A RECENT NEW YORKER CARTOON: IN A MIDDLE-class living room, a middle-aged man is tied with ropes to a chair, and gagged. His wife, her coat on and two packed suitcases at the ready by the front door, is pouring gasoline around him from a large tin can, and turns to address him with the following words: "Look, it's not you, it's me, OK?"
I've had this taped to my fridge for weeks, next to more sedate quotes by P.T. Forsythe and G.K. Chesterton, and I break up every time I go for seltzer water. But it came to mind in a special way when I heard the response of NARAL's Kate Michelman and her cadre to President Bush's signing of a ban on partial-birth abortion:
"George Bush has crossed a line," she roared, "and we are going to be working hard to make sure every member of America's pro-choice majority understands the significance."
The New Yorker cartoon line is good writing: You can hear the woman's voice. You have heard it scores of times on sitcoms-some girl breaking up with some guy and letting him down easy. The statement is usually a lie, of course. Or, let us give the benefit of the doubt and say the woman is acknowledging that the male castoff does not necessarily leave her cold or give her the creeps. No, it's also (she generously concedes) a character flaw in herself: He has good qualities but she is not the person to appreciate him after all. If he is soup, she is a slotted spoon, OK? She blames herself for not having seen it earlier. So ... sorry, goodbye, beat it.
The cartoonist has made the couple middle class and frumpy and married, which is deliberate, I'm sure. The psychologizing depicted in the cartoon-a combination of New Age sensitivity and abdication of responsibility-was once edgy and nouveau but has become mainstream. Your own grandmother talks like this now.
I've been wondering about the cartoonist, some "Cheney": Did he just dash this off and file it with the magazine and move on to the next searing social commentary? Or did he play with it in his head a while, unpack it, tease out its applications? Did NOW and NARAL flit through his mind for even a second?
Take an American woman of average education. She knows herself to be a human. Therefore, the "product of conception" (let's concede some terminology) morphing at warp speed in her womb can be reasonably called "human"-at least in the casual and imprecise way we would grant that analogous products in a dog are "doggy." She knows these products are "life" in some sense, since what last week resembled an undifferentiated cluster of soap bubbles this week has sprouted discernible digits.
But she is careful not to fuse the two words together and call the blob "human life" because them's political fighting words. Putting "human" and "life" in a phrase is an ad hominem trick practiced by pro-lifers to garner support for their anti-woman cause, right? And she doesn't believe in their cause. Why? Well, because the thing in her uterus is not a "human life." (All right, so she's not sharp with tautology.)
That's enough talk about the little ... whatever ... in her body. We are obviously at an impasse regarding its status. Shall we now move on to a more promising part of the equation that might yield clearer directives? What would that be? Lo and behold, the woman, of course! Maybe we can't all agree on whether the fetus is "human life" but we can all agree that the woman is. She has a Social Security number, after all.
The woman is the one we should concern ourselves with. She is the one who is positively, absolutely, indisputably, incontrovertibly a human life and therefore deserving of fullest protection under the law (for reasons not easily adduced with any metaphysical certainty in these post-absolute times but nonetheless still universally acknowledged).
And the woman is hurting, she will have you know. She has her reasons-which are none of your business-why continuing with this pregnancy is injurious to her psychological health. She wants you to know that she is personally opposed to abortion as a casual birth-control fallback, but this is different. If there were any other way ...
Moreover, she does not feel completely good about herself for doing what she is about to do. What she must do. And she is very sorry indeed, and it is with deep regret that she has to say to the parasite that has somehow lodged itself in her womb and in her life: "Look, it's not you, it's me, OK?"