As in a tasty mix of talk

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Stopping a Beating Heart

Last Sunday while waiting at a red light, I noticed this bumper sticker on the car ahead of me: “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.”

The ad copywriter in me thought, “Wow, what an emotionally powerful slogan.” Then my feminist brain kicked in. At exactly what point, I wondered, does the fetal heartbeat begin? (40 weeks from conception, I learned today.) And what about the mother’s heartbeat… what about her future, her feelings, her life?

Equivocation aside, in most cases an abortion does stop a beating heart. So why, when I can’t go to an animal shelter without agonizing over the puppies I leave behind, when my heart swells with tenderness at the sight of a baby’s face, related to me or not, do I stand so firmly as a pro-choice advocate?

Another way of phrasing this conflict: Can I preserve a choice I believe is fundamental to a woman’s freedom without sacrificing that part of conscience that instinctively protects the small and helpless?

Yes, I can.

Pro-life supporters often use abortion as a handle for dragging the dead horse of their oppressive convictions through everyone else’s rights. “Pro-life” implies support for the vibrancy of living. But typically, those with pro-life views oppose sex education, premarital sex, the distribution of condoms to protect teenagers from contracting AIDS, same-sex parent adoptions of children who might otherwise languish in institutions, and most importantly, social welfare programs to support the unwanted children and unqualified parents who would proliferate without the option of legal abortion. These views do not support life. They punish it.

Pro-lifers wave the flag of a moral code from centuries ago, one in which all sex outside of marriage is promiscuous, one that defines sexually active single women as immoral while excusing the same behavior in men as “normal.” In this punitive view, women who fail society by having sex outside of marriage deserve the burden of an unwanted pregnancy. But when pregnancy is enforced as a punishment, it is the unwanted child it creates that suffers most.

I know that many decent, caring people hold pro-life views. At the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC three years ago, as marchers passed the pro-life contingent near the end of the march route, I saw an elderly woman, probably a grandmother, holding a “ Choose Life” placard. She seemed bravely alone as nearly a million pro-choice marchers streamed by. I wondered: was she genuinely heartbroken over the loss of aborted lives? Did her concern for life prompt her to contribute to the homeless? Oppose the war in Iraq? One thing I know for certain is that she was never forced by pro-choice opinion to have an abortion against her will. By definition, “pro-choice” has no agenda to influence decisions to have, or not to have, babies. It merely provides an opportunity to act in accordance with individual conscience.

Yes, not counting the morning-after pill (which pro-lifers also oppose), abortion after 40 days of pregnancy stops a beating heart. It’s too bad that pro-lifers don’t militate for a society that loves, wants and supports all children and every beating heart, including the ones already born. For now, though, abortion enables us to create wanted lives or not, and to consider ourselves courageous, not immoral, when we take responsibility for these choices.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wipe that Bhirka off your Face!

Of all the terrorist icons publicized after 9-11, none is creepier than the bhirka.

Legions of women all clothed in identical head-to-toe garments that, “bee-keeper suit” aside, are more akin to death shrouds. Every bhirka the same shade of blue. All made of polyester. All with plastic mesh facial inserts that permit just enough breathing to sustain life in public. (Bhirkas are not worn in the privacy of home.)

What sin did our Afghani sisters commit to ignite such hatred? Such contempt? Such a punitive taboo against public evidence of their humanity?

Ask somebody who wants to blame the victim… I’m more concerned about why so many girls and women in Western culture wear that bhirka equivalent, the ubiquitous, innocuous, totally disconnected from any genuine shred of feeling, pasted-on smile.

In the United States, there is a ritual devoted to smiling women. It’s called the Miss America Pageant, and if you doubt that a blinding smile isn’t key to winning it, try to imagine any Miss America, from any state, in any year, wearing a serious expression. You can’t. If Angelina Jolie, Beyonce Knowles, or Elizabeth Taylor in her prime entered the pageant and didn’t smile, they wouldn't have merely lost… they would have been expelled from the pageant. Refusing to smile is the only thing a contestant can do that is worse than agreeing to have premarital sex. (Although the practice may have been discontinued by now, in the eighties many Miss America contestants were required to sign chastity contracts.)

The proliferation of dental veneers is another reminder of how highly the female smile is valued. Veneers “changed my life,” beautiful young girls assure television viewers in commercials for Lumineers, the quick-and-easy smile fix. Their televised teeth are blindingly, unnaturally white… the upper-middle-class version of a rap artist’s blinged-out grill. Men get veneers too, but none of them claim that a perfect smile is life changing. In fact, outside of the incomprehensible and irritating smile of the man on the Bijan billboards, men don’t wear a smile as a prelude to speech, or as a badge identifying them as a “good” person. I’m sorry to say that women do.

On a recent airline trip, I watched a tall, beautiful, silver-haired woman in her sixties make her way down the aisle, wearing a pasted-on smile that was painful to witness. It seemed to announce her as someone who had sacrificed her life to being pleasant. It did nothing to mask the emotion in her eyes, which looked a lot like fear. Maybe, like many women, she was afraid that she hadn’t given enough, nurtured enough, accomplished enough, or agreed often enough to deserve her space in society.

I don’t exclude myself from the blanket of my opinion. When I am in public, people constantly smile at me. It always surprises me to realize that they are returning my own smile, which is part of my default expression, something so automatic I am no longer aware of it.

What’s wrong with an automatic, pasted-on smile? It doesn’t kill or injure anyone, other than potentially harming the psyche of the smiler. It might even serve a useful purpose… say, cheering up the onlooker, or reducing drug abuse, or preventing psychotics from slipping off the deep end, or … wait a minute. If there’s even a remote possibility that automatic smiles could yield such outcomes, why don’t we take men to task for not smiling enough? Oh. That’s right. As women, it’s OUR job to soothe society.

The trouble with smiling-as-a-duty is that the smile doesn’t stay on the face. It migrates through our breathing, our laughter, our guts, our psyches, our brains and, uh, our sexuality. What woman struggling to be nice, nurturing and inoffensive would dare to say, “No, dear, not there. About an inch higher and slightly to the left.”

I’m all for smiling when something is funny or when we’re happy. Otherwise…

Wipe that bhirka off your face.