We Have Met the Enemy and They are Us

Peg Johnston, daughter of Bob Johnston and Ruth Freeman Johnston.

This is an essay by Peg Johnston analyzing abortion politics and especially emphasizing that individuals have the power to change the culture around abortion if only they would speak up. She was to continue this theme in her decades long work with the Abortion Conversation Projects.

“…We are all of us responsible for our myriad pollutions, public, private and political.”    –Walt Kelly, Creator of Pogo 1

We Have Met the Enemy and They are Us

by Margaret R. Johnston

I was just a young pup when the Pogo cartoon that contained this line was published. As kids, my brothers and I loved the iconoclastic bunch of philosophizing animal misfits who lived in Okefenokee Swamp. It was mostly political satire and we could figure out which character was really J.Edgar Hoover, Spiro Agnew, Joe McCarthy (“Simple J. Malarkey”), and others who today’s readers might translate to Rumsfeld, Cheney, or “Condi.” But this line—WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US–was about our treatment of the environment, and this cartoon ran in celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970.

Oh,” I remember thinking, “it’s not just about how the leaders mess things up, it’s about what we all do.” It’s hard to take responsibility for what’s wrong in a culture and it’s true that corporations and government have more power to change what’s wrong. However, social change is not something that exists outside of us but a result of what we do or say or think. I count Pogo as one of my early influences and I think it is worth looking at what power we all have to move the current logjam of public opinion about abortion.

Before I hear someone from the repro rights camp protest that we didn’t create this mess, I want to give full credit to the anti-abortion movement for succeeding in stigmatizing abortion. All that standing in front of abortion clinics and screaming at young women, “Don’t kill your baby.” “Mommy, don’t murder me!” has really paid off. All those millions donated for Crisis Pregnancy Centers in every town to prey upon those considering abortion. All the silencing of anything supportive about abortion on the news, in magazines, on television and in movies. Today it is the rare woman presenting for an abortion who has not debated those picketers in her head or felt the weight of induced stigma.  Most doctors and healthcare workers involved in abortion care have to at least grapple with whether they could become the target of some nut out to kill them. Terrorism is just as effective in Birmingham, Alabama, 2 as it is in Baghdad. As for the politicians–they don’t need to think, they only need to fear electoral defeat at the hands of the well-organized fundamentalist troops that get whipped up over opposing abortion. The populace has not been so polarized about a social issue since the McCarthy era. There are such negative cultural messages about abortion that 47 percent of women in a large study said that they felt stigmatized by having an abortion. In other words, they think that if someone knew they had an abortion, that person would think less of them. 3