This past week saw the news that Planned Parenthood’s first medical-doctor president, Leana Wen, was out of a job, less than nine months in, shortly after suffering a miscarriage. The split appears to be about Wen believing the talking points about women’s health a little too much, contrary to the abortion provider’s wider priorities, including in politics. The Wen departure gives all kinds of hope, too, about reasonable people working together to break down the stranglehold Planned Parenthood can have over life, politics, and culture in America.
Frederica Mathewes-Green has been talking about “real choices,” which was the title of a book of hers published in 1994, for a while now — and had a popular article on NRO in 2016 called “When Abortion Suddenly Stopped Making Sense” (which we featured prominently in a recent National Review pro-life reader we put together for one of the annual Marches for Life). Mathewes-Green recently talked to me about where we are now.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Were you surprised to see your piece from 2016 making the rounds again recently?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: Yes! A writer doesn’t expect people to remember or seek out an essay after its time. It was so moving and encouraging to begin receiving emails and Facebook messages about it once again, often from people who were profoundly moved.
Lopez: Is abortion making less and less sense?
Mathewes-Green: Absolutely. I can remember, in my lefty days, thinking of myself as someone on the side of the weak against the strong, on the side of the oppressed and voiceless (an identity that has some self-valorizing in it, obviously). How can people who embrace that ideal so emphatically not see the violence against the unborn? It’s a fundamental conflict with their own most deeply internalized values.
Lopez: What do you think accounts for the extremism of the moment — Democrats defending not only late-term abortion but infanticide? This isn’t who we are or who we want to be as a nation, is it?
Mathewes-Green: No, of course, it’s entirely false to the classic idea of America, a land whose most iconic image is Lady Liberty, welcoming the “homeless, tempest-tossed.” The unacknowledged horror is that the rejected children are not the “refuse” of some foreign shore, but our own children; not enemy soldiers, not condemned murderers, but our own children, their bodies going into incinerators and landfills 2,400 times a day. This is a thought too horrible to bear, and so its defenders must keep running, pushing the boundaries, and proposing even more extreme ways of taking life.
Lopez: What gives you hope when it comes to abortion?
Mathewes-Green: Science. It gives undeniable proof that the fetus is a living human individual; that the fetal stage of human development is continuous with later stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, all the way to old age. The one-time fetus is the same unique human being all along. Everyone knows this, actually; everyone has seen sonograms. We are in an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation, and the time will come when this obvious medical truth can no longer be denied.
Lopez: In Real Choices, the foreword from the then-president of Care Net, Guy Condon, references not only “hostility” to children but “to what is essential to the fulfillment of feminine and masculine identity.” Can we see that even more clearly today?
Mathewes-Green: What changes have come upon us, in these 25 years! A philosopher might have predicted that the unhitching of sex from babies would lead to an endless proliferation of sexual identities. The profound, essential rightness of male and female union — something has been plainly obvious to every generation that lived around livestock — has come to seem vague as mist, and arbitrary.
I’m struck by how often advocates speak of their sexual identity in radically personal, first-person-singular ways, as if sex were not a connection with another person. Sex is inherently a coming-together with another person, but it is treated today as an aspect of solitary individuality. No wonder we have an epidemic of loneliness.
Lopez: Back then you noted that when about 2,000 pregnancy-care center directors were surveyed, they indicated that when women were facing difficulty continuing a pregnancy, adoption appeared too difficult practically and emotionally and this also seemed the hardest problem to solve. A recent article in The Atlantic suggests it’s not getting any easier. Why do you think that is? How can we take that up as a rallying cry?
Mathewes-Green: It’s a paradox; though adoption often appears the best option to outsiders, to the pregnant woman it can seem instinctively like the worst option. She may feel that adoption means “giving up” her baby to strangers, and amounts to abandoning him; she herself may feel abandoned. It feels more natural to keep the baby, for obvious reasons: It is more natural, it’s what women are designed to do. But when that means becoming a single parent, the future can be rough for both her and her child.
The other alternative, abortion, also looks more attractive than adoption. She may have a fantasy that this will just erase the whole event in her life, that it will “turn back the clock” to a time when she was un-pregnant. Some women have told me they imagined they could make a deal with God, and at some future point he would send them back this same baby.
Unfortunately, even though adoption can look like the best option for women in unexpected pregnancies, to the woman herself it can look like the worst.
Lopez: Is adoption an issue where pro-life and pro-choice people should be able to get together and do something beautiful for mothers and families and, goodness, for children?
Mathewes-Green: In the ’90s I helped found a movement we called the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, in which pro-life and pro-choice advocates could meet (with the help of trained facilitators) and discuss their beliefs. We found that this was the first issue on which there was substantial agreement. Both sides felt that adoption was an option that pregnant women should consider more often.
Lopez: You’ve written and spoken over the years about a middle ground on abortion. Is this where it is today?
Mathewes-Green: Yes, adoption ought to be an important place where pro-choice and pro-life can agree.
Lopez: What would you say to people who might say there shouldn’t be a “middle ground” on a human-rights issue? Would it be better to say “meeting ground”?
Mathewes-Green: I don’t advocate compromise, on this issue. Abortion kills a child; it should be illegal, like every other form of violence. No doubt we have many irrelevant, nuisance laws in America, but at the center of justice there is a circle of laws that cannot be repealed without carnage and chaos, without the collapse of civilization. That’s the inner circle of laws that protect the weak from violence at the hands of the strong. In that inner circle is where abortion resides.
When we founded the Common Ground project, we didn’t mean by the term “compromise,” but something more like “meeting ground.” We had in mind a safe place where opponents could explain why they believe what they believe, and get a respectful hearing.
For example, in small groups of four, a pro-choice person might explain what experiences led her to hold her convictions, and then a pro-life member of the group would restate it to her in terms that she considered fair and accurate. It was primarily an opportunity to understand each other. We did not seek to create compromise, or to persuade or badger each other. I used to say, “We want to work past misunderstanding so we can arrive at genuine disagreement.”
From time to time we did find areas of agreement, as with the topic of adoption. Another time, a leader of Operation Rescue and a manager of an abortion clinic wrote a paper presenting what they considered the appropriate limits for protest outside clinics.
It was a fascinating experiment, and lasted through the ’90s. We held two national conferences; at one, Naomi Wolf and I shared a podium. But by the end of the ’90s abortion was no longer the “hot issue” being discussed in national media; it was being replaced by the gay issue. Interest had faded, and we could no longer attract funding, so the project closed down.
Lopez: Have you seen joy come from difficult pregnancies? Foster or adoptive situations?
Mathewes-Green: Oh yes! So often, the pregnancy that seems terrifying, cataclysmic, evolves and comes to be manageable; then, when the baby is placed in her mother’s arms, a bond is forged that may well be called primeval. It is one of those moments when we realize we are enacting some eternal drama, more profound than we can grasp. Somehow we have gotten caught up in the wheels of the universe. The bond between mother and newborn is the foundation of all human love. To treat it as irrelevant or negligible is to threaten something close to the heart of the human story.
Lopez: If you could give everyone an action item to help make the abortion situation better, what might it be? A top-five (or more) list perhaps, to choose from, to consider discerning what might be one’s best role? Concrete actions that would make things better . . .
Mathewes-Green: I think the best thing anyone can do is to support their local pregnancy-care center, and there they will find a multi-item list of opportunities. When I was writing Real Choices I spoke with post-abortion women all over the country and asked if there was anything anyone could have done to help them have their baby. Over and over they told me, “I needed just one person to stand by me.” I went into the research project thinking I would hear they needed material goods, medical care, and so on, but the women told me that they knew there were resources for such things. What they lacked was moral support — a strong friend to stand beside them. One woman said, “Everyone said they would ‘be there for me’ if I had the abortion, but no one said they would ‘be there for me’ if I had the baby.”
Pregnancy-care centers exist to be that “one person.” Even in states with the most bloodthirsty abortion laws, these centers can prevent abortion every day with the help they give. Some readers might feel called to volunteer and be trained as a counselor; others might just want to make donations of goods or money, or do something as simple as mending donated maternity clothes. Sometimes men volunteer just to sit in the waiting room at night, so women feel safer coming in. Please look up your local pregnancy center and ask them about all the ways supporters can help.