It’s one of those memories when the crueler events of the day intruded on a childhood moment.
It was at a cottage my parents rented at Cape Cod back in the day. This was before the Cape was reserved for blue bloods. The average worker could haul the family up in the station wagon for a two-week summer vacation, and the kids would think they had found heaven.
The Old Man was messing around, wrestling with my little brother, saying that it was time to do a little surgery on him to remove a wiseguy tongue. We were all laughing, and I said something like, “Yeah, let’s do an abortion on him.”
The laughter stopped. My mother looked at me with horror. The Old Man pushed my little brother out of the room. Then he said, “That’s not a joke. That’s never a joke.”
And I stood there, 12 years old and wondering how I always managed to say something idiotic.
I really had only the vaguest notion of abortion. This was 1962, and I was a normal kid normally insulated from the dark side of life.
But that summer, abortion was in the news. Sherri Finkbine, a popular children’s television host in Arizona, had used the drug Thalidomide as a tranquilizer in the early stages of her pregnancy. It was then discovered that the European drug had been blamed for profound fetal deformities.
Finkbine was put on track for a “therapeutic abortion” — the only means for a legal abortion at that time in the United States. But that consent was withdrawn when she went to the newspapers with her story. This was the first real public debate over abortion played out in media, and Finkbine received mounds of sympathetic coverage. Those who tried to reason out the morality that would allow death to be imposed on an innocent life, and how accepting such a death could lead to abortion on demand, were dismissed as crackpots, kooks or Catholics.
In the end, about half the public bought the idea that she should have been allowed to abort her child in Arizona. She did have her abortion, though it was in Sweden.
The gruesome grand jury report from West Philadelphia’s Women’s Medical Society clinic paints a picture of how far we have come along since the word abortion was first implanted in the muddled but innocent vocabulary of a 12-year-old in 1962: the death of exploited women; babies born alive only to have their spinal chords snipped with scissors; fetal remains clogging drains and filling plastic bins. And government agencies looking the other way because they didn’t want to be perceived as somehow limiting access to abortion.
The easy thing in all this will be to demonize the doctor who ran what the report called “a baby charnel house” and his minions who exploited the poor and the immigrant. Easier still to demonize government departments that wouldn’t do their jobs because of ideological prejudices.
But let’s be blunt. You put people in an environment that tolerates evil on a day-to-day basis, and evil becomes a way of doing business. It is hard to argue that what is permissible in the womb becomes impermissible outside the womb. When death is all around you, you embrace it or go insane.
At least back in 1962 we still had fear — fear that abortion was a dirty business. Fear that we were at some kind of tipping point. Fear that once it was done, it could haunt us forever.
Now, we don’t even care that much. It’s just part of the truth about the culture of death. It grows on you. Until it eats your soul.
I wonder what a 12-year-old thinks today.
Probably not much. Not much at all.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.