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20 Years Erode Fervor, but Not Her Pro-Choice Views

May 28, 1989|JENNY CULLINAN-JAMES | Jenny Cullinan-James is the promotion and public relations manager for The Times' San Diego County Edition. and

When President Reagan's Supreme Court nominees were making news in October, a business acquaintance commented: "This could overturn Roe vs. Wade. And I'll tell you, that's the one issue that could get me on a plane to march on Washington."

Washington. March. Her words sent me back to the late '60s and to the Foggy Bottom district of the capital. When I was 18 and a stone's throw from the White House, the world looked pretty absolute. Those were days of demonstrations against war and poverty, days of "I'll never . . . " and "I'll always . . . "

I picked up the shreds of the conversation with the San Diego bank executive that had sent me off on this journey. And I agreed. Me too. First plane. Take the kids.

But when it came time to march in April, I wasn't in Washington. I read the newspaper accounts. I watched the television coverage. And I did it from California, wondering: What would that 18-year-old think of this 39-year-old? What would she say if she could see herself now?

She'd probably be as amused by appearances as I was when I ran across an old photo the other day. She had great expectations, that earnest liberal with ironed hair and painfully tight, yet rumpled, bell-bottom jeans. But I'm a forgiving sort, and I think she would be, too, even of the rationalizations I employed to avoid thinking about a trip to Washington.

Once I got past the client breakfast for 140, I'd think about it.

After the kids recovered from the chicken pox, I'd be able to plan better. (Kids? she would ask. She didn't plan to have kids.)

As soon as I scheduled the refrigerator delivery, my husband's grousing would return to normal levels. (What's a Sub-Zero, and why does it cost more than a year's college tuition?)

If I can just get in to have that engine noise diagnosed, I'll sort out my schedule. (That car--you drive a big car like that?)

But, after being amused, the 18-year-old me would certainly be puzzled by some of my delays. How could I explain the frustration of repeatedly illegible copies from the facsimile machine? Or the capital expenditure form it takes to justify a scanner for the art department's Macintosh computer? Or being placed on call-waiting by a friend who's expecting her amniocentesis results? When I stop to think about it, I'm a little perplexed by all that myself.

But, although I look different and march to a different routine, I can't avoid the disappointment that I know the 18-year-old would feel in me. I'm disappointed in myself. I made such a grand-but-hollow vow in that conversation back in October. Go to Washington. Speak up for what you believe is right before it's too late. What could be more important? It would have shocked and hurt me when I was 18--and abortion was already legal in the District of Columbia--to learn that the right to an abortion was again at risk, and that I failed to do my small share in a historic controversy.

My disappointment in myself is probably more bitter than hers because I'm more committed to the pro-choice position now. It's more real.

In my college days, the most I did was help escort a few women past the demonstrators who were the precursors of today's "pro-life" protesters.

But, since then, I've nursed a couple of friends through post-abortion recovery and I've watched others grapple with parenthood without the benefit of an essential ingredient: Enthusiasm.

When I was young, I felt concern for a woman burdened with an unwanted child; now my empathy is probably greater for a child burdened with an unwilling mother. Regardless of the advocacy, who would wish a miserable generation on these two?

My belief in abortion has also been cemented by a personal event, one I couldn't have imagined at 18.

A pregnancy between the birth of my sons ended tragically for my husband and me when prenatal tests revealed that our unborn child was hopelessly flawed by conditions "inconsistent with life." Our decision to abort was excruciating. I thought nothing could be more difficult, though I don't know that anyone who hasn't faced that choice could understand why.

Since then, I've thought of something that would have magnified that pain: What if we had needed some stranger's approval to implement that terrible decision?

My heart goes out to partners who must make this choice on the basis of a less-conclusive diagnosis, or those women who simply feel they are not ready for motherhood. I can't imagine how they would feel if they had to make this brutal decision contingent on the consent of some authorities, which could happen if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. I can't imagine what it would take to try to build and present a persuasive case on such a painful issue.

I wish I could meet the 18-year-old me today. Twenty years of living make me admire her expectations and instincts. It's curious to me to think that I've traveled so much longer yet still share her views on this subject.

There's one more thing about the 18-year-old that hasn't changed--neither of us ever enjoyed "making a spectacle of oneself," as a cranky aunt used to put it. But unseemly behavior is less important than doing what's right.

My husband and I have treated the circumstances of our baby's death as a very private event, until now. But, since I didn't "vote with my feet" in April, I must try to speak with my word processor in May.

I think that might amuse and perplex, but not disappoint, the 18-year-old.

DR, Steve Lopez

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