Lying With Compassion
February 1, 2012 § 2 Comments
There are a few discussions between society and the individual which are so profound, so simultaneously spiritual, emotional and physical, so rich with detail and data and meaning, so completely telling of the human condition, that it’s our job as human beings–I feel–to participate in them. Slavery, gay rights, hostile takeovers–you know which issues I mean.
One of these discussions, is the one about abortion.
Long ago, as a new minted writer, though I was afraid, I decided to participate in these discussions. To me, it felt crucial not to be confrontational–to listen first.
At the time, I’d been leafing through the Yellow Pages, looking for subjects which spoke to me. I didn’t have to go far. Just at the beginning of the alphabet, I was struck by several large, bold ads listed under “Abortion Services.” The headline was ABORTION and the copy read like this:
Call XXX-YYYY! Today!
I wasn’t pregnant, and wasn’t intending to be. But I called one of the listed phone numbers and asked for an appointment. Then I went over to a pregnant friend’s house and, just in case, asked her to give me a urine sample.
Two hours later, this sample having proved positive, I found myself locked inside a fake abortion clinic, surrounded by fundamentalists who were trying to talk me into keeping “my baby.”
The meaning of compassion is very elastic, depending on one’s priorities. My counselor, Jeanne, had warm brown eyes, brimming with sympathy and light. She told me that her highest priority was the God of little children. Her mission was compassion; her duty was to God.
The room I was locked in was brown. Brown plastic chairs. Beige walls. Brown plastic cabinets. A brown desk. A beige Congoleum floor. I got very familiar with its pattern–were the speckles regular?–as I had to keep looking down, to clear my head. The brainwashing was intense. It never let up. This clinic I found myself in–I kept being surprised to be there–used aversion therapy: constant negative stimulus interrupted by soothing persuasion.
For six hours, Jeanne, tag-teaming with a tall, male counselor, and random women dressed in uniforms (without insignia), subjected me to films of piles of bloody dead babies, lights in my eyes and the private, impassioned exhortations of one social worker or volunteer activist after another. Backed by a fundamentalist social worker and a business-suited representative of “our organization, which is very like the Underground Railway–but for babies,” Jeanne advised me to leave my husband and go hide in a safe house they’d set up in Georgia, for gals just like me. There were 14 other women at the safe house, so I’d have company. Everything would be paid for. I wouldn’t have to phone anyone, except once. It was my marital duty to tell my husband I was okay and that I was, in just 8 months, coming back to him–with or without a child.
When my time came–said Jeanne–I could make the choice of keeping the precious life that God had granted into my care. Or if my husband’s heart was still hardened against new life, I could with joy and sadness in my heart–but the joy would likely, said Jeanne, be uppermost–I could leave the baby with this fine group of custodians of Christ to be adopted by a good Christian family, and brought up in the precious love of God.
My faith would not be a problem, Jeanne continued. All children belong to God. The baby would be raised knowing that he or she came from, had been carried to his or her new family, by a nice Jewish girl who happened to see the light.
In my time with Jeanne, I did ask her why she felt that their clinic had to lie in order to bring me in. It was a white lie, said Jeanne, but a necessary one–and she prayed about having to lie, daily.
As I, too, had lied–if by omission–in bringing in my friend’s urine sample, I inwardly concluded that Jeanne and I were both on shaky moral ground. It was up to me to be at least as compassionate about her and her group, as she was about me and mine.
How compassionate was each of us? You decide.
After the presentation was done, I was allowed to leave, no problem. Jeanne was sad, but she and her organization, she said, would never interfere with a young mother’s freedom–even if that freedom came at the risk of losing her soul, and killing a child.
I wrote up this experience, very mildly, editing out several of the juiciest of the above details. Though they were true, I felt, from my experience with Jeanne, that all anti-abortion clinics might not use this level of persuasion. According to Jeanne, their clinic was upper-middle for intensity. There were many clinics that used “lesser persuasion,” but the milder clinics did not achieve the same results.
I had asked Jeanne about the dead fetuses in the films her clinic showed me. She said they were human babies. But the drawings I made of them, and the notes I took, I later brought to the library. Some of Jeanne’s fetuses turned out to be cattle. Others were pigs. Still others were images of actual dead babies, near term, term and after birth. At four weeks, I discovered at the library, an embryo is actually .014-.04 inches in size. It is not yet the size of a poppy seed. But obviously, the anti-abortion group couldn’t show a poppy seed on screen. It had to edit for effect. It had to go with what was visual.
I do understand about editing for effect. The magazine which bought my story–Cosmopolitan–edited out a significant portion of details, which I’d already self-edited. So the story ultimately appeared at quarter-strength. I’d done some interesting auxiliary research. The original draft included as a sidebar, a color story about an anti-abortion preacher who used to carry around a gallon specimen jar with a dead infant inside. He’d named it “Baby Ray.” He carried it to all his speeches. Once he’d whipped his audience into a frenzy of grief and hatred against child murderers, like me, who advocated freedom of choice, he would pull out the exhibit jar and hold it high.
What’s with this drama? I would argue that there’s a sight of difference between exaggerating an effect to demonstrate what one feels is a greater truth, or minimizing a potentially over-strong effect, as my editor did, to reach a wider audience. However, both are editing. Both entail truncating one’s life meaning, for effect–and then going several long steps further toward pleasing some crowd. Preaching to the converted? What does that do? I get a vision of two sides bristling with armor and weapons, looking to pack more. Aching for confrontation–even violence.
You will never know the kind of hate mail (and fan mail) I received for publicly telling this story. These so-called clinics wished to keep the element of surprise. A pregnant woman had to be actively seeking an abortion–pregnant and out of her mind with fear, and questioning everything–for their conditioning to work. But the fan mail proved to be equally disturbing.
In exploring this issue via a first person experience, I had felt I would be creating a context for discussion of a very pressing issue. Instead, I found myself still full of the same questions, having added more.
The mail I received, both for and against, drove my writing inward. As a result, I decided I would never seek fame. I would always seek balance. I would always try to use my words for good. Discussion on these topics essential to humanity, should be in contexts which encourage deep, quiet introspection. Contexts in which one can approach these life and death matters with trembling awe, with imagination, with courage, and nonviolently, with contentment.
No woman wants an abortion. No embryo wants to die. It is the job of both the woman and the embryo to seek life. But sometimes both must say goodbye. Whatever one’s decision, let’s make it with meaning. Let us discover and follow laws we believe. Our laws should of course respect life, and should not discourage freedom of the spirit. But let’s consider all life–the woman’s, her child’s, the man’s, the life of the world which surrounds us all.
What is compassion in this context? Is it a white lie, or is it truth? What is together, must be sundered, or it must be accepted, depending on deepest choice. And at this level of depth and meaning, where society and the individual converge or diverge, as they must, surrender and acceptance, whichever you choose, might be one.
Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin. All rights reserved. Some of this material appeared in slightly different form in “I Went Undercover To An Anti-Abortion Clinic,” Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1986.