In an ethnic Bronx neighborhood where men and women were known by what it was they did for a living, my best friend’s mother worked as an abortionist for the invisible powers we adolescents casually referred to as “the mob.” In the years that stretched from the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945 to the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s first administration in 1956, any mention of “the mob” was accompanied by a knowing wink and a sagacious nod of the head. Yet however ripe with urban sophistication those years now seem in memory, the truth is that adolescent boys needed no assumed skepticism to show them how the city and the world actually worked. A sense of moral ambiguity was the chief lesson the streets of New York were supposed to bestow upon the city’s children back in the 1940’s. Gentile or Jew, Italian or Irish or Eastern European, we were all expected to learn how to manipulate those talents we possessed. And no rule of behavior was respected more than the one that told us that the specific talent an individual commanded, whatever it might be, remained his primary cash-and-carry asset.
Only what my friend Frankie’s mother did for a living represented no ordinary talent. Performing abortions called for different moral equations than those the neighborhood ordinarily insisted its children master. Abortion wasn’t illegal in the sense that betting your dollar on a six-hit parlay with the bookie on the corner of Bainbridge Avenue and 206th Street was illegal. In our ethnic stew of working- and lower middle-class families, gambling was a given. Almost everyone gambled, just as almost everyone instructed children under the age of ten to duck beneath a subway turnstile in order to avoid paying the fare. Certain laws, particularly those designed to prevent gambling, were viewed with benign skepticism by adults as well as by adolescents. One of the primary lessons the streets taught was embodied in a symbolic shrug of the shoulders at human nature—made both by a government that should have known better and a citizenry that would remain faithful to that government even when its laws went against the grain of common sense.
Abortion, however, was not part of that collective shrug. For both government and citizens, its illegality went beyond laws thought of as merely inconvenient or unenforceable. Gambling didn’t require anyone to consider the life-and-death consequences of his actions. Abortion, on the other hand, was not merely an act the government deemed morally dubious—it was also an act that threatened to usher each of us, Gentile or Jew, into the house of judgment.
Like so many urban adolescents from similar ethnic and class backgrounds, I liked to think of myself as politically radical and socially libertarian. Nonetheless, I viewed abortion as a terrible—I am tempted to write a “horrendous”— defiance of natural order. Had I been asked to define “sin” back in 1949, I would have scoffed at the idea that such a thing existed. I simply did not believe in “sin.” Or so, at least, I claimed. And yet, I can think of no other word that better describes how I felt about abortion. A sensation of doom and foreboding lay in the very sound of the word. That my friend Frankie’s mother had been forced to do what she did because her alcoholic husband had deserted her, that she was sexy in a way that no mother had the right to be sexy, that she smelled of perfume where the mothers of my other friends, like my own mother, smelled of cooking and cleaning and the everyday harassment of trying to stretch a dollar to its unnatural limits—all of this confused me and most of it made Frankie’s mother extraordinarily glamorous in my eyes. That she performed abortions appalled me.
Crippled by polio at the age of eleven, I was housebound for most of my adolescence. During the long hours that my friends were at school (my own schooling was limited to three hours of home instruction each week), I was forced to search for routines to help me pass the time away. I read, I daydreamed, I became a voracious listener to radio soap operas (including the continuing story of Helen Trent, a woman testing the possibilities of whether she could find happiness after the age of 35 in a world in which neither birth control nor abortion nor even sex seemed to have been discovered), and I sat by the living room window overlooking the small courtyard centering our apartment building and watched a succession of nervous young women stare up at the third floor windows behind which Frankie’s mother plied her trade. I never understood how those women knew which apartment was Frankie’s mother’s, but they did. They would invariably pause in front of the cement lions in the courtyard and apprehensively scan the windows before walking up those last two flights. In the five years that I spied on them, I never saw a single one of those women turn and walk away.
The women were usually alone, although I remember the occasional man standing awkwardly to the side. (I cannot recall ever seeing a woman accompanied by another woman.) Uncomfortable and apprehensive, the men would try to look nonchalant, smoking cigarettes as they shifted their feet to trace invisible patterns on the courtyard landing, like horses at the Belmont Racetrack pawing the ground before being forced into the starting gate.
I have no idea how many women I spied on before Frankie and his mother moved from their apartment to a different Bronx neighborhood in 1952—fifty, a hundred, two hundred. The number isn’t particularly important anyway. For in memory, those women have all melded together. And in my mind’s eye, I find myself framing a lone individual in the courtyard below the window. Her face is pale and she is pretty in that frightened, darting manner in which a wounded bird can be thought of as pretty as it struggles in the agony of its pain. About 19 or 20, she seems as rigid as the whitewashed cement lions, although her hands plead incessantly with the air, like Mexican jumping beans moving against the tide of her deadened will. She is dressed in a beige skirt and white blouse with ruffled sleeves. Like a high school senior who has spent an entire morning primping for her first job interview, she wears too much make-up. Lipstick has been too heavily applied to lips that are too thin. She tugs angrily at her nylons, as if all will be well if she can only keep the seams straight.
My own face cornered against the living room window, I watch her trying to work up nerve enough to meet her fate. As I look her over from the sanctuary of my living room, I wonder whether there might be something I could call out to comfort her. But there is no comfort in any words I can offer, just as there is nothing that will make Frankie’s mother similar to the mothers of my other friends. Abortion is death. It does not matter that I claim not to believe in the “soul” any more than I believe in “sin.” No matter how I try to justify it to myself, doing abortions for the mob is simply not like being a bank teller or a secretary or a salesgirl at the Woolworth’s on 204th Street.
I want to sanction what Frankie’s mother does because I like her. Ever since my return from a two-year stay in an upstate orthopedic rehabilitation home, Frankie’s mother has been telling me that my future is filled with possibility. Never mind that I hobble into the apartment on steel braces and aluminum crutches. “God gave you a mind, Lennie,” she says to me, over and over again. “With God’s help, you’ll make us proud.” Despite her profession—which, of course, I am not supposed to know about—Frankie’s mother is always giving me these spiritual pep talks. And God always figures prominently in her exhortations. Like almost every other mother on 206th Street, Frankie’s mother grows animated when she talks about God.
But what the God I claim, in my self-conscious adolescent cripple’s “toughness,” not to believe in understands is what Frankie’s mother can never understand. God sees the truth but waits, Tolstoy writes. And in my overheated imagination, the fact that I like Frankie’s mother somehow links me to what she does. Even as an adolescent, I recognize that mine is an imagination given over to excess. But I cannot help it: for whatever reason, I have begun to view myself as her accomplice in abortion. It does not matter that I actually look at abortion the way I look on Hollywood horror movies, with my head beneath the seats. However illogical my feelings may seem to others, they are real, they are terrifying, and they are mine.
Forty summers and forty winters have come and gone since I last saw one of those young women standing beneath the living room window. I scarcely recognize my adult self in the attitudes of that crippled adolescent terrified of even pronouncing the word “abortion.” I am very much a man of our times. In the seventies, the decade during which abortion surfaced as the most virulent political issue in this country, I immediately defined a position for myself as a staunch proponent of a woman’s right to do with her body what she pleased. Over the past twenty years, that has remained as accurate a description of my view of abortion as I can offer. What a woman does with her body is simply none of my business.
In theory, the pro-choice argument I have adopted as my own is easy to make. Yet theory lacks a human dimension. And theory fails to recognize complexity. Nor does theory explain, even in the abstract, why over the past two years a woman’s right to an abortion has begun to assume the contours of that face beneath the window I remember from the days of my secretive adolescent spying. And theory cannot explain why I have begun to feel greater and greater discomfort about the morality of abortion. Of course, liberal that I am, I still do not hesitate to declare which side I’m on. Only I have, of late, been forced to recognize that I am more than a bit uncomfortable with my prospects of remaining there.
It’s not that I have suddenly been converted to the belief that abortion is murder. And it’s not that I am any less convinced that women alone deserve the right to say what can and cannot be done to their bodies. Yet I now find myself struggling with my growing sense that the abortion issue embodies that same moral ambiguity the streets of my adolescence were supposed to teach us how to handle. The rhetoric of pro-choice, like that of pro-life, turns out to be nothing more than a slogan. And the streets, I remember, always taught one to be skeptical of slogans.
Were this my struggle alone, it would be of little consequence. But the majority of men I talk to view abortion with a similar sense of ambiguity. As an affirmation of the right of women to control their bodies, we support it—and support it enthusiastically. For that seems a simple question of justice. One should grant others what one demands for oneself. And who should know better than a man who has spent his entire adult life insisting that, crippled or not, he alone has the right to define limitation and possibility for himself that women must possess that same right in any society that wishes to consider itself decent?
Yet if I remain comfortable with abortion as a right, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with my memories of that face below the window. No matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, an abortion is simply not the same as a tonsillectomy. And it has become increasingly difficult not to admit that when one adopts the pro-choice position one also imposes a great deal of dubious moral baggage on oneself.
I am constantly asking myself whether I or any man has the right to an opinion on abortion. For if ever there was a woman’s issue, abortion is it. Yet few other issues evoke as profound a gut sense of immediacy among the men I know. It is not women alone who turn on the evening television news and watch hundreds of public martyrs to their own passions barricading themselves in front of abortion clinics. It is not women alone who note that many of those demonstrators, frequently a majority of them, are men. It is not women alone who listen to a male physician who once performed abortions for poor women speak of threats made against him and his wife and children, so that he now refuses to do abortions out of fear for his family’s safety. It is not women alone who observe those caterwauling mobs playing to the camera’s inevitable presence with the shrill conviction that by breaking the law they are carrying out “God’s will” and preventing a “holocaust” against “the unborn.” Where abortion is concerned it is rage and anger, not reason and logic, that maneuver both men and women as they struggle to claim moral hegemony for their “side.”
More and more, as I watch those impassioned faces on the screen—both the faces that cry out for “pro-choice” and those that cry out for “pro-life”—vivid with the conviction of absolute moral certitude, I find myself balancing their eyes against my memories of other eyes. In an age in which victimization has become a commodity, like after-dinner mints or overpriced foreign luxury cars, I wonder whether such total certainty in one’s “rightness” can be even more crippling than the polio virus that took my legs. Perhaps that is why, as I have grown older, I have increasingly come to value the moral ambiguity the streets imposed on me and on my friends. One of the few benefits of aging is the discovery that one has become not more tolerant but less certain of right and wrong. To grow older leads toward a community of doubt that allows one to join one’s own growing lack of surety to the next person’s. And on no other issue currently facing this nation does that joining seem more necessary or more desirable than on the question of abortion rights.
Turgenev once described Dostoevsky as the nastiest Christian he ever knew. A few months ago, that remark reverberated in my mind as I watched a frenzy of grievance and hatred passing itself off as love of God and compassion for the unborn. Had I been able to resurrect Turgenev to witness the 1992 Republican National Convention at Houston, I wonder which of those self-righteous men and women he would have nominated as the bilious Dostoevsky’s successor. That sternfaced CNN hatchet man, Pat Buchanan? Or that soft-spoken smiling Yale businessman-evangelist, Pat Robertson? Certainly not the compassionate Mary Fischer, whose moving address on AIDS—geared to her very personal knowledge that to share in humanity is to share in humanity’s suffering— seemed so painfully human and so terribly out-of-place as she offered it to those moral score-keepers of the Republic. Or would Turgenev, that gentle observer of tortured souls, have chosen George Bush or Dan Quayle from the righteous minions so eager to open the pits of hell to any woman insisting on her right to an abortion and any man who helped her?
Obviously, none of us can answer hypothetical questions, particularly those addressed to ghosts. But I like to think that Turgenev, a writer whose prose was as human and temperate as his mind, might have done what I finally forced myself to do—he might have blessed the sobriety of doubt, cursed the darkness of certitude, and turned off the television set in favor of rereading the Book of Job, a simple reminder of the profound lack of logic that seems the everlasting message of human suffering.
As I seek refuge from the fierce political religiosity that now envelops discussion of abortion in this country in a renewed sense of the ambiguity that haunts all moral issues, that very same sense of ambiguity the streets of adolescence imposed, I wonder about the absoluteness of any right. Liberal that I still think of myself as, I am no longer certain that a woman has the right to do with her body whatever the moment demands. Absolute right of any kind increasingly appears questionable and dangerous to me. Sooner or later, the adherents of any absolute right come to see themselves as crusaders. And like all crusaders, they inevitably insist that they alone have the privilege of speaking for God.
And yet, filled with my growing sense of doubt and this gnawing sense of uncertainty about the act of abortion, I remain pro-choice. I tell myself that one should be conscious of proportion and common sense in all moral questions. And I remind myself that what my friend Frankie’s mother did was wrong not because it was done but because it should have been done legally, by a trained physician. Legalized abortion would certainly have prevented the death of that young woman for which Frankie’s mother was sent to prison two years after she and her son left the neighborhood.
Then as now, abortion was a mirror of the times, a commentary on this nation’s need to impose on itself a spiritual innocence it had long since lost. In the fifties, we Americans still believed that Ozzie and Harriet spoke for the entire nation. And Ozzie and Harriet, like Helen Trent, never spoke about abortion. Only then, if not now, the lesson of the streets was still fresh: just as one had to learn to live with physical loss, so one had to learn to livd with moral ambiguity. It was a simple lesson, and perhaps that is why it was left to the streets to teach it. For ambiguity is neither style nor principle. It is, rather, the profoundly human recognition that all rights are morally equivocal and all obligations intellectually complex.
Remembering that face beneath the living room window still reminds me of how borderline the moral choices one makes inevitably are. And yet, that face also reminds me to be grateful for ambiguity. For ambiguity is a gift. Ambiguity does not prevent one from looking back or acknowledging the possibility of error. In the final analysis, doubt and uncertainty are thrust on us as its living, vibrant synonyms. And what else but a strong sense of ambiguity allows us to remain on the side of choice? What else encourages us to recognize all those moral compromises we must learn to live with if we wish to survive? That, after all, was the strongest of all the lessons the streets taught. There is a virtue to ambiguity, and a realism to holding onto a position while recognizing that it truly may be no more than the lesser of evils. For teaching me that, I shall continue to be grateful to the streets of my adolescence.