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The Struggle Continues

ARTICLES OF FAITH: The Abortion Wars: A Frontline History. By Cynthia Gorney . Simon & Schuster: 544 pp., $27.50 : WRATH OF ANGELS: The American Abortion War. By James Risen and Judy Thomas . BasicBooks: 224 pp., $25 : ABORTION WARS: A Half-Century of Struggle, 1950-2000. Edited by Rickie Solinger . University of California Press: 414 pp., $45 hardcover, $16.95 paper

April 05, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Elizabeth Mehren is the author, most recently, of "After the Darkest Hour, the Sun Will Shine Again" (Fireside, 1997). She is a staff writer for The Times

We were college undergraduates, teenagers still, and the world was full of promise. My friend called late one night. "What's the worst possible thing that could happen?" she asked. I tried to think: a death in the family? It couldn't be divorce. Her parents had already done that, hadn't everyone's? Had they run out of money? Did she wreck her car and kill someone?

When she told me she was pregnant, I was first relieved, then shocked. How could she be so stupid, I wondered, so careless. But this was no occasion for judgment. The question was how to get rid of it. This was long ago, the early 1970s. Thanks to our governor, Ronald Reagan, abortion was sort of legal in California. A pregnancy could be terminated if two doctors believed the pregnant woman was in danger of harming herself. One of my friend's ex-stepfathers was a psychiatrist. We were certain he could fix things up. We were young, callow and self-absorbed. There was no talk of fetal rights, no discussion of when the moment of life begins. The phrase "single motherhood" did not cross our lips because it did not exist. "Out-of-wedlock" was one pejorative that described that condition. "Knocked up" was another.

By the clear light of day, my friend was unable to persuade anyone, her ex-stepfather included, that the pregnancy would make her jump off a bridge. Soon she was on a plane to Japan. When she returned, she called me, late at night again. She said that after the procedure--another new term, one we would come to utter with powerful ambivalence--she awoke to hear a terrible, symmetrical thumping sound. It was her, she realized, hurling her body first against the wall and then against the rail of her bed. Pain--thump, grief--thump: it was both; it was pain, and it was grief. I told my mother this story some weeks later. She thought for a moment, then told me that among her peers, she was the only one she could think of who had not had an illegal abortion. I challenged her: This was not possible. She replied: My statement stands.

And so we became, my friend, my mother and I, inadvertent infantry women. Months later, the Supreme Court made its extraordinary, historic decision in Roe vs. Wade. We did not know that Jane Roe was a pseudonym. The real Jane, Norma McCorvey, was a lesbian, a drug user and a sometime carnival barker. This was her third pregnancy, but we did not know that either. We also did not know that the decision permitting women to take charge of their own bodies was written by Harry Blackmun, an appointee of Richard Nixon. We were unaware that a young Texas lawyer, Sarah Weddington, had sought out a case that would test the law that sent her out of the country, to Mexico, for her own youthful abortion. In fact, we almost didn't know about Roe vs. Wade at all, not right away anyway, because Lyndon B. Johnson died the day it came out. And certainly what we didn't know--couldn't dream of, couldn't imagine or envision in our wildest, most proto-conspiratorial crystal balls--was that the war was on.

Now a quarter century has passed. My friend, the one who went to Japan, has a grandchild. No one likes abortion, but Americans consistently state their statistical preference for laws that permit women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Still, the war rages. To mark the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade this year, three recent books examine the angry, divisive and, in more senses than one, deadly struggle that continues around abortion. All three books are important. All shed new light. All set out to remain balanced. Remarkably, all succeed. What they demonstrate, collectively and individually, is that a judicial decision intended to establish rights came nowhere close to resolving the deep moral angst over this divisive issue.

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