Hearts and minds

Anna Quindlen

April 24, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

ON WEDNESDAY the Supreme Court heard arguments on a Pennsylvania law that would restrict access to abortion in that state. At the same time, demonstrators from both sides of the question face each other across the unbridgeable moat of their disparate beliefs outside clinics in Buffalo.

With all this activity, in the courts and in the streets, it is important to remember that we have taken this debate exactly nowhere in the last 20 years. The great social issues of this country are settled, not with placards or legal briefs finally, but in hearts and minds.

While the standard-bearers on both sides posit from the margins of perfect certainty, the great majority learn nothing that they didn't already know about abortion.

There has been a lot of talk that the Pennsylvania statute is a kind of abortion rights Armageddon. It includes parental consent and spousal notification, a 24-hour waiting period and medical counseling about other available options, the procedure and the gestational age of the fetus.

I do not like this law. It has as its subtext the assumption, prevalent among anti-abortion zealots, that women decide to have abortions in the same way they decide to have manicures. But it does not serve our credibility to inflate its provisions.

When we squander our rhetoric on restrictions in Pennsylvania, what does that leave us for the law in Louisiana, a slam-dunk of legal abortion that allows it only in limited cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother?

More important, when we excoriate waiting periods and parental consent we dismiss the ambivalence of many Americans and we miss an opportunity to communicate beyond the slogans. zTC Waiting periods sound reasonable -- until you evoke the impoverished mother of three who has driven 600 miles and has only one day's worth of baby-sitting money in her pocket.

Parental consent is constantly justified with the aspirin analogy, the idea that a girl who cannot get Tylenol in school without a parent's permission should not be able to have an abortion without it.

That's because the judicial bypass that is a required alternative to consent is little more than a phrase. You have only to describe a 15-year-old pleading her case before a judge to make some people understand that this alleged attempt to legislate communication is designed to intimidate instead.

The spousal notification provision is supposed to send the message that husbands have rights, too. But common sense tells us all that a woman who can't discuss this with her husband probably has a reason so potent that no law is going to change her mind.

In short, there are many talking points. It is simply that we have not talked. We have taken stands, and stood.

I understand the positioning that is taking place here, to drum up support by evoking an imminent threat to legal abortion. And I understand the frustration at an issue that it seems will never be settled, and the temptation to meet zealotry with zealotry.

But it saddens me to see some of those who support abortion rights in Buffalo using language as ugly as that of the people who send me anonymous postcards filled with vitriol and photographs of fetuses. I imagined we were better than that. I picture folks seeing this on television and thinking that both groups are lousy with lunatics.

Most Americans, the polls tell us, feel truly represented by neither side. They are the people who say they simultaneously believe abortion is wrong and a private matter. While the demonstrators see black and white, they see gray.

In 1990, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee held six "listening sessions" to hear what Catholic women were saying about abortion. I wish in every town in America someone would do what the honorable archbishop did: bring people together to talk, to disagree and above all to acknowledge the gray areas.

If we rely on elections and legislation, those of us who believe abortion should be legal, our fortunes will vary with the personnel. If we make people feel their ambivalence is unacceptable, then we've lost them.

But if we have reached out to, and reached, the hearts and minds of average Americans with honest discussion, that will drive so much of the rest.

Or we can continue moving from legal argument to legal argument, confrontation to confrontation, as we did Wednesday.

Anna Quindlen, a columnist for the New York Times, earlier this month was awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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