Thursday, January 29, 1998
Abortion has been an emotional issue for decades now, sparking hot debate and even violence, from the Supreme Court to local clinics. But a new book by Bay Area journalist Cynthia Gorney tries to put the conflict in a less intense light, looking at the history of the abortion wars from both pro-choice and right-to-life points of view.
Gorney, who will be signing copies of Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars at Bay Books in Monterey on Sunday, spent six years researching and writing on the topic after she was assigned to cover an abortion case for the Washington Post. "I started looking up background material and all I found were essays on politics and medical texts. There was no history," says Gorney. "I had no interest in reading, much less writing a tome, with a capital ''T''. I wanted to know what had happened, how did we get here?"
Gorney decided to interweave historical facts with personal narratives, from approximately 500 people who were involved with all sides of the issue. The result is an easy-to-read time line, from the mid 1960s to 1990, of the abortion battle and the compelling stories that came from it. Gorney focuses on two central characters in Missouri, a nurse named Judith Widdicombe who started an underground (and eventually legal) clinic called Reproductive Health Services, and Sam Lee, a theology student who becomes fascinated by the right-to-life movement. As Gorney was organizing the book, she worked chronologically and alternated viewpoints inside the chapters, giving balanced voice to the events unfolding.
"I needed a small group of characters for the details.most people I found were very eloquent and could tell their stories," explains Gorney. "They felt they were a small part of history.and they wanted to preserve their roles. Sam [Lee] always felt that the story hadn''t previously been told honestly through right-to-life eyes." Only two people contacted by Gorney refused to speak, because they''re now in top government positions and didn''t want to get involved again.
As she got deeper into her research, Gorney realized the abortion issue was enormously complex. "It''s not just about laws. It touches philosophy, privacy, how we interact as a society, how we view the roles of men and women and much more. That''s why so many people get so heated about it."
The language in Articles flows easily between legal cases and personal narrative. Paragraphs of considerable surgical abortion details combine with scenes of courtroom drama in a readable and informative way. In the early years, abortion was secretive and conducted by a grassroots effort of young doctors and women''s groups. The war seemed to heat up once religious groups and politicians got involved, legislating the conditions of acceptable abortions, the length of trimesters and who could perform the operation. The battles went nationwide, even worldwide, after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The right-to-life movement in particular mobilized in the wake of that decision, working to get sympathetic officials in Congress and the White House.
After being immersed in this issue so long, Gorney says her own views were changing, but still split. "It became more complicated. I''m happy I don''t have to write laws about it, it''s hard. It helped me see how intractable this is. I know the right-to-life people have a powerful commitment, they''re genuinely distraught over what they see is killing." Gorney thinks most Americans feel ambivalent on abortion. There is a minority who feel it should be legal or illegal in all cases but there is that huge gray area."
What frustrates right-to-life groups most, says Gorney, is the feeling that they''re not being heard. One of their most effective, attention-grabbing tactics against abortion is the use of photos. "These pictures are real, and they force people to look at the mechanics of abortion. You can see a hand, a foot in some," says Gorney. She shows in her book how the right-to-life activists have been trying since the early ''70s to create a public revulsion with the photos, to get people to think harder about what''s happening.
It was simple coincidence that the book ends with the landmark Missouri court case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (the case Gorney covered for the Post), as told by right-to-lifers who lost the decision. "I didn''t intend to do that, " she says, "it just happened to work into the grid. I made a time-line of things I wanted to cover, then re-reported them.with people from both sides. I used Missouri because it was an example of everything that happened nationally."
Articles of Faith ends with an epilogue of the 1990s, told in short news-brief style paragraphs. With the increased bombing of clinics, shooting of doctors and new legislation, Gorney says she would have needed an extra thousand pages to tell of recent events. "So it ends with Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. This was one of the greatest challenges to Roe v. Wade and I felt it was a good place to stop," she explains. The abortion debate will continue for many years, but now at least, we''ll have an idea of how we got here. cw