TCS Daily

When One 'Lives' Column Is Too Much

By Ilya Shapiro - July 21, 2004 12:00 AM

I am not comfortable describing myself as either "pro-choice" or "pro-life" because both labels are, in my view, too simplistic for such a complex moral, philosophical, and political issue. I rarely venture into the politics of abortion because I don't think I have anything new to say. Besides, it's easier to write about taxes and trade, Iraq and internet regulation. And Roe v. Wade, contra John Kerry's alarmist fundraising letters, is not going anywhere.

But the New York Times Magazine has drawn me out of my shell with its most recent "Lives" column. This Sunday inside-the-back-cover feature is a sort of grab-all, with Times readers submitting op-ed-length bits of prose about an aspect of their human experience (akin to Newsweek's oft-schmaltzy "My Turn" segment, for those more familiar with that). This past Sunday, one woman described her decision to abort two fetuses when she discovered she was pregnant with triplets.

Entitled "When One is Enough," the article begins by describing the author -- or, rather, the "teller," as "Lives" pieces tend to have "as told to" appended to their bylines for some strange reason -- as having grown constantly worried of becoming pregnant prematurely, thus depriving her of the upwardly mobile middle class life she fantasized about. Now 34 and living that life, Amy goes off the pill, and decides with her long-term boyfriend Peter that if she became pregnant, they would have the child.

Lo and behold, Amy gets pregnant three times over, but is utterly unprepared to have three new mouths to feed. After all, "I was not married; I lived in a five-story walk-up in the East Village; I worked freelance," and she would have to give up her main income for the year (lecturing to colleges in March and April) while on mandatory bed rest. So Amy wonders whether it would be possible to "get rid of one of them." "Or two of them." Her obstetrician wasn't "an expert on selective reduction," but apparently "with a shot of potassium chloride you could eliminate one or more."

At this point, I did a double take. "Selective reduction"? "A shot" of potassium chloride? Did Amy, or her doctor, or the New York Times editors, know that they were talking about ending a human life, or a potential human life, or stopping a heartbeat, or destroying human tissue, or anything other customizing a Starbucks latte?

It got worse. After relating how she felt ill on the subway, Amy rebuked Peter's suggestion that they at least consider having triplets: "This is why they say it's the woman's choice, because you think I could just carry triplets . . . I'd have to give up my life." Even when she thinks about having three, Amy says, "I don't think that deep down I was ever considering it."

No agonizing, no hand-wringing, no tears. She simply knew that triplets didn't fit into her plans -- she'd have to move to Staten Island and shop at Costco, after all -- so the decision wasn't so much a decision as a fait accompli.

Amy's specialist called just as she as she finished watching a Boston Pops concert (how convenient that he didn't interrupt her social life). The "procedure" involved the aforementioned potassium chloride shot to the heart of the fetus -- oh, is that all? -- and "from a doctor's perspective," it's just a matter of saving a woman from the trauma of potentially more complications from carrying multiples. At this point, Peter insisted that it was a decision they were both making, and Amy agreed.

Then the angst-free couple visited the specialist, who determined that she was carrying identical twins and a "stand alone." The stand alone was apparently three days older, and there was "something psychologically comforting about that," since she "wanted to have just one."

Before the "procedure," Amy focused on relaxing while Peter -- who had obviously not yet joined our Brave New World -- stared at the three heartbeats on the sonogram and couldn't believe that they were "about to make two disappear." Luckily, Peter was not allowed to stay during the "procedure," thereby precluding any last-minute moral qualms or other messy interferences with the dialectical march of "reproductive rights." Peter was offended at being asked to leave, but such is the cost of progress.

Amy worried after the procedure, of course, over whether she would have a stillbirth or miscarry, as an annoying consequence of the "procedure." All in all, though, she had a seamless pregnancy, giving birth to a healthy boy. Everything is now "fine," though Amy is terrified about becoming pregnant again, lest she have "quintuplets." She says she'd do the same thing if she had triplets again, but would "probably have twins." "Then again, I don't know."

When I put down the magazine, I was in a minor state of shock. Did I just read another sappy tale from someone trying to get a grip, or was this actually 800 nonchalant words describing a double abortion? I hesitate to recall another time when I had read such insensitive callousness, such unfeeling narcissism, about this or any other subject involving any aspect of the human condition.

Safe, legal, and rare -- weren't these the politically correct buzzwords that I generally agreed with (except with many qualifications on the "legal" and a much greater emphasis on the "rare" than most people who adhered to that phrase)? What happened to the treatment of abortion as a tragic but necessary evil even on the part of radical feminists? Remind me again why we castigate China and India, among others, for tolerating female infanticide and encouraging selective abortions on the basis of sex.

No, "When One Is Enough" -- which was illustrated with three baby bottles, two of them upturned -- was simply too much.

Ilya Shapiro, a regular contributor to TCS, is clerking on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.


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