Conscience of a Baptist (concluded)

          In the days when I attended the church, Baptists seldom mentioned abortion. That may have been because then there was little public discussion of it, although I have learned since that there were many private discussions of the practice as many people sought one. The lack of a Baptist discussion, however, may also have been due to Baptists’ reverence for the Bible and for liberty of conscience. The last time I checked a biblical concordance—admittedly quite some time ago, but surely this has not changed—“abortion” was not in it. One has to interpret or extrapolate from verses and contexts to conclude that the Bible condemns abortion. Biblical passages can be construed to say that life begins at conception, but what “conception” meant in biblical times is not clear. I doubt to ancient Israelites it meant a sperm fertilizing an egg. Other biblical passages, however, indicate life begins with the first breath. But even though the Bible does not explicitly, and may not implicitly, condemn abortion, it is also hard to suggest that it supports the view that abortion should be the choice of the woman and her doctor.

          A Baptist, however, might extrapolate from Baptist principles and conclude that because there are ambiguities in the Bible on the matter, whether an abortion is sinful must remain a matter of conscience. The opinion would hold that the state cannot dictate what is sinful and should not dictate that a woman cannot have an abortion. In fact, when some states began to change their absolute proscriptions of abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, many Southern Baptist leaders held quite liberal views on the subject. For example, a poll in 1970 found that 70% of Southern Baptist ministers supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman; 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity; and 71% supported abortion in cases of rape. The next year the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution stating, “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such circumstances as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

          This liberal viewpoint, however, soon vanished. Since Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention has passed many resolutions about abortion that are much different from the 1971 pronouncement. On the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Convention stated that that Supreme Court “decision was an act of injustice against unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations. . . . We lament and renounce statements and actions by previous conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture. . . . We pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the action of abortion will be not only illegal but unthinkable.”

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, then, Southern Baptist shifted away from dogmatic opposition to school prayer and aid to religious school and towards dogmatic opposition to abortion. These moves have had more than a religious impact because they are all opinions that affect how people vote. Southern Baptists, for example, now want their elected officials to be strongly against abortion and generally friendly, at least, to public support of religion, or at least some forms of religion. This certainly has had importance for the country since the Southern Baptists are the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Over the last generation or two Southern Baptists seem to have moved even further to the political right than they were before. Perhaps people who are better historians, sociologists, or theologians than I can explain why, but I do point out that the Southern Baptists were not alone in the rightward lurch during this period. Something similar also occurred with the National Rifle Association, which had been largely an apolitical group interested mainly in marksmanship and gun safety, but was captured by an element that began the NRA’s move to become one of the most important conservative organizations in the country. Both Baptists and the NRA moved to the right at the same time. Is there a connection?

          Baptists, and other evangelicals, have become a major political force. Baptists are at the core of the modern conservative movement even though these Baptists no longer seek the traditional principles that defined Baptism. They now advocate the intermingling of church and state. Toleration of private consciences no longer seems a defining principle

Nevertheless, when I see one of those white frame New England Baptist churches, I still hope that their congregants believe that religion should not be founded on ritual or coercion or enforced rules. Instead, it should be founded on the consciences of individuals, persuasion, reason, and toleration. I want those bedrock principles of Baptism, and of the country, to remain.

Birthday Snippets

          My birthday is this weekend. Is a celebration due because I have survived, in this case, another 366 days? I understand celebrating a high school or college graduation, a new job, a wedding, a retirement, or other events when a person has actually accomplished something. All I have done to have this birthday is to stay alive. Perhaps today that alone is noteworthy, but that does not separate me out from all I see around me.

          “In each of us there is a little of all of us.” Lichtenberg, Aphorisms, 1764-99.

          My birthday celebrations have generally been quiet affairs—no more than immediate family members with modest or no gifts but birthday cards, some sarcastic and some soppy. Several times the spouse, whose birthday is five days after mine, and I have been on a trip when my birthday occurred. On one of them, the guide gave me a small stuffed donkey. He said, with a smile, that it represented the burdens a man and husband must carry. I did not ask about his marriage.

“Life is one long process of getting tired.” Samuel Butler, Notebooks.

I don’t think about my age much, but I do know I can’t do many things as easily as I once did. When I was young, I did not ever think that it would be hard to cut my toenails or to get up off the floor. Sometimes a name or inconsequential fact seems stuck between my brain and my tongue. But I believe that I think as well as I ever did and that I laugh as much and make others laugh as often as I did when I was younger.

“Of all days, the day on which one has not laughed is surely the most wasted.” Nicolas Chamfort.

I know that I can’t do all the things I once did. I can’t run or play basketball or tennis for hours as in the past, but I can read and write as I always have.

Old joke: “Doctor, do you think sex over 70 can be dangerous?” “Absolutely! Pull over to the side of the road first.”

          For a long time, I believed that I was born on Mother’s Day. I think that I was told that by the mother, and my birthday does periodically fall, as it does this year, on that holiday. But in fact I was born on a Thursday. I was disappointed when I learned that.

          “If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands? Milton Berle.

          I am the youngest of three children. I have an older brother and sister. I was told by my mother that if abortion had been legal back then that I would not have been born. Even so, the siblings maintain that I was the favorite child. I agree with that. And I believe that a woman should have the right to choose.

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Florence Kennedy.

I will worry about my age when I no longer want to learn; when I no longer want to see what each day will bring; when I no longer enjoy a full moon or marvel at a star-studded sky or a beautiful sunset. Or a beautiful woman.

Old joke: “Doc, do I really have to give up wine, women, and song?” “Not at all. Sing as much as you like.”

          There has been one constant at every stage of my life: I have always been a terrible singer.

The Rich Get Richer . . . The Poor Get Children

          Bad Girl by Viña Delmar was a bestseller in 1928. My copy is from its fifteenth printing that year. (Sales were apparently not hurt when the novel was banned in Boston.) In the novel, Dot, a working-class New York City woman, does the unthinkable and has premarital sex. She gets pregnant and marries her lover. She fears childbirth, about which she knows little, and the book has a frank discussion of her attempts to terminate the pregnancy.

Even though it is against the law, she gets a supposed miscarriage-inducing concoction from a pharmacist. Although she takes it “religiously,” it fails to work. Dot then turns to a more upper-class friend, Maude, who urges Dot not to have the baby and tells her that only an operation, not any medicine, will work. Dot asks whether the operation hurts, and Maude says it does “the first time, because most girls are crazy enough to try it without ether.” With the anesthetic, however, “you don’t feel a damn thing.” The friend gives Dot an address and tells her not to pay more than fifty dollars, an enormous sum to Dot. Maude states that the hospitals are open to the woman giving birth, but not to the one who doesn’t want a baby. “High prices, fresh doctors. It’s a man’s world, Dot. To the woman who knows her place they will give their charity, but the woman who wants to keep her body from pain and her mind from worry is an object of contempt.” Dot, not having fifty dollars, goes for a preliminary visit to the doctor, who determines she is pregnant, molests her, charges her five dollars, settles for the only two dollars she has, and tells her to make an appointment soon because she is in the second month.

Dot and her husband Eddie are constrained from talking freely about what they are feeling. Eddie thinks that a pregnancy termination would be murder, but he also thinks a man “would have a hell of a nerve” to tell a woman to have a baby. “What right had a man to say what she should do?”

Dot talks with other friends. Edna says a woman has the baby whether she wants it or not. “Abortion” is never uttered. Instead, in a different way from the way we use the term now, that procedure is referred to as “birth control.” Thus, Dot “was not anxious to debate the pro and con of birth control” with Edna, and Edna to herself was trying to figure out, “Who was the birth-control advocate, Eddie or Dot?”

Edna urges Eddie to oppose the abortion, but he replies, “It’s her business.” Edna then indicates that “nine-tenths” of young married women are ignorant about childbirth and abortion. She states that there are only a half-dozen New York City doctors who do abortions without serious complications such as blood poisoning. For a birth, Edna maintains, a woman can find a good doctor, but “the other way you’ve got a guy who couldn’t make a living the way other doctors do. . . , and in case you have religion, you’ve sinned against it.”

Finally, Dot decides. “After all, it was her body that was to be the battle-field. She had been wrong. It was her place to do what she pleased, not to stand by and wait for Eddie to pass judgment.” The thought of the horrid abortionist was repulsive, and she feels happy and peaceful as she announces that she will have the baby.

(I have not seen many references to Viña Delmar, who not long after Bad Girl, became a screenwriter, but she makes a cameo appearance in the 1935 noir novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. The novel’s setting is a marathon dance held in a hall built out over the Pacific. As the marathon goes on, Hollywood personalities attend. One night the personality to fire the starter’s pistol for the brutal “derby,” where the couples race around an oval painted on the floor with the last couple being eliminated from the competition, is Miss Delmar. Rocky, the emcee, played by Gig Young in the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”—it is hard to say which is better, or more depressing, the movie or the book—explains, “Miss Delmar, is a famous Hollywood author and novelist.” I am not sure why Viña, of all the possibilities was plunked down in this book, but it could have been an homage to Bad Girl. Both books, written less than a decade apart, explore, with sensitive understanding, the difficulties of lower-class life in the 1920s and 1930s. Abortion is at the core of Bad Girl and is an undercurrent in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Early on in McCoy’s book, Gloria, played by Jane Fonda in the movie, urges a fellow competitor who is pregnant to get an abortion. At the book’s end, Gloria worries that she is pregnant by Rocky, and she does not want a child. “Suppose I do have a kid?” she said. “You know what it’ll grow up to be, don’t you, just like us.” The narrator, her dance partner says to himself, “She’s right; she’s exactly right. It’ll grow up to be just like us–”)

(continued May 22)