WASHINGTON - All the slogans, chants, posters, stickers, gestures, speeches and slurs from Sunday's "pro-choice" march congeal in my mind as this single image:
A young woman in requisite belly-baring jeans is crab-walking sideways down Pennsylvania Avenue pointing defiantly toward her baby-bearing parts in graphic retort to three men dressed as grim reapers and bellowing thanks for marchers' generous support:
"We're pro-death!" the reapers shout. "We're with you! 1.2 million more this year!"
Forget gravitas. Forget anything you ever thought about the beauty of free assembly or the power of free speech. We have taken our gravest contemporary concern - the sanctity of human life - and reduced it to a carnival of the grotesque.
The men in costume and other pro-lifers who lined the parade route to taunt marchers constituted a mere sprinkling compared to the hundreds of thousands who showed up to, irony unintended, "March for Women's Lives." No one seems to have an exact number of how many swarmed the nation's capital, but unofficial estimates hover around 800,000.
Let's just say there were a lot. Indeed, rarely have so many been so unattractive in such large numbers in one place. I'm not talking about physical appearance. The defining demeanor of the crowd was ugly and uglier. Some of the protest signs were crude to pornographic. Some of the young ladies looked like they might not have had all their shots. Profanity and obscene gesturing toward the pro-life crowd were commonplace.
My guess is that marchers' angry words and actions were visceral reactions to the ugliest scenes of the day - huge photographs of aborted fetuses at various stages of development. These sights are not for the squeamish, and surely not for the children some pro-choicers dragged along. I cringed to think of the nightmares little ones would have later that night.
It is natural to want to avert one's eyes from the sight of a pair of tiny human feet held between an adult thumb and index finger, an image taken from a first trimester abortion. It is human to want to call "it" something positive and upbeat like "choice," to celebrate the "wantedness" of all the children marching, rather than to linger over the image of a dismembered baby.
But by whatever term we comfort ourselves, pictures don't lie. Pro-choicers are right to be concerned that public support is slipping for abortion on demand. They're right to be concerned that the Bush administration is seeking ways to make abortion rare.
But they are wrong to deny what is plain if painful to see. Abortion ends a human life and that life looks an awful lot like a baby much sooner than we ever thought when Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land 31 years ago.
I'm not in favor of criminalizing abortion, but I am in favor of an honest - even brutal - assessment of what abortion is and what abortion does. Pro-choicers are wrong to dress up abortion as only a woman's choice, and pro-lifers are wrong to insist that women who choose abortion are "baby killers." No one gets an abortion for the pleasure of it.
In all likelihood - and this is where I place my chips for now - abortion will eliminate itself once truth is allowed a fair and open hearing. Central to that hearing is at least one pointedly feminist question that has been displaced by a debate that defines itself only in terms of freedom, rights and privacy:
Is it really in women's best interest to thwart or destroy the creative force with which they are uniquely endowed?
Somewhere on the way to making children accessories to fashion or obstacles to liberated libidos, the women's movement lost sight of the one thing women do that all Earth's men combined cannot. They bear life. That is nothing to wink at, or to toss into an incinerator with the sutures, ruined organs and bloody rags.
If any other creature on Earth were so meticulously destroying its own offspring - and wreaking who knows what havoc on the gene pool - we'd declare a national emergency, convene special commissions and enjoy a spate of Hollywood consciousness-raising movies, doubtless starring some of the stars who led Sunday's march.
Something is wrong with this picture, and we avert our eyes at our peril.