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Suzanne O'Malley Headshot

Unborn in the USA

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This week a movie that I produced on the history of the anti-abortion movement, Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion, comes out on DVD. I hope you will buy it and watch it. But in the meantime, has anyone noticed that there are five Catholic justices on the Supreme Court? I'm Catholic so this is not a problem for me, but I think the Pilgrims would not have been thrilled.

The Pilgrims got on a ship and came to the "New World" from Britain so they could practice the religion of their choice. Catholicism was Britain's state religion until numerous wars, beheadings, eviscerations and divorces of King Henry VIII spawned a new one, the Church of England.

The Pilgrims -- though not all that tolerant themselves -- were cautious people with long memories. Thus, a Catholic was not elected to the presidency of the United States until John F. Kennedy in 1960. Growing up, I heard again and again that a Catholic could never be president. Being Catholic was almost as big an obstacle as being a woman or being African American (black men got the right to vote 50 years before any woman, by the way).

At Catholic school, one of the things my teachers hammered home was the importance of the separation between church and state. This was what enabled Catholics to practice their religion without being beheaded as happened to my namesake St. Suzanna in ancient Rome. Suzanna became St. Suzanna, because she was Catholic, married, monogamous, and refused to marry her husband's father in addition to her husband. Roman soldiers beheaded her for her choice.

In Unborn in the USA, people of many religions speak out. Most of them want the Supreme Court [which has one woman, a non-Catholic, among its nine members] to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that supported Jane Roe's [not her real name] right to privacy about what happened inside her body. Subsequently, foes of abortion [Catholics among them] proposed a new type of citizen called the "unborn" or "pre-born" and began seeking equal rights for them under the law.

I can't think about the "unborn" without thinking about the already-born. When I was very young, my then-boyfriend introduced me to his sweet, old, Catholic grandmother who lived in Astoria, Queens, wore a housedress, pinned back her gray hair, and smelled of fresh baked bread. Reminiscing about the old days, she told me how her husband would get his pay check, get drunk, come home and get her pregnant. She had one daughter, a mentally retarded son, and the recollection of many trips to someone she called "the back alley butcher" in Coney Island. I was naïve and thought the butcher was where she bought her meat. "No," she corrected, "the butcher -- with the coat hanger?" I winced. "What else was I going to do?" she asked. "I couldn't feed the kids I had." The vision of this kind, old Catholic grandmother in her younger years with a coat hanger up her uterus...I've never quite shaken it.

In Unborn in the USA, the protagonists fight their war against abortion, sometimes with information, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat. Sometimes they succeed in changing people's minds about abortion, but they never succeed in compelling obedience to the unenforceable.

Perhaps the Supreme Court will see fit to continue agreeing to disagree about the 14th Amendment, choosing privacy as a reasonable boundary among citizens. Remembering the Pilgrims, St. Suzanna, and my old boyfriend's grandmother, I hope so.

Let me know what you think of the movie.

Suzanne O'Malley lectures at Yale University and is the author of Are You There Alone?:" The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates. She is also a former writer of Law & Order.