Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When We Look, and When We Turn Away

Abortion is one of those topics I don't much like writing about. While I have a lot of sympathy for women who find themselves pregnant and frightened, and I think it is a societal failure (and especially a failure of religious folks like myself) that they aren't given more support, I am absolutely opposed to it. And many people who share my position have written much more passionately and wisely about why it is wrong than I ever could, so I don't think my best argument would add to the debate.

However, the gruesome case of Kermit Gosnell and his revolting clinic has given me reason to think about abortion more than normal. Then I read this piece by Elizabeth Scalia, who goes by the pen name The Anchoress, highlighting the lack of media coverage given to the case. She sees in that lack of coverage a bias in the media, as she states here:
So, allow me to ask the impolitic question I have hinted at elsewhere: in choosing to look away, in choosing to under-report, in choosing to spin, minimize, excuse, and move-along when it comes to Kermit Gosnell—and to this whole subject of under-regulated abortion clinics, the debasement of women and the slaughter of living children—how are the press and those they protect by their silence any better than the Catholic bishops who, in decades past, looked away, under-reported, spun, minimized, excused, moved-along, and protected the repulsive predator-priests who have stolen innocence and roiled the community of faith?

Scalia wonders why the press has not tenaciously dug into this story, why there have not been investigations into other clinics. And while I agree with her, I think there is a pretty obvious reason, and even an understandable one. Simply put, the primary emotion evoked by the Gosnell case is not outrage, but horror.

Now, Scalia is outraged because she shares my conviction about abortion. But a lot of people have made an uneasy truce with the notion that abortion is a necessary fact of modern life, and so the reality of the thing, the notion that living things, identifiable as babies, are being dismembered is not something they ever want to face. Whereas you would search long and hard to find someone who would suggest a Catholic priest had any right or sanction to molest boys and girls. Thus, the predominant societal reaction is not to turn away in disgust, but to seek justice.

To put it another way, the Gosnell case creates what psychologists (and especially amateur psychologists like myself) call cognitive dissonance. Our instincts tell us that something horrible is happening, but our rational brains say that what is happening is not that bad, or a freak happening, or the price we pay for some greater good. I would compare it to the gruesome videos I've seen of horrible (there's that word again) slaughterhouse conditions. I react viscerally, and maybe even doubt my decision to buy beef from the store without knowing where it came from and how the animals were treated. But then I let it go, telling myself that these videos are the exception and that the meat I buy isn't adding to the problem.

T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." I think this is the type of thing he had in mind. The simple fact is that something disgusting, immoral, and disturbing was happening at Dr. Gosnell's clinic, and his acts were just on the far side of legality. For those of us who support the legal right to abortion, and for those of us who don't but who shirk the hard work of changing laws and minds, we simply prefer not to bear that reality.

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