Garry Trudeau is at it again, and he’s sending shivers down my spine.

“A middle-aged, male state legislator will be with you in a moment,” said the last panel in Monday’s “Doonesbury,” the first in this week’s series skewering the recent Texas law that requires women seeking abortions to undergo sonograms first. On Tuesday, the middle-aged, male state legislator asked the woman: “Do your parents know you’re a slut?” By Thursday, she was in the examining room, with the doctor announcing: “The male Republicans who run Texas require that all such abortion-seekers be examined with a 10-inch shaming wand. . . . By the authority vested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

Pretty strong language for a comic strip. Some newspapers canceled “Doonesbury” for the week; some  pulled it from the printed paper and referred readers to their websites. (That’ll keep the kids from seeing it!) Some deemed it inappropriate for comics pages but moved it to the editorial page — not a bad option.

And here some of us thought these issues were settled almost 40 years ago.

While the entire week of “Doonesbury” is unusually outspoken and graphic, even for Trudeau (known for his stands against the Vietnam and Iraq wars, among other issues), it was Monday’s strip that hit a nerve. It took me back to the night of Jan. 22, 1973, and a brush with a middle-aged, male state legislator over abortion that I count as my big break in journalism. Women of a certain age should recognize that as the date the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Roe v. Wade, which struck down anti-abortion laws across the country as a violation of women’s right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, recasting abortion as a private matter between a woman and her doctor.

That was the first big news day of my life, and still one of the biggest, unsurpassed until 9/11. I was a freshman reporter for The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s independent student newspaper.  As if Roe v. Wade weren’t enough, Lyndon Johnson died that day, and for a while it looked as if Richard Nixon would announce the end of the Vietnam war that night – and The Collegian has a six-page paper.  (Luckily, Nixon waited a day and the paper was able to go up two pages.) After an inauspicious fall term on the residence hall beat, I had talked my way onto the women’s beat, which was exploding in early 1973.

“Do you believe in Martin P. Mullen?” began The Collegian’s editorial the next day. Mullen, about 52 at the time and thus squarely in middle age, was a state legislator from Southwest Philadelphia, a Roman Catholic and, according to his 1996 obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “once the legislature’s most ardent foe of abortion, adultery and pornography.” (The obit closed by noting, “Contributions can be made to the Pro-Life Coalition of Delaware County.”) Mullen had been on a much-publicized anti-abortion crusade for months, so he was an obvious source to call for a reaction story. Though Roe v. Wade clearly fell into my beat, I was judged not yet experienced enough to interview a state legislator. so that assignment went to my not-yet-boyfriend. As he interviewed Mullen by telephone, I listened silently on an extension and took notes.

Somehow I must have helped pull the story together, for three days later, on my 18th birthday, I walked into the Collegian office and was stunned to find myself promoted to junior reporter, with a $5-a-week stipend. A couple of days later, though, I had my comeuppance when I was assigned to find out if the two gynecologists practicing in town would now perform abortions. One, a middle-aged man, bit my head off, demanding to know what right I had to call him at home at dinnertime on a Sunday night to ask such a question. “He’s right,” I thought – perhaps my first clue that I would never make a hard-news reporter.

For the record, I am not pro-abortion; nobody is. Abortion is not a decision to be taken lightly, but rather should be a last resort, performed in a timely manner. Surely three months is ample time to decide if you’re ready to take on a commitment that will last at least 18 years, perhaps a lifetime. The procedure known as “partial-birth abortion” is as repugnant to me as it is to the most rabidly conservative middle-aged, male state legislator. I’ve never had an abortion; frankly, I find that contraception, used conscientiously, works pretty well. But I have friends who have, probably more than I know, and I respect their decisions. If that makes me “anti-life” in the eyes of, say, Rick Santorum, one of the kind of people I left Pennsylvania to get away from, then so be it.

Fortunately, women seem to be taking notice. Last Saturday The New York Times  ran an article headlined “Centrist Women Tell of Disenchantment With Republicans,” citing “the battle over access to birth control and other women’s health issues that have sprung to life on the Republican campaign trail in recent weeks.” One woman interviewed, exactly my age, said, “This seemed like a throwback to 40 years ago. . . . If they’re going to decided on women’s reproductive issues, I’m not going to vote for any of them. Women’s reproduction is our own business.” Another woman commented: “They’re nothing but hatemongers trying to control everyone, saying, ‘Live as I live.’ ”

Mullen’s obit quoted him as having said in 1978: “I’m for good and against bad, let’s put it that way.  I’ve made my choice.” The problem is, people like him want to impose their choices — their definitions of good and bad — on everyone. They’re entitled to their opinions, and their right to publish them, but so is Garry Trudeau. By the way, “Doonesbury” was one of four syndicated features to which The Collegian subscribed during my years there (along with “Peanuts” and the columnists Nicholas von Hoffman, a liberal, and James J. Kilpatrick, a conservative). I can’t swear to it, but I think we may have run it on the editorial page.

Thankfully, I’m past having a personal stake in these reproductive issues, but not past caring about them. I wouldn’t wish the latter-day Martin P. Mullens on any woman facing one of the hardest decisions of her life.

2 thoughts on “40 years later, the same story

  1. My thoughts exactly. I have never met anyone who is pro-abortion. How heavy handed – and perhaps white and male – are political goals that encourage insurance companies to pay for vasectomies (and wouldn’t it be interesting if surgery was mandated for men who father but do not support their children?) but balk at female birth control choices. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words.

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