Two years before his death in 1990, Walker Percy sent a letter to the New York Times which its editorial board refused to print.
I stumbled on an excerpt while finishing Baylor Professor Ralph Woods’ Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.
“That our national ‘newspaper of record’ refused to run a plea voiced by one of our major novelists makes the letter all the more worth hearing,” notes Wood, writing in 2004. Percy’s angle on the way the abortion debate was being corrupted by American politics 30 years ago is even more arresting in the current political moment.
Walker Percy (1916-1990)–philosophical essayist, novelist and National Book Award Winner–is one of those 20th century writers (like Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury) whose prophetic voice in their own generation has become increasingly more relevant in ours. Their work reveals how our smug self-righteousness and addiction to comfort is diminishing the greatness of our souls.
Percy was particularly sensitive to issues of life and death. Suicide ran through the generations of his family and his own father shot himself when Percy was 13. Three years later his mother died in a car accident which was also rumored to be a suicide. Percy and his brothers were raised by his father’s cousin, an unmarried lawyer in Greenville, Mississippi.
Percy studied medicine at Columbia. Recovering from the tuberculosis he contracted while working as a pathologist, he read existentialist philosophy and the novels of Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann as he questioned the meaning of suffering and death. He wrestled with the inability of science to adequately address these problems.
Percy received the National Book Award for his first novel, The Moviegoer, in 1961 and published five more novels over the years of his distinguished career, each a challenging look at the inanity of contemporary culture and the inability of the material world to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. His commentaries appeared in many publications and the New York Times did print a number of his letters to the editor as well as interviews with him and of course, reviews of Percy’s books.
Percy showed a remarkable moral compass as he viewed the American political scene. In 1981 his Letter to the New York Times on the Con and Doublespeak of the Abortion Discussion examined the corruption of thought caused by the division between left and right in American politics.
The excerpt from the unpublished letter in Woods’ book struck me with its even darker prophetic possibilities and a unique application in the division of the current political moment.
Checking Woods’ footnote, I purchased the book from which he sourced Percy’s letter: a posthumous collection of essays entitled Signposts in a Strange Land.
Percy, writing in 1988 on the 15th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, notes at the outset that “the battle lines between the ‘pro-life’ and the ‘pro-choice’ advocates are so fixed, the arguments so well known…that it hardly seems worth the time to enter the controversy on the present terms.”
The medical background of this “writer of the New South” allowed him to press with authority that although “modern medical evidence shows ever more clearly that there is no qualitiative difference between an unborn human infant and a born human infant, this argument is persuasive only to those who accept such values as evidence.”
Activists already committed to the idea of choice will not be persuaded by the scientific evidence revealing the unborn’s membership in the human species.
Percy had already called attention to abortion “doublespeak” in his 1981 letter. In this one, written seven years later, he wished to call attention to “certain social and historical consequences” that organizations known for their defense of human rights (the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women) have overlooked but which “follow upon the acceptance of the principle of the destruction of human life for what may appear to be the most admirable social reasons.”
“Once the line is crossed, once the principle gains acceptance–juridically, medically, socially–innocent human life can be destroyed for whatever reason, for the most admirable socio-economic, medical, or social reasons,–then it does not take a prophet to predict what will happen next,” Percy warns, “or if not next, then sooner or later.”
And here’s what Walker Percy foresaw:
Depending on the disposition of the majority and the opinion polls–now in favor of allowing women to get rid of unborn and unwanted babies–it is not difficult to imagine an electorate or a court ten years, fifty years from now, who would favor getting rid of useless old people, retarded children, anti-social blacks, illegal Hispanics…
This list reveals the writer’s prophetic powers. Sure, thirty years from the time of its writing we’re not talking about eliminating classes of people outside the womb, but since we’ve taken away the right to life from the unborn, we have become accustomed to genetic testing in order to eliminate the handicapped and the unwanted girls. As for “anti-social blacks,” abortion may well be the “biggest single negative force on black American growth,” a troubling truth many human rights activists have yet to face up to.
At the time of Percy’s letter “useless old people” had already been advised they have a “duty to die” by a former Colorado governor. Just two years ago, Colorado passed a physician-assisted suicide initiative which could make the former governor’s dream easier to achieve in the future.
And illegal Hispanics? Well, we certainly could do better by them if we hadn’t become so accustomed to diminishing their humanity by treating them as a monolithic group rather than examining the varying causes of their plight. The politics of left and right have diminished Americans’ ablity to examine border issues with clarity.
For the clear-eyed Christian, the red/blue division in this country no longer makes sense. Each side fails to embrace human dignity in one way or another.
Percy saw back in 1981 how our splintered political platforms were creating the mess we see today:
I notice this about many so-called pro-lifers. They seem pro-life only on this one perfervid and politicized issue. The Reagan Administration, for example, professes to be anti-abortion but has just recently decided in the interests of business that it is proper for infant-formula manufacturers to continue their hard sell in the third world despite thousands of deaths from bottle feeding. And Senator Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority, who profess a reverence for unborn life, don’t seen to care much about born life: poor women who don’t get abortions, have their babies, and can’t feed them.
With a few more decades under our belts, are we ready for something better?
It is time we insist not on one party or the other, but on moral principle that begins with defense of the weakest among us at the beginning, middle and ending of the human life cycle.
The current hearings on the nominee for the next justice of the Supreme Court illustrate just how degrading things have become. We now have activists mailing coat hangers to a Republican Senator in a grisly effort to ensure she does not vote to confirm a nominee who might support a reconsideration of Roe v. Wade.
The nominee, facing an accusation of criminal behavior in his youth, is believed by those who support his confirmation, and disbelieved by those who oppose his confirmation.
The situation is a perfect example of why political parties no longer work for those trying to develop a consistent moral compass.
And why a philosophical novelist writing 30 years ago had greater moral clarity than those of us addicted to news shows that support only one point of view.
We’ve leaned far too much on political identity as a means of showing our good deeds on the road to salvation, and we must now work out the consequences with fear and trembling.
Walker Percy’s voice may help us find our way out of the cemetery we’ve been digging with our own shovels, but we must begin demanding more of our leaders and ourselves than the dehumanizing civic circus currently masquerading as statecraft.
If you’re not familiar with the southern medical doctor turned novelist, see Caroline Roberts’ Searching for Walker Percy: Mint juleps and crawfish under the live oaks in St. Francisville.
A helpful conversation about Walker Percy’s novels on the Fountains of Carrots podcast: Scandalous Books Are Good for Your Soul with Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson (FOC 67).
Wendell Berry has a similar ability to see issues for what they are and not for which party is advocating them. See Becoming Rememberers: How Wendell Berry Helps Us Grieve Our Time’s Tragic Tradeoffs.
Sparrowfare resists red/blue insanity! See Create Peace by Dying to Red/Blue Division in a Martyrdom of the Heart, Children Pay Price over Border Policy, and The Extremists We Need Right Now.
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