Abortion: Bridging the compassion gap

“Bigot” and “hypocrite” are words I don’t use all that often, but all the same I probably use them too much. They don’t say an awful lot about people, other than that I find their views hateful and/or morally inconsistent, yet none of this is terribly productive. There are always people who’ll claim that it’s bigoted to label other people bigots in the first place. And since we’re probably all hypocrites in one way or another, it no doubt is hypocritical to call another person a hypocrite. In fact, it may be far safer just to call anyone who annoys you a fucking annoying fuck (but bear in mind that that’s still rude).

That being said, there is something about Republican Scott DesJarlais that continues to make me want to scream “hypocritical bigot!”. This could be the fact he is a Republican Congressman who stands on an anti-abortion platform, yet nevertheless encouraged a woman with whom he had an affair to have an abortion (as an added bonus, DesJarlais – a doctor – first met the woman while treating her as a patient). This all happened ten years ago, of course. Since then DesJarlais has declared on his website that “all life should be cherished and protected. We are pro-life”. It’s really quite a turnaround for someone who, when his back was against the wall, was recommending to his ex-lover that they “get it over with so we can get on with our lives”. He’s since got on with his life, that’s for sure.

DesJarlais does not deny that such a conversation took place, but has issued the following statement:

Desperate personal attacks do not solve our nation’s problems, yet it appears my opponents are choosing to once again engage in the same gutter politics that CBS news called the dirtiest in the nation just 2 years ago.

While I’m sorry Scott’s upset, I’d beg to differ on this point. This particular personal attack may not solve all problems facing the USA, but it’s kinda helpful in dealing with one of them – the problem of hypocritical anti-choice bigots (damn, did it again!).

It may of course be that were Scott DesJarlais in the same situation now as he was in ten years ago, he’d plead with his ex to conserve the precious life growing within her. To hell with saving his marriage and getting on with his life – there’d be more important things! I find this all rather unlikely, but hey, who’s to say? And who can judge on such a personal matter? Even so, what disturbs me about DesJarlais is that whatever his personal choices have been in the past and may be in future, he’s always had the right to make them. What’s more, he’s faced choices which ought to have given him a degree of compassion for others, something which he sorely lacks.

Compassion and empathy have always seemed to me to lie right at the heart of the abortion debate. It’s not about viability or when life begins. It might as well begin at conception. We all know that pregnancy can lead to babies, and that babies are real live human beings whom we need to protect. That’s never in doubt. We’re all able to feel compassion for babies – after all, they’re really cute. The problem is the lack of compassion we have for those facing unwanted pregnancies. An unwanted pregnancy is so abstract, so inconvenient, so at odds with the narrative of life. For so many people it means nothing until it intrudes on their own experience. The truly shocking thing is that for some people – DesJarlais, for instance – abortion can make perfect sense for one brief moment, when it’s needed, then the understanding just as quickly disappears. Once again it’s just something that other people do – at least until we stop them.

Scott DesJarlais never had to face the physical burden of an unwanted pregnancy. He wasn’t poor and he wasn’t alone. Yet even he understood the massive impact of what was happening – what with the potential outcome being a baby who, however cute, would have destroyed his marriage and reputation (at least 10 years before he did it himself). It’s unlikely he would have had to care for the child, certain that he would not have had to bear it. And yet the choice he took for granted is one he seeks to take from others who have so much more to lose. Why can’t he remember what he felt himself? Why can’t he try to feel it for others?

I know parents who are opposed to abortion “for the sake of convenience” who would nevertheless be the first to demand such a choice for their own child. It’s always different when it’s your own life, or the life of someone about whom you care. The more important you deem the person to be, the less you expect them to sacrifice for the unborn. But everyone is important. That’s what pro-choicers understand, and what so many anti-choicers ought to be able to remember. Being the person who is “against” the unborn – the tiny, the voiceless, the innocent – isn’t something you do for fun. You do it because you have the capacity to imagine what is being asked of another person if abortion is restricted. If it would be too much for you, then it’s too much for all of us.

4 thoughts on “Abortion: Bridging the compassion gap

  1. What worries me about the whole situation is that some men, brought up within a patriarchal culture, have empathy bred out of them at an early age. And when some of those same men rise to positions of power – a rise which again in our cut-throat, dog eat dog, political systems – demands a further suppression of empathy. And so we end up with men like Scott DesJarlais and Jeremy Hunt pontificating on about a situation that they have no empathy with, even though, in the former’s case, he has actually experienced what it is like to have to make a decision about an unwanted pregnancy. For me this is a reflection of the overall insistence by men in power that empathy and feelings are female and therefore ‘less than’. This culture permeates every part of our male dominated societies and results in the many inequalities against women, the bottom line of which is rape culture – where women are not safe to walk down a street because they are seen as sexual objects first and foremost, rather than human beings. It is depressing.

  2. As I have said elsewhere, the ruling class and the wealthy will always be able to terminate a pregnancy, while using legislation, “inspired,by god” (of course!) as a whip to deny the same right to everyone else.

    After all, if they poor didn’t breed, where would the ruling classes get their next lot of slaves / peasants / factory-workers and cannon-fodder?

    1. Exactly. Same thing with everything — the wealthy will always be able to get their health care, or to send their kids to school. It’s the rest of us who must suffer.

  3. This is a great post – because I agree with it!
    Compassion and empathy are what the abortion thing have always been about for me to.

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