An intensely personal take on a very public, political subject.
I wrote the following just a few days after my birthday, but then I put it aside as I found it a little too personal. Disturbingly personal, but when I took another look at it now, I decided to share it anyway. Being this personal is the point of this blog. This issue is a perfect example of how what’s personal can meet the political.
I had a birthday recently that most people consider significant. As I was going through my mail in the morning, I looked at some family pictures I scanned last summer. I was looking at pictures of my mother. When she died in a car accident shortly after her 80th birthday, my sister asked me which of her pictures should she put into the obituary announcement.
My mother was born in 1929. She was ten when the war started, sixteen when it ended. She was a pretty girl growing up in a relatively well-off upper middle class family. She grew up as a spoiled pretty girl with the goal – typical at the time – of becoming a good wife to a well-off man; raising children and managing the maid and the household. The war and the communists ended it all, the whole family got dispossessed, and her dowry (worth the equivalent of a few years’ average income) wiped out by hyperinflation.
All her life, men were after her. When she was about twenty (I do not know the details), she married a much older man. They planned to escape the country through the Austrian border.
They somehow got separated, he got across, she was caught. She was gang-raped by the border guards who captured her which was in a way lucky for her because at least they did not lock her up for a year or two which would have been the typical punishment for her crime. They just let her go knowing that there will be no complaints filed anywhere.
She was 22 when she met my father who came from a similar background, my grandfather being a notary in the old regime and therefore the enemy of the people in the new one.
I was neither planned nor wanted but she knew exactly the day and the place I was conceived.
The Hungarian communist regime at the time had draconian anti-abortion laws. The baby-boom in Hungary was enforced, not natural. The whole generation was named after Minister of health at the time, Ratkó Anna. I was one of the “Ratkó children”.
My mother tried desperately to find a doctor for the abortion but without luck. I was born one month premature but the doctor said baloney, @ 3.2 kg this must be a full term baby. This is what he told my father suggesting that I am probably not his son.
Getting divorced from an emigrant is not easy. My mother was still married to the man who succeeded crossing the border to Austria. My name on my birth certificate was changed three times within the first few months of my life. First I had the husband’s last name. When it was made clear that this is not possible, the custom was followed giving the maiden name of the woman as the family name. My mother insisted on my father’s name being put there. She had to prove paternity which eventually she did. My name was changed once again when my mother married two years later and her new husband adopted me.
This was a time and a place where being born out of wedlock was still a serious stigma, where the chances of a woman with an illegitimate child to find a husband were rather slim.
The new husband was also a bastard, son of a village-girl turned big city maid. It was some sort of self-redemption attempt on my stepfather’s part to marry a ‘fallen’ woman with a child. As a policeman, to my mother, he also looked like a catch. He must have been very good at his job, because after the bloodiest years of Stalinism he was quietly let go and spent the rest of his life as a factory worker.
His mother was concerned about appearances and did whatever she could to create a respectable family. You know, the kind without the bastard. She did things like leaving me play practically naked in front of a wide open door in November. I spent the first four Christmases of my life in hospitals. After every one of these near death experiences my mother shipped me back to her parents who practically raised me ‘till I turned four.
I only learned about some of the things I told you here recently, from my aunt, after the death of my mother.
When my mother was in her 40’s, she decided to finish high school. She got a study-buddy there. I did not like her. She was unattractive inside and out, the type who is bitter and resentful toward the world because of her physical unattractiveness. A few years ago I asked my mother what happened to her. She told me that she stopped seeing her years back. She chanced upon her somewhere praying seriously. This was unusual, so she asked her what’s wrong. She confided her story on my mother. She got pregnant as the result of a chance encounter, not a relationship of any kind. She was living with her mother when she gave birth to the baby. Her mother, a very traditional peasant woman, very much in shame, was helping her to take care of the baby. She dipped the baby into ice-cold water and left her on the table for a while, repeated a few times and when the child did catch the predictable pneumonia, they waited to call the doctor until it was too late to save her.
She was praying for her soul. My mother was so shocked by the confession that she never saw her again. I guess it was hitting a little too close to home.
There is a lot more to these stories, but I tried to stick to what matters to my point.
The point is that everything is personal and everything is political at the same time. That I cannot ever properly separate my private life from the public one. What I am, how I am is influencing my views about the world in more subtle ways than I could care or would be able to describe. I cannot think about the issue of abortion without thinking of my own fate. Without speculating about the could-have-beens. Without the abortion laws, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story. But I must wonder what my mother’s life could have been without me. If she managed to get across the border. If she could have had an abortion. If she did not feel that she should marry the first person who is willing to marry her.
She could have given me up for adoption. After paternity was proven, my father offered her to take me, but not her. She refused. How would I have turned out if I was raised by his family?
These speculations are, of course, pointless, but I am sure that my mother had them too. I KNOW that several times in her life she was blaming my existence for her misfortunes. I was blaming her for her weakness, for not being able to stand up to her abusive husband.
In the end, whose life matters more? Hers or mine? She had the choice to give me up, she didn’t take it.
I interviewed a woman in a small town in Hungary who was born to a woman raped by Russian soldiers. What could be a sensible political position about such pregnancy? Should rapists be rewarded for their crimes by allowing them to pass on their genes? What if the mother abhors the notion? What if she hates the rapist and does not want to live with a constant reminder to the traumatic experience? The woman mentioned above looked strikingly different in her environment. She looked very obviously Russian. She was a reminder.
As a society we promote the idea that sex should be absolutely consensual. Shouldn’t we extend the same notion to pregnancy?
This finally leads me to the question: what do I think about abortion? How can I reconcile my personal history, my personal feelings with the public policy question?
I hope I managed to illustrate that our lives may be just as complex as the world around us. I do not think that it is possible to set a hard rule, to make an absolute statement about what is right or wrong in this matter.
My problem is that I dislike both sides of the debate because I do not believe the concerns of either. Pro-lifers claim to care about the sanctity of life, pro choicers about the rights of women when in fact the women and the babies are just pawns of the two ideologies, secular statism and various forms of Christianity. What both sides want is their ideology to prevail, their will imposed on society through the use of the power of the state.
As a political stand, I respect greatly Ron Paul’s attitude about abortion. He is using a very personal, very emotional moment from his life to explain why he holds the position he does. He is a libertarian, …sorry, I meant: he is a LIBERTARIAN, but on this issue, he is making a personal stand that is not based on the fact that he is libertarian, a stand that is not ideology driven.
If I was a politician, I would reserve the right NOT to have a declared, explained and ideologically justified position on the issue. I would make decisions about actual policy proposals strictly based on their merits and if I was a political leader, I would instruct members of my party to do the same.
Our policy positions do not always have to be ideological.
Having said all this, I will, in my next post, offer a comprehensive, pragmatic yet fully libertarian position.