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An Intellectual Journey About Abortion

By Tom Sena

I think it was Gilbert and Sullivan who wrote in the lyrics of one of their Victorian musicals, that every one of us is born a little liberal or a little conservative. The implication -- if not the explicit assertion -- is that one's political and philosophical beliefs are as unchangeable as one's skin color: determined if not at birth, then not very much thereafter, and held uncritically from that time on. Some political commentators of a more recent vintage than G&S -- though without the constraints of light opera to excuse their error -- seem to agree, suggesting that on the really big issues, people's minds do not change, and the only purpose of argument and discussion -- particularly on deeply controversial subjects -- is to harass and belittle one's opponents.

But that is not the case -- at least with me. My beliefs about abortion changed . . . radically.

In the fall of 1988, NOW threw a rally on the national mall here in Washington, D.C., trumpeting abortion and its many benefits. Much of the media picked up their tone, lionizing NOW in glowing and congratulatory terms. One newspaper that joined in the general brou-ha-ha was The Washington Blade, then the capital city's only weekly lesbian and gay publication. Its front-page cheer for NOW caught my eye and gave me the impetus finally to rebel against the myth that if you're homosexual, then of course you are for abortion.

I had moved to the District of Columbia only three years earlier from South Carolina. I had never lived in any city that might qualify as "big" or become part of an actual gay community (Charleston has one, but at that time it was very closeted, and difficult to be invited to join), and so these years were filled with adapting to a new life, not only in a "big city" but in a community of people like me. It was astonishing; it was heaven; and I desperately wanted to fit in. Almost unconsciously, I absorbed the manners and mores of the people around me, including what seemed to be their unanimous consensus on this or that burning political topic (and when, in Washington, are burning topics not political, or political topics not burning?) Inevitably, abortion was among them. Any Blade article mentioning abortion included a blatant sneer at pro-lifers and explicit hurrays for the champions of "choice". Bar conversations, when the subject came up, did exactly the same. And so, in time, did I. After all, this is what we all thought, right? Could we all be wrong? So I learned to sneer and hurray on cue with the best of them. Let the arbiters of gay opinion ring that bell, and I was ready to drool on demand.

The problem was, though, that I was not really sure that we were right. My uncertainties persisted no matter how many arguments I marshalled in my mind, to allay my doubts and coax me into full agreement with gay dogma. This was not hard to do. I was able to find excellent reasons for favoring abortion rights with very little trouble. Relying on them would give me an effortless coast right into abortion activism, with the bonus of feeling that my place in the lesbian and gay community, my community, was approved and secure. And most of all, I could stop wondering about whether or not we were right. I would never have to think about it again -- at least I would not have to think for myself! I would simply be part of the group mindmeld, and there would be simple answers at last.

Yet all these enticements, and all my reasons for settling in the pro-choice camp, faded like a dream when, in all intellectual honesty, I forced myself to look at the central problem which never goes away: the life and humanity of the unborn child. In being truthful with myself, I had to acknowledge that her life is a fact. It does not rely on any philosophical preference, and one never needs to drag the Bible or religion in by the hind legs to try to prop it up. I researched the biological facts of her body: that her heart has begun beating by the time she is three weeks old, she emits brain waves after little over a month, by ten weeks she is sucking her thumb, and so on. She is alive! There is never a time after her conception when she is not. This is indisputable to the inquiring mind.

But surely her body, such as it is, isn't really her own? Can there be any doubt that, develop though she may, she is fundamentally part of her mother's body and so without a life and rights of her own, at least till she's born and living on her own? I asked such questions hopefully; but again, I had to be honest. The "product of conception", as abortion advocates euphemistically describe her, has from her very beginning a new and unique combination of genetic codes, fundamentally different from either of her parents. These codes determine her gender, her features, the colors of her skin, hair, eyes, so many of her essential characteristics, possibly even including her sexual orientation. In short, she's a separate human being, different from her mother. What other "part of the woman's body" has its own genetic code? None. She is her own person with her own body, and her body has its own rights. Realizing this clinched it for me. I threw up my hands and said, "I give up. I am pro-life."

Almost immediately, I remembered our community's monolithic image on the issue, and it seemed as though I were in the closet all over again. In both gay and straight media we all came across as speaking all with a single voice, not a note of dissent to be found. I had never seen or heard a real live homosexual dissenting from that voice either in private or, at greater risk, in public. It was as if all of us were born to be "pro-choice."

But there is another explanation. As separated, isolated individuals, people are reluctant to differ from the rest of the pack. Putting oneself on a seemingly different line than everyone else's can be frightening and even dangerous, as I now knew from experience. Since the Blade was both the primary way of communicating within the Washington, DC, lesbian and gay community and a major reinforcer of bias toward abortion, I had begun writing letters to the editor and even an occasional article about being gay and pro-life. These were published, and provoked no small reaction. More than once I would pick up the newest Blade to find myself torn to shreds in print. I would be told of overheard conversations in which I was damned as a traitor, a woman hater, and so on. But even if I persuaded no one, at least a different view was getting out there and being talked about.

This by itself was a victory. Lesbians and gays have ourselves struggled too long with the demand for conformity in sexual matters to turn around and wield that same oppression as a weapon within our own community, against those who threaten community solidarity by daring to disagree out loud with our leaders. Lesbians and gays do not have the luxury of an unthinking conformity among ourselves. Thinking for yourself is vital both for our communal and personal good, even when -- maybe especially when -- the authority you challenge is that of your own community. Thinking for yourself, especially about an issue like abortion, is the only viable course lesbians and gays can take as honest and thoughtful people .

If you can bring yourself to do it, think about that.

For just one honest minute.

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In 1990, Tom Sena founded the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL), now an organization of almost 800 members on three continents with active groups in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Tom currently serves as one of its Vice-Presidents.


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