Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"The Princess"

Copied from "The Princess" by Ursula Le Guin in Dancing at the edge of the world, Grove Press 1989. She notes this keynote was given in January 1982.

You are going to be working hard today on a very serious and urgent work, matters literally of life and death, so I thought it might be a good idea to fool around a little first. I am going to tell you a fairy tale.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in the Dark Ages, there was a princess. She was wealthy, well fed, well educated, and well beloved. She went to a college for training female royalty, and there, at the associated college for training male royalty, she met a prince. He, too, was wealthy, well fed, well educated and well beloved. And they fell in love with each other and had a really royal time.

Although the princess was on the Honors List and the prince was a graduate student, they were remarkably ignorant about some things. The princess's parents, though modest and even inhibited, had been responsible and informative: she knew all about how babies are made. She had read books about it. But it had not occurred to her parents or the people who wrote the books that she might need to know how to keep from making babies. This was long ago, remember, in the Dark Ages, before sex was obligatory, before the Pill. All she knew was that there was something called a rubber, and boys always sniggered when the Trojan War was mentioned in high school. The prince, of course, knew everything. He'd been around. He'd had sex since he was fifteen, he said. He knew you had to wear a condom the first time each night. But the second or third time each night, you didn't. It was safe. He knew that.

Perhaps you can imagine what happens next in this story? Like all fairy tales, it follows a familiar path; there is a certain inevitable quality to the events.

"We have to get married!" the princess said to the prince.
"I'm going home to my mother," the prince said to the princess.
And he did. He went home to his family palace in Brooklyn Heights, and hid in the throne room.

The princess went to her family palace on Riverside Drive and cried a lot. She cried the Hudson River full of tears. But, though she had never been punished for anything in her life, she could not bring herself to tell her parents why she was crying. She made up a pretext to go to her mother's gynecologist and get a pregnancy test. They used rabbits; if the test was positive, the rabbit died; remember, this is the Dark Ages. The rabbit died. The princess didn't tell her parents, but went and dug the prince out and said, "We really have to get married."

"You're not a member of my religion, and anyhow, it's your baby," said the prince, and went back to Brooklyn Heights. And she went back home and cried so hard that her parents finally saw what had to be the matter. And they said, "O.K., it's O.K., honey, and if he won't marry you, you don't have to have the baby."

Now, you may recall that in the Dark Ages abortion was not legal. It was a crime, and not a minor one.

The princess's parents were not criminal types. They were the kind of people who obey the speed limit, and pay taxes and parking-ticket fines, and return borrowed books. I mean they were honest. They were neither square nor unsophisticated, they were not "religious," but they were intensely moral people, with a love of kindness and decency, and a strong respect for the law. And yet now, without hesitation, they resolved to break the law, to conspire to commit a felony. And they did so in the reasoned and deeply felt conviction that it was right, that indeed it was their responsibility, to do so.

The princess herself questioned the decision, not on legal grounds, of course, but ethically. She cried some more and said, "I'm being cowardly. I'm being dishonest. I'm evading the consequence of my own action."

Her father said, "That's right. You are. That cowardice, dishonesty, evasion, is a lesser sin than the crass irresponsibility of sacrificing your training, your talent, and the children you will want to have, in order to have one nobody wants to have."

He was a Victorian, you see, and a bit of a Puritan. He hated waste and wastefulness.

So the princess and her parents tried to find out how to get an abortion—and they got a little panicky, because they didn't know anybody who knew. The gynecologist got huffy when asked for a reference. "I don't handle A.B.s," he said. After all, his license to a lucrative practice was at stake; he could have gone to jail; you can't blame him. It was an old family friend, a child psychologist, who finally found the right contact, the criminal connection. She made an appointment for "an examination."

They were really slick, that outfit. Dr. So-and-So. Nice office on the Lower East Side, polite smiling receptionist, Esquire and National Geographic on the waiting-room tables. Their reputation was "the highest-class abortionists in New York City," and it was probably deserved. They charged more for an abortion than most working class families made in a year. This was no dirty backroom business. It was clean. It was class. They never said the word "abortion," not even that cute euphemism "A.B." The doctor offered to restore her hymen. "It's easy," he said. "No extra charge." The princess did not wish to be rebuilt like a Buick and said, "No. Get on with it." And they did. Did a fine job, I'm sure. As the princess left that office she passed a girl coming in, a college girl with red eyes and fear in her face, and she wanted to stop and say, "It's O.K., it's not so bad, don't be afraid," but she was afraid to. And she went back uptown in a taxi with her mother, both of them crying, partly out of grief, partly out of relief. "The endless sorrow . . ."

The princess went back to college to finish her degree. From time to time she would see the prince lurking and scuttling around behind the ivy on the buildings. I'm sure he has lived happily ever after. As for the princess, she got her B.A. a few months after she got her A.B., and then went on to graduate school, and then got married, and was a writer, and got pregnant by choice four times. One pregnancy ended in spontaneous abortion, miscarriage, in the third month; three pregnancies ended in live normal birth. She had three desired and beloved children, none of whom would have been born if her first pregnancy had gone to term.

If any birth is better than no birth, and more births are better than few births, as the "Right-to-Life" people insist, then they should approve of my abortion, which resulted in three babies instead of one. A curious but logical method of achieving their goal! But the preservation of life seems to be rather a slogan than a genuine goal of the anti-abortion forces; what they want is control. Control over behavior: power over women. Women in the anti-choice movement want to share in male power over women, and do so by denying their own womanhood, their own rights and responsibilities.

If there is a moral to my tale, it's something like this. In spite of everything the little princess had been taught by the male-supremacist elements of her society, by high-school scandals about why Sallie dropped out of school in March, by novels extolling motherhood as woman's sole function, by the gynecologist's furtiveness, by the existence of a law declaring abortion to be a crime, by the sleek extortionism of the abortionist—despite all those messages repeating ABORTION IS WRONG!—when the terror was past, she pondered it all, and she thought, "I have done the right thing."

What was wrong was not knowing how to prevent getting pregnant. What was wrong was my ignorance. To legislate that ignorance, that's the crime. I'm ashamed, she thought, for letting bigots keep me ignorant, and for acting willfully in my ignorance, and for falling in love with a weak, selfish man. I am deeply ashamed. But I'm not guilty. Where does guilt come in? I did what I had to do so that I could do the work I was put here to do. I will do that work. That's what it's all about. It's about taking responsibility.

So I thought at the time, not very clearly. That I can think more clearly about it now, and talk about it, to you and to others, is entirely due to the moral courage and strength of women and men who have been working these thirty years for the rights and dignity and freedom of women, including the right to abortion. They set me free, and I am here to thank them, and to promise solidarity.

Why did I tell you this tale, which is only too familiar? Well, I called myself a princess in it, partly for the joke, and partly because my parents were indeed royal, where it counts, in the soul; but also to keep reminding myself and you that I was privileged. I had "the best abortion in New York City." What was it like, in the Dark Ages when abortion was a crime, for the girl whose dad couldn't borrow the cash, as my dad could? What was it like for the girl who couldn't even tell her dad, because he'd go crazy with shame and rage? Who couldn't tell her mother? Who had to go alone to that filthy room and put herself body and soul into the hands of a professional criminal?—because that's what every doctor who did an abortion was, whether he was an extortionist or an idealist. You know what it was like for her. You know and I know; that's why we're here. We are not going back to the Dark Ages. We are not going to let anybody in this country have that kind of power over any girl or woman. There are great powers, outside the government and in it, trying to legislate the return of darkness. We are not great powers. But we are the light. Nobody can put us out. May all of you shine very bright and steady, today and always.

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