I’d meant to say something in passing about Kerry Howley’s righteous smackdown of noted telepath Melissa Lafsky, who had clucked her tongue at Kerry and other ova donors who won’t fess up to the deep emotional trauma they must have experienced as a result of the process. Favorite graf:
It’s worth pointing out that anyone who repeatedly lumps together rape, abortion, and IVF either thinks very little of the line between coercion and autonomy, or thinks very little, full stop. I would never dream of writing a Lafskian blog post telling women who have been raped how they all ought to feel about it. But I do understand that it will always be more subversive, more difficult, to admit a lack of emotion in these circumstances rather than an excess. To say: I had an abortion, and felt nothing; I sold my eggs, and enjoyed it; I was a sex worker, and loved it. Break taboos, and the world wants contrition. Didn’t you receive your emotional marching orders?
But Lafsky’s piece did remind me slightly of a debate about abortion I had a while back with a much better thinker and writer, Dana Goldstein of the Center for American Progress. The short version was this: I took the position that Democrats shouldn’t concede that, while it must remain legal, abortion is some moral blight to be minimized as much as possible—though obviously it’s preferable on many other grounds if people are able to take precautions against unwanted pregnancy in advance: They should bite the bullet and defend the proposition that fetuses aren’t persons. Dana and many of the commenters thought that this cam across as dismissive of the experience of the many women who do agonize over the decision to terminate a pregnancy. And maybe there’s something to that—though I’m not persuaded that the compassionate move here is to “validate” those feelings by affirming that yes, indeed, they’re right to feel guilty and conflicted… especially if it’s not true.
But I do think this points to what may be in the background of Lafsky’s reaction. People react differently to different experiences. An article a few years back chronicled a case in which Larry Lessig argued a suit against an elite boy’s school whose music director had, years apart, molested both Lessig and his client. Lessig seems to have moved on without very serious trauma to become one of the country’s most well-known legal academics; his client was destroyed by the experience, and clearly still lived in the shadow of what he’d suffered as a boy decades earlier. Now, clearly, the last thing you want to say here is that since Lessig turned out fine, then if his client suffered any surplus psychological injury, well, that’s on him. Lessig’s resilience in no way excuses his abuser, nor should it be a source of shame to anyone who coped less well with a similar abuse.
And yet, in practice, that’s probably how it works. If person A shrugged off the same experience that traumatized person B, some people are going to wonder what B’s problem is—why can’t they just get over it? And especially in cases where the parties are adults and the experience in question was a voluntary one, it may not help much to say “well, people are different” because this still locates the source of the difference in the two individuals. And we might reasonably fear that the result will be to trivialize B’s pain (“see, you’re overreacting!”) or even to compound it with feelings of guilt (“what’s wrong with me that I can’t just move on like A did?”). One response to that worry is to even things out by insisting that there really is One Objectively Correct emotional response, and anyone who fails to register it is either in denial or somehow broken.
Is this a nice and compassionate thing to say? Maybe. But it’s also obviously wrong. Arguably, it’s a special case of a broader attitude in the air that suffering confers moral authority: Whoever’s in the most pain must be right. But in this instance, I rather doubt there’s any “right” about it. Put it this way, some people are allergic to shellfish. They shouldn’t feel bad about it, but it doesn’t mean anyone else is obligated to feign a seizure after every bite of lobster.