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Thursday, February 13, 2003

Sophie's Choice

Kate Michelman is the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She has often told the story of her own abortion.

In 1970, she was abandoned by her husband and left to care for her three young daughters alone. Then, just after her husband left, she found out she was pregnant.

Emotionally bruised and confronted with poverty because of a husband and father who had abandoned them, she agonized over the reality that another child would have increased their expenses and been a further drain on the time she needed to raise her daughters and to earn an income.

"I had to . . . debate my obligations to my children against my responsibility to the developing life inside me," she has said.

Many years later, during a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California in January 1998, Kate Michelman said that when she learned in 1973 that the Supreme Court had legalized abortion:

"I was quite overcome. It felt somehow like a benediction — a retroactive reprieve that helped restore my sense of worth, my integrity."

That is, when the law changed, Michelman's emotions around her abortion changed. Her words about this are very loaded: "quite overcome" ... "felt like a benediction" ... "reprieve" ... "sense of worth" .... "my integrity".

This paints a picture of a woman who was experiencing a significant struggle with her feelings around the loss of the "developing life inside me."

When the law changed, her emotional struggle ended. (Or, as far as we know, it ended.)

This is such a sad and suggestive story.

Let me say something for a minute about the idea of "moral positivism". Roughly, this is the idea that there are and can be no standards for morality outside of, beyond, or transcending the law. If something is legally permissible, then it is morally permissible, and there is nothing more anyone can say about it.

By and large, people do not believe in the doctrine of moral positivism. That is, most of us believe that if we want to find out whether an action is moral or not, we can't answer that question just by finding out whether the law permits it. Slavery was legal in the south in 1850, this line of thought goes, but that doesn't mean that slavery was moral in the south in 1850.

For most of us, our self-assessment (in Michelman's words, "our sense of worth") is tied up with whether we perceive ourselves as acting in accord with our own conscience. Our conscience is our internalized code of what is right and wrong.

If you're a moral positivist--someone who believes that if an action is legally permissible, then it is morally permissible--you don't come to your own conclusions about morality. You just accept that anything the state prohibits is immoral and anything the state allows is moral.

As I said, very few people are moral positivists.

It's unlikely that Kate Michelman is a moral positivist, in other areas of her life. If the government were to say today that wife-beating is okay when the little lady doesn't get dinner on the table by 6:00 p.m., Kate Michelman would probably not believe that because the law changed, it is now morally permissible for a husband to beat his wife.

But Michelman's intense emotional reaction to a change in the legal status of abortion suggests that in this area, she is a moral positivist.

I wonder if this doesn't create a submerged pool of cognitive dissonance in a woman of Michelman's intellectual and moral capacities.

If you balance off what sounds like severe emotional turmoil around her abortion against maintaining a certain degree of cognitive dissonance...I can understand choosing cognitive dissonance as the lesser of two emotional evils.

Magda Denes is a post-abortive pro-choice writer. In her "In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital", she says that it is easier for a post-abortive woman to "regard oneself as a martyr and to battle the world" of anti-abortion enemies than to confront the "private sorrows" and the "heartache of self-chosen destiny".

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