One of the surprises of this year’s presidential campaign has been how many women’s issues have been on the front burner, what with fights over provisions for birth control in insurance plans, mandated ultrasounds for women getting abortions, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, and “personhood” referendums in states like Mississippi (last November) and Colorado (this coming one). Mississippi’s proposal to declare a newly fertilized egg as a person—thereby making abortion murder—was voted down while Colorado will be addressing the issue for a third time.
The novel I wrote about this past Sunday, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, has something to say about our national conversations about these topics. Hardy would particularly have words for GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
According to Michelle Goldberg of The Daily Beast, Ryan is not only concerned with cutting social programs while lowering taxes for the wealthy. He also is far to the right of most Americans on the subject of abortion:
Indeed, on abortion and women’s health care, there isn’t much daylight between Ryan and, say, Michele Bachmann. Any Republican vice-presidential candidate is going to be broadly anti-abortion, but Ryan goes much further. He believes ending a pregnancy should be illegal even when it results from rape or incest, or endangers a woman’s health. He was a cosponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, a federal bill defining fertilized eggs as human beings, which, if passed, would criminalize some forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization. The National Right to Life Committee has scored his voting record 100 percent every year since he entered the House in 1999. “I’m as pro-life as a person gets,” he told The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack in 2010. “You’re not going to have a truce.”
And further on in the article:
This disregard for the exigencies of women’s lives—the dismissal of their choices as amoral exercises of “arbitrary will”—was thrown into high relief during his 1998 run for congress against Democrat Lydia Spottswood. Both candidates backed a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, but Spottswood believed there should be exceptions in cases where a woman’s life or health is endangered. “Ryan said he opposes abortion, period,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “He said any exceptions to a ‘partial-birth’ abortion ban would make that ban meaningless.”
Ryan strikes me a bit like Angel Claire, the clergyman’s son in the novel who falls in love with Tess and then abandons her when he discovers that she is not pure, having been raped by Alex D’Urberville. Whether Ryan will ever relent the way that Angel does remains to be seen, but Angel’s initial judgmentalism leads to the novel’s final tragedy. If Ryan’s beliefs were put into law (and if, as Mitt Romney advocates, Roe vs. Wade were overturned and we went back to the days of back alley abortions in certain states), there would be many women with their own share of tragedies.
As harsh as both Angel and Ryan may sound, however, there is something to be said about strong adherence to religious beliefs. (There is less to be said in favor of the way that Ryan chooses which Catholic doctrines to emphasize and which to ignore.) We can’t throw out convention altogether, and in the age-old tension between conservatism and liberalism, both sides can be defended. Without conservatism we risk entering a world of moral anarchy while without liberalism we risk sacrificing our humanity. There must be laws and and there must be allowance for exceptions.
That is why I find the vicar in the novel useful. As I explained last Sunday, he is put in a difficult position. He has been barred from Tess’s house for reasons that he can’t figure out (her father has locked the door) and then, when he learns that she has baptized her dying child herself and wants him to validate her actions, he is thrown for a loss: if he too easily says yes, what is the whole point of social rules? Furthermore, no sooner does he bend one rule then she wants him to bend a second, which is what happens when one starts bending. Here’s the passage:
“I should like to ask you something, sir.”
He expressed his willingness to listen, and she told the story of the baby’s illness and the extemporized ordinance. “And now, sir,” she added earnestly, “can you tell me this—will it be just the same for him as if you had baptized him?”
Having the natural feelings of a tradesman at finding that a job he should have been called in for had been unskillfully botched by his customers among themselves, he was disposed to say no. Yet the dignity of the girl, the strange tenderness in her voice, combined to affect his nobler impulses—or rather those that he had left in him after ten years of endeavor to graft technical belief on actual scepticism. The man and the ecclesiastic fought within him, and the victory fell to the man.
“My dear girl,” he said, “it will be just the same.”
“Then will you give him a Christian burial?” she asked quickly.
The Vicar felt himself cornered. Hearing of the baby’s illness, he had conscientiously gone to the house after nightfall to perform the rite, and, unaware that the refusal to admit him had come from Tess’s father and not from Tess, he could not allow the plea of necessity for its irregular administration.
“Ah—that’s another matter,” he said.
“Another matter—why?” asked Tess, rather warmly.
“Well—I would willingly do so if only we two were concerned. But I must not—for certain reasons.”
“Just for once, sir!”
“Really I must not.”
“O sir!” She seized his hand as she spoke.
He withdrew it, shaking his head.
“Then I don’t like you!” she burst out, “and I’ll never come to your church no more!”
“Don’t talk so rashly.”
“Perhaps it will be just the same to him if you don’t? … Will it be just the same? Don’t for God’s sake speak as saint to sinner, but as you yourself to me myself—poor me!”
How the Vicar reconciled his answer with the strict notions he supposed himself to hold on these subjects it is beyond a layman’s power to tell, though not to excuse. Somewhat moved, he said in this case also—
“It will be just the same.”
When I was younger, I wondered why the vicar didn’t more easily grant Tess’s request. After all, what are a few meaningless rituals? Now I appreciate his dilemma and admire him for his internal wrestling. Looking back, I realize what was wrong with my thinking: If you don’t believe in the rituals (as I didn’t then but do now), then there’s no religion. And if there’s no religion, there’s nothing for Tess to turn to at this moment of intense grief. One can’t believe just when it’s convenient and jettison belief when it’s not. That’s the point Ryan is trying to make with his opposition to all abortion.
But where the vicar is wiser than Ryan is in realizing that sometimes exceptions have to be made. Deep down, civilizations have found humane ways to deal with the exceptional cases. It’s only fundamentalists who don’t acknowledge this, caring more about certainty than about human beings.
To bring this point closer to home but in a different realm, I know of an instance of euthanasia, of a doctor ending a patient’s life. She was in the last stages of dying—maybe she only had hours, or at most a day or two, to live—and she was in such intense pain that she wanted to die. He therefore increased her morphine dosage so that it killed her. I don’t think they discussed it but I don’t know that for sure. It may have just been a complicit understanding or maybe he just did it on his own.
No one noticed it or, if they did, no one commented on it. And the reason they didn’t is because episodes like this have been going on for thousands of years. Although there are strictures against doctors killing dying patients, people have bent the rules in exceptional cases. That’s what humanity does: we set up rules to adhere to and we acknowledge that sometimes reality is beyond our rules. Hardy dramatizes the situation in a way that can guide us in our own lives.
Added note: I’ve just discovered that Ryan has also sponsored, at a federal level, a personhood act such as those that came up in Mississippi and Colorado. This from ThinkProgress:
Ryan joined 62 other Republicans in co-sponsoring the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which declares that a fertilized egg “shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.” This would outlaw abortion, some forms of contraception and invitro fertilization.
In her column today, Maureen Dowd says of Ryan,
He’s the cutest package that cruelty ever came in. He has a winning air of sad cheerfulness. He’s affable, clean cut and really cut, with the Irish altar-boy widow’s peak and droopy, winsome blue eyes and unashamed sentimentality.
She goes on to say that he is “Scrooge disguised as a Pickwick, an ideologue disguised as a wonk,” and while I would suggest Nicholas Nickleby in the place of Pickwick, I think Angel Clare is the better literary fit. As his name indicates, he seems angelic and very clear. He is both high-minded and beautiful and all the village maidens are in love with him. But he has a steely inhuman side, a morality that he believes to be pure, and this aspect of him destroys the warm-hearted Tess.