Seldom do the consequences of one's actions present themselves with such blunt force as when Nicola McManus came face-to-face with a jar containing the remains of her just-aborted, nine-week fetus.
McManus was still in the Glasgow, Scotland, hospital where she had induced her own miscarriage with the RU486 "abortion pill," talking to her husband on the telephone, when her eyes rested on what the hospital, in a subsequent apology, chillingly referred to as "the products of conception from your termination."
The jar, awaiting pick-up and delivery to the pathology lab, was labeled with McManus' name. "I was mid-conversation and saw it," she said. "I told (husband) Frank and he tried to comfort me but I wasn't listening anymore. I was crying."
The story reminded me of a conversation I had with a fellow reporter a couple of years ago during a tour of the Mutter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Well-known in scientific circles, the museum features some 20,000 medical and pathological specimens, including fluid-preserved body parts.
Among some of the infamous specimens are a giant colon that looks like something that washes up on beaches on other planets; the body of a woman who died of Yellow Fever in the 18th century and was turned to soap by chemicals in the burial soil; and, more to the point, a large collection of baby deformities.
At this juncture of the tour, my friend turned to me and said: "I wonder if people would change their mind about abortion if they saw aborted fetuses displayed this way."
He and I both belong to that soft-spoken cadre of journalists and others who oppose abortion but support choice. We are the bane of both sides of the debate, whose members view us as equivocal and unprincipled. You can't have it both ways, they say; pick a side. Yes, you can have it both ways, and we should.
Abortion is a bad choice that confers on many women a lifetime of soul-staggering baggage, but few Americans are willing to criminalize abortions or penalize those who seek them. The best answer may be found in Bill Clinton's empty but accurate campaign statement that he wanted to make abortion legal, safe and rare.
Abortion is legal and safer than it would be were the procedure to become illegal again. But it is not rare. In the past 30 years, 25 million women have had one or more abortions. And given temperaments on both sides of the issue, abortion is unlikely to become rare.
As long as both sides adhere to a no-compromise position -from trying to protect "live birth abortions" on one side to insisting that abortion under any circumstance is murder on the other -we make nearly impossible the only route to rarity, which is honest and balanced education.
Contrary to what is currently offered in many schools and women's clinics, abortion education needs to include information on emotional as well as the physical ramifications of abortion. Regardless of one's religious beliefs concerning when life begins, the fetus is not just a "blob" or a cluster of cells, and abortion is not just a procedure of dilation and curettage, requiring a couple of Tylenols for "discomfort" and a few uttered words of feminist validation.
Women who've had abortions or carried a baby to term know this. Would-be fathers who commit suicide in front of family-planning clinics know this, too. Brad Draper, 44, reportedly bereft after his girlfriend aborted their "product of conception," fatally shot himself in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, Kan., on Sept. 10, his son's due date.
I'm not a fan of zealotry or displays of fanaticism. I avert my eyes from the protesters' poster-sized photographs of aborted fetuses and even permit my mind to flit darkly to the secret wish that some missed abortions had transpired after all. I would never suggest that women face their "jars," as McManus did.
But I do insist that we should silence the politics of abortion and engage in honest conversation. That we tell all sides of the story so that women can make informed decisions not only about what they do, but about what they face emotionally down the road. Only then will we begin to see abortion become rare.
McManus is right to be outraged at the careless hospital workers who left her consequences in plain view. On the other hand, the experience forced her to say what is true: "Women need more counseling before abortions, not less. I will never get over what happened to me."