Papa's Post-Operative Blues
A Father Looks At Abortion
By Richard Cowden Guido
I'd never really thought about abortion much. The great Pill had come along, and that was quite a boon to an 18 year-old Midwestern boy in search of adventure; and in search of girls too, of course. Eighteen-year-olds are always pretty interested in cracking those mysteries, and the Pill made it a lot easier to cut down the resistance.
It was 1967, and I flew the Midwestern coop for the wonders of Greenwich Village. The hippies called it the summer of love.
It was certainly, a summer of great fun. The Calvinist hypocrisies of my parents' generation were tottering, and we knew it. Marijuana and free love were going to usher in a new dawn of Peace, and anybody who doubted it had only to listen to the exuberance of the Beatles, or Bob Dylan's elliptical epitaphs. Time magazine was more or less willing to tell us that each time we got laid was but further proof of how sensitive we were, we, the most Concerned and Intelligent Generation in American history. Quite an aphrodisiac, that.
Of course, we were the richest generation in American History too, and the most numerous, so it has since occurred to me that given all the money to be made from pushing sex, there was no way our entrepreneurs were going to let pass this opportunity for turning all that youthful vigor into a keen profit. At least, not unless the folks who decide public opinion decided further that the human soul is motivated by something more interesting than economics. But they didn't. We don't. The fine tension between Calvinist Puritanism and greed came to an end in the 1960's.
We had to play at idealism, though; the puritan ethic still held sway there. You couldn't just come out and praise vice, without first proclaiming a higher nobility than the hypocrites whose hypocrisy you wished to supplant. At the same time, I was not unaware how much my opposition to the war in Vietnam would assist my exploration of more immediate mysteries. Thus I entered the vanguard of sensitivity and intelligence.
At some point during that first summer in New York, a girl came to me pregnant, and wanted to know if I could help her get an abortion. As I say, I hadn't really thought about abortion much, and the patterns of sensitivity at the time didn't include the child. I was unable to give any practical advice; though because I was a friend of the father, I loaned them some money. Later, he and I quarreled about when I would get the money back.
And time passed. Marijuana and the summer of love were unable to withstand the more venerable exigencies of human greed and sin after all, so that, like other pieties, Bob Dylan's became institutionalized too. Meanwhile Janice, as I shall call her, lost her virginity in 1968, began living with me in '69, but in 1970 we broke up. Although not entirely, as it were, and she became pregnant.
Being a bright boy and an earnest hypocrite, I had sought - not very successfully - to go beyond the public clichs by this time, and work out some sort of fuller gestalt about what this business of being alive might mean. The progress I had made, when Janice broke the news, was enough for me to pretend I was against abortion, though not enough to sound as if I meant it.
The pressure on us to have an abortion was relentless. It may be that there were voices raised against it, and I simply refused to hear them; but I don't think so. I know there was not one person who understood that wonderful insight about hearts that are gentle and kind, but tongues that are neither - or at least not enough to say to me: be a man. To say, you have been a boy, and have, as boys will, stumbled into a reality wherein now people need you; so now be a man.
It was not the spirit of the age. Janice too, needed someone - needed me - to tell her to be strong, to tell her that all the joy she would know, all the suffering, was not worth denying this child the chance to see the color green, or to eat an orange, or you may take what choice you will. I didn't tell her that, though, maybe didn't even know it; and eventually she succumbed.
Everyone was very proud of her when she did, a genuine admiration. "I'm ,so glad," smiled the wife of a prominent New York psychiatrist who'd been advising us, when we broke the happy, news. Abortion was still illegal in New York at the time, by a couple of months, which made no difference: the child was killed in a hospital, under circumstances memorably pleasant all things considered.
I'd like to be bitter about all this, and am some, except that my own bitterness fares poorly against that to which my child seems entitled. It occurs to me that that child had the right to expect I would even die for its sake, and so what sort of explanation is it to say, you died because I was young and a little confused? There is no easy exit from that guilt, or from that sorrow.
There is an ancient forgiveness though, and not too long after the child's death I became a Catholic, not a very good one, the kind that with the publican and the prostitute likes to whisper the prayer: Lord have mercy on me, a miserable sinner. There is, I think, something clean about that prayer, especially for people who haven't got much else clean about them.
Richard Cowden Guido is a leading Catholic historian and the editor of Joan Andrews' prison letters. Since writing the above article, he has participated in over 20 rescues. He spent five months in Atlanta's Fulton County jail for his rescue activities.