Opinion

Two conversations with my mother about abortion, 40 years apart, suggest the challenges ahead

June 16, 2022 3:33 am
So many fail to see the far-reaching impact overturning Roe will have on even those who have never themselves been in a position where they have sought an abortion. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Demonstrators carry signs advocating for abortion rights. Building consensus on the topic might be difficult, writes Jim Leiker, but it can be done. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jim Leiker is professor of history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.

In my basement is a dusty set of 1969 World Book encyclopedias. I’ve kept them as a tribute to that long-ago sales rep who came to our rural home in western Kansas and convinced my parents they would be a good investment in their son’s education. In an age when the internet didn’t exist and a place where two TV channels could be obtained on a clear day, reading encyclopedias was one way for a bored child to pass the time. That started my path, albeit with twists and turns, into becoming a historian and professor.

Recently, those encyclopedias gave me reason to recall two days, one of them in 1973, when I found my mother intently focused on a page in Book “S.” Looking over her shoulder at the pictures of the nine men in black robes, I asked who they were.

“The Supreme Court,” she said, “and they should all be shot.”

This was in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, which struck Catholic communities like ours with the subtlety of a grenade. Many people who had never done anything more political than vote suddenly took off work to attend right-to-life meetings and carpool around the state to attend pro-life rallies.

When I got a little older, I learned that the best place for Catholic high school boys to urinate after a night of beer-drinking was on the front door of the Planned Parenthood office, conveniently located near the turnaround spot where we dragged Main. Local police apparently didn’t mind.

The pro-life movement has gotten somewhat more sophisticated since then: grooming young talent for elective office, elevating sympathetic judges through the judicial hierarchy, keeping eyes fixed on a set goal. When Ronald Reagan came on the scene and declared government to be the problem, conservatives cheered but they didn’t really listen, at least not when it came to abortion.

Instead, they got political, and why not? Getting political is how Americans get what they want.

today’s liberals naively seem to believe that moral outrage leads to solutions and being right makes a difference when it comes to winning elections. Many will proclaim that the nation is too polarized to entertain fanciful notions of recruiting allies and gaining converts.

– Jim Leiker

Abolitionists, suffragists, de-segregationists, LGBTQ people, labor unions, public health advocates — all have used government as a way of expanding opportunity. For those who did follow Reagan’s advice, what have been the consequences? Not only did government not get off people’s backs, but people convinced themselves that it doesn’t matter who controls it. The combination of apathy, low voter turnout, and citizens who can name celebrities but not their elected officials is a boon for well-organized factions with agendas. It’s no coincidence that as civic engagement decreases, rights won by previous generations started a backward descent.

Progressives used to understand this. Yes, they achieved reform through lawsuits or executive action or whatever high decision-making body would listen. Yet they also understood that top-down directives were no substitute for old-fashioned consensus-building. The battle to come will require collective action, but the left’s current practice of veering into distracting and fragmented arguments doesn’t bode well for establishing unity.

Worse, today’s liberals naively seem to believe that moral outrage leads to solutions and being right makes a difference when it comes to winning elections. Many will proclaim that the nation is too polarized to entertain fanciful notions of recruiting allies and gaining converts. This is an era of intense tribalism, we are told, and it is foolish to suppose anyone’s mind can be changed, especially on a divisive topic like abortion.

This brings me to my second recollection, of another conversation with mom more than four decades after Roe. While most of her neighbors were lining up behind Trump, she proudly voted for Obama — twice.

My mother could be a follower, which I believe she was in the 1970s when she seemed content to rely on other people’s labels. Or maybe it was the fact that her Depression-era parents hadn’t allowed her to attend school past eighth grade. She often spoke with bitterness at being told “girls don’t need education to change poopy diapers.”

Yet in other ways, she could be a role model of independent thought. In one of our last conversations, she said “I’m not pro-choice. I believe as strongly as I ever did that abortion is wrong. But I don’t think it’s a man’s business to tell a woman she has to be pregnant. God made it so that women have babies, not men, and it just feels like something everyone else should stay out of.”

“Ma, that’s what being pro-choice is.”

A moment of quiet. “Oh.” Then another, followed by “Well … maybe I am pro-choice then.”

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Jim Leiker
Jim Leiker

Jim Leiker is professor of history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park. At JCCC, he has served as chair of the Department of History and Political Science, president of the Faculty Association, and in 2009, founded the Kansas Studies Institute. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Kansas and the West, among them Racial Borders: Black Soldiers along the Rio Grande and, with Ramon Powers, The Northern Cheyenne Exodus in History and Memory, which won the 2011 Great Plains Distinguished Book Award.

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