I just finished reading The Good Earth, a portrayal of thousands of years of ancient Chinese history wrapped up in the life of one man. Wang Lung is a father and farmer living in a world of tradition, superstition and blunt mortality, whose existence revolves around the dispassionate but life-giving land. Pearl S. Buck writes,
“There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods . . . Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together— together— producing the fruit of this earth.”
The land is both nurturing and uncaring, life-providing and destroying. It exists beyond the little lives and little centuries. What in Modernity compares; how can we understand with our tiny first world problems and contingency-sparse existence? Yet as one reads, the vitality of the land imprints like a footprint in the soil of a freshly turned mind; one can feel one’s sympathies and world view shifting and even temporarily settling into an ancient order of life, of death, of birth. It is somehow familiar to some primal ancestral self, still stirring in the blood from ages ago.
In this old world, abstractions break down in the face of reality. Land, rice, harvest, famine; woman, child, slave, harlot; silver, house, thieves, labor. Wang Lung’s emotional experience seems bare and blunt, kept in check by the necessities of survival: pride, desire, timidity and joy are diluted in the sweat of sowing; lust, anger and hatred are healed in the harvest. His greatest moments of abstract understanding, wonder, even glory occur as he contemplates his posterity: when O-Lan, his wife, tells him she is pregnant, he marvels to himself, “Out of this body of his, out of his own loins, life!” He is deeply moved by the idea of his posterity continuing his life, his father’s life, on beyond death, and his wonder is stark and startling in its context of day-to-day survival.
Later in the book, the rains do not come. The fields die and the people begin to starve. Wang Lung feeds his grain, his ox and finally the very earth to his crying children: “Bit by bit, I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth.” At the same time, O-Lan is pregnant again, and Wang Lung watches the roundness of her belly pull at her stretching, starving hips, the growing baby steal her life away. At the height of the famine and in the greatest suffering of the family, she gives birth–alone, as always. Wang Lung hears the first cry from outside the bedroom, then nothing. He rushes in to find O-Lan lying on the bed with the newborn baby at her feet. A girl. Strangled to death.
We pride ourselves in our progression of Humanity and Goodness over the centuries, and a cursory understanding of The Good Earth would surely bolster our “chronological snobbery”1: look at the past! Look at how they treated women! Look at their prejudice and discrimination! Look at their ignorance, their feudalism, their cruelty, their barbarism! Foot-binding, idol worship, selling our daughters as slaves–these are now just ugly scars of past inhumanities. We have grown up, grown wise, grown human.
But have we?
Abortion is an ancient, blood-crusted and dusty grotesque, grinning weirdly among our stately, marble-white idols of Progress, Enlightenment, Equality and Rights. Its primordial methods have been sterilized, white-washed and doctored to save us from facing the unpleasant and squeamish realities of our own inhumanity. Wang Lung and O-Lan, at least, lived every day with the reality of starvation; we claim (in AC’d comfort) that we can’t afford another child and thus must abort 2. Then, no smiling clinic or white lab coat screened the crushed infant head, the last tremors of life leaving tiny limbs, or the ripped open round belly of an infant (once by canine wolves, now by those seeking organ sales). In their world, no carefully crafted rhetoric of choice and freedoms mollified the use of such “procedures”. No justification was made, because the practices were fully in tune with the understanding of the era and true desperation of the time. Ancient forms of abortion fit into the cultural context without having to pretend to be anything other than what they were: ugly, horrible, complicated, and harsh, but (sometimes, at least) arguably necessary in a much harsher world. Today, in the vast majority of cases, abortion is unarguably unnecessary from the standpoint of survival. But, though it pretends to be “perfectly simple” 3, natural, and tidy, it remains (at a moral level, at least) as ugly, horrible, complicated, and harsh as ever. Ancient abortions, for the most part, occurred within cultures that valued posterity almost above all else, and so the choice to abort was an appropriately grave one. Today, children are viewed as one item among others on the menu of life, valued only as the prospective mother may happen to value them, and so the choice to abort is made, thousands of times every day, from hour to hour and moment to moment, in every jurisdiction subject to the Constitution as interpreted in Roe v. Wade, with a lightness that mocks the nature of self-species slaughter. (Over 2,000 abortions are performed per day in the United States4.) In our self-deception, our glibness, and our selfishness, therefore, we have, as regards abortion at least, sunk lower in our climb toward “enlightenment” than our however-barbaric ancestors. Abortion is not just a regeneration of the past but a hideous, vile mutation, largely stripped of the desperation of survival but make-up’d over with self-justifying arguments. Women’s real experiences with abortion often coincide with this starker reality5; however we couch it, abortion will never be simple or victimless. Our continued practice of abortion, our humane tendencies and our charmed existence cannot harmonize. Let’s stop lying to ourselves: either match our enlightened rhetoric with grown up actions, or face the full meaning of our choices.
1 Phrase coined by Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis
2 The Ambivalence of Abortion, Linda Bird Frank
3 “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway. Please read this powerful and painful short story.
4 Many estimates are much higher. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Abortion Surveillance
5 Consider reviewing silentnomoreawareness.org