WHEN she wrote about a Supreme Court decision on the liability of tobacco companies, New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse included a paragraph, part human interest, part factoid, explaining which of the justices smoked.
She was in no position to do something along the same lines last week when the court handed down its decision on abortion. There was no obvious way of telling if anyone on the court had family or friends who had once ended a pregnancy.
That is because abortion is considered a most private act. Many women have never told their parents, their children, or even their friends. They live closeted in this respect.
It is a truism that the more we apprehend the world personally, the more empathetically we respond to it. One of the reasons homophobia has eased a bit is that more and more of us know gay people as friends, as colleagues, as sisters and brothers. That is because more of them are open about who they are. The openness and the understanding feed on each other, in a kind of circular argument of familiarity that breeds, not contempt, but knowledge.
In the introduction to "The Choices We Made," a book of personal accounts of abortion, Gloria Steinem wrote: "From the prisoners whose stories started the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution to the 'speaking bitterness' groups of China, from the church 'testifying' that started the civil rights movement to the consciousness-raising that began this most recent wave of feminism, populist truth-telling has been the heart and soul of movements and revolutions all over the world."
Ms. Steinem herself was part of the truth-telling when she and other prominent American women, including Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron, Barbara Tuchman and Billie Jean King, signed a manifesto in the first issue of Ms. magazine witnessing to their own abortions, a "campaign for honesty and freedom."
That was 20 years ago, 20 years during which close to 30 million abortions were performed in the United States. It is difficult to believe you do not know someone who has had one. Or perhaps you simply do not know you know. One of the ironies of parental notification legislation is that the world demands 16-year-olds tell their parents about their abortions when it is filled with 40-year-olds who have never done so.
What Gloria Steinem and the other women who joined her did in 1972 was courageous. But, like listening to Cybill Shepherd rue a bad marriage, it may have seemed removed from everyday experience. We feel that the prominent are somehow different.
In the minds of so many ordinary people, the women who have abortions are different, too, not quite like them. Perhaps that will continue until the day someone turns and says, "Mom, Dad, I have something important to tell you about my life." Or until the woman at the next desk, hearing for the umpteenth time about how maybe it ought to be legal but Lord, I could never do it myself, finally blurts out: "Oh yes you could. I did."
It is easier to be judgmental about a construct than a friend.
I oppose outing. I don't believe any gay man or lesbian, no matter how prominent, should be forced to retire privacy for the good of the cause, although I believe openness does the cause good. And I believe the only person entitled to know whether or not any woman has had an abortion is the woman herself.
But when I hear people talk about abortions of convenience and abortion on demand, I know there is one superlative way to counter those utterly misleading modifiers. That is by testifying, bearing witness, truth-telling. That's how you learn what this really means, not by statistics or demonstrations or even court opinions. And it's why, millions of abortions later, many Americans still don't understand how central this liberty is to so many lives. No one has leaned across the kitchen table and told them.
We moved forward last week, with a reaffirmation of the constitutional right to choose abortion that was as much about women as it was about issues. That is the stereotype that silence reinforces -- that this is an issue. It is millions of stories, each one different. Many of them you know -- sister, daughter, friend -- except perhaps for the silence in the center where the abortion was. Silence is our right, too. But it sometimes leaves truth untold.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.