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Once there was a young woman named Esther. She lived in a small Pennsylvania town and worked for the telephone company. This was around 1910. She was single and she liked men but didn’t think of herself as “loose.” A young man who had come to town recently took a fancy to Esther and she returned the favor. One feeling led to another. She had sex with this man and became pregnant. He told her he was not about to marry her and she could do as she chose. She went to a large city to get an abortion from an abortionist whose name she got from another woman. She checked into a hotel and went to the abortionist’s office and then went back to her hotel room where she hemorrhaged and bled to death. A clerk who was concerned because she didn’t check out at the specified time found her. She lay on the floor on a bloody rug. The police were called to determine if there was “foul play.” They found identification on Esther and contacted her home. When her mother got the news, she shrieked—a quick, terrible sound from the animal world. Then silence descended around Esther’s family and the memory of Esther became silent, too.
This story was told to me by a woman who had researched her family history and stumbled upon Esther. She pieced the story together from various sources—some in newspapers (“Woman Found Dead in Hotel Room”) and some from female descendants who had managed to pierce the silence. Who knows how many Esthers there have been? The woman who told me the story also told me that once she started to learn about Esther she was visited in a dream by Esther’s ghost. The ghost looked like a woman circa 1910 wearing a modestly fashionable dress and a hat with a dried flower attached to it. The ghost told her that she—Esther—felt cold and that was because the world was cold. Her face was averted. She didn’t say her name but told the dreamer that the dreamer knew who she was. And, indeed, the dreamer knew.
I suspect the members of the Supreme Court do not believe in ghosts. The clarity of the law has no use for the spirit world. The law is decisive and the spirit world is, at once, indecisive—What was that?–and ominous. Modern people, who have what the philosopher Charles Taylor called “buffered” selves, selves that are mediated each day by numerous machines that process human intentions and by a knowledge-based outlook that seeks explanations for all phenomena, do not believe in ghosts. Ghosts come from the old world of what Taylor called the “porous” self, the self open to fairies, angels, elves, demons, goblins and ghosts. The porous self was full of jumbled feelings about the mystery of life and the lives of the creatures with whom we share the earth. The porous self was vulnerable and superstitious yet very alert. There was no telling what might happen next. Wisdom lay in reverence and wariness, yet a joy resided in that world, too, a freshness of life, a feeling for how tangible the mystery could be.
Shakespeare, who lived during the decline of the porous self and the tentative advent of the buffered self, was not only alert to the tugs on both sides but reveled in them. Hamlet’s response is famous: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Part of Hamlet’s unhappy, acute genius is to understand what it means to be haunted, how powerful the force of the spirit world is, how hard it is for human beings to parse and yet how the tie between the living and the dead is crucial. Hamlet’s conscience will not let him be. Doubt is beside any niggling philosophical point. The ghost is urgent.
The life of the conscience is not news. The agonies that a woman goes through in making a decision about an unwanted pregnancy do not constitute news. The ghosts of the women who died at the hands of abortionists or who took matters into their own hands, like April Wheeler in Richard Yates’s great novel Revolutionary Road, are not going to appear because they have been banished as unreal. There’s a very substantial rub in our banishing the voices of the dead. We are let off. They are merely gone. Disappeared. Thus in the daylight, putatively rational world, the Supreme Court can uphold the rights of the unborn against the woman who is bearing the child, for the woman is not so much a person as she is a vessel of life and life, as is endlessly intoned, is precious and sacred. Moreover, innocent life, life that has yet to come into this fallen world, is even more precious and sacred. If the society-at-large has no use for the sacred in its daily workings, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the assertion of the notion.
Hamlet freaks out when he first hears the ghost’s story and shouts “O God!” Those two words form the heart of the terrible matter and are an appeal and a plea. I doubt if Esther had any words before she lapsed into unconsciousness and died. She was alone. Women have helped other women since time immemorial but that help is always under the shadow we call “patriarchy.” The last word in a world made by men is going to be male. Women can join in. Women can be justices of the Supreme Court but the laws have been made by men. The world of caring that the infant needs has not been at the center of the material progress that the First World has reveled in over recent centuries. The world of caring that the infant needs is not abetted by any government programs in the United States that allow women to take time off to care for a child. The world of caring that the infant needs is a societal afterthought because caring is not a financial value. No one is trading “caring” on the stock exchange. But then again, no one is trading “sacred” either. All the chatter about “family values” presupposes that women pick up whatever difficulties they are faced with and go forward with a happy, maternal smile. Seduced and abandoned does not exist in such an aggressively wholesome universe. But then as the TV show once put it, “Father Knows Best.”
A sexual moment creates a life. The man walks away from Esther who is left with her body and the aftermath of that moment that may stretch out for many decades. Nature cares only for propagation and women with their wombs are beholden to nature. Men have been free to make laws and make wars but women with their bodies remain an unruly wrinkle. The messianic religions who are literally taken with the male sky god have been very hard on those bodies. Eager to anathematize heretics, those religions have seen women, by definition of their bodies, as heretics whom the priests and mullahs have had to put up with. Their souls can be saved but their bodies, connected as they are to the pagan divinity known as Mother Earth, are treacherous. We need look no further than Eve and Adam. We need look no further than the enormous repression the messianic religions have mounted against women’s sexual pleasure. A vessel has no need of pleasure. A vessel—to repeat—is not a person.
I realize that many feel that each aborted fetus makes for a ghost. That seems fair. The issue we face is with whom do we sympathize more: the unborn or the born. Modern technology has an enormous ability to peer into a woman’s body and give us a graphic sense of the development of the fetus. This has created a sort of prenatal empathy that informs many a person’s attitude. What modern technology does not do is remove the onus of bearing a child that a woman does not want to bear. To consider the fetus as something distinct from the mother is bizarre yet that is what is insisted upon each day. The right of the fetus is seen as an absolute; the situation and person are irrelevant. It is as if the fetus were using the mother rather than the mother supporting the fetus. Yet the tale being told—innocence avenged in the face of the bald carnal fact—is a compelling one. For many, it is an irresistible tale that speaks to something impure being made pure.
What lies behind much of the discussion about abortion is the powerful urge to blame women for being women and to shame women. Since women have been shamed under patriarchy for millennia, this is nothing new. It fits that someone who lives to blame people, such as Donald Trump, should be enthusiastic about limiting abortion. When Trump, a pious Christian if there ever was one, announced that “God made the decision,” he was saying what was in the back of many reverent minds. Thus the Supreme Court decision is not political or judicial. It is religious and speaks to the desire to make the United States into a theocracy, a rule of the saints, an impulse that was there at the very beginning of the so-called settling of the land mass that became the nation and an impulse that has never gone away. In that view, democracy is an Enlightenment aberration, a secular detour from the straight and narrow path of the righteous who are the true believers and true Americans and who, like Donald Trump, are in direct contact with God. No doubt God supervised the various hearings that put the justices on the Court. No doubt God wants Donald to become an ayatollah of some sort.
A sad farce were it not for the number of lives that will be lost, lives of women who feel they have nowhere to turn. How did the enormity of Christianity become so fixated on this one issue? Is that a testament to how thoroughly irrelevant the religion is to a society dominated by money, materialism, glitz and power? A truly religious life has always been a long shot, but Christians once upon a time spoke out for the poor and oppressed, which is to say for many women. Christ did. He would have recognized Esther’s ghost as an unquiet spirit. She once was a person.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include Legends of the Slow Explosion: Eleven Modern Lives (Tupelo 2018).