Monday, August 14, 2006

Missives from Grove, Part 2

We are halfway through our second day in Grove. So far Goddess and I have been getting a sense of the place and picking up our student who will act as our cinematographer. Tonight we will meet with a local reporter, who has become our "informant." Thanks to her, we have found many towns people willing to talk to us about Dr. Henrie. So, tomorrow I will have richer stories to share than I do so far.

I imagine that most of the people we talk to will tell us that they did not agree with what Dr. Henrie was doing. This is a small, conservative town. As I said yesterday, there are 18 religious denominations in a town of 5,000 people (the only "liberal" denomination is the Episcopal Church). From what we can tell about the landscape, there is a lot of poverty in Grove (which was true in Dr. Henrie's time). Part of what originally interested me in this project was Henrie's belief that performing abortions was, in fact, a moral response to crushing poverty and lack of knowledge regarding birth control and/or family planning. Too many families simply couldn't feed another mouth. That was a different time, however.

Now we have birth control options more widely available as well as legal abortions. I wonder if Dr. Henrie would've chosen to perform abortions in a time like ours. It certainly was not the focus of his practice. He treated the whole town and even, his son tells me, their animals. He paid attention to their stories, he knew the whole family, and where they worked or didn't work. He was involved with all aspects of his patient's lives. And it is from that intensive connection with these people that he made the decision to perform abortions.

Abortion was not an abstract issue for this man. He saw people in desperate situations and in their hour of greatest need. From well within that context, fully aware of the most intimate details of their lives, he made the decision to do what he did. At least, this is the story he left behind in writing. Tomorrow we will find out how well others agree with his own assessment of his life.

I have been thinking a lot about my motivations for participating in this research. I have not had an abortion. I have never been intellectually interested in abortion. I have taught moral issues classes in which we debate abortion, but that was always a perfunctory duty in such a class. I have always been pro-choice, but clear that abortion is not something I would ever want to experience. Armed with knowledge of birth control and empowered by parents willing to have painfully honest conversations about sex, I have prevented unintended pregnancies. And yet, here I am in Grove, OK researching the life and works of a turn of the century abortion doctor. What has lead me here? It is so far from my manuscript on psychopharmacology and gender. It is far from abstract debates on the question of the moral permissibility of abortion.

I can't quite come up with an adequate answer. But, I find myself continually pulled into this story and far away from my other work. Part of what draws my interest is the synchronicity of events that has taken place around this work. The family contacted me when they read my blog--something I wrote last August after I was struck by a few paragraphs discussing Dr. Henrie's work. I couldn't fathom how it came about that a man from a town with evangelical revivals, a man who once intended to be a minister, would make a choice to break the law--over and over again--and perform abortions. I couldn't fathom how Grove, OK a tiny town full of 1,000 people--mostly farmers--would be the home of this man. I couldn't fathom that this man would turn into a political advocate for legalizing abortion (in 1964).

The more I think about this story, the more I realize that what really captivates me is the fact that what lead him to perform abortions were the very qualities in him that had once inspired him to become a minister. It was by ministering to his patients that he made the choice. He saw himself responding to real people in dire circumstances. He was healing them.

That description--"he was healing them"--will probably horrify most people opposed to abortion. A fetus is not an ailment, right? But healing is more than treating diseases. It is attending, carefully, faithfully, and with integrity to another's distress. I imagine that sometimes abortion would not have been the right response. But, sometimes it is. And, to assume that abortions are wrong in every case, in every circumstance, is the privilege of those who are far removed from the distress of an unwanted pregnancy or a dangerous, life threatening pregnancy.

Alas, I will find out more about the man tomorrow and dutifully report back.