Planned Parenthood and the Banality of Evil

An ordinary woman

Nucatola: An ordinary woman

Her words can’t be bent. Her words can’t be turned and made to point in some direction other than the direction in which they do point. Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood, and the doctor featured in the first video of the Center For Medical Progress, spoke with stunning casualness of the harvesting of organs from Planned Parenthood’s many aborted fetuses. Even if (which I doubt) Planned Parenthood did not violate the law by “selling” those organs  at a “profit,” no amount of legal justification can alter the impression–the fact–that this is a person who has acted with the utmost cruelty toward her fellow human beings. And she has done it from within the protective shell of an organization that has made her actions appear routine and acceptable.

This is truly the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined–and a truth proclaimed–by Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt. Continue reading

Overlaid With a Contradictory Language: Oak Alley Plantation


Pope John Paul II often described sexual relations as a language of complete self-giving between husband and wife. Contraception, he asserted disapprovingly,  “overlaid” sex with a “contradictory language” in which the spouses, by withholding their fertility, actually did not give their entire selves. Something about the pope’s notion of actions as languages, and of one such language being overlaid by another contradictory one, has always intrigued me even in quite different contexts.

Oak Alley is an hour’s drive west of New Orleans. Walking the grounds of this ancient sugar planation over spring break with my family, I found the pope’s overlaid with a contradictory language coming suddenly to mind. Here, multiple languages seemed to be speaking, one overlaid upon another, contradictory, competing, discordant, across centuries and running through the very day of my visit.

At first sight, the language of natural beauty seemed to speak loudest. Oak Alley takes its name from its “Alley of Oaks,” 28 oak trees planted in two long rows of fourteen each. A large walkway stands in between, leading to the plantation house.  The trees were introduced by a Frenchman sometime in the early eighteenth century. At some 300 years old, they have in themselves all the beauty and grandeur one would expect from their kind. Continue reading

The Land That Snow Forgot

Snow-Scene (Nikki Bajda)

Snow-Scene (Nikki Bajda)

Well, winter is gearing up, and snowy scenes are making their way onto the news media and internet for one reason or another.  Here in Houston, the land that snow forgot, I forlornly expect another whiteless winter, though, yes, we may get a momentary flurry or two.

The great ambition of my childhood in San Antonio was to experience snow, and the thing actually happened a couple of times. When I moved to the east coast in my 20s, it took a while before the full pleasures of snow really began to soak in–sometimes literally. Having kids helped. So did home ownership. Nothing really compares to looking out one’s own picture window at a long, persevering snowfall whose gentle crescendo finally reveals itself in the plump accumulation on the ground below. Continue reading

Rubella and I

Getting tested - in more senses than one.

Getting tested – in more senses than one.

Fifty years ago, in the dog days of August 1964, I was a midterm fetus in some amount of danger.

The German measles, or rubella, was sweeping across the United States. It first struck the East Coast in the preceding winter and then quickly spread to the rest of the country. In April 1964, the Communicable Disease Center, the federal agency now known as the CDC, confirmed that a full-blown epidemic was in progress.

For most people, the epidemic was fairly harmless. Rubella typically consisted only of a rash and fever and perhaps a few days in bed. Thereafter, one had immunity. For unborn children, however, the impact of the disease was much more severe. In 1941, Australian ophthalmologist Norman Gregg, acting on a clue offered by a concerned mother, discovered a connection between rubella in pregnant women and congenital cataracts in their newborns. Soon other harmful effects on the fetus were confirmed, including deafness, blindness, heart deformities, and mental retardation. Miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death were also found to be real possibilities.

Americans in 1964 were worriedly beginning to come to terms with these dangers. One key study indicated a 10% rate of birth defects in children of mothers who contracted rubella during pregnancy; another study found a 30% rate. Yet the figure of 50% was often proferred by medical experts and the media. And in a society that was more inclined to isolate and institutionalize the disabled than keep them integrated in their families and communities, the chance of birth defects loomed like a specter over thousands of American pregnancies. The symptoms of rubella were so generic that many pregnant women did not know whether they had ever had it (and developed immunity) or whether they had it now. A blood test introduced in 1964 reduced the uncertainty, but only after a wait of at least a month from the initial blood draw to the definitive results. Some medical professionals, including Norman Gregg, advised therapeutic abortion for pregnant women diagnosed with the illness. Dr. Virginia Apgar, the pediatrician who developed the now famous Apgar score for assessing the health of newborns, warned darkly that the epidemic could produce fifteen to twenty thousand “pitifully damaged children.”

Meanwhile, another Virginia, Virginia Joseph, my mother, worried about her pregnancy. A family on our block had had a case of rubella and she feared she had been exposed.  All ended well: I was born healthy on December 1. I was given the middle name of Mario in honor of the Virgin Mary, whose intercession my mother had sought. In childhood I heard the story of my mother’s “difficult” pregnancy, but it was only a few years ago that my reading about the rubella epidemic, followed by a discussion with my father, led me to discover just where the difficulty lay.

The rubella epidemic finally subsided in 1965. By then some 20,000 affected children had been born with severe birth defects and some 11,000 miscarriages and elective abortions had resulted. It is very probable that many of the elective abortions killed perfectly normal and healthy babies. In 1965, Life magazine, just weeks after publishing Linnart Nilsen’s now historic series of photographs of the fetus, presented a sympathetic cover story on women who chose to abort rather than carry their infected unborn to term. Until the 1960s, abortion was often portrayed in the media as a sleazy and dangerous practice. Along with the thalidomide scare of a few years before, the rubella epidemic helped make recourse to abortion seem more respectable.

Like me, thousands of American children born in 1963-1965 escaped all harm from rubella. But the epidemic became a kind of scaffolding used to erect the edifice of legalized abortion. The rubella vaccine was developed in 1969 and unborn children are now safe from rubella. But the impact of the epidemic persists. The scaffolding is gone but the structure remains.