Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Killing's Many Forms

Everyday workday, the bus I take to my teaching job passes Regions Hospital here in St. Paul. This afternoon, on the way home, a familiar sight confronted me: the abortion protesters. They tend to be a tiny group, less than 5 usually, and they seem to appear fairly randomly during the first few months after the anniversary of Roe V. Wade.

It's been raining off and on all day, and I can imagine the three people huddled together behind their giant sign that says "Health Partners Kills Babies" on it are fairly cold and damp. Maybe bone-deep damp.

The sight of these people never fails to send a thunderbolt of anger through me, followed by an internal commentary on the self-righteousness of, excessively controlling nature of, and ten dozen other fill in the blank judgments of these protesters who pace the sidewalk in the front of the hospital. I have a similar reaction every time I see the "baby billboards" as I call them, the ones with the cute, usually caucasian babies with the pithy sayings about how early they have a heartbeat, or are able to feel pain, or some other such thing.

I have always considered myself pro-choice, although I have long found that label sloppy. The legacy of male-created reproduction laws and the historical medical mistreatment of women in this nation is a profound embarrassment which we have only recently begun to overturn. I've never felt it my place, or the place of men in general, to control or legislate in general terms about the events that take place within womens' bodies. And although I believe it is the individual right of men in a relationship to have a say in making decisions such as abortion, I ultimately believe that at best it's a shared decision, and in many cases, the woman should have the lion's share over the decision.

These are some the thoughts I've had over the years as a white, feminist man in the 21st century. However, I have found more recently that the waters are a bit cloudy for me on this whole issue, due to my zen practice.

If I vow to follow the precepts, even knowing that they are not black and white laws to obey, then what does it mean to be "Pro-choice" and also to uphold the first precept of not killing?

And what about my nearly instantaneous rejection of these people who stand in front of hospitals and clinics, speaking what they believe to be the truth about abortion? Isn't that, too, not also a form of killing, even if only in my own mind?

In his wonderful book exploring the Buddhist precepts, Reb Anderson writes of abortion "In considering how this bodhisattva precept of not killing life applies to the question of abortion, we need to open our hearts and consider what is most beneficial for all concerned: the embryo, the mother, the father, and all living beings." A big task for sure, but one that seems much more honest and caring than the wild ends of the spectrum on this issue.

It pains me to hear of women who have five, six, or even more abortions in a lifetime. I can't imagine the agony of having to face such a decision so often, and yet also sometimes wonder if there is a sense of callousness that has developed, whereby their own life has become not worthy of the care required to avoid excessive unwanted pregnancies. It is very true, though, that some of these women are in abusive situations, are controlled by husbands or family members or even entire societies - as has been seen with many Chinese women who become pregnant more than once. So, again, it's not a black and white issue.

On the other hand, I cannot for a moment accept the position that every woman that ever becomes pregnant must bring a baby in this world and either raise it or put it up for adoption. Actually, I have to say that its especially true of those who, for whatever reason, have a great desire to not have the baby in question. Hatred of one's child once it is born is such a great burden for that child, one that some grow stronger through perhaps, but also one that definitely creates extreme amounts of damage in this world, not only on a personal level, but also at a societal level. I think we cannot underestimate the amount of gut level pain and suffering for both a child and a mother that felt forced into having it. I won't go as far to say it's grounds for abortion, but definitely a consideration in the spirit of Reb Anderson Roshi.

All of this leads me back to the sign the protesters stood behind, and the labels we use to debate this very delicate, very complex issue.

The flamboyancy of their sign, which was complete with a tortured fetus picture, definitely got my attention. But what comes next? Do they really think that those who disagree with them, or who maybe aren't sure what to think, will be swayed by such dramatic displays? Maybe a few I suppose, but most I would guess will have various reactions that in one way or another will reject the message and the messenger.

The same is sometimes true when those who speak of being pro-choice then launch into comments degrading women who choose to stay at home and raise their kids, or who choose to have a baby and give it up for adoption, even though they were raped.

How do we determine what is most beneficial in a climate of fear, hate, and suspicion such as that which is the climate of abortion politics? It's tricky, and requires patience. I challenge all who read these words to be patient, and to find your answers in the heart of the present.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

There is never just one answer to any given situation, even when it means deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.

It's a decision that needs to be made on a case by case basis by the man and woman involved, not by people who think they know what's right for the rest of us just because they've decided to look at the abortion issue in such simplistic and narrow-minded terms.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

I really enjoyed your post on this topic (and the other posts too.) But this one especially is meaningful to me as I used to work at a clinic that provided abortions. I too have wondered about the ethics of abortion vs. free choice vs. non-violence, etc. etc. It's a tricky thing to work around but I agree it must be a personal decision.

No for some not very yogic thoughts...my chiropractor is in the same building as the women's clinic and at times I have to walk by the protesters. It still gives me satisfaction to go into the building they are trying to discourage people from entering. I guess I still don't like it when people try to force their views on me.

Thanks for the great post. -Sara

Nathan said...

Hi Sara,

I'm glad you enjoyed the posts. I have to say the protesters have been out every day this week at Regions. Something called "40 days for life." I had to hold myself from opening the bus window yesterday and shouting at them "Will you financially support all the unwanted babies that come into this world?"

It's a struggle to remain kind when others seem to think they have all the answers for everyone.