The lady on the ladder, and other abortion stereotypes

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lady on the ladder.

Yes, the one New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote about in his column about the college classmate he’d shunned back in school, when the other guy was an uncool, unthinking Christian who’d accepted everything he’d been told. Dork that he was, he even wore a jacket and tie to Sunday Mass.

Now that the guy has chucked his Catholic faith and evolved into a brave abortion doctor, though, he rates not just his former dormmate’s admiration, but a column devoted to his heroics. Which include the time an antiabortion protester – a fixture outside the doc’s clinic, who pitilessly screams “murderer!” and “whore” at all who enter, turns up on his examining table. To get an abortion.

Of course, the good doctor is philosophical about this – and so caring that when he first notices this annoying person is not on her usual perch on a ladder outside the clinic that day, his impulse is to worry about her:

“I thought, ‘I hope she’s O.K.,’ ” he recalled. He walked into an examining room to find her there. She needed an abortion and had come to him because, she explained, he was a familiar face. After the procedure, she assured him she wasn’t like all those other women: loose, unprincipled. She told him: “I don’t have the money for a baby right now. And my relationship isn’t where it should be.” “Nothing like life,” he responded, “to teach you a little more.”

So imagine Dr. Wonderful’s surprise to see this woman back on her ladder the next week, yelling as usual, having learned nothing.

After Bruni’s column appeared, several conservative writers, a Catholic news site and Gawker – mm-hmm, together again, for the very first time — questioned whether there was any such a woman, given that a number of strikingly similar versions of the lady on the ladder tale have been reported before.

Now, people change their minds about this issue all the time, in both directions, and it’s no stretch at all to imagine that a protester could become a patient, or vice versa. But isn’t it odd that every one of these antiabortion activists is so dim that she never thinks perhaps she’d best seek her abortion at a clinic other than the one where she yells “whore” and “murderer” all day every day?’ Alas, no.

I don’t bring any of this up to question the ethics or motives behind the column written by Bruni, a talented former colleague and complete professional; no way would he have piped the thing. We all have our blind spots, however, and the former classmate he once shunned may have embellished the tale, either to impress or ingratiate himself – he also told Bruni that meeting him, a gay man who didn’t conform to his preconceived notions, was one of the experiences that had set him on the path to enlightenment and Erasmus. Or maybe he just wanted to get back at him. (Who is it again who believes everything he’s told?)

Speaking of preconceived notions, however, my beef is that those who oppose abortion are routinely depicted as some combo of unhinged and hypocritical, and abortion providers as virtuous and brave. Doesn’t this neat delineation ever strike writers who on other topics gravitate to texture and complexity as quite the coincidence? Nope, so even when the news of an abortion doctor who is most certainly not up for secular canonization gets out, it’s barely mentioned outside right-to-life or church media.

On TIME’s “most influential” list, let’s see, there’s Cecile Richards, and Sandra Fluke and, oh, on the other side of that lobbying and advocacy coin, nobody.

The one-note coverage isn’t seen as that, of course. Take the abortion documentary ‘12th and Delaware,’ which came out a couple of years ago. It chronicles, on one side of a street in Fort Pierce, Fla., the hoot-owl crazy goings-on at a Catholic crisis pregnancy center, where volunteers lie, bribe, stalk, and perhaps most appallingly, tell one poor girl that maybe her abusive boyfriend will lighten up if she has his baby.

On the other side of the street, we meet the warm, nurturing grandparents who run an abortion clinic, and only want what’s best for their clients. The movie, which was shown on HBO, was a well-done piece with a point of view. But what bothered me was that it was hailed first and foremost as being uncommonly even-handed, with equal appeal to those on all sides..

No matter how we feel about abortion, we’re repeatedly told, we are just gonna love that our most fringe representatives are allowed to speak for us! Only, we don’t.

We, huh? Yes, though I’m not for re-criminalizing abortion, I am for re-thinking it. (Which won’t, in my view, ever be accomplished through shaming, punishment, or chasing pregnant women around with trans-vaginal probes.)

My only judgment on those who feel otherwise – as most people I know do — is that we just don’t see this one the same way. This is certainly not a partisan perspective; as someone who doesn’t think corporations are people but does think unborn children are, I don’t really have one of those. I do, though, hope the day will come when we will look back on both capital punishment and abortion as we now look back on slavery – as a wrong so culturally accepted we couldn’t see it at the time.

“Choice” is predicated on the idea that life is complicated, full of contradictions and moral gray area, and that’s all true enough. But views on this issue aren’t so cut and dried, either, and neither are those who hold them. Which, I’m sorry to say, you’d never know from reading the news.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.