His Lifer Story

Commentary: A Town Square Opinion

by Richard J. Rosendall
Published on September 6, 2007, 12:00am | Comments

Russell (not his real name) is a closeted, conservative priest whom I have known for 30 years. He is active with an anti-abortion ministry. I learned that he was gay a quarter century ago when I found him in Mr. P's, a now-vanished gay bar in Dupont Circle.

On the night I found Russell there, a young man sitting at the bar told me that Russell had invited him to his house in another city that he shared with several other priests. I mentioned this to Russell, who smiled and said, ''I'm a bit more modern than your uncle,'' referring to an uncle of mine who was an older priest. I replied, ''You took the same vow of chastity that he did.''

Last March, I met Russell for breakfast with mutual friends from the 1970s. He offered the Vatican's usual anti-abortion combo of moral homily and advocacy of a government ban. He declared cheerfully that the supply of abortion doctors is dwindling. He talked about liberals' prejudice, but it is unpersuasive to argue that the real intolerance is from those opposing government coercion. Curious to see his reaction, I mentioned the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. He froze, and cut off the discussion.

At that breakfast, Russell spoke about studies alleging that women suffer psychological damage after choosing abortion. This sounded like right-wing pseudoscience, so last week I e-mailed him asking for further information on Post Abortion Stress (PAS) Disorder. He emailed me back from Amarillo, Texas, where he was attending a conference being held by a group called Priests for Life.

Russell pointed me to Dr. Theresa Burke at rachelsvineyard.org and Dr. David Reardon at afterabortion.org. His message raised familiar anti-abortion tropes, such as the conflation of biology with the issue of legal personhood. (Unfortunately for him, the government issues birth certificates - not conception certificates.) He invoked an apocalyptic scenario: ''Some choices are intrinsically evil and, if followed, end civilizations.'' Apparently, abortion will accomplish what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and other genocidal monsters failed to do.

Russell mocked Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ''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....'' Fittingly, the same offending quote appeared in Kennedy's Lawrence v. Texas opinion overturning state sodomy laws.

Russell retorted, ''No mention here about what has been rooted in the thinking and behavior of mankind from pre-history onwards. Just what the INDIVIDUAL wants meaning to mean, as it were. Sounds like a Unitarian Mission Statement....'' Translation: Liberty is allowable only if exercised in ways deemed acceptable by Mother Church.

I found my way back to reality by reading Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's blistering dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart, in which the Supreme Court last April narrowly upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Ginsburg observes that ''the Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from '[s]evere depression and loss of esteem.' ... This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution -- ideas that have long since been discredited.''

Ginsburg states, ''For the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman's health,'' despite experts' insistence that the intact D&E procedure is safer for women with uterine scarring, bleeding disorders, heart disease, and suppressed immune systems.

Ginsburg cites an article by Susan A. Cohen from the Summer 2006 Guttmacher Policy Review. Cohen's article discusses the methodological flaws in the studies cited by Reardon and others. She notes that PAS is not recognized by either the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association. Tellingly, moreover, the pro-lifers show no interest in the stress caused by bearing and raising unwanted children.

The truth is that anti-choice zealots only use the trappings of science to mask their authoritarian purpose. To people like Russell, freedom to choose is something to fear. Russell's own sexuality terrifies him. I am inclined to treat him as a cautionary example, similar to the way he discusses women's alleged post-abortion traumatic stress. I could tell him that suppressing his God-given homosexuality may help him avoid facing painful challenges, but it diminishes and corrupts his soul. The difference is that, unlike him, I do not invoke junk science nor seek to impose dogma on my fellow citizens.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org). He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.


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