Friday, November 06, 2009

Smugness, Simplistic Bumper Stickers and Choice

It was the smugness that got me, I think. That and the simplistic view of a complex problem that never lends itself to the black and white arguments which attend it.

The bumper sticker read “SMILE. Your Mother Chose Life.” The first thing that crossed my mind was simply “How in the hell would you know?”

There is no small amount of arrogance in presuming to know the circumstances of another life. I thought back to my dear mother, whom I seem to miss more and more with each passing day. I recall her stories about my birth: “It was the hottest day in 1953. And we had to ride all the way across the state on SR 90 to West Palm Beach so you could be born. Your father had to stop the car twice so I could throw up… (This on a highway lined on both sides with signs warning of “Deep Canals” into which cars vanish and only resurface years later complete with skeletons of missing persons) And then they brought you to me and you were so beautiful.”

I miss hearing that story on my birthday each year. But the story which the bumper sticker would presume to dictate took place long before Sept. 1, 1953. The reality is that my mother did not have to choose when it came time for me to be born. She and my father very much wanted children. I was the first of three. And at some level, my birth came as a great sigh of relief for my mother who had nearly died with a tubular pregnancy on their previous try a year earlier. My mother produced three children from one ovary, the last when she was on the cusp of 40 years old. Clearly, this was a couple who wanted children.

My father had a decent job in the early 50s, working first for the USDA on a post-war training project teaching former soldiers to farm in the cane fields of South Florida and later for the local school board. After a year he headed back to the University of Florida on the GI Bill to get his masters in agriculture. Both my parents had siblings within a couple hours drive of LaBelle. My mother’s parents came down to help her when I came home from the hospital and I would go to stay with her sister’s family in Hialeah a year later when my brother’s birth proved difficult. We had places to go and resources to cover us.

My birth was simply not a result of a choice. My mother had no choices to make. She didn’t have the prospect of raising a child alone with no income to provide for it. Her child was not the result of rape or incest. She did not live in an abusive relationship nor did she live within the surround of abject poverty. My mother had two years of college under her belt and a husband with a bachelor’s degree. They were white, middle class, well respected with a strong familial support system. What choice was there to make?

I admit to no small amount of frustration over the way the abortion discussion typically is cast. Pro-life arguments are rarely about life in any sense beyond birth. Their proponents add hypocrisy to myopia in their general support for state killing and opposition to any kind of welfare spending to ease the lives of the poor. And pro-choice arguments focus far too often on rights with little consideration of responsibilities. Even so, choices regarding the termination of a pregnancy considered outside the context in which they are made can make little sense to anyone outside the parties immediately involved. Such complex decisions simply do not lend themselves to the simplistic reductionism of bumper sticker slogans.

If I must smile on command as the bumper sticker demands, I am more than happy to smile this day because I am alive, I am in decent health, I have a comfortable home and life, and a family who loves me. All of this is only partly due to my own efforts, the rest due to circumstances over which I had little, well, choice. But if I am being honest with myself, I must also admit to simultaneously feeling no small amount of pain for the many children born into poverty, abusive families, many of whom struggle to meet the bare minimums of food, shelter and clothing required for life. And I feel no small amount of sorrow for their mothers, many of them relatively powerless to change those conditions which can readily make life a living hell.

I have seen these children and their mothers in the barrios of Central America and the ghettos of the United States. I have taught them and represented them in court. I have lived in their dirt floor hovels in the countryside of Panama. I have sat with them in courtrooms packed with drug dealers and prostitutes. And as I remember them, I wonder how they would respond to the glib, self-satisfied bumper sticker on the rear of a late model automobile in the faculty lot at a large state university in Florida.

More importantly, I wonder how their mothers might react. Would they see themselves as blessed? Would they have second thoughts? Would they smile? More importantly, would they see the “choice” in as simplistic, black and white terms as the smug purveyor of the bumper sticker? I have to wonder.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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