From personal and religious beliefs I consider abortions an unacceptable form of population control. Further, unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the yet unborn. For, surely, the unborn have rights also, recognized in law, recognized even in principles expounded by the United Nations.”

—Richard Nixon, San Clemente, April 3, 1971.

Good Citizen: Sir, I want to congratulate you for coming out on April 3 for the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn. That took a lot of courage, especially in light of the November election results.

Our Leader: Well, thank you. I know I could have done the popular thing, of course, and come out against the sanctity of human life. But frankly I’d rather be a one-term President than take an easy position like that. After all, I have got my conscience to deal with, as well as the electorate.

Citizen: Your conscience, sir, is a marvel to us all.

Our Leader: Thank you.

Citizen: I wonder if I may ask you a question having to do with Lt. Calley and his conviction for killing twenty-two Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.

Our Leader: Certainly. I suppose you are bringing that up as another example of my refusal to do the popular thing.

Citizen: How’s that, sir?

Our Leader: Well, in the wake of the public outcry against that conviction, the popular thing—the most popular thing by far—would have been for me, as Commander-in-Chief, to have convicted the twenty-two civilians of conspiracy to murder Lt. Calley. But if you read your papers, you’ll see I refused to do that, and chose only to review the question of his guilt, and not theirs. As I said, I’d rather be a one-term President. And may I make one thing more perfectly clear, while we’re on the subject of Vietnam? I am not going to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. If President Thieu has sufficient evidence and wishes to try those twenty-two My Lai villagers posthumously, according to some Vietnamese law having to do with ancestor worship, that is his business. But I assure you, I in no way intend to interfere with the workings of the Vietnamese system of justice. I think President Thieu, and the duly elected Saigon officials, can “hack” it alone in the law and order department.

Citizen: Sir, the question that’s been troubling me is this. Inasmuch as I share your belief in the sanctity of human life—

Our Leader: Good for you.

Citizen: Thank you, sir. But inasmuch as I feel as you do about the unborn, I am seriously troubled by the possibility that Lt. Calley may have committed an abortion. I hate to say this, sir, but I am seriously troubled when I think that one of those twenty-two Vietnamese civilians Lt. Calley killed may have been a pregnant woman.

Our Leader: Now just one minute. We have a tradition in the courts of this land that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. There were babies in that ditch at My Lai, and we know there were women of all ages, but I have not seen a single document that suggests the ditch at My Lai contained a pregnant woman.

Citizen: But what if, sir—what if one of the twenty-two was a pregnant woman? Suppose that were to come to light in your judicial review of the lieutenant’s conviction. In that you personally believe in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn, couldn’t such a fact seriously prejudice you against Lt. Calley’s appeal? I have to admit that as an opponent of abortion, it would have a profound effect upon me.

Our Leader: Well, it’s very honest of you to admit it. But as a trained lawyer, I think I might be able to go at the matter in a somewhat less emotional manner. First off, I would have to ask whether Lt. Calley was aware of the fact that the woman in question was pregnant before he killed her. Clearly, if she was not yet “showing,” I think you would in all fairness have to conclude that the lieutenant could have had no knowledge of her pregnancy, and thus, in no sense of the word, would he have committed an abortion.

Citizen: What if she told him she was pregnant?

Our Leader: Good question. She might indeed have tried to tell him. But in that Lt. Calley is an American who speaks only English, and the My Lai villager is a Vietnamese who speaks only Vietnamese, there could have been no possible means of verbal communication. And as for sign language, I don’t believe we can hang a man for failing to understand what must surely have been the gestures of a hysterical, if not deranged, woman.


Citizen: No, that wouldn’t be fair, would it?

Our Leader: In short then, if the woman was not “showing,” Lt. Calley could not be said to have engaged in an unacceptable form of population control, and it would be possible for me to square what he did with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn.

Citizen: But, sir, what if she was “showing”?

Our Leader: Well then, as good lawyers we would have to ask another question. Namely: did Lt. Calley believe the woman to be pregnant, or did he, mistakenly, in the heat of the moment, assume she was just stout? It’s all well and good for us to be Monday Morning My Lai Quarterbacks, but there’s a war going on out there, and you cannot always expect an officer rounding up unarmed civilians to be able to distinguish between an ordinary fat Vietnamese woman and one who is in the middle, or even the late, stages of pregnancy. If the pregnant ones would wear maternity clothes, of course, that would be a great help to our boys. But in that they don’t, in that they all of them seem to go around all day in their pajamas, it is almost impossible to tell the men from the women, let alone the pregnant from the barren.

Inevitably then—and this is just one of those unfortunate things about a war of this kind—there is going to be confusion on this whole score of who is who out there. I understand that we are doing all we can to get into the hamlets with American-style maternity clothes for the pregnant women to wear so as to make them more distinguishable to the troops at the massacres, but, as you know, these people have their own ways and will not always consent to do even what is clearly in their own interest. And of course we have no intention of forcing them. That, after all, is why we are in Vietnam in the first place—to give these people the right to choose their own way of life, in accordance with their own beliefs and customs.

Citizen: In other words, sir, if Lt. Calley assumed the woman was simply fat, and killed her under that assumption, that would still square with your personal belief in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn.

Our Leader: Absolutely. If I find that he assumed she was simply overweight, I give you my utmost assurance, I will in no way be prejudiced against his appeal.

Citizen: But, sir, suppose, just suppose, that he did know she was pregnant.

Our Leader: Well, we are down to the heart of the matter now, aren’t we?

Citizen: I’m afraid so, sir.

Our Leader: Yes, we are down to this issue of “abortion on demand” which, admittedly, is totally unacceptable to me, on the basis of my personal and religious beliefs.

Citizen: Abortion on demand?

Our Leader: If this Vietnamese woman presented herself to Lt. Calley for abortion—let’s assume, for the sake of argument, she was one of those girls who goes out and has a good time and then won’t own up to the consequences—heaven knows we have them here just as they have them there—the misfits, the bums, the tramps, the few who give the many a bad name—but if this woman presented herself to Lt. Calley for abortion, with some kind of note, say, that somebody had written for her in English, and Lt. Calley, let’s say, in the heat and pressure of the moment, performed the abortion, during the course of which the woman died….

Citizen: Yes. I think I follow you so far….

Our Leader: Well, I just have to wonder if the woman isn’t herself equally as guilty as the lieutenant—if she is not more so. Indeed, I just have to wonder if this isn’t a case for the Saigon courts, after all. Let’s be perfectly frank: you cannot die of an abortion, if you don’t go looking for the abortion to begin with. If you have not gotten yourself in an abortion predicament to begin with. Can you now?

Citizen: No, sir.

Our Leader: Consequently, even if Lt. Calley did participate in a case of “abortion on demand,” it would seem to me, speaking strictly as a lawyer, mind you, that there are numerous extenuating factors to consider, not the least of which is the attempt to perform a surgical operation under battlefield conditions. I would think that more than one medic has been cited for doing less.


Citizen: Cited for what?

Our Leader: Bravery, of course.

Citizen: But…but, sir, what if it wasn’t “abortion on demand”? What if Lt. Calley gave her an abortion without her demanding one, or even asking for one—or even wanting one?

Our Leader: As an outright form of population control, you mean?

Citizen: Well, I was thinking more along the lines of an outright form of murder.

Our Leader (reflecting): Well, of course, this whole thing is a very iffy question, isn’t it? What we lawyers call a hypothetical instance—isn’t it? If you will remember, we are only supposing there to have been a pregnant woman in that ditch at My Lai to begin with. Suppose there wasn’t a pregnant woman in that ditch—which, in fact, seems from all evidence to have been the case. We are then involved in a totally academic discussion. Well, aren’t we?

Citizen: Yes, sir. If so, we are.

Our Leader: Which doesn’t mean it hasn’t been of great value to me, nonetheless. In my review of Lt. Calley’s case, I will now be particularly careful to inquire whether there is so much as a single shred of evidence that one of those twenty-two in that ditch at My Lai was a pregnant woman. And if there is—if I should find in the evidence against the lieutenant anything whatsoever that I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn, I will disqualify myself as a judge and pass the entire matter on to the Vice President.

Citizen: Thank you, Mr. President. I think we can all of us sleep better at night knowing that.

This Issue

May 6, 1971