Monday, January 28, 2008

We Need Empathy: Reflections on Roe

I missed the opportunity to blog about Roe's 35th anniversary last week. I just couldn't bring myself to say anything else about the issue of women's reproductive rights in this country. Many other bloggers wrote important pieces reminding us how much the right wing in this country keeps chipping away at Roe. Alternet rounded up many of the best posts. What strikes me as important to always keep in mind as folks line up on one side or another of Roe, is that this issue is about real women facing really difficult choices.

I learned that one of my best students traveled down to join the March for Life in front of the SCOTUS. I shouldn't have been surprised. I knew she was a devoted Catholic. But, I was disappointed nonetheless. I spent the weekend thinking about why I was so disappointed by this news, and it occurred to me that it couldn't really have anything to do specifically with her. After all, I don't know her reasons for taking off from school to join that march. She might have a really important story or good reasons for protesting abortion. Knowing her compassion and kind heart, I am sure that her reasons for protesting are hard to criticize.

So, her participation in this event helped remind me that people I so admire nonetheless reject abortion. And, it is precisely because I know that many of these folks are so genuinely admirable, moral, and caring people that I fully understand why Roe is such a divisive issue. So, the passing of Roe's birthday is not just a cause for celebrating the gains women have made in reproductive health, but it is an opportunity to remember the humanity of those who oppose Roe.

It is all too easy to attack the strawman, and paint all those who oppose Roe and abortion as women-hating folks. There is no doubt that what is troubling about most of the "Pro-life" groups is their total rejection of measures that would decrease the rates of unwanted pregnancies, e.g. supporting access to contraception and comprehensive sex education. Many religious figures leading the "Pro-life" movement advocate overturning Connecticut vs. Griswold, upholding the rights of pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions, discrediting a right to privacy, and the rights of hospitals to refuse Plan B to rape victims. All of this is true. But, the many many supporters of the Pro-life movement, like my students aren't marching to deny women resources, help, services and their humanity.

When I put myself in the place of my student--and I don't know her real reasons since I am not going to shout her down or force her into a debate with me--I imagine that part of her passion for overturning Roe comes from a love of children and the gifts they bring. There are surely moments in my life when I think that there is nothing more precious than a baby, nothing so life-transforming in ways that I could've never imagined. But of course, that is wholly from my context, my experience, and my situation. I have to also admit, that if defending abortion was solely about defending a practice to end pregnancies from reckless sexual encounters, I would reject it as well. I worry that so many who protest abortion think that this is what they are protesting--reckless action that leads to the termination of a precious life. Man, who wouldn't oppose abortion if that was the story. But, it's not.

We will never get anywhere with this issue in American politics if we can't find a way to talk to each other--not shout talking points or slogans--about our views. And, when I mean talk to each other, I mean really communicate--bring into existence a community. We need to find a way to see ourselves as connected to each other and sensitive to the difficult life choices we might face. We need to talk from our experience and learn from each other. We need to widen our horizons and recognize that people face things that we can never imagine. We need more empathy.

On a related note, I was just talking to my colleague about judicial philosophies this morning. A student--who is partial to the rigid principled stance of Scalia--was writing a thesis that was in essence a total rejection of the more pragmatic judicial philosophy of Sandra Day O'Connor. I found myself really wondering why it is so attractive to have a rigid, black and white, worldview like Scalia. I mean, I guess if you are Scalia you don't have to think much about the nitty-gritty details of life--the grey, the ambiguity. You can just apply your principles from a distant and high perch. What appeals to me so much about a more pragmatic approach--and I don't really count Sandra Day O'Connor as my model here--is that it reflects the difficult nature of real decisions that we face in our lives. We can be perfectly moral and consistent without relying on such spare, decontextualized moral principles. Until radical conservatives understand that point, we will be unable to have a meaningful dialogue about the messy issues that beset our lives.