Privacy, Attention, Abortion
Who do we think we are, to decide a personal question for anyone, let alone everyone?
Earlier this year, The Atlantic published a story about “Baby Roe,” who was adopted and grew up to be Shelley Lynn Thornton. Because “Roe v. Wade” is currently on the Supreme Court chopping block, they’ve re-upped the article, and it’s worth reading.
But if you read it looking for “pro choice” or “pro life” messages, you will be disappointed. It concludes with the sentiments of “Baby Roe” herself:
From Shelley’s perspective, it was clear that if she, the Roe baby, could be said to represent anything, it was not the sanctity of life but the difficulty of being born unwanted.
Let’s sit with that a second. Like all real things, it’s complicated. It’s not a bumper sticker or a meme or a t-shirt or a billboard. It’s not even “a person”: it’s people.
And when you look at the details of her story, it makes you realize it has nothing to do with conflicting positions on “abortion” and a lot to do with attention and privacy.
Shelley was “found” by a birth-records researcher hired by the National Enquirer at the behest of Famous Lawyer Gloria Allred and her client Then Out And Proud Jane Roe Norma McCorvey. They wanted to create a public event based on reuniting “Jane Roe” of “Roe v. Wade” with the “Baby Roe” she wanted to abort but couldn’t, despite the positive outcome of her case (because the legal process takes too long).
When they found Shelley, she was nineteen years old. They tempted her and her mother to a restaurant by suggesting they could reconnect them with Shelley’s birth mother. Then…
Hanft [the birth records researcher] and Fitz [a writer for the Enquirer] revealed at the restaurant that they were working for the Enquirer. They explained that the tabloid had recently found the child Roseanne Barr had relinquished for adoption as a teenager, and that the pair had reunited. Fitz said he was writing a similar story about Norma and Shelley. And he was on deadline. Shelley and Ruth were aghast. They hadn’t even ordered dinner, but they hurried out. “We left the restaurant saying, ‘We don’t want any part of this,’” Shelley told me. “ ‘Leave us alone.’” Again, she began to cry. “Here’s my chance at finding out who my birth mother was,” she said, “and I wasn’t even going to be able to have control over it because I was being thrown into the Enquirer.”
Let’s talk about the right to privacy.
Too often these days we lose sight of the point of privacy. We’ve been persuaded by cultural currents that nudge us to share and reveal. These currents are driven by a data mining for profit motive, but they affect everything. There’s a sense that you’d only avoid attention if you had “something to hide,” that everyone wants to be famous, obviously — everyone wants gobs of attention.
And this story, more than any I’ve heard, reveals the core value of privacy simply as the right to be a private person.
Some people do want gobs of attention. Others don’t. Some of us hate attention. It is rational to fear it. The attention of fellow humans comes at great cost. Look at all the performers who upon becoming famous say (and are publicly ridiculed for saying) that “being famous is hard,” or all the children raised in the public eye who suffer from cycles of addition, or even just the people who have had the bad luck to “go viral” online and end up with strangers on their doorsteps, or blowing up their phones while their body’s fight-or-flight response poisons their bloodstream and they respond erratically or just hide. It’s the dread fate Charlie Warzel calls “being Twitter’s main character for the day.”
Norma McCorvey had already decided not to be a private person. She was traveling the country, speaking at political, pro-choice, events. If you’re familiar with the wild story of McCorvey in general (and if you’re not, read the Atlantic article above), you know that she was highly motivated by a desire for attention.
Norma wanted the very thing that Shelley did not—a public outing in the pages of a national tabloid. Shelley now saw that she carried a great secret. To speak of it even in private was to risk it spilling into public view.
The attention even from this handful of people was traumatic. The Enquirer and their proxies intervened in her life, connected her to a culture war, and then threatened that if she didn’t come out willingly, she’d be forcibly outed, because she was too good a “scoop” to resist. And since at 19 she couldn’t imagine getting an abortion, they told her she was “pro-life” and that . . .
…the pro-life movement “would love to show Shelley off” as a “healthy, happy and productive” person.
At this point I feel the need to point out that Shelley Lynn Thornton is now in her 50s, and has made her story public voluntarily. Her feelings about abortion are complicated, as most people’s are. But let’s talk about privacy.
Pete Buttigieg put it best (wait for it, seriously), when asked by Chris Wallace “Do you believe, at any point in pregnancy … that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to have an abortion?” Buttigieg says:
I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line, that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of, who gets to draw the line? I trust women to draw the line.
This is the point being considered in the “Mississippi case” by the six surviving members of the Supreme Court and the three judges appointed by a guy who tried to stage a coup and subvert an election, and hasn’t stopped trying, ahem.
The question asked by these attempts on reproductive rights is “how many weeks?” But the question assumes a public decision. The question assumes this is a matter for courts or politicians or voters, the public, rather than the individual women whose bodies and lives they’re talking about.
Chris Wallace pushed Buttigieg, “you’re saying you’d be okay with a woman well into the third trimester deciding to abort her pregnancy?” and emphasizing that this isn’t hypothetical, since there are 6,000 third-trimester abortions in the US every year. Buttigieg answered:
That’s right, representing less than 1% of pregnancies.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation. If it’s that late in your pregnancy, that means almost by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry it to term. We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name, who have purchased a crib. Families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime. Something about the health or life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice… As horrible as that choice is, that woman, that family, may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.
A women, in other words, is a person, and as a person, she is entitled to consult with her fellow human beings, but if her fellow human beings dictate to her what she must do, “that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally,” and in the moral realm, that’s in part because the woman’s right to privacy has been violated.
So “pro-choice” Famous Lawyer Allred aligned with the “pro-conflict” / “pro-money” National Enquirer, who hired a “pro-life” birth records researcher, and all of them were on the same side, all of them together, against “Baby Roe,” all of them hoping to take her life away — her life, not just her heartbeat, but her context and her contents, the selfhood she’d cultivated over nineteen years, and her future: the basic freedom to do the best you can given the ungodly series of gambles we all take every day in this world.
Shelley felt stuck. To come out as the Roe baby would be to lose the life, steady and unremarkable, that she craved.
A steady and unremarkable life. Some call it “the American dream.” It’s what the “pro-conflict” / “more-money” forces want to steal from us all, by convincing us we all want gobs of attention. Back then, it was the Enquirer and other tabloids; today it’s Tik Tok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, none of which care what you stand for, as long as you stand for something public, extreme, and absolute, so you can be positioned-for-profit within the dramatic narrative of their well-established, very-public conflict.
Shelley managed to keep the secret, but it interfered in her relationships, because the hovering threat of public attention made it difficult to trust anyone. She developed a theory that as a fetus she could feel being unwanted and that this feeling destined her for unhappiness. When she had a chance to meet her birth mother, Norma, she told her over the phone to be “discreet” about being a lesbian in front of her kids — Norma told her off and they never met. Shelley’s story is complicated because she’s complicated. She’s real and contradictory and flawed, like the rest of us.
She’s chosen to make her story public, but your or my opinion of her (or Norma) has nothing to do with “abortion”; any more than your or my opinion of “abortion” has to do with whether privacy is a morally essential component of human dignity without which our lives are deprived of value and meaning.
After writing this, I read this 2019 article, also from The Atlantic, titled, “Abortion is an Unwinnable Argument” — it’s a great article, but in response to the title: it’s not unwinnable if your goal is conflict; if you make your billions from conflict and strife, it’s the winning-est argument of our times.