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EDITORIALS Uterine Gothic “What about suffering?” an interviewer once asked Bernard Malamuct “la a subject much in your early work” “I’m against i4” answered the writer, “but when it occurs, why waste the experience?” couple of weeks ago there were 1,782 pairs of old shoes lined up in rows at the Capitol complex suede boots, gold lame sandals, beat-up sneakers and sequinned heels and purple slippers and beige flatsall collected by Mothers Against Drunk Driving to represent the 1,782 Texans killed in drunk-driving accidents in 1995. Signs were attached to some: “Actual Victim’s Shoes,” “I Was Killed February 26, 17 Yrs Old,” or cards bearing just a name. The shoes were arrayed along both walls of a skylit corridor, and between them the usual Capitol crowd of staff, tourists and lobbyists made its way down the hall; most ignored the exhibit. Occasionally, someone glanced at the shoes or muttered something: “Hooscary,” said one woman. A MADD spokesman later told me that the shoes had been collected as “a visually penetrating image of just how many people lost their lives in one year.” There are a number of related bills in the works, he addedone to lower the acceptable blood alcohol content for juveniles to zero, another to establish sobriety checkpoints, another to outlaw open containers in vehicles. Perhaps the exhibit of shoes served to remind lawmakers about the pending legislation. And maybe “awareness” is a good thing for everyonewe look at the shoes, and next time we’re out on a Saturday night we’re more careful about how we get home. Even so, it was a jarring display, for there was such a discrepancy between the emotion invested by the friends and families of those who diedwhoever attached a prom photo and decorations to a beat-up pair of grey jogging shoesand the responses from passers-by. Displayed along a busy office hallway, the shoes were, naturally, ignored. The display also represented a broader trend, in which personal tragedies are reinvented as political argumentsa little unsettling in the case of the shoes, in other instances absurd, stomach-turning, and unnecessary. On February 19, the Senate committee on Health and Human Services met in the Senate chambers to hear testi mony on several abortion-related bills. The showpiece bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, would require minors to get their parents’ ing an abortion. In attendance were a number of Regular Folkscardigan-wearing moms and their kids, mostlywith yellow “Parents’ Rights” cards pinned to their shirts. The lurid stories began even before the parental consent bill came up. Testifying in favor of a bill sponsored by Republican Senator Chris Harris, which would provide for stricter monitoring of abortion clinics to make sure they meet health and safety standards, a young woman recalled in some detail how she almost died as the result of an improperly-performed abortion. Her uterus had been ripped, she said. It had taken six years to convict the people responsible; they had only been sentenced to six years in prison, and “that is not enough,” said the woman, breaking down into tears as the Senators watched. Another man testified that his mentally retarded daughter had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather. Taken to a clinic by the stepfather, she’d received two abortions at the ages of twelve and thirteen. Had the doctor notified the parents, said the father, this could have been stopped. A 20-year-old woman then testified that two years ago, she’d planned to get an abortion but had told her parents at the last minute; they’d talked her out of it; and now she has a child she loves. A pregnant 22-year-old woman spoke about how much her parents’ love and support had meant to her during her pregnancy. And so it went, from gruesome to sappy: people spoke, then stepped away from the microphone as reporters gently descended upon them and spectators offered encouraging words, pats on the back. This is standard operating procedureno matter that most of what was said had nothing to do with safer clinics or parental consent. The debate over abortion becomes a battle of anecdotes: a man from a right-to-life group handed me a packet of information that included not one but two letters from doctors asserting that Becky Bell, an Illinois girl who died after trying to induce an abortion on her own rather than tell her parents, had died of pneumonia, not self-inflicted injury. Dwelling on the grotesque is doubly harmful: not only do horror stories block out discussion but, as Katha Pollitt has pointed out, they cast the entire debate in right-to-lifers’ terms, associating abortion with unscrupulous surgeons, rapes and ripped wombs rather than a woman’s decision to have a child. The airing of misfortune isn’t limited to abortion politics. Just in the past few weeks the Legislature has granted the spotlight to stalking victims and victims of violent convicts who were granted early parole, while nationally the politics of “victims’ rights” has become both bread and circus. Candidates ask us to vote for them so that they can crack down on stalkers and put criminals in prison, and people who’ve had relevant personal tragedies become handy props. Of course those “victims” are willing participants, and it’s sometimes admirable when people respond to misfortune by becoming advocates for safety standards, say, or gun control. But too often the notion of “victims’ rights” seems treacherously close to “the right not to have bad things happen to you.” Would that such a right existedyet it doesn’t, and in the end many of these public victims seem oddly used by the political process. Here was this woman, weeping in front of a group of state Senators, ostensibly in order to make a point \(unlicensed or unthat just about everyone in the room seemed to agree with already. Legislation does not put a stop to grief: in the end, who is served by these displays? K.O. 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 28, 1997