The times that I have spoken with women at the clinics, I have been soft-spoken and polite. I have asked permission to speak to them. I have never called them names or waved a sign. And the response by them has always been to shut me down, sometimes loudly and angrily, before any kind of actual conversation could take place.
Today, for instance, I drove by the local abortion clinic and saw a young couple standing by their car in the parking lot reading on their smartphones. The clinic was not open yet, and so they were waiting. I felt the impulse to stop, and so I parked my car in a neighboring parking lot and walked over. I slowly and calmly spoke to the couple. “Can I talk with you guys?” They were immediately angry, shot up straight, and walked aggressively towards me. I never got closer than 20 ft from them. “Can I talk about babies and what you guys are dealing with? I was just driving by, and I saw you and thought ‘Hey those people look like me.’ I have two little kids of my own, and …” They began shouting “No. Go away. Anything you say to us will be considered harassment.” Their body language was assertive and threatening, and it was clear that there was no interest in hearing about other options, meeting someone who might want to help, or even discussing differing opinions. They were saying, in effect, “Leave me alone or I will make sure you get in trouble.” Who knows if they really would have done anything? The point was that they resorted to a sort of rhetoric of force to end the conversation.
Now, I don’t know what the right thing to do in that situation is. I did basically stop and walk away. I prayed about it and was very sad, and I committed myself to go more often. But for those folks in that situation, I couldn’t think of any way to make a connection.
I also understand that these people are making all kinds of assumptions about me. They think that I’m just waiting for the right time to be mean or nasty. They think that I’m going to judge them. They associate me with all the images that they have been fed. But the fact remains, they judge me and don’t ever extend a chance to get to know an “other” or interact with a potentially differing-viewpoint.
The point that I was left with was that they wanted to make sure they “defended themselves” by intimidating me and projecting strength. And this is what the whole abortion thing is about for a great many people. They don’t want other options. Maybe they have looked into them and maybe they haven’t, but abortion is attractive because it is more or less private, the individuals can stay in control, and they don’t have to deal with other people and their nosy opinions and intrusive good intentions. They get to take care of themselves.
And this, it seems to me, is right at the root of the whole problem. I’ve written in the past about how abortion is a perfect fit for certain American values. It pairs a sort of rugged individualism with the ability to maximize freedom and still pursue one’s own desires, even at the expense of other weaker people. It’s a sort of manifest destiny of interpersonal relationships. It’s about doing what you want and not allowing anyone else to get in the way.
Now, saying it like that might seem like I’m suggesting that people who get abortions are just egotistical jerks who step on the heads of the little man. That’s not really the case, at least not in any explicit and unique way. They are really just like the successful businessman who has to play “hardball,” the “sharks” in the investment world, or the crafty politician who has to cut corners to get ahead. They are doing “what it takes” to look out for number one. It’s just that the question of abortion has also been infused with notions of sacred human rights and female equality. Thus they have a leg up. They can be aggressive and even violent while still assuming the role of victim and weaker person. It makes for a fairly impenetrable defense, especially in today’s media-climate.
I’m not a pacifist, but I think that there is a certain Christian virtue in weakness. My not bowing up and trying to “meet their challenge” today seemed then and still seems now to be the most appropriate response. I was there. I offered. I wasn’t ugly. I prayed. I was sad. Their consciences will at least have to process it all.
Pro-life Christians need to know the reality that they face. Don’t believe the narrative that pro-lifers are the angry bullies who harass people. Much closer to actual harassment is being met with a threat when you ask to speak and have not even violated a request to leave, a sort of “preemptive” call for protective services to come squash you. Christians need to keep their mind on abortion. They need to know that it still goes on and that it goes on with very “normal” and “ordinary” Americans who are behaving in very predictable and American ways. Abortion is much more like colonialism or exploitative capitalism than are pro-life alternatives like charities, adoptions, and communities of people willing to help shoulder a difficult burden. And if someone replies, “Those alternatives don’t really exist!”, then that just shows us all the more reason we need to make them visible and known to the world.
The Church must set a contrary example. This doesn’t just mean more demonstrations or activism, though I am not actually opposed to either of those things. But it means modeling a distinct and contrary culture to the one of assertive and strong self-sufficiency. It means acknowledging weakness, offering to help those who are in need, and crying out to God for His grace.
This is not a call to quietude or passivity. We have to actually cross paths with real people and engage them in dialogue. We need to be out and about. We need to be noticed. But we should be noticed precisely for our denial of strength-projection, of rugged individualism and of angry and violent self-sufficiency. We need to look different from the world. We need to really work to make the beatitudes applicable to us as individuals and civic communities.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
And we need to know that all of this is normative for the Christian experience. It is precisely what we have been called to do.