And Then She Suggested We Go First

All right, so I didn’t get arrested at the Planned Parenthood funding hearing. I didn’t even cause a scene.

Before the hearing began, I just sat with friends and talked. We watched the other people in the audience — the ones we didn’t already know — and tried to decide whether they were one of us or them, with us or against us. Aside from the guy in the purple T-shirt with the white fetus image plastered on the front, you couldn’t always tell.

Were they fashionable or unfashionable? If they were chic, they were probably on our side. Unless they spoke against us, in which case they were shallow and narcissistic and spent their ample leisure time shopping. If they were frayed and frumpy and dressed in flax, they were obviously religious zombies hell-bent on destroying other, more successful women’s lives through constant pregnancies. However, if they spoke on our side, their lack of slavishness to fashion was endearing and indicative of great depth.

The hearing went on and on. And on. My friend Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief, spoke very eloquently about her physician father’s vehemence that women should have the option of safe, legal abortions after he had seen so many women who died from or were butchered by illegal abortions. Some speakers wanted to ditch Planned Parenthood, others praised it as life-saving for its medical tests and informative, inexpensive dispensing of contraceptives.

I sat in the audience and nudged my friends and whispered remarks and rolled my eyes, when appropriate, and clapped and screamed when I was moved. Three hours later, the hearing was  over. Those of us who were left filed out — the good, the bad, the ugly, the holy, the committed, the righteous, the certain, the chic, the disheveled, the frenzied, the wounded, the whole. All of us spilled out into the hot afternoon sun to try to find our cars.

A friend and I were walking behind a pair of women who labored along slowly. I recognized one of them — an older, silver-haired woman who’d spoken in sweet, Southern tones about saving the precious lives of all babies. Now, she turned and gestured. “Why don’t you two go ahead of us?” she said. “We’re slower than you are.”

We thanked her and walked ahead. Here was the enemy, sweet-faced and sincere and considerate. How could I hate her? How could anybody? (I am Southern and I’m a sucker for good manners. So sue me, but be polite about it.) Anyway, she deflated my angry self-righteousness just like that; I simply felt tired.

I returned to my computer and blog, where I’d written about my outrage about the proposed removal of Planned Parenthood funding. Almost all the commenters agreed with me, but two did not.

Here is an excerpt from one, Rebecca, who hadn’t read my blog before:

Those of us who applaud laws that require women to receive sonograms do not do so out of a desire to “control women” – I say that as a supporter of sonograms and as a woman whose body and soul bear scars from having been truly controlled by men. I support those sonograms because they inform women. And an informed woman can make a wise choice. I stand by her right to make an informed choice. Informed. Not coerced. Not uninformed. Not following a party line, for either party.

Women are intelligent. Women can be wise. We must not shrink from the opportunity to inform each other so that we may make wise decisions that enable us to be healthy and that do not make us responsible for ending life in the name of ease or convenience when – in reality – it is neither in the long run.

And please, please keep in mind that I type this not as a woman who asks her husband to form her opinions. Not as an uninformed, uneducated woman. I write this as a woman who holds a Master’s Degree in Communication, has owned her own business for seven years, has been active in politics since earning her undergrad in political science and communications, is a mother of two, wife of one, and is a firm supporter of my fellow women.

And another from Donna of the blog Cooking + Praying, who’s commented here before:

I do “get” it. I am a woman. I have experienenced discrimination in the job, I have been abused and threatened and disrespected. I “get” it what it’s like to carry babies, to give birth, and to raise children. But I think abortion is wrong. I am a grown-up, peace-loving, social justice liberal, a feminist who thinks women should be equal with men in every way and that men should not dominate women’s lives. I believe birth control is essential. I don’t want to get into screaming and raising fists. I think it’s very wrong to kill people for the cause of saving innocent lives. That brand of radicalism is just plain wrong. I believe that you can call yourself a feminist and believe abortion is wrong. I prefer to try to maintain some dignity and respectfully disagree on the abortion issue. And I think we need tolerance on all sides.

You know what? They haven’t changed my mind about Planned Parenthood funding. But I do believe they’re deeply sincere and I appreciate their taking the time to reply in such a civil and respectful way. I’ve missed that kind of civility and respect on both sides of this beleaguered and deeply painful national struggle we’re engaged in.

I’d just like to make one final point. One of the anti-Planned Parenthood speakers urged my side of the room to “choose life.”

I am the mother of two children. I was always opposed to sending other women’s and men’s children into the illegitimate war in Iraq. I want the children we already have to be cared for, educated, and able to receive health care as a basic American right. I want all our children to prosper and have the chance for a good life.

Tell me you disagree with me on my stand on Planned Parenthood. Fine. But, please. Don’t tell me I’m not pro-life.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

On a far, far lighter note, my friend Leila is not always so serious about the world. Check out her loud, impassioned take on Brazilians

15 comments… add one
  • I too am tired of the way this discussion always seems to turn ugly. It’s nice to know it isn’t always so!

  • It’s true that you can be pro choice and also pro life. I would not get an abortion myself. Do not kill is a big virtue for me. These days I don’t even kill blood sucking insects. That said, I don’t think some other woman’s medical decision should ever be my business. There are women who could die from giving birth. I happen to know one who almost did and ended up needing a heart transplant because of it. Think of that. The baby had to be aborted. The mom almost died, too. If the baby had not been aborted, they both would have died. These things happen. These medical decisions are not as black and white as many people think. They are harrowing. Politicians should not be making them. Also what’s lost in this Planned Parenthood debate is how much good PP does that has nothing to do with abortions. Many women would have no medical care at all if it were not for PP.

  • Civility. It goes a long way.

  • ALSO: The question of whether abortion is good or bad is a separate question from whether women should have the right to make decisions about their own health and bodies. I deserve the right to make that decision, even if I think it’s wrong and I’m going to burn in hell. Or even if you think I’m going to burn in hell. Too few people separate these two questions for my taste; the morality of abortion is an unwinnable argument with strong opinions and no one is probably going to convince anyone on the other side. But it is legal to have an abortion, and it should remain legal because I am a human being and this is my body.

    Hmph. I’m a cranky old menopausal lady with too much education, three grown-ass children, a still-painful abortion in my long-ago history, and an opinion. But I’ll be polite about it too, because I’m a lady from the south. 🙂

  • Sheryl

    You have such a valid point, Ruth. I too appreciate the civil way your commenters disagreed with your stance. It makes it easier to tolerate the opposing side. What makes it so ugly is when it gets deeply personal and political.

  • Thanks for the update. Planned Parenthood serves women in so many ways. The issue of abortion is complicated. I am pro-choice, as is my husband. But tonight, at dinner, he mentioned his regret that a former longtime girlfriend chose to abort his child 32 years ago. No one ever considers the father’s opinion. My immediate reaction was to think, why of course this woman had a right to choose. It was her body. She already had three children with her first husband. I get why she did it, but his reaction, so many years after the fact, did give me pause.

  • Political disagreements should be allowed and tolerated. Glad that it worked that way for you.

  • I can’t imagine what life would be like for poor, impoverished young woman WITHOUT Planned Parenthood.

  • merr

    It seems more rare for two people or groups with differing opinions to be able to talk or hear each other anymore. So, it’s something special when they do.

  • I have a strange position on this. I am 100 percent (more) in favor of Planned Parenthood. But I am also saddened and dismayed by abortion. I totally support abortion rights but I wish no woman ever needed one. Get out the condoms, gals! Let’s develop a pill for men! Let’s raise children to be healthy and happy and not turn into men and women who find self-worth by having unprotected sex. Okay, this probably all sounds crazy. But I really understand why the “enemy” hates abortion. I hate it too. Yet I believe it should be safe, legal, and paid for by the government!

  • I’m bummed you didn’t get arrested, Ruth. I was all set to start a Kickstarter campaign to spring you.

  • There’s such an absence of civility right now, isn’t there? Thanks for introducing a little bit more back into this debate here.

  • How refreshing to have commenters who shared their views calmly and without vitriol. I, too, am pro-choice and pro-life. No, I never want abortion to become an easy out for someone who’s been careless. But I firmly believe that a woman ought to have a choice that will not leave her with only the bent coat hanger option. And as your commenters above have already said, Planned Parenthood is about more than just abortion.

  • Like Kris, I’m delighted to see that the commenters here participated in a civil discussion of the issue. What a rare even that is in today’s contentious times. I’m pro-choice and pro-life. I believe that the choice should belong to the woman and that her economic status should not keep her from making the decision that is right for her. I don’t think the men in shiny black suits who sit in our government should be making that decision for us. If abortion became illegal, those same men would be the first ones to send their daughters out of the country to have an abortion if it was in their daughters’ best interest.

  • >>Tell me you disagree with me on my stand on Planned Parenthood. Fine. But, please. Don’t tell me I’m not pro-life.<< Here, here, Ruth. I too, had a very civil discussion with the "enemy" not so long ago, we even friended each other on Facebook and have remained connected. She is a fundamentalist Christian, and although her religious views were the catalyst for her opposition to abortion, she fully believes in the science that separate DNA markers at conception gives a fetus the rights of "personhood." Although my views differ from this greatly, we were able to respect each other's opinions. I didn't leave without assuring her that if abortion becomes illegal in this country I would be one of the ones helping to raise funds to ferry women to countries where they could receive a safe surgery.

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