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  • From: Jim Forest <jhforest AT>
  • To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion" <percy-l AT>
  • Subject: [percy-l] A Walker Percy piece written for the NY Times 30 years ago
  • Date: Thu, 3 Feb 2011 09:41:26 +0100

A Walker Percy op-ed piece written for the New York Times not quite 30 years ago...

New York Times / June 8, 1981

A View of Abortion with Something to Offend Everybody

Covington, La. -- I feel like saying something about this abortion
issue. My credentials as an expert on the subject: none. I am an M.D.
and a novelist. I will speak only as a novelist. If I give an opinion
as an M.D., it wouldn't interest anybody since, for one thing, any
number of doctors have given opinions and who cares about another.

The only obvious credential of a novelist has to do with his trade.
He trafficks in words and meanings. So the chronic misuse of words,
especially the fobbing off of rhetoric for information, gets on his
nerves. Another possible credential of a novelist peculiar to these
times is that he is perhaps more sensitive to the atrocities of the
age than most. People get desensitized. Who wants to go about his
business being reminded of the six million dead in the holocaust, the
15 million in the Ukraine? Atrocities become banal. But a 20th century
novelist should be a nag, an advertiser, a collector, a proclaimer of
banal atrocities.

True legalized abortion -- a million and a half fetuses flushed down the
Disposall every year in this country -- is yet another banal atrocity in
a century where atrocities have become commonplace. This statement
will probably offend one side in this already superheated debate, so I
hasten in the interests of fairness and truth to offend the other
side. What else can you do when some of your allies give you as big a
pain as your opponents? I notice this about many so-called pro-lifers.
They seem pro-life only on this one perfervid and politicized issue.
The Reagan Administration, for example, professes to be anti-abortion
but has just recently decided in the interests of business that it is
proper for infant-formula manufacturers to continue their hard sell in
the third world despite thousands of deaths from bottle feeding. And
Senator Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority, who profess a reverence
for unborn life, don't seen to care much about born life: poor women
who don't get abortions, have their babies, and can't feed them.

Nothing new here of course. What I am writing this for is to call
attention to a particularly egregious example of doublespeak that the
abortionists -- "pro-choicers," that is -- seem to have hit on in the
current rhetorical war.

Now I don't know whether the human-life bill is good legislation or
not. But as a novelist I can recognize meretricious use of language,
disingenuousness, and a con job when I hear it.

The current con, perpetrated by some jurists, some editorial writers,
and some doctors is that since there is no agreement about the
beginning of human life, it is therefore a private religious or
philosophical decision and therefore the state and the courts can do
nothing about it. This is a con. I will not presume to speculate who
is conning whom and for what purpose. But I do submit that religion,
philosophy, and private opinion have nothing to do with this issue. I
further submit that it is a commonplace of modern biology, known to
every high school student and no doubt to you the reader as well, that
the life of every individual organism, human or not, begins when the
chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to
form a new DNA complex that thenceforth directs the ontogenesis of
the organism.

Such vexed subjects as the soul, God, and the nature of man are not at
issue. What we are talking about and what nobody I know would deny
is the clear continuum that exists in the life of every individual from
the moment of fertilization of a single cell.

There is a wonderful irony here. It is this: The onset of individual
life is not a dogma of the church but a fact of science. How much more
convenient if we lived in the 13th century, when no one knew anything
about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were
legitimate. Compared to a modern textbook of embryology, Thomas
Aquinas sounds like an American Civil Liberties Union member.
Nowadays it is not some misguided ecclesiastics who are trying to
suppress an embarrassing scientific fact. It is the secular juridical-
journalistic establishment.

Please indulge the novelist if he thinks in novelistic terms. Picture
the scene. A Galileo trial in reverse. The Supreme Court is
cross-examining a high school biology teacher and admonishing him
that of course it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized human
ovum is an individual human life. He is enjoined not to teach his
private beliefs at a public school. Like Galileo he caves in, submits,
but in turning away is heard to murmur, "But it's still alive!"

To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if
you may get your way. But you're not going to have it both ways.
You're going to be told what you're doing.

* * *
Walker Percy's latest novel is "The Second Coming."
* * *

Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands

Jim & Nancy web site:
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* * *

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