Mon Jul 9, 2012 - 2:24 pm EST
My conversation with a 1960s birth control and abortion hero
ARLINGTON, Virginia, July 7, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - I had heard of Bill Baird before, thanks to a Huffington Post article describing the legacy of the birth control crusader after he had issued a letter of sympathy to Georgetown Law’s Sarah Fluke in April. But, since I hadn’t encountered mention of him before or since, I no longer matched the name to the figure by the time I met a sandy-haired elderly man standing across the street from the National Right to Life Convention last week.
The 80-year-old Baird was standing defiantly in the sun, baking in 100-degree heat, holding a sign for his Pro-Choice League alongside a life-sized wooden “Cross of Oppression.” One other protester was there, presumably his wife, although she refused to give her name. I couldn’t resist crossing the asphalt to strike up a conversation.
“Do you know who I am, first of all?” Baird asked me, to which I responded in the negative. This elicited one of the major themes of the conversation: that I didn’t know anything. “See, now that tells me how your movement doesn’t educate you,” he said. “One of the things that your side fights is the right of a person to make their own decision.”
I’m not sure that not knowing the details of Eisenstadt v. Baird makes me a victim of repression. But it’s true I’m shamefully ignorant of the history of birth control in America. So Baird filled me in with the story of his work decades ago challenging bans on birth control to unmarried people in several states, suffering years of jailtime, all culminating in the 1972 Supreme Court ruling that established a universal right to the drugs.
Describing his five years in a squalid prison for deliberately breaking such a law, he paused. “I want that to sink in,” he said. “You’re facing five years in prison for showing a diaphragm. Does that impact on you at all? Do you see how stupid that could be?”
I asked if he was there to defend abortion, as well as other forms of birth control? “My crusade has been for you,” he replied. “Even though you may disagree with me…if you elect to have an abortion, you should be able to make that decision.” I found myself irresistibly drawn to debate that point.
“If I elect to commit suicide, do you support that right?” I asked. “If I could prevent you in the sense of talking to you,” said Baird. I interrupted, “So you don’t support that choice?”
“What you gotta do, is—you asked a question. You have to be professional enough to let the person answer. If you want to debate, that’s different,” Baird said, at which point his female companion intervened to end the discussion.
“I think respectfulness right off the bat is important in an interview,” she said, noting my facial expression gave off a disrespectful “vibe” (in my defense, I was wearing sunglasses). “Right off the bat [you’re] like oh, you’re evil, you’re the enemy, and I can just see by your questions,” she said.
I apologized, and took off the glasses. I actually didn’t consider either of them to be evil. I did think they would have expected a less-than-softball conversation with a pro-life journalist; however, I was willing to err on the side of decorum. Things went better after that, and Baird, with a paternal if still somewhat offended air, explained the level of respect I should be paying my elder in the culture wars.
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“Be respectful of somebody who at the age of 80 has done something you’ve never done in your life, which was appear five times before the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Baird, whose piercing light-blue eyes never once wavered in our conversation. “When somebody fights their whole life, lays down their life ...”
One day, he said, I may find myself in a situation where I discover, “you know what, Bill Baird was right. I should be the one to make that choice.”
“Or you may not. My own clinic, we helped three nuns get abortions,” he said offhandedly, “so we help lots of people.”
But that help is little appreciated: my clinic has been firebombed, he said. He’d been shot at twice. “No one on your side have been shot to death” (I thought of Jim Pouillon) “eight of us have been. None of your offices have been firebombed ... remember Dr. George Tiller? ... You call yourself Christian!”
Meanwhile, he says, he’s worried his own side will start making up for all the apparent imbalance of violence by attacking us. He said he expressed that concern to Fr. Frank Pavone, a “close friend.”
Baird indulged me when I asked him to tell me about the large cross he bore, which he said showed how Christians use the cross to oppress women into carrying unwanted pregnancies, causing them to seek coathanger abortions, to drink bleach, to throw themselves down the stairs.
“You are young, you have no idea. I’ve seen it,” he said. “Your side says that never happened.”
“I don’t know what it takes to reach younger people like you ... who have such a strong conviction,” he lamented. “You think you’re so right, and you don’t even have any life experience. All you’re really doing is giving what you have been taught by somebody else. You’re going to tell me a fertilized egg is a person, that’s what you’re going to tell me?”
I didn’t resist mentioning how pregnant women have the curious habit of referring to their children in the womb as babies. “Some pregnant women,” he interrupted. Eventually the fact was mentioned that, by the time most abortions happen between 7-12 weeks, the baby has legs, arms, a heartbeat. He responded by challenging my ignorance about hydatidiform moles, a growth that can occur when an egg without genetic material is fertilized, which he said proved the foolishness of believing human life begins at conception.
The conversation then returned to Baird’s legacy. “All the friends you have - you have many - who use birth control, could not use it except for the man you’re talking to. Think of the power of that statement,” he said. It was more difficult to do so than he thought, since none of my friends use birth control.
Again he asked: how many people have I ever met in my life who would go to jail for a cause as he did? I said I knew of those who have spent years in prison for defending the unborn. Why do they do that, he asked? Because they want to save lives, I answered. I think the reaction that followed taught me the most about Bill Baird.
“No, ma’am!” he said. “Be honest with yourself. ‘Bill, I’m going to Heaven! You’re going to Hell. I’m going to be rewarded by Jesus Christ.’”
“Do you know how arrogant you sound to me,” he told a former interlocutor, “that only you could be right, that only your religion could be right? That’s what holy wars are made of.”
As we parted, he offered me one last bit of advice: “All I ask is that you think on your own.”
I learned a lot in this conversation. Listening to the recording just now, I learned at least one more thing: I’m not as good a debater as I thought I was. Speaking to such a dedicated pro-choice crusader did, in fact, unsettle me at first. Sorry, Bill.
In conclusion, I expect that Bill is reading this. At least, I hope so. I want to make sure you know that, at the end of our conversation, when I said I would pray for you, it really was because I love you.
It seemed like you recoiled when I said that - and maybe I gave you reason to, if I really did come off as “snarky” - I can only hope not, sadly. But believe it or not, many people pray for others, not out of some crazy savior-complex that relishes the thought of their targets heading for Hell, but because they like them and want them to be happy. I, at least, pray for my friends constantly, so if I only did it because I thought someone was evil, that would be a bit strange. Obviously we met from two sides of the aisle, so saying I’d pray for you was my attempt to show my esteem despite the disagreement.
I’m sorry that you think all pro-life zeal is a Pharisaical sham, or else the product of Biblical spoon-feeding. I don’t expect that I could convince you otherwise; I will probably have to leave that to Fr. Pavone. But I wish you well.