First Wave Feminists- Pearl S. Buck

One of the most prolific and popular writers of the 20th century, Pearl S. Buck (Sai Zhenzhu) (1892- 1973) was the first woman awarded both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes in literature, and the first of only two American women to win the Nobel. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck was born in West Virginia but grew up in China. Living among the Chinese, Buck came to value interracial accord, pacifism, child welfare, and protections for refugees and the disabled.                 Her voluminous writings, including The Good Earth, A House Divided, and Sons, often explore the quietly dignified lives of Asian women. Buck’s greatest achievement, aside from raising eight children, may be co-founding (with James Michener and Oscar Hammerstein II) Welcome House, Inc.,          the first international interracial adoption agency, which has placed over 5,000 indigent children in new homes.

“The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

– From My Several Worlds, 1954

Editor’s note: This essay employs terms no longer considered respectful to persons with disabilities.

As the mother of a child  retarded from phenylketonuria, I can ask myself, at this reflective moment, if I had rather she had never been born. No, let me ask the question fully.

Could it have been possible for me to have foreknowledge of her thwarted life, would I have wanted abortion?

Now with full knowledge of anguish and despair, the answer is No, I would not. Even in full knowledge I would have chosen life, and this for two reasons: First, I fear the power of choice over life or death at human hands, I see no human being whom I could ever trust with such power—not myself, not any other.

Human wisdom, human integrity are not great enough. Since the fetus is a creature already alive and in the process of development, to kill it is to choose death over life. At what point shall we allow this choice? For me the answer is—at no point, once life has begun. At no point, I repeat, either as life begins or as life ends, for we who are human beings cannot, for our own safety, be allowed to choose death, life being all we know. Beyond life lie only faith and surmise, but not knowledge. Where there is no knowledge except for life, decision for death is not safe for the human race.

The principle thus established, I go to my second reason for rejection of abortion, in my own case. My child’s life has not been meaningless. She has indeed brought comfort and practical help to many people who are parents of retarded children or are themselves handicapped. True, she has done it through me, yet without her I would not have had the means of learning how to accept the inevitable sorrow, and how to make that acceptance useful to others. Would I be so heartless as to say that it has been worthwhile for my child to be born retarded? Certainly not, but I am saying that even though gravely retarded it has been worthwhile for her to have lived.

It can be summed up, perhaps, by saying that in this world, where cruelty prevails in so many aspects of our life I would not add the weight of choice to kill rather than to let live.

A retarded child, a handicapped person, brings its own gift to life, even to the life of normal human beings. That gift is comprehended in the lessons of patience, understanding, and mercy, lessons which we all need to receive and to practice with one another, whatever we are.

For this gift bestowed upon me by a helpless child, I give my thanks.

“Every Life Is a Gift,” Foreword to Terrible Choice: The Abortion Dilemma, Robert E. Cooke, 1968

-Jen Hawkins, The American Feminist: First Wave Feminists