Abortion: How and Whether to Read about Evil

The trial of a particularly demented abortion doctor has been going on, this last week, and links to news stories appeared on Facebook under comments like “I’m almost hesitant to share this…but, you need to know.”

That hesitation wavers in my heart. Reading these articles is painful. I have, several times, tried to post links and chickened out. I couldn’t bring myself to spread it without extended explanation.

On the one hand, these things must be known. It’s important not to turn our eyes away from someone else’s pain in order to stay comfortable when we really ought to alleviate that pain, even if it involves our own discomfort.

On the other hand, the descriptions in these reports and media stories horrify me. I feel physical pain and permeating nausea when I read them. I have difficulty breathing afterward. Their short sentences etch images on my mind’s eye that will never go away.

I know they’ll never go away because I remember sitting in English class as a teenager while the teacher graphically described a suction abortion. Feeling vomity, I tremored after several minutes, “Please, please stop. I can’t hear this.” She replied that I had to know to change things. She continued. I sat in class, listening obediently, as my heart-rate escalated. I remember her description as vividly and colorfully as one remembers a traumatic experience. And, I remain uncertain to this day if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

In a cruel and violent world, exposing ourselves to that cruelty and violence can help us to rise up against it. But, there are risks: the possibility of becoming so overwhelmed we are desensitized. Enough exposure may make us numb, like too much noise deafens the ears. Exposure to extremely terrible events could also make other horrific things look “not as bad as that one.”

This is the war inside me: these things are simultaneously too horrible to know and too horrible not to know. I don’t want these things to continue, but is grating sandpaper across my soul going to stop it? How should I approach these events, these news stories?

I hypothesize this answer: purpose.

For what purpose do I read these articles? I must consciously measure my exposure to my purpose. My intuition is that there is some amount of grisly detail that translates into purposeful action: we need enough understanding of the atrocity to realize we must act, but not so much that we damage our own ability to act. Humility is also key: I once saw a horror movie with the explicit thought that I could “take it.” But, is wanting to be “strong enough” to look at evil a healthy attitude? We must, must, must read these articles humbly, listening to our soul and realizing that we may be most able to effect our purpose if we don’t finish reading, not because we can’t “take it,” but because what we “take” at some point may ferment into input that drugs the soul. (This is the same way I read Lolita, or – rather—the way I came to read only the first half of Lolita.)

Additionally, reading for purpose will help keep us from drifting into the very modern danger that “being aware” can take the place of real action. It is painful and arduous to read the descriptions reported in these articles, so it’s natural that our recognition of the difficulty of the exercise subconsciously morphs into a belief that by reading all the way through, we’ve “done something.” Wouldn’t we have “done something” more if we’d only read the first paragraph, left our computer, and volunteered at a pregnancy center for a few hours?

Did I go volunteer at a pregnancy center? No. I am moving slothfully toward action; I went and checked out Real Choices (a beautifully empathic pro-life book on abortion) from the library and read it straight through that afternoon. In one sense, I felt as though I was doing penance for not reading the news articles. In another, I felt that I was equipping myself for a conversation I may have in the future with a daughter or friend.

Mine is not a tidy argument. I can’t say what to read, how far to read, what not to read. My suggestion, vague as it is, is simply that we are responsible to read about evil in our world and, when we do so, we must designate a clear purpose. To refuse to look is to allow it to continue; to look without discernment is to create the danger of it becoming part of ourselves.

Here is a link. Read with grace.

With thanks to Zoe Doss, for indispensable insights and idea contribution.