The Whole Abortion Story–An Interview with Anne Conlon

The Human Life Review has issued a new book, The Debate Since Roe, that serves as a reference and primer for any student of the abortion issue.  It’s a must-read for the voter, the activist, the undecided.  The Review’s managing editor, Anne Conlon, talks openly about real life and the not-so-hidden pain that divides the nation.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Didn’t the concept of “The Debate Since Roe” sound like it could be an utterly depressing project?

ANNE CONLON: Jim McFadden, the late founding editor of The Human Life Review (he died in 1998), believed there had to be a record of the abortion debate so no one could claim, as some Germans did about the Nazis, that they didn’t know what was really going on. Distilling a 37-year record into a single volume, a pro-life reader of sorts, was a challenge. What was somewhat — not utterly but somewhat — depressing, during my long trek through the archive, was the growing realization that all the important arguments against abortion were being made, and eloquently so, from the very beginning of

the debate. It makes me nuts, for example, that anyone could have ever entertained the feminist claim that unborn children were simply “blobs of tissue.” I chose to include in the book Sen. James Buckley’s 1973 Senate address introducing his Human Life Amendment (a few months after the Roe decision), not simply because of its historical significance, but because in it he quotes an extended passage from the work of a researcher in fetal physiology whose description of the physical and biological characteristics of the unborn child is as illuminating as any sonogram.

LOPEZ: Why did you start with eugenics?

Anne Conlon, Managing Editor, The Human Life Review

CONLON: The book is largely, though not completely, chronological. I thought Mary Meehan’s “The Road to Abortion,” written several years after Roe v. Wade, was the right place to begin because it supplies important context for how such a culture-rupturing decision could have happened in the first place. Meehan, who’s one of the most formidable researchers about the eugenics movement — she spends a great deal of time in public libraries and private archives, excavating important facts and details from dusty old boxes of personal papers and correspondence — shows in that essay how the abortion movement of the Sixties was both peopled and paid for by supporters of an earlier eugenics movement, one very much committed to breeding a “better” human race. This included not only people like Margaret Sanger and Alan Guttmacher of Planned Parenthood fame, but also establishmentarians like John D. Rockefeller Jr. and George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak).

LOPEZ: You contend that in the years since Roe, the “bitterness” has “intensified.” What accounts for that? Pain?

CONLON: That’s a hard question. And I’m not sure I have a good answer. But here’s a roundabout way of telling you what I think. I’m 60 years old. When I was a freshman in college, in 1970, a dorm mate who suspected she might be pregnant breezily assured me that if she were she’d just go to New York and get an abortion. It wasn’t legal yet (it became so in New York in 1971), but loopholes in state law made getting an abortion there pretty easy, or at least that’s what she thought. I was shocked that she would even consider having an abortion, but it didn’t occur to me to think of her as a bad person.

Ten years later, when I was working as a copywriter at an ad agency, a colleague confided that while she would never have an abortion herself, she didn’t think she had the right to tell someone else she couldn’t have one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my introduction to the “personally opposed, but” abortion credo. And for a while, “personally opposed, but” pretty much described my attitude, too — though I would never let anyone get away with assuming I was pro-abortion, an assumption most people at my agency would make whenever the subject came up (there aren’t many pro-lifers on Madison Avenue). One day when I was about six months pregnant, my boss, the creative director of the agency, matter-of-factly asked if I’d had an amniocentesis yet, as I’d want to make sure everything was “okay.” No, I told him, I would take what I got.

That was in 1986. My obstetrician, of course, also expected I’d have an amnio and insisted I sign a note saying I had refused the test — why have it, I said, if I wouldn’t have an abortion. I didn’t know then that this doctor, who subsequently got my son safely through a tough delivery, was also dismembering the unborn children of her patients who didn’t want to give birth. I found that out after I started working for the Review in 1995, when on hearing about my new job, she replied, “Well, of course you must know that I do abortions. But only up to eight weeks.” She even assured me she had counseled patients carrying children with dwarfism not to abort them for that reason. Well, I hadn’t known about her abortion practice and I was shocked. But, because of our personal history I suppose, I couldn’t bring myself to think that even she — an abortionist, for heaven’s sake — was a bad person.

I saw her a few weeks ago. It happened to be my son’s 25th birthday and we recalled how what had begun as a routine induction ended 20 hours later in a 4 a.m. emergency Caesarian for a baby in acute distress. “The umbilical cord is wrapped around his neck and arm,” I heard her say as she went about rescuing him from what had become a lethal lifeline. She’s no longer delivering babies, and I’m not sure she’s still doing abortions, though something she said about “the Pope who wants to put us out of business” made me think that she is. She said it with a smile, but it was a bitter remark — and one which evoked a bitter feeling in me. Like me, she doesn’t think I’m a bad person because I disagree with her about abortion, but my disagreement, I realized at that moment, causes her pain, just as hers causes me pain.

There is no way to compromise on the matter of killing human beings. But today, in navigating a culture permeated by abortion, most of us have at least some people in our lives with whom, on this contentious subject, we have in essence agreed to disagree. But there is a cost for this uneasy agreement, and that cost is a massive suppression of pain — on both sides of the debate. So getting back to your question: I don’t think pain by itself causes people to become bitter. I think the suppression of it does.

LOPEZ: Why are people “more confused than committed”?

CONLON: It’s not just pain we’ve been suppressing for going on four decades, but common sense, and, for those old enough to remember it, logic. Most people tell pollsters they are against most abortions. Yet they still want it to be legal. This includes, in some polls, people who also say abortion is murder. This makes no sense — what other kind of “murder” would people be so blasé about? Then there are those who are against abortion but don’t have a problem with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Or maybe they reject both abortion and euthanasia but support embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning. A lot of people, I think, are feeling their way to a position on these issues rather than thinking them through. And it doesn’t help that our culture has substituted entertainment for imagination. It takes imagination — moral imagination — to see that so-called spare embryos created in petri dishes are our brothers and sisters. That they, too, being part of the human community, deserve our respect — and protection. The good news from recent polls is that young people are trending in a pro-life direction. But I don’t think logic has as much to do with it as perhaps a growing awareness on their part of the missing — siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles who may have been aborted — and an inchoate sense that “there but for the grace of my mother, go I.” They have also been taught that virtually any sort of discrimination is evil, and the unborn are indeed the tiniest and most helpless victims of discrimination.

But even if you think you’re keeping your logical head while all around you are losing theirs, you can still feel confused by the affection you feel for people — like my obstetrician — who either think abortion’s okay or don’t bother to think much about it at all. I’m a committed pro-lifer. But the last thing I want to do is hurt someone during a conversation about abortion. I think the statistic now is that one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. When you add in all the people who may be complicit in that abortion — expectant fathers, parents, siblings, grandparents, friends — I suspect we could be talking about a majority of people in the country. I sometimes feel like Hamlet: “Should I say something or not?”

But then there are the times when I don’t have much of a choice about saying something because someone who knows I’m against abortion is verbally accosting (or maybe just needling) me about it. After 16 years of working for the Review, I can articulate and defend the pro-life position pretty well. The Debate Since Roe is for anyone who wants to be able to do the same — it will give them greater command of the facts and arguments about abortion. But then we must remember, too, that it’s possible for even wise men to rush in where angels fear to tread. How we make our case is so important. And this is especially so for people who are representing the pro-life movement. I’ve been asked on a few occasions to do a talk-radio or TV interview on some abortion subject and I’ve always declined — I can be too much of a hothead when provoked.

LOPEZ: What does Tom Thumb have to do with anything?

CONLON: Earlier I talked about a researcher whose illuminating description of fetal development, quoted by Senator Buckley in a Senate address, is part of the Congressional Record. Tom Thumb — the fairy-tale character smaller than a thumb — is in the Congressional Record, too. He was put there by the French pediatrician and geneticist, Jérôme Lejeune, when, back in the Seventies and Eighties, he testified in the Senate, first in support of a Human Life Amendment, and later a Human Life Bill (the latter testimony is in the book). Doctor Lejeune was well known for having identified the chromosomal abnormality that causes Down syndrome — he received the Kennedy Prize for it in 1962 from the president himself. He used Tom Thumb to make the point that each individual’s unique physical character is contained in the chromosomal marriage that takes place at conception. At two months of development, he said, we were all Tom Thumbs in our mothers’ wombs, two inches long but complete with hands, feet, head, organs, and brain. As far as I know, no reputable scientist ever publicly defended the “blob of tissue” canard, but it’s also true that the science establishment as a whole wasn’t interested in taking on noisy feminists — and the influential politicians (like Ted Kennedy and Al Gore and Bill Clinton) they converted to the pro-abortion side — so there weren’t legions of scientists publicly denouncing it either. Just as there aren’t legions of scientists publicly denouncing Harry Blackmun’s “We don’t know when human life begins” canard — actually what he wrote in his majority opinion for Roe was “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” Thanks to the silence of scientists and doctors and, of course, the press, that very-easy-to-answer question — just consult an embryology textbook — is still very much with us. Especially at election time, when it provides convenient cover for self-proclaimed Catholics like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.

LOPEZ: What did you learn from Sandi Merle?

CONLON: Sandi Merle was one of those people who walk into your life one day and make such an impression that now, six years after she died, I can conjure up our first meeting as if it had happened yesterday. Cardinal O’Connor — he and Sandi were great friends — sent her to us sometime back in 1999. Sandi, who was a novelist and Broadway lyricist, had started a group for Jewish women in the arts who were against partial-birth abortion. She had produced, along with Dr. Mary Nicholas, what they called a Jewish/Catholic Dialogue about partial-birth abortion, and the Cardinal thought we might be able to help them get it published. It was much too long for the Review, but a sister organization, the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, did publish a lengthy excerpt as a pamphlet later that year. Sandi, bless her, made sure that pamphlet got into the hands of every member of Congress. This was the era of the partial-birth-abortion legislative battles, which Sandi vividly recounts — along with her friendship with Cardinal O’Connor — in the essay of hers in the book. I remember attending an event here in New York with Sandi years ago. Carlos Menem, a former president of Argentina and a great pro-lifer, was being honored by the Vatican. It was held in an auditorium, I can’t remember where, but Sandi was sitting on the aisle. I’ll never forget how, as Rep. Chris Smith, another great pro-lifer, walked up to take his seat, Sandi, in one smooth thrust, landed a copy of the pamphlet smack in his belly.

You asked what I learned from Sandi Merle? How to get stuff done. But on a more serious note, I learned how important it is for the pro-life movement to have a big tent. Unlike Sandi, not all the women in her group were against abortion per se; they just couldn’t believe that six-, seven-, eight-, and even nine-month-old unborn babies were being butchered in America. It was a start. Most people don’t know, as Sandi did, that Jewish law proscribes most abortions. In 2001, Sandi helped put together a conference at Fordham, titled “Exploring How Jews and Christians Can Work Together to Sanctify Human Life.” One of the speakers was Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The text of the address he gave there, which has never appeared anywhere except in the Review, is also in The Debate Since Roe.

LOPEZ: What was the easiest essay to decide on including? The hardest?

CONLON: The easiest was Ronald Reagan’s “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.” When a sitting president writes an essay for your journal, as he did in 1983, you not only run it, you reprint it from time to time, and, if you’re doing a collection, it’s the first thing you think of including. What was hard was having to leave so many excellent essays out. My aim wasn’t to produce a “Best of The Human Life Review,” but rather a reader that would not only help pro-lifers become better articulators of their argument, but also give them some history, some understanding of the anti-abortion movement’s decades-long struggle. Along with Senator Buckley and Doctor Lejeune, I included such other legislative landmarks as Henry Hyde’s House speech introducing a Human Life Bill in 1982, and Hadley Arkes’s House testimony on the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act — Professor Arkes’s brainchild, which George W. Bush signed into law in 2002. All of these, by the way, are beautifully written, compelling pieces. Jim McFadden always said that our side would get the best “vendors of words,” because what writer who was proud of his gift would want to “befoul” his reputation by defending the killing of unborn babies? He sure was right about that.

LOPEZ: How does one find herself managing editor of The Human Life Review?

CONLON: Actually, I have NR publisher Jack Fowler to thank for that. The ad agency where I worked for twelve years went out of business in 1991. After four years of working freelance, I decided I wanted a career change and sent NR a letter saying I’d be happy to start at the bottom again and would even make the coffee if they had a spot for me. They didn’t, but Jack dutifully filed the letter and résumé away. Not long after that, when the Review’s then-managing editor announced she was leaving in three weeks, Jack, who had worked for the Review before joining NR, pulled my letter out and gave it to Maria [McFadden, then executive editor, now editor], who gave it to her father, Jim. I came in for an interview, hauling my ad portfolio, which he didn’t look at, and a few letters to the editor I’d written about abortion, which he did. He hired me on the spot — that is, after I practically got down on my knees and begged him for the job. And, by the way, it was Jim who always got into the office first and made the coffee.

LOPEZ: Why would anyone want to subscribe to a journal that is all about abortion?

CONLON: Well, it’s not all about abortion. From the very beginning, and for obvious reasons, the Review was also focusing on euthanasia and other assaults on the sanctity-of-human-life ethic. Over the years, we’ve responded to what Roe has wrought with articles on physician-assisted suicide, fetal genetic testing and experimentation, designer babies, cloning, embryonic-stem-cell research, et al.

“What Roe Has Wrought” is the working title of another volume I’m putting together, of essays from our archive on these subjects. I had started off including them in The Debate Since Roe, but the project just got too unwieldy. That’s why some of our longtime contributors, anti-euthanasia advocates like Wesley J. Smith and Rita Marker, for instance, aren’t included here but will be in the second volume.

LOPEZ: What’s the single most effective piece HLR has run?

CONLON: Literally effective, as in having an effect? Probably President Reagan’s essay. It sure got us notice. But here’s what else I’d say: We aim to be effective in different ways. You never know what kind of argument will persuade an individual to change sides — political, philosophical, religious, psychological, legal, medical, or maybe some piece of personal testimony. We feature articles by doctors and lawyers, politicians and political scientists, philosophers and clerics, journalists and, as Jim once called them, “those who bring a layman’s view to the meaning of it all.” Most of the articles we run are written, as Reagan’s was, especially for the Review. But we’re keeping a record of the abortion debate, so along with original pieces we also reprint, as I’ve already mentioned, the texts of political speeches — and Supreme Court decisions — as well as essays and columns published elsewhere. For example, back in the mid-Nineties, the feminist Naomi Wolf created quite a stir with an essay she wrote for The New Republic, titled “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” in which she argued that abortion was a “necessary evil.” We not only reprinted it but ran a symposium addressing — and I don’t need to say, refuting, respectfully refuting — her argument. Her essay isn’t in the book but another one from that time is: George McKenna’s “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position,” a masterful analysis of the abortion debate that originally appeared in The Atlantic. McKenna, a political scientist who has since written several original essays for the Review, told me back then that The Atlantic had never received as many letters to the editor as it had for that one.

LOPEZ: A few months ago, you honored Paul Greenberg at your annual Great Defender of Life fundraising dinner. How did you come to that decision?

CONLON: We wanted to honor him because he deserved to be honored — he is the epitome of what it means to be a Great Defender of Life. A fearless pundit — also a Pulitzer Prize–winning one — his writing is powerful and eloquent. The longtime editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Greenberg writes three (long) columns a week, mostly on subjects that have nothing to do with the pro-life struggle, by the way. Bill Murchison, another syndicated columnist, and one of our senior editors, in his introduction to a collection of Greenberg’s pro-life columns we just put together, wrote that Greenberg “may be America’s most brilliant living newspaperman.” He wasn’t always pro-life; in fact, in the Eighties, while he was at the Pine Bluff Commercial, he sparred over the legality of abortion in that paper’s pages with a local pastor named Mike Huckabee. The first time Jim reprinted one of [Greenberg’s] columns, he wrote that Greenberg had been on “a slow road to Damascus.” But his conversion proved Jim’s point about “vendors of words” — Greenberg’s one of the best of them. He gave a wonderful address at the dinner, ruthlessly honest about the self-delusion he engaged in for years in order to defend abortion but was finally able to throw over. There’s comfort in that, he said. If he could change his mind, others could as well. Maria McFadden and I and the rest of the people at the Human Life Review believe that, too. That’s why we do what we do.

© 2012 by National Review, Inc., Reprinted by permission.  

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  • lhsmom12

    Very informative and can’t wait to get my hands on the book. Nice to meet such a well spoken journalist on the Sanctity of Life. Thank you.

  • Johnarchibold

    The political history of abortion before Roe v Wade is probably the most depressingly fascinating story in American history.  Legalized abortion started in 1967 in Colorado as a result of a freshman Democrat’s bill in the State House of Representatives.  His bill was enacted by a Republican House and a Republican Senate and signed by a Republican governor.  The freshman Democrat subsequently was to further expand the abortion permisssion, but in that he did not succeed.  Twelve Senate Deomcrats out of fifteen voted No, and the later bill failed by one vote in the State Senate.  Two years after Roe, that 1967 freshman Democrate became athree term governor of Colorado. Why Colorado?  Why did the Republicans enact it?