I had an unpleasant dream last night: I was being stalked through a parking lot by a creepy man with a fish-white face, clad in an oily trench coat, who was carrying a “Trump” sign and muttering to me about God’s love. When I tried to get into my car to drive away from him, he leered in the window, and my car started to fall apart.
This, I suppose, is my subconscious trying to grapple with the fact that many people in my faith community have gone over to the Trump side, including people I have respected for years. I’m not referring simply to people reluctantly holding their noses and voting for Trump (most people planning to make reluctant votes to stop what they view as the greater evil tend not to discuss it very much). I’m talking about open endorsements, public sign-carrying. And this isn’t because I’m intolerant of difference. I exist in a weird political space and am accustomed to being friends with people who hold radically different views from my own. This is different, though, from being friends with Clinton admirers or Romney supporters. This is a whole new level of awful. And while I’ve rolled my eyes at the bad theology and spiritual abuse of “Catholics4Trump” types who subvert the teachings of the church in order to manipulate the unwary, there the challenge has been simply to reject my own impulse to anger, and remember that there’s been a lot of bad religious education in America. I can easily write off a lot of evil as the result of stupidity.
It’s harder when it’s people I know aren’t stupid. I briefly toyed with analogies to Heidegger and the Nazis, but then rejected them, because “reductio ad Hitlerum” always involves erasing the uniqueness of any historical case. Yes, one reason I reject the Trump movement utterly is out of respect for my Jewish ancestors, but Trump is uniquely Trump, and our present situation is uniquely itself, and these fellows aren’t Heidegger. Those who know a little history are doomed to mistaking parallels for equivocation.
So, instead I’m trying to understand what it is driving people in this unique historical situation.
Obviously the motive forces are many and diverse, but what I want to focus on here is the extent to which the Catholic Right in America has been dominated by a sincere but mistaken idea about abortion. We discuss it as the premiere evil, the ultimate non-negotiable: anything must be done to stop it. The problem is, the people leading the discussion know very little about what’s going on in the culture where abortion emerges as a “choice,” except for in theory. The leaders of the pro-life movement are, primarily, well-educated middle-class white persons who have been almost completely insulated from the realm of abuse, poverty, and desperation in which this choice occurs. And because the leaders of the pro-choice movement are also well-educated middle-class white persons, it looks to the pro-life leaders as though abortion is being touted by smug comfortable women who obviously must just want to kill their babies for their own convenience. The conversation is happening on our TV screens, as men and women in expensive suits argue over podiums – or in academic journals publishing the findings of sociologists or ethicists writing from well-appointed offices. The reality is hidden from us.
Thus we have the caricature of women who choose abortions as selfish angry feminists out to destroy the family and castrate men, or just fling away their responsibilities in order to luxuriate in sexual decadence. We’re still talking about the sexual revolution as though it were the main thing here, instead of recognizing that abortion was around long before the sexual revolution, and that many feminists have themselves harshly criticized the presumptions of the sexual revolution, and that those who seek abortion are more frequently poor women, often with children already to care for – not well-off libertines. It’s noteworthy that long before abortion was legalized, it was frequently utilized by low-income women, and that abortion rates drastically increased during the Great Depression, to the extent that some estimate that thirty percent of all pregnancies during that time ended in abortion – and approximately fourteen percent of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions.
And, speaking of well-off libertines….who’s the leader of the supposedly pro-life side of the political aisle right now? He’s not truly pro-life. He’s not even truly anti-abortion. His policies will lead to increased abortion rates. And he stands for everything in our culture that facilitates a pro-abortion mindset.
It’s no wonder, really, that the corresponding caricature of pro-lifers as rigid authoritarians or sexist capitalists also exists. Pro-life women who understand why abortions happen, and understand the motives of pro-choice activists, are not invited to the leadership banquet. The leadership is largely male, and most of the women involved have enjoyed lives of relative ease, in which they can sincerely experience each new life as a joy and gift. For these women, perhaps it is shocking and distressing to imagine ever seeking an abortion, because they’ve never been in a situation so dire as to make it look like a viable option. The moment a woman says “I had an abortion once, because…” – well, she’s now impure, damaged goods, not the right bright and shiny face for the movement. While prolife groups such as “Life Matters Journal” promote a consistent life ethic by linking abortion to issues of nonviolence and social justice, most prolife groups in the nation just don’t get it. They mean well. They try. They say “abortion harms women” – but don’t realize the extent to which many women who choose abortions would be harmed, also, by our anti-life capitalist war-loving system, even if they chose to keep their baby. And their babies would be harmed too.
What the prolife movement needs to do, to be taken seriously, and to reduce abortions effectively, is take leadership from women who have experienced poverty, abuse, and racial injustice – women who have had abortions, and can talk about why, and what would have been necessary for them to have chosen life instead. I don’t mean just inviting them in to join the team. I mean, they are the team, and the others – the comfortable, well-meaning middle class; the academics writing in their well-appointed homes; the educated white males who love delightful ladies in books – are the ones invited to join in solidarity, but also to shut up for a bit and just listen. I don’t mean just accepting those who say “I had an abortion, and I’m sorry.” Or “abortion leads to health problems and depression.” We need also to listen to those who say “I felt I had no other choice.” We need to put all our energy into giving them that other choice: creating women’s health facilities that rival Planned Parenthood, putting our money into comprehensive health care plans and creating parental leave programs, financial assistance, housing assistance. This means immigrants and refugees, too: health care and parental leave just for a select class is good old National Socialism. I’ve been low-income and pregnant, and the unfortunate reality that no Catholic or pro-life organization was around to offer me the things I really needed: medical care, childcare, financial aid so I could stay home with my baby, food for my family. A few packages of diapers or discount maternity clothing? Nice, but just the tip of the iceberg. Free ultrasound? Excellent, but who’s going to help me afford to take care of that baby I see swimming around in there? And my situation was only moderately difficult. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for the genuinely destitute, the victims of ongoing abuse.
I am presuming that well-meaning Catholics are supporting Trump because they simply aren’t aware of what’s going on in the lives of women, how hard it is to choose life – how hard even Christians can make it to choose life, when they vote to defund social welfare programs, presume that the poor are moochers, chase panhandlers away from their churches, fire women who are pregnant out of wedlock, and turn a blind eye to rape or abuse, if the perpetrator is a respectable well-off male. They see the straw feminists, topless angry man-haters, in their mind’s eye, and this distresses their romanticized image of the Feminine and the Motherly. But if they could see the real women who are having abortions – secretly, sorrowfully – this might shatter that romantic image, too. Women down from their pedestals have this unpleasant habit of having real, messy problems, real ailing bodies, pain that isn’t beautiful or uplifting.
As Catholics we have a preferential option for the poor. This means not just caring for them, but listening to them. Dorothy Day, a profoundly pro-life Catholic, understood this: and her work with the poor, and her opposition to war, cannot be separated from her sincerity as a pro-life advocate.
Maybe it’s time to step back and regroup, stop taking our cues from those who view abortion from a polite and horrified distance, but from those who have really experienced the world in which “choice” is practically an illusion.