Without Malice

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 18 1998 3:30 AM

Without Malice

A civil approach to the abortion war induces fresh despair.

Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars
By Cynthia Gorney
Simon & Schuster; 575 pages; $27.50

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Cynthia Gorney's new history of the conflict over abortion could serve as an advertisement for an imperiled form of journalism: the long, meticulously researched narrative of ideas in which unglamorous noncelebrities drive the action. If that sounds off-puttingly worthy even to devotees of serious nonfiction, then too bad for us. Some of the best journalism of the last quarter-century or so belongs to the same genre--Jane Kramer's and John McPhee's and William Finnegan's work for The New Yorker and nearly all the late Anthony Lukas' writing. It is getting harder to do for the very reasons it is worth doing: It can require years of reporting, which doesn't sit well with the keepers of our buzz-driven publishing culture. It demands of its practitioners a quality of listening--even, alert, self-effacing--that seems increasingly rare in this first-person age. It doesn't sell a whole lot of ad space.

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None of this is to say that narrative nonfiction is some sort of selfless or inherently democratic form. It's not oral history; the author is there on every page, as enticed by vanity as any journalist is--maybe more so, because his is the kind of journalism that aspires most nakedly to the status of literature. But at least these writers confer a kind of dignity on their subjects, if only by attending so closely to people's own explanations of what they believe. And when it comes to showing us the means by which everyday people are taken up by history, how they shape it and are in turn shaped by it, there is no genre more accommodating.

In this tradition and with scrupulous fairness, Articles of Faith brings to life the arguments and experiences of sympathetic characters on opposite sides of a great moral divide. Gorney's setting is Missouri, which, as a microcosm for the history of abortion and the opposition to it over the last three decades, is an arbitrary choice; she seems to have chosen it mainly because her editors at the Washington Post sent her there in the late 1980s. In the end, though, the conceit works--partly because St. Louis was the site of the first sit-ins at abortion clinics; partly because it was a Missouri law restricting access to abortion that inspired one of the Supreme Court's most important post-Roe cases, William L. Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services; partly because we are primed to think of almost any Midwestern state as "typical" in a way that New York or California is not; and mostly because Gorney found two such fundamentally appealing characters there.

On one side is Judith Widdicombe, an obstetrical nurse who volunteers at a suicide hotline and can't help noticing how many of the women calling in are pregnant--and desperate about it. This is the late 1960s, abortion is illegal and dangerous, and at the hospitals where Widdicombe works she has seen women bleeding and blue-white with shock in the aftermath of botched abortions--terrified women, dying women. And so Widdicombe, "a big, smart, opinionated woman" with two young sons, a sweet, shy husband who runs a newspaper delivery route, and a modest little pea green house in a nice neighborhood, begins, systematically, to break the law. It is Widdicombe who eventually runs the abortion underground in pre-Roe Missouri, telling women where they can find somebody relatively clean and relatively safe to terminate their pregnancies and sometimes smuggling them into her own spare bedroom afterward to suffer the aftereffects of the operations in clenched-teeth pain. And it is Widdicombe who, in the wake of Roe vs. Wade, opens the first abortion clinic in the state, the Reproductive Health Services of Webster fame. "This was women's business," is how Gorney describes Widdicombe's thinking about what she does. "And, if you were a nurse who took care of women--for that was how Judy thought of her work in labor and delivery, the care of women--you did what they needed you to do, you helped them have the baby or not have the baby, they came to you in crisis, and you eased them to the next place. Either way, it was a kind of delivery."

On the other side is Samuel Lee, a would-be seminarian with a ragged beard and the look of "an Old Testament prophet or a Russian monk." Lee is a pacifist and an intellectually serious one. In 1978, inspired by the civil-rights movement and his reading of Gandhi, Lee dreams up and then organizes the first sit-ins at an abortion clinic, and so helps to steer the anti-abortion movement from its polite letter-writing phase to its angry street-theater phase. Lee is convinced that no one has proposed a more logical time for "the moment of an individual person's beginning" than the joining of egg and sperm for the simple reason that there is no more logical time. He compares his moral duty to rail against abortion to his moral duty to intervene if he saw a man on the street beating his child with a club. He is a purist but not a fanatic.

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One virtue of having chosen these particular characters--a gruff, empathetic nurse instead of a polished, pro-choice lobbyist; a thoughtful, vaguely leftish Catholic as opposed to a fire-breathing evangelic--is that we can live with them for 500 pages or so. But, implicitly, the choice serves a more didactic purpose as well. Articles of Faith makes it abundantly clear that even the most decent people both sides have to offer--people such as Widdicombe and Lee who will occasionally talk to each other instead of merely hurling epithets--can find no real common ground on abortion. Whatever compromise Americans come to on abortion won't be the product of a warm and fuzzy dialogue between pro-choice and pro-life activists. (It is more likely to emerge out of what polls show most nonactivists on the issue believe, namely, that abortion should be, as the slogan goes, "safe, legal, and rare." Call it muddled or call it nuanced, but most Americans seem to want to preserve the right to abortion, pretty much unrestricted, in the first three months, and to allow states to limit it sharply thereafter. They want abortion to be legal, but they think too many people seek it out for the wrong reasons.) As Gorney notes, the well-meaning organization known as Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, a national project that brings pro-choice and pro-life activists together in discussion circles and makes mediators available to help resolve their differences, has succeeded mainly in inflaming partisans on both sides while producing "extremely modest tangible results."

The other advantage of this sort of textured narrative is that it inevitably turns up bits of the past that more ideological accounts leave out. Gorney gives us a fascinating glimpse, for example, of the involvement of the clergy in helping women obtain illegal abortions in the late '60s. Widdicombe herself worked for something called the Clergy Referral Service, a network of some 1,000 Protestant ministers across the country who decided it was their pastoral duty to shepherd unhappily pregnant women to underground doctors willing to perform abortions. (They took their lead from the Rev. Howard Moody, a liberal and outspoken Baptist who occupied the pulpit at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.) This is the kind of history that pro-lifers don't care to discuss, because it suggests the existence of a moral, as well as a political, dimension to abortion rights. The idea that some men of God might regard their commitment to a woman housing a fetus as more important than their commitment to the fetus itself is anathema to people like Lee. And pro-choicers are likely to ignore the abortion-abetting ministers because their own history of the movement puts feminist activists more or less alone on center stage.

There are drawbacks to any journalistic genre that requires the writer to stick to one or two main story lines. (Gorney introduces us to hundreds of other activists, but it is Widdicombe and Lee who propel the narrative.) Since Widdicombe is apparently so much less given to moral casuistry than Lee, Gorney sometimes risks leaving us with a vague impression of abortion-rights activists as tough pragmatists at a loss for loftier arguments, and anti-abortion activists as philosophers with a common touch. Lee, whose dedication to both nonviolence and Catholicism soon marginalized him in a movement that had become increasingly dominated by militants and evangelical Christians, is perhaps even less representative than Widdicombe. (For a thorough account of the anti-abortion movement's turn to the right and the new militancy of organizations such as Operation Rescue, readers can refer to the recently published Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War, by journalists James Risen and Judy Thomas.) Moreover, Gorney ends her book in 1989, with the Supreme Court ruling in Webster. This is hard to justify since the decision marked neither the culmination of the court's thinking on abortion (the Casey ruling in 1992 was at least as influential) nor an obvious turning point in the abortion wars. It caps her story simply because it caps Widdicombe's battle with Lee.

Gorney will probably be praised for having drawn unusually nuanced portraits of abortion activists on both sides--humanizing them and in so doing narrowing the gap between them. But her real accomplishment is something like the opposite. The more compassionately and conscientiously she reconstructs Lee's views and Widdicombe's views, the more irresolvable their differences seem. It may be that only this sort of journalism, with its sympathetic attention to the intricacies of its characters' thoughts, could do justice to these differences.

Margaret Talbot is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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