The Dark Side of Choice

Posted: Feb 13, 2009 10:42 AM
The Dark Side of Choice

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. (This inversion of Dickens seems right for a conservative in February 2009.)

We live at a point in history when a hardworking girl taking a 15-minute train ride from New York City to Hoboken can see an ad promoting cash rewards for donated eggs, and seriously consider taking up the offer. Not only would that put her future fertility in jeopardy, her eggs could also produce multiple embryos in their host mother, embryos that would ultimately need to be "selectively reduced" (i.e. aborted) to a more manageable number.

We live in times when doctors can perform lifesaving surgeries on fetuses. But we're also part of an era when, while one couple frames their sonograms, their neighbor could legally end the life of her child of the exact same age.

We live in times when "choice" often means death -- but even with a president who supports the most radical anti-life legislation, the pro-life crowd that recently thronged the Mall in Washington, D.C. didn't seem to despair.

Clues about the nature of that optimism might be found in the current issue of Glamour magazine, of all places. An article near the back of the March issue treats abortion with a level of honesty rarely found in such venues. "I am still filled with regret ... that I will never meet (my) child," one Virginia woman announces, one of many similar stories of desolation, all told in disturbing detail. Abortion isn't a clean choice; it's a life-changing (and life-ending) decision with traumatic repercussions, a wrenching and frequently lonely ordeal that one can never be adequately prepared for, not that our institutions and culture spend much time trying prepare anyone. The staff at Glamour will never be mistaken for pro-life propagandists, but they didn't shy away from these truths. This is refreshing.

In the same issue, a sidebar asks, "Why is the abortion rate so high?" The sidebar is devoted to contraception as a way to lower the rate, which isn't the solution I'd jump to, but just asking the question is a start. We'll never restore a sane and respectful view of our fertility and dignity, however, until we reach deeper. Are we treating the intimate gift of sex recklessly? Sex possesses an awesome power, not just in regard to procreation, but also in opening ourselves to a total physical surrender to another.

And, though we don't always admit it, sex is an emotional surrender, too. If you're a prayerful type, it has a spiritual component -- which should add a whole additional level of intimacy and wonder. The point is: There are a lot of reasons to slow down when sex seems like a good idea -- especially if you're young, especially if you don't know whether he's that into you, especially if you're not married. And most of all, especially if you're not doing it out of love but something else -- like fear or insecurity or curiosity or boredom.

Likewise, when we see the next interview with the much-discussed mother of the California octuplets, we shouldn't be asking, "Why did she have so many?" "Is she crazy?" Or "What's wrong with that doctor?" (Well, we can ask those, too.) We should instead inquire: "How did we come this far, and how do we take a step back?" In the wake of this case -- and in this age of rapid reproductive advantages -- even liberal feminists have begun to question the unregulated aspects of the fertility industry. This is the dark flipside of treating unborn babies as disposable objects; viewing them as items to be acquired in bulk, at your convenience. Big families can be great blessings, and that fact should not be lost as the media puts one mother under a microscope. But how she got to that maternity bed shines a bright light on where we are -- blessed with great technology but lacking any sense how to best use it for the sake of our human dignity.

As Michaelene Fredenburg, who founded the Web site will remind us, one-in-three women in the United States has had an abortion by age 45. That's not good. But when even a glossy women's magazine can see -- between the cosmetic ads -- that there is something wrong, it's a sign that although we've begun to settle comfortably into a Brave New World, we can still see the door we entered and can still turn around. And that suggests a far, far better thing: hope.