Common Wisdom: Ties That Bind

This election year, which brings me as close to being a purely single issue voter as any I have known, leads me to reflect on the ways in which deeply principled, deeply committed people live out their commitment to the unborn. Contrary to the myths propagated by pro-abortionists, single-issue voters are not usually John Brown-like fanatics, living single-issue lives. Most of the anti-abortionists I know are busy and loving people juggling many interests, attachments—and moral obligations.

Many of them I first met at Birthright, the pregnancy counseling and support organization which has a branch not far from my town. For almost four years my sole job there has been arranging the monthly schedule of volunteers who staff the center, a job which opens a window onto the competing pressures and obligations faced by these women.

A surprising number have young families—surprising because they must find a sitter if they are daytime volunteers or coax a weary husband’s cooperation if they work an evening shift. These women do not inhabit the milieu of nannies and au pairs; sometimes they make arrangements with a pro-life friend who babysits gratis as her contribution to the effort.

Women with school-age children often work within the school schedule, interrupting or scaling down their hours during holidays or summer vacation. Some shift days and times to accommodate part-time jobs. And of course some are older, their children grown. This does not necessarily make them ladies of leisure: they are often coping with their own or a spouse’s health problems, or with calls for help from their children or grandchildren.

In fact, it is enormously moving and humbling to see the range of crises many women grapple with without dropping out of the volunteer picture altogether. A woman calls me up abjectly apologetic because she cannot come in for the indefinite future: her husband has lost his job and she must shift from part-time to full-time employment to pick up the slack, while a relative or close friend steps in to mind the children. Someone else has an elderly parent who can no longer care for herself: she must cut back on her volunteering, but begs not to be taken off the roster. A woman whose children have long since grown must adjust her life to welcome with anxious care a teenaged grandchild who has come to live with her and her husband.

One of the volunteers I most enjoyed talking to—because of her energy and cheerfulness—cared for a preschooler and a baby who had successfully undergone the first of several scheduled operations to correct a heart defect. We talked once about her plans to homeschool her children. Shortly before she and her family moved to another state, she let me know, with her usual abundant optimism, that she was pregnant with twins.

I’ve talked to volunteers with handicapped children or gravely ill spouses, and others have called me up after their own serious illnesses to let me know they are fit to come in again. Like many volunteer organizations, our staff has a fairly high turnover, but so much of it is abundantly, even awe-inspiringly justified.

I think most people who care deeply about those who are aborted every day in mind-numbing numbers suffer guilt because they are not devoting their all to saving these tiny ones. Guilt can be a useful goad, and most of us are so far from perfection in most areas of our lives that we are familiar with the feeling of coming up short.

But coming to know these women at Birthright, even in this restricted way, has helped me to sort out in my mind how good people should and do grapple with what used to be called the duties of one’s station in life. I have mixed feelings about the philosophy and tactics of Operation Rescue. I admire the prodigal sacrifices the participants make, the sufferings they invite for the sake of these mostly invisible victims. Certainly they make the right enemies.

Yet even if all my doubts were resolved, I would remain convinced, as some of the participants in these rescues are not, that Operation Rescue is something only a limited number of even those deeply concerned about the unborn can devote their lives to.

Otherwise, what would happen to all those infirm parents, almost as needy as newborn babies but not nearly as cute and cuddly? What about those handicapped children, those grown children in a period of crisis, those spouses in mental or physical pain, the children who need lots of love and attention and direction to have a chance of growing up straight in a crazy world? What about all the other duties, minor and major, we owe to those around us, those we constitute the neighbors we are called to love as we love ourselves?

I don’t think this is an argument to drown the voice of conscience in an ocean of trivia. But it’s best not to become too comfortable with compromise, and to work through the problem of how to allocate the minutes of a finite life regularly.

My first boss was Jim McFadden, the founder and editor of, among other things, a quarterly called the Human Life Review. The idea for it came soon after the 1973 abortion decision, and unfortunately the journal has found plenty of material to continue flourishing. My boss drew a special lesson from the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I remember as I have remembered so many things I learned from him.

What struck him was how the man set upon by robbers lay right in the path of the Good Samaritan—as he had done for the two men who passed him right by. The Good Samaritan rose heroically to the occasion, but it was not an occasion he had sought out. This brings him more nearly down to our level, makes the lesson more limited but also more pointed.

We have no excuse for avoiding the obligation that is placed in our way, but we may be sure there will be more than enough of these to keep us busy with our own moral calculus. Some people will be called to great causes that wholly consume; others will be alternately excused, consoled, and frustrated by the many ties that bind.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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