I have never told this story publicly before. It is very personal and painful, and it brings up troubling questions with no easy answers. But now that so many women in America are to be denied the right to an abortion and prosecuted for seeking one, it’s time.
My first wife had just learned she was pregnant with our second child. The year was 1998, and we were living in an apartment in Frederick, Maryland, about forty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. We had been married for three and a half years, and we already had a bright and energetic toddler. I was only in my late twenties, but my wife was going to turn forty before her due date.
The thing was, we had met while living in Israel, where my first wife, who was from South Africa, had been living for over a dozen years. While we were living in Israel, we seemed to be getting along all right, but soon after we moved to my home country of America in 1997, things began to deteriorate. We would end up years later in a bitter and protracted divorce and custody fight. Our conversation when she found out she was pregnant for the second time was a key moment.
She told me she was worried about the increased risk of a woman her age bearing a child with Down’s Syndrome. If prenatal testing showed this to be the case, she told me, she would get an abortion. I don’t recall my exact words to her, but several years earlier, when I was in college, I had known an adult man with Down’s Syndrome who lived with his parents; the family were members of my synagogue. His father died tragically young, while I was still in college, but he went on to have an adult Bar Mitzvah with his mother’s help, a lovely ceremony I attended. He was so happy. In short, then, I knew that a person with Down’s Syndrome can live a good life. So I told my first wife that I didn’t necessarily agree that having an abortion was our only choice if it turned out she was carrying a child with that genetic disorder.
She looked at me with a sneer and said, “Oh, and I suppose you’re going to take care of it?”
As it happened, our second child does not have Down’s Syndrome. I have little doubt, though, that if the prenatal testing had shown he did have it, she would have had an abortion over my objections, and that our marriage would have ended then instead of dragging on through several more years of escalating verbal, emotional and eventually physical abuse from her.
It also happens that my second wife and I are the proud parents of a wonderful young man we adopted as a teenager from Latin America. And this personal fact, too, makes my views on abortion more nuanced.
To be clear, if my first wife had learned she was carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome, and had decided to get an abortion despite my objections, I would not have tried to stop her. I would have agreed that she had a right to do so, but exercising this right would have given me the right to end the marriage, if we want to stick to the narrow, legalistic language of rights. But that language lacks the vocabulary and the breadth of spirit to say all the other things that need to be said, and discussed, and thought about, and felt with the heart. What are we to think and feel, for example, about the fact that almost no people with Down’s Syndrome are born in Denmark anymore, because prenatal testing is universal and almost everyone who finds this out has an abortion? It hurts Danes with Down’s Syndrome to know society considers them unworthy of living. Or what about the fact that India has had to ban prenatal disclosure of the future child’s sex, because so many parents were aborting girls? Is this a violation of “freedom of choice,” or a necessary protection for women? Or both?
Can such troubling questions be resolved by chanting the slogan “My body, my choice”? No more, I think, than the suffering of girls and women who for a myriad of medical or other personal reasons are unable or unwilling to go through nine months of pregnancy and childbirth can be resolved by somebody screaming, “Every life is precious!”
I don’t know very much, but I know that the cruel and extreme abortion bans being steamrolled through state legislatures at this moment will not “end abortion,” nor will they “preserve life,” they will only add to women’s and children’s suffering in a society that talks a good game about the importance of family while doing everything possible to wreck it. If we want our society ever to reach an accord about abortion and the many other issues that are tearing us apart, we are going to have to move beyond shouted slogans.