This is the third in a series of conversations on religious and moral topics with my fictitious friend Al. The first two are:
The second round of beers had been opened and poured. It was time for our discussion to turn from family, weather and the fortunes of our favorite pro or college teams to weightier matters. I fired the first shot this time.
“Do you really think that a little bundle of cells the size of a pinhead can feel pain when it is aborted?”
Al shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s a human life, and toa destroy it is murder.”
“Every time I ejaculate, I pump out millions of sperm cells. Every one has the potential to become a human being. Most of them die without finding an egg. Isn’t that mass murder?”
“Nope. Not until the egg is fertilized.”
“But they all have the potential to become human beings. It seems to me you are splitting hairs here.”
Al was shaking his head. “Until the chromosomes from the egg and the sperm combine, it is not a complete cell capable of producing an individual.”
“Capable…but it is not yet an individual…with hair color and eye color and personality…”
“It’s all there in that original cell.”
“And that cell feels pain if it is killed? Removed from the wall of the uterus?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a human life, and it’s sacred. To kill it is a mortal sin.”
“Why is human life sacred, and other animal and plant life is not?”
“The Bible makes it clear that humans are special in God’s eyes.”
I know better than to argue with Al about the Bible, even though he admits that some of it has to be interpreted in a modern context. Still, I was surprised that he would use the Bible as a way to end the argument. That is the standard tactic of many devoutly religious people when they can’t answer logical questions or arguments about religion or morality. The Bible says so. End of discussion.
I decided to try a different tack. “Suppose for a moment that the Bible did not prohibit abortion as you say it does. Would you favor it then?”
Al thought about it for a moment. “No. Abortion is an easy out for people who engage in sexual promiscuity. People who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions.”
“Whoa. If I get drunk and kill someone with my car, I should be held responsible for my actions. But it my actions result in a pinhead-sized glob of cells on my girlfriend’s uterus wall that can be removed in five minutes with a simple surgical procedure, who is harmed?”
“Society is harmed. Our Judeo-Christian way of life is based on the idea of marriage and fidelity. If people can have premarital…or extramarital…relations with no consequences, what will happen to the institution of marriage?”
“So you think the threat of pregnancy should be used as a deterrent to outside-of-wedlock sex? And parenthood is the punishment, I guess, for those who transgress. I have never thought of parenthood as punishment, but I guess that’s because I’m not religious.”
“When you create life, you are responsible for it.”
We had already argued about whether that little bunch of cells was a sacred human life or not, so there was no sense in repeating that. “So you think that all young people should stick to “abstinence-only” relationships? C’mon, Al. You were young once. Don’t you remember what it was like when you were eighteen years old? The incredible sexual pressures? Is abstinence a realistic idea? Didn’t you ever feel those pressures? Weren’t you ever tempted?”
Al looked at me for a moment, and a strange sad expression crossed his face.
“Oh yes. I sure was. And then some!”
He took a long pull on his glass and settled back in his chair. Clear signs, I knew, that a story was coming.
“I grew up, as you know, in a small town in the Midwest. There were only fifty-three in my high school graduating class. Most of those kids I had known since I was in diapers. One family that lived on our block had a daughter. She was almost the same age as me…two months younger. Diane was in all my classes from Kindergarten on. In elementary school, boys don’t hang out with girls…they have their buddies. But Diane and I got together sometimes to work on homework or watch a TV program or whatever. She was like a sister.
“When we got to junior high, we puppy-dated. You know, a Saturday afternoon movie, a sundae at the drug store. Our parents were friends…not close, but they knew and liked each other. We were all Christians, even though we went to different churches.
“Somewhere in there, it got a little more serious, and by the time we reached high school, we were a “steady” couple. At dances and parties, everybody just assumed that Al and Diane would be there together.
“We thought we were adults, of course, and that our love was mature. We talked about getting married and having a family. We necked and petted a little, but it never went any further than that.
“As our graduation approached, we both knew that we would be splitting up for awhile. We were going to different colleges…I was going to engineering school at the University, she planned to attend a local college. She wanted to be an elementary school teacher.
“She was worried about our split, I could tell, and so was I. We talked about how we would write to each other every day, and come home as often as possible to be together.
“One night she said to me, ‘Al, we have talked about marriage and having a family lots of times, but we don’t even know if we really love each other.’
“I didn’t know what she meant, and she wouldn’t explain it. It bugged me. The end of the school year came, graduation and all that, and we both had summer jobs. We spent the weekends together, and when we kissed or hugged, she was a lot more…passionate, I guess.
“One Sunday afternoon, we went to a beach park on a lake. We took a picnic, and planned to swim and then have dinner on the beach and watch the sun go down. We found a little private spot where we couldn’t be seen from the beach and spread our blanket. It was a warm summer afternoon, and we swam and sunned…and kissed a lot.
“After dinner, we packed up the picnic stuff and sat to watch the sunset. It was a beautiful sunset. Everybody else was gone by then and we had the beach to ourselves. After the sun was gone, the whole beach was lit up by a full moon. The temperature was still warm and there was a softness to the air…one of those magical Midwestern summer evenings. She was really feeling amorous, and so was I. Things got a little out of hand. Suddenly she looked at me, and it was if she made up her mind about something. She stood up and pulled off her swimsuit! I was totally flabbergasted! God, she was beautiful in the moonlight!
“She said, ‘Al, we are both going off to college soon, and we need to know if we are really made for each other.’ I didn’t even think. I stood up and took off my suit. We kissed for awhile and it was pretty exciting with no clothing in the way. Then she pulled me down on the blanket.
“It was pretty frantic. We didn’t know what we were doing…but we finally figured it out.”
“I assume you used a condom.” I said.
He laughed. “Back then we called them “rubbers” and most of us had never even seen one. We knew that the pharmacist at the drug store kept them under the counter and you had to ask for them. If I had ever tried to buy one, everybody in town would have known about it in twenty minutes. No, we didn’t use any protection at all.”
“God, you were lucky. Well, I suppose the chances of conception aren’t that high on a one-shot deal.”
He looked at me. “Who said anything about one-shot? We stayed on that beach for another two hours and had two repeat performances. It seemed right. We never did feel any guilt or shame. We had talked about marriage for so long, it was as if we were already married. But we knew our parents would not agree. Once we started, we couldn’t have stopped even if we had wanted to…and we didn’t. We found a lot of reasons to go off by ourselves for the rest of the summer.”
“And you never used anything?”
“She knew about the female temperature cycle with ovulation, and we tried to avoid the high risk times.”
“You know what they call people who practice the Rhythm System, don’t you?”
“Yeah…parents.” He smiled ruefully. “But somehow…” he hesitated, “…we got away with it.”
“What would have happened if she had gotten pregnant?” I asked.
He shuddered. “It would’ve been awful. Our parents would have been furious.”
“What would have happened to your college plans?”
“Out the window. I know what my dad would have said: ‘You made this bed, now you got to lie in it. The first thing you are going to do is get married. Then you better start looking for a job. You got a family to support.’”
I shook my head. “The lives of two young people ruined by a tiny blob of protoplasm embedded in a uterus wall that could be removed in five minutes by a simple surgical procedure. How does this make sense?”
He shrugged. “That’s what would have happened. I don’t know how or why we didn’t conceive. God works in mysterious ways, I guess.”
This was too much. I exploded. “What? You think God prevented Diane’s pregnancy because you were such nice sinners? Come on, Al! How are you any different from the kids today who aren’t so lucky at Vatican Roulette, and when their luck runs out, you want to keep them from getting an abortion?”
“It was different. We had known each other since we were babes. We were committed to each other.”
“Yeah, and all the kids today are just out for a one-night stand. Geez, it’s a shame how the morals of our young people have degenerated!” My sarcasm was thick enough to cut with a knife.
Al looked uncomfortable. “Okay, we were wrong. No doubt about it.”
I decided that berating him further was pointless, and I also knew that his wife’s name was Nadine, so this story did not have a happy ending. I was sorry I had distracted him. I wanted him to get back to the story. “What happened when you went off to college?”
“We wrote to each other every day. Whenever we were able to get together…it continued.”
I was pretty sure I knew what he meant by ‘it.’ “Still no condoms?” I asked incredulously.
“My roommates in the dorm wised me up on that, and I bought some.”
He was quiet for awhile and I didn’t push him. I knew there was more coming.
“Then the letters started slowing down…once a week, once every couple weeks. And then I got the letter.”
Uh-oh. “A Dear John?”
“Not exactly. She just said that she thought we should both start dating some other people…that we had no experience beyond our lifelong relationship, and we needed to broaden our life experiences. Something like that. I don’t remember the exact words.”
I thought he probably did remember the exact words…that they were burned into his brain, but I let it pass. “What did you do?”
“What could I do? I wrote a dozen angry letters and tore them up. Finally, I decided that she was probably right. We should date some other people. But I didn’t for a long time.”
His voice was flat now. “After that, the letters just stopped. Next summer, we both returned home, and we had a couple dates, but there was nothing there. It was like dating your sister. Then she told me that there was somebody else. It was over.”
We were both quiet for awhile.
“What ever happened to her?”
“Oh, she got married, had a couple of kids. I met her husband once. Seemed like a nice guy.”
Then his voice broke. “Oh did I tell you that she smoked? Cigarettes!” He spat out the word like a curse. “I tried to get her to quit, but she just laughed and said she enjoyed it too much.”
His voice grew softer. “I guess her husband couldn’t convince her to quit either.”
I could barely hear him now. “She died five years ago. Lung cancer.”
There was nothing more to say.