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Further Thoughts on Abortion


By Robert Coles | June 1985

The longer and harder I put my mind to the issue of abortion — what to think of it, what to think of my values as I contemplate its significance — the more I feel myself all too immersed in the as­sumptions of this contemporary world. In an earli­er column (Oct. 1983) devoted to this issue that troubles so many of us, I tried to describe my personal responses, as they have changed over the years: the young physician whose reformist liberal­ism prompts him to think about the desirability of abortion for the pregnant and poor women he meets who are already trying to do the best they know how, and who (he is sure) don’t want any more children, and similarly for other women, pregnant by incest or rape, and still others in fra­gile health themselves and afraid of the medical consequences of a pregnancy — as against the per­son who now remembers with sadness his inability during those years to appreciate just how eager some of the women he knew were to bear the chil­dren they were carrying, no matter the opinion of people like me.

What I really was discussing, I’d better ac­knowledge, is the gradual transformation of a point of view. Back then moral judgments passed the muster of my secular mind. I worried about the physical health or emotional state of particular women patients. I worried about the young victims of rape and incest I met in a women’s “reformatory” where I worked for a while (The Lancaster In­dustrial School in Massachusetts). I worried, more generally, about “the poor,” the “population prob­lem,” the “Third World,” about the vulnerability of all sorts of uneducated and hurt and ailing peo­ple — the essentially abstract concerns that affect (to varying degrees of intensity) people like me, sheltered by privilege here in the United States.

I think I’d still today mainly be thinking along those lines (and to some extent, at least in part, I always will) had it not been for the abrupt shift in my life’s direction and work in the early 1960s, when I became involved, full-time, with black and white children going through the South’s school desegregation crisis, and with the sit-in movement in that region. In essence I stopped be­ing a physician, a child psychiatrist, whose time was bought by well-to-do members of the liberal intelligentsia (a not unfair description, I think, of the families who seek the advice of my ilk who practice in Cambridge, Mass.) and instead spent my time with ordinary people, mostly poor or from the so-called working class, whose lives had sudden­ly become touched by fear and anxiety — by the dramatic onset of a historical moment. Now I was regularly sitting in homes and sometimes, alas, in makeshift cabins, with the “poor,” and, yes, with families in which there were large numbers of chil­dren. Now I was seeing, firsthand, people whose lives, whose social and economic and political fate, I knew to deplore from afar. Now, slowly, I was learning about “them” — and maybe about myself, my own ideas and preconceptions.

I still remember, for instance, a particular couple my wife and I had come to know well. They lived in a small Georgia town. They were black, and hard-pressed in so many ways. They had six children. He worked in a store, a handyman. She scrubbed the floors of the local bank at night, and tried hard to be a good mother during the day. She was, I realized, not in the best of health — she had suffered through a fairly serious bout of rheu­matic fever as a child, and the result was an impair­ed heart valve, and episodes of congestive heart failure. I will never forget the day when this wom­an told me that she was pregnant yet again. She wasn’t utterly ecstatic; she knew the burdens she was already carrying. But she did have a smile on her face; and her mind was not dwelling on herself, but rather, on others: “My two big girls [they were then 11 and 13] are going to love this new baby. They’ll want a girl. They’re tired of the four boys we have! We’ll get another plate and put it on the table. That’s what my momma used to say: ‘We’re going to have a visitor, a new person God is sending here, and He’s chosen this family and so let’s put a new plate on the table and say welcome.’ And like her, I try to teach my children that it’s God who has sent them here, and it’s up to us to show Him we’re grateful. If He’s chosen us to have another of His children stay with us, then we’ll manage, and we’ll be better for it, I truly believe, even if it’ll be hard. Yes sir, it’ll be hard.”

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