On a typical afternoon, I drop off my eight-year-old daughter and her best friend at ballet lessons and return home to meet my five-year-old son’s friend for a “play date.” Their mothers and I appear to have everything in common. We all order our children’s clothes from the same upscale retailer, an elegant purveyor of classic clothing with styles evoking sheltered and civilized Edwardian childhoods. We love to cook and entertain. We have inherited furniture and china that we display in traditional homes. We attempt to keep our children away from the influences of television and computers.
We should all become fast friends, yet my greatest hope is that Jennifer and Claire never happen to meet in my driveway. Jennifer is CEO of the local Planned Parenthood facility; Claire is a protester there, a devoutly Catholic mother of six. They stand on opposite sides in the war over abortion, and this is never far from my mind.
When I chat with Jennifer, amid much talk of our daughters, I enter into the world of pro-choice America. I hear about the other side, the “anti-choice” people who want to control women’s reproduction, forcing them into dark alleys or unwanted pregnancies and lives they never asked for.
Jennifer tells me that the Catholic Church’s “40 Days for Life” campaign is referred to within the organization as “40 Days of Harassment” and that the organization’s “Pledge-a-Picket” program (where supporters pledge dollars for each protester who turns out) brings in major support. She claims that the organization devotes “only three percent” of its resources to abortion. As Jennifer puts it, Planned Parenthood’s primary mission is one that no reasonable person could oppose: general health care for all women, regardless of income.
With Claire, I enter the world of serious and devout Catholicism: natural family planning, homeschooling, daily Mass, the theology of the body, Love and Responsibility. Claire welcomes the arrival of another child as a joyous but expected event in the normal order of things—not, as in so many Protestant or secular households I know, as if this were the first child ever born, or the one that completes the family.
We talk frankly about her discomfort in protesting at the clinic. She is a beautiful, elegant woman, and not much given to taking political positions in public. She would much rather not be a demonstrator, but the cause is important enough to her that she feels she must persist. The Pledge-a-Picket campaign dismays but does not dissuade her.
I have affection for both women, and since they are the mothers of my children’s friends I see them often. For a while I thought I could balance the claims of the two worlds they represent by remaining ostensibly neutral with Jennifer and by talking more frankly with Claire. Though not a Catholic, I was sympathetic to Catholic views about procreation. I was also conservative by disposition and upbringing and had always been quietly and rather naively pro-life.
But Jennifer and my other liberal friends regularly informed me that Catholic views were strange and unworkable. They argued with great moral confidence that if we truly want to decrease the number of abortions, then we must increase the resources devoted to contraception and prevention. Pursuing this argument to its logical conclusion, the local Planned Parenthood places its annual sex-education course at the center of its outreach efforts. Each April, yard signs spring up in all the affluent neighborhoods in town, proclaiming support for an event aimed at children ages ten through fourteen.
But Claire reminds me, now and then, that it is precisely events like these—well-intentioned educational initiatives that explicitly remove sex from the purview of family and religion—that promote the idea that sex can be engaged in without the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, hurt feelings, and (by the way) children. It is just this illusion of sex without consequences, she maintains, that brought us to the point of needing widespread access to abortion in the first place. Our entire generation, after all, came of age “free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty.”
I justified my balancing act as openness to the arguments of both sides. I reassured myself that this was the true philosophical position—an attempt to understand my two friends as they understood themselves. And I did gain insight. Jennifer conveyed to me exactly how Planned Parenthood views its protesters: as religious zealots, as annoyances, as people who obstinately and stubbornly refuse to see the good the organization promotes. Most of all, they are people who want to restrict the rights of women to define their own lives—never mind that many protesters are, like Claire, women.
But here and there in conversation I was brought up short in my neutrality. One night, at a ladies’ evening out, the subject of abortion came up; and I overheard Jennifer admit that she really didn’t know much about the legal background to abortion rights. Roe, of course, was important in establishing the right to abortion back in 1973—but Casey? And what about that partial-birth abortion case a few years back?
None of it seemed to matter to those in the trenches, because they already knew what was most important: The legal right to abortion had been guaranteed to them, over and over again. The details of law and the vital debates over the personhood of the fetus mattered far less than the success of a continuing ideological war to liberate women from male domination, orthodox religion, and oppressive notions of traditional sexual morality. But this revolutionary language is spoken sotto voce nowadays. Among bourgeois women like the ones at this party, the issue is cast entirely in the language of “women’s health.” Who could be against that?
Jennifer then asserted, and all the women at the party agreed, that when considering abortion each woman has a right to call the baby whatever she wants. It is equally a baby, a fetus, a cluster of cells. Nobody has the right to impose a particular view of life on anyone else.
They implicitly agreed with the reassuring sentiment posted on the Planned Parenthood website, that “only you can decide what is best in your case.” No right-thinking person could disagree. The most important task is to “figure out” if abortion “feels like” the right decision. I am ashamed to admit that neither I nor anyone else suggested that the issue was not one of feeling or figuring but that there just might be a preexistent truth about the nature of an unborn child.
As I left the party, I saw at last that abortion was no longer an abstract debate played out primarily in the national media and on billboards. Instead, it was embodied in two living women, both of whom I liked. My own views, however, had come into sharp focus over the course of that evening, as I saw firsthand the intellectual and moral poverty that was the foundation of Planned Parenthood’s mission.
It would have been far easier if I could have dismissed Jennifer as a friend; but still, every time I saw her I remembered why I had liked her in the first place. We are so much alike. We remain great allies in the school PTA; we have the same hopes for our children’s education; we have similar taste in everything from clothes to interior decoration. When I visit her house I see the same magazines and appliances in our kitchens, the same kinds of family photographs on our refrigerators. She herself is a fine mother who cares deeply for her own children.
Ironically, the very thing on which we differ so profoundly—children—draws us into our unavoidable relationship. Our daughters remain dearest friends, as they have been for more than four years now. I sometimes watch the two of them as they eat lunch together at school.
I see them sitting hunched together, exchanging confidences, giggling as they talk about the latest Nancy Drew book they’ve finished and planning the play they will perform for their parents and friends. As I write, they sit across the kitchen table from me, in all their innocence and little-girl perfection, eating chocolate cake, chatting purposefully about what game they will play next, blissfully unaware of the things that divide their mothers.
I sometimes talk with Claire about the strangeness of all this, and she agrees that it is the unavoidable modern situation. She too has friends from whom she differs profoundly, though usually not on such consequential issues. Claire encourages me in a campaign of prayer, although I admit to sometimes feeling pessimistic about the prospects.
I do take some comfort in having recently expressed my own pro-life position to Jennifer, but so far it does not seem to have changed anything. She is surrounded daily with supporters who bolster her views, people who understand themselves as moral crusaders, pursuing their aims with all the zeal inspired by political ideology or—perhaps more aptly—ersatz religion.
For the moment I watch and wait, hoping that there might be an opportunity to begin to change Jennifer’s mind and heart. I wonder, as I watch our daughters’ friendship blossom, whether there is any possibility of conversion.
Elizabeth Corey is assistant professor of political science at Baylor University.