Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Missives from Grove, Part 4

You know, if you listen to people in their 70s and 80s talk about abortion for long enough--whether they are totally untroubled by it or find it to be sin--you can't help but thinking about how distinctive this particular sin is for folks. What I mean is the cognitive processes going on when people talk about abortion--even if they don't judge others for having them--as if it is something not quite right or shameful. The idea, as everyone well knows, is that to abort a fetus (or unborn child) is, perhaps, something like killing. Now how strongly someone feels that abortion is killing depends on how they view a fetus.

Today we spoke to a citizen from Grove who was a member of a charismatic Christian denomination who loved Dr. Henrie, but thought what he was doing was a dark sin. She recounted a conversation that she once overheard Dr. Henrie have with her mother. Her mother said: "Dr. Henrie, you know that what you're doing is is wrong." And, reportedly, Dr. Henrie responded: "Yes Marie, you think so. And, I will probably spend eternity in hell if I keep doing this. But those babies are not going to end up being thrown away . . ." As I finished the interview with this woman, I asked her if she thought that Dr. Henrie finally got things right with God. She responded "I pray for him that he did get it right. It will be mighty hot for him if he didn't." Now, this same woman said that Dr. Henrie was the kindest, gentlest, and most compassionate man. She also added: "I miss him. Even today I miss him. Because he was a doctor. Dr. Henrie doctored you."

I thought about this exchange more than any others. The reason it sticks with me is because it illustrates something unique about how people deal with those who get abortions or those who might provide abortions. Let's remember that abortionists, in the eyes of this woman, are murderers. And, face it, women who get abortions are murderers. In fact, the Mayor of Grove said: "The ones that came to get abortions were more guilty than Dr. Henrie was." What are these women guilty of? Murder. It is murder to terminate the life of an unborn child. When children are taught about the sinfulness of abortion, it is taught to them as an example of God's commandment to not kill. Dr. Henrie, to this devout Christian who prays that Dr. Henrie didn't end up in hell, was a murderer. Now, she certainly doesn't really process it quite that way. If you lived down the street from a man who you knew had murdered people, you couldn't possibly speak of this man in the kind of glowing, loving terms that she did. Not only did she praise him, but she remembered whole phrases that he uttered. The only person whose phrases I remember as completely as she remembered Henrie's is my father.

It is hard to imagine that any of these people would speak fondly and lovingly about Dr. Henrie had he been a serial killer or a rapist. So whatever kind of killing they think abortion is, it isn't of the magnitude of murdering born children or rape. One thing I wish I had asked some of these interviewees is what they think should have happened to the women who sought the abortions? Should they have been put away for murder? The mayor said: "The clergy didn't approve but they closed their eyes. This was before pro-life and all that. Because of the good he did in the community, people closed their eyes to the abortions." Can you imagine that same sentence being uttered about a serial killer? Or a child molester? What sort of horror is abortion that the clergy closed their eyes to it?

We spoke to the county sheriff who was sent to arrest Dr. Henrie in 1962. Before he gave us what details he could remember of the investigation and trial, he said: "He was a good doctor." Later he pointed out how much charity he did for the town and how much he was respected. In fact, in almost every interview, the subjects have pointed out that even if people thought what he did was wrong, on balance, all the good he did wiped it out. Again, I ask, can you imagine that sort of calculus for a rapist? Why is abortion more tolerable, more capable of being forgiven or at least overlooked when we take the measure of a man's life? I find this compelling.

I want to pause and think a bit about what the Mayor said about today's generation in Grove compared to the 50s: "The younger generation now has no morals to them. If they did they wouldn't use the language they do, wear the clothes they wear, and they wouldn't live with the men that they do." But, paradoxically, this same generation is more staunchly opposed to abortion now than the women of her generation were. I asked her to elaborate. She said that young people now think nothing of being pregnant and living with some guy who won't take any responsibility for it. What did women do if they got pregnant and they weren't married in the 50s? They went to visit Dr. Henrie.

I find these paradoxes fascinating. It resonates with impressions of my students. So many of them espouse conservative politics. Like the Mayor of Grove, they decry the lack of personal responsibility, the decline of the family, the lack of work ethic. Many of my students have voted for W and identified with his "values." And yet, these same students wear clothing that would've been unthinkable in the 50s. They also engage in reckless and irresponsible behavior--unprotected sex, binge drinking, sex and immodesty of all sorts. So, why do these young people, who act, talk and dress in a way that suggest little in the way of the wholesome, Christian values that the right wing espouses--why do they vehemently oppose abortion? Part of the answer to that question can be found in the homespun wisdom of Ada, Dr. Henrie's nurse: "People ought to clean up their own back porch before telling someone else to clean up their back porch."

In some sense, the "strong father" of conservative politics, particularly in the Bible Belt, serve as the only moral compass that these people have. There is no inner moral compass. To have an inner moral compass that allows one to make smart decisions about ones' life, decisions that require one to sacrific short-term pleasure to long-term goals and dreams, requires education and self-esteem. People need to be able to trust themselves and their own abilities to evaluate what they should do and how their choices will effect their lives. Without an inner compass, cultivated by education and self-assertion, all you have to direct you is external rules, dictated by religious institutions. If you screw up and break one of those rules, you can still be forgiven if you come back and repent. But, I wonder how much this external moral compass ever shapes the character of these people in ways that education--that is good education--would. To what extent does the strong father model help to shape young people into self-reliant and autonomous people?

One of Dr. Henrie's greatest passions was to help young people in this town get educated. He planned on building libraries. He encouraged and financially helped them to get an education. And, the reason why is obvious. Only with an education, he believed, would they begin to make responsible decisions that allowed them to achieve long range goals. And by education, he didn't mean a rigid set of rules that said "don't do X"