By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—Sometimes you have to remember exactly what it means to be pro-choice. Sometimes the word “choice’’ is more than a focus-group label to avoid saying the word “abortion.’’ Sometimes the slick bumper sticker—Who Decides?—actually defines the argument.
The reminder now comes from Maine, where a bizarre and sorry family narrative is still unfolding. Nicholas and Lola Kampf are accused of something that sounds linguistically impossible, not to mention criminal: kidnapping their daughter.
According to the arrest warrant, the Kampfs grabbed pregnant 19-year-old Katelyn, allegedly tying her feet and hands, and carried her to the car and headed south. The plan, said Katelyn, who escaped in New Hampshire and called the police on a cellphone, was to force her to have an abortion.
The headlines—“Daughter Kidnapped to Force Abortion”—repeated this baldly across the news cycle. It was as if distraught parents could really deliver a captive wrapped in rope and duct tape to a doctor who would perform an abortion against the patient’s will.
The usual suspects chimed in. Cheryl Sullenger, spokesperson at Operation Rescue, said that forced abortions are “epidemic in scope.” “I have seen sobbing women dragged into abortion clinics by the neck and hair,” she added. She did not, of course, say “who” or “when” or “where,” since drama is best unencumbered by facts.
But the fact is that the Supreme Court protects Katelyn. The same precedents that protect a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion protect her right to decide not to have an abortion. The state can’t decide, husbands can’t decide, and parents can’t decide. Either way.
Being pro-choice means looking through a long historical lens and understanding that a forced abortion is as much an assault on liberty as a forced pregnancy.
Of course, there is another way that Katelyn Kampf becomes a pro-choice case study. This teenager was 19, no longer a minor. Nevertheless, her family seems an unhappy example of a reality that many prefer to ignore: When some pregnant teenagers say they can’t tell their parents, they’re right.
In July, the Senate passed a bill that would make it a crime for anyone—no grandparent, no aunt, no older sister, no clergy—to take a minor across state lines for an abortion in order to avoid laws that require parental notification. The White House praised the Child Custody Protection Act because it would “protect the rights of parents” and because parents are “best suited to provide her counsel, guidance and support.”
These days, parental involvement laws are the most popular hurdle put before pregnant teenagers. They exist in about 35 states. Both Oregon and California have propositions on the fall ballot. And this week, the Illinois Supreme Court cleared the way for another such law.
Most pregnant teens can and do involve their parents. But we keep forgetting. What if those parents provide “counsel, guidance and support’’ with duct tape, rope and a .22-caliber rifle in the car trunk?
Not long ago, a conservative from Concerned Women for America proclaimed, “It goes without saying parents should have direct and immediate say over their child seeking an abortion.” What about when the parents seek the abortion? Direct and immediate say?
At an arraignment in New Hampshire, the parents’ lawyer called this a family tragedy with “some unfortunate misunderstandings and some overreactions by all the parties.” Talk about understating the “overreactions.”
The back story, as assembled by police and reporters, has all the elements of soap opera even in its bare bones. Katelyn, a high school honors student who enrolled in Boston College, had been sent to George Washington University in an attempt by her parents to distance her from her boyfriend. The debacle followed her parents’ discovery that she was back in Maine and pregnant. Katelyn has told authorities that her parents were outraged because her boyfriend is black. Their attitude may have been more shaped by the fact that he is in jail, again. But there is nothing that justifies duct tape or the destination.
“They told her she had no choice but to get an abortion,” said the officer in the arrest warrant. But, she did have a choice. In fact, she’s a perfect recruit for the ranks of the pro-choice.
In politics, there’s much ado about finding common ground in the abortion debate. John Kerry, grooming this turf for the 2008 race, said this week that “the language both sides use on this subject can be, unfortunately, misleading and unconstructive.”
Maybe so. But this chilling family story gives added meaning to “choice.” In the end, a woman’s right to decide is the common ground.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.