Picture yourself in a doctor's office, hearing the results of that bank of tests you just had done.
The bad news is that your heart is in tough shape, and left unchecked your condition will deteriorate slowly but surely, leading to an early death.
The good news is that, through the marvels of modern medicine, surgery can correct your problem.
The bad news is that no surgeon in the area dares to do the operation, because a religious group which for decades has considered transfusions to be a violation of God's law has suddenly gone militant.
You are startled. But then you recall the recent news reports: Red Cross blood banks being picketed, with signs saying "AIDS from blood transfusions, proof of God's wrath." Four-gallon donors targeted for hate mail. Hospital operating rooms invaded and spread with feces, and in some cases actually bombed. The homes of heart surgeons staked out, nails thrown in their driveways, protesters saying "If they aren't ashamed of what they do, they should consider this good advertising." Doctors wearing bullet-proof vests because two of their kind have been shot and killed. Receptionists in their offices fearing for their lives.
Wait a minute, you say. This isn't right. What has this got to do with me? I don't like the idea of anybody cutting me open, but heart surgery isn't against my religion. It's not against the law. It's legal, as safe as can be expected, and certainly not done on a whim.
"If I need that heart surgery to live a long and productive life, I should be able to make that decision based on my own physical, financial and emotional situation - and on my own religious beliefs."
You can feel your blood pressure rising as the impact of it all sinks in.
"How can they get away with this?" you rage. "How dare they force their religious beliefs on me? How dare they deny me access to a legal medical procedure, simply because it is against their religious beliefs? How dare they use intimidation, the threat of violence, and murder, to force their beliefs on me?
"Don't I have the right to make decisions about my own body, based on my own beliefs? Don't we live in a country founded on religious liberty? Isn't that what this country is all about?"
* * *
In November of 1994 I engaged in a fascinating two-hour debate with one of the area's most ardent anti-abortionists.
In a session set up by the weekly newspaper in Bangor, we met one-on-one in an upstairs conference room of the Bangor Public Library. I had accepted the newspaper's challenge to participate in this face-off because I wanted to see, up close, if two people on opposite sides of the abortion debate could find any common ground.
We did find common ground. But the discussion also clarified for me how different our perceptions were around our most basic freedoms, and just what was meant by the inalienable right to life guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence.
In getting to the essence of the arguments, I had to deal with a man who referred to the Supreme Court justices as criminals, and members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice as bigots; a man who referred to babies as unaborted children; who misrepresented our Declaration of Independence and denigrated our U.S. Constitution; a man who repeatedly said the actions of people like Paul Hill - who shot and killed a doctor outside an abortion clinic - are understandable under the circumstances, since any time the state abrogates its responsibility, it is an invitation for individuals to take it upon themselves to make things right.
Our areas of common ground? We both agreed that there is life at birth. We both agreed with the concept, established under Roe v. Wade, that the state has an interest in protecting a life in the womb back to the point of viability.
We both agreed that the Declaration of Independence accurately stated that human beings have inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We even, remarkably, both agreed that different major religions and theologians differ on when life begins, and that we live in a country founded on religious freedom and diversity.
Now, to my mind, that's a lot of common ground.
Our differences, however, were profound.
The anti-abortionist repeatedly invoked the language of the Declaration of Independence to insist that the document's reference to our inalienable right to life guaranteed governmental protection from the moment of conception. He did not like it when I pointed out that neither the word "conception" nor "fertilization" are anywhere to be found in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, or that when those great documents were drafted in the late 1700s, life was counted from the moment of birth, not before.
He also refused to agree that a government which can compel pregnancy to term also has the authority to compel abortion - a head-in-the-sand denial which flies in the face of common sense, the very real example of China's one-child policy, and our Supreme Court's own analysis, contained in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey, which I quoted to him during the debate:
"If indeed the woman's interest in deciding whether to bear and beget a child had not been recognized as in Roe, the State might as readily restrict a woman's right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term as to terminate it, to further assert state interests in population control, or eugenics, for example. Yet Roe has been sensibly relied upon to counter any such suggestions..."
I have long respected the right of people to disagree with me. I can give equal respect to the woman who would never even consider an abortion, and to the woman who does. I can respect the decision of a woman to have six children, even though I am worried about overpopulation. And I can respect the decision of the woman who cannot face another pregnancy, for physical, financial or emotional reasons, regardless of how I feel I might respond in the same situation.
Unfortunately, that kind of respect - for our Constitution and for each other - is lacking in many anti-abortionists. And that is the problem.
The Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, recognized that not all great minds think alike on this one, and wisely decided to stay out of the fray:
"We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary ... is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."
Anti-abortionists are insisting that we as a nation must decide not only when life begins, but that we must decide that it begins at conception. I do not agree with that conclusion, or even that that is the issue.
The issue is about whether individual citizens have the freedom to think and make choices, even on matters as important as this.
But just as my hypothetical heart patient discovered, we do not have a freedom if we are prevented from acting on it.
A country without freedom, and without respect for the rights of its citizens to make hard choices for themselves, becomes a country based on tyranny and oppression of the many by the few.
We must, on both sides of the issue, respect the right of people to hold different opinions. We must insist on our right to make personal decisions based on those opinions without intimidation or fear for our safety. We must recognize oppression as a threat to those freedoms, regardless of how strongly the oppressors may believe in what they are doing.
"These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State."
Who said that? The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
As a citizen of the United States of America, I will fight long and hard to keep the freedom to choose intact, for those on both sides of this issue. Because, as far as I am concerned, the very core of what America is all about is at stake.
- excerpts from a speech to Maine NOW January 22, 1995 in recognition of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade
- and columns in The Aroostook Democrat, March 1995 and The Maine Progressive