December 13, 2004


Is There Life After Roe?: HOW TO THINK ABOUT THE FETUS (Frances Kissling, Winter 2004/2005, Conscience)

There are at least three central values that need to be part of the public conversation about abortion and, as appropriate, influence behavior, if not law. They are:

i) The human right of women to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

ii) A respect for human life that takes the form of what Daniel Callahan called more than 30 years ago a moral presumption in favor of life.

iii) A commitment to ensure that provisions which permit the taking of life (whether it be fetal, animal or plant) not coarsen the overall fabric of society and our attitudes toward each other as well as toward developing human life.

This brings us to the second value of a good society: respect for life, including fetal life. Why should we allow this value to be owned by those opposed to abortion? Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time; of valuing life and respecting women’s rights? Have we not ceded too much territory to antiabortionists by not articulating the value of fetal life? In an important op-ed in the New York Times, author William Saletan claimed that “supporters of abortion rights…still don’t know how to articulate the value of unborn human life.” Saletan makes a good point, but he does not pursue it and offers no suggestions for how we could articulate this value.

Such an effort will take a lot of work and involve exposing deep differences among supporters of choice regarding our views on the inherent value of fetal life on its own terms and in relation to women’s rights. An interesting thought exercise might help to clarify what prochoice (and antiabortion) leaders believe about fetal value. Imagine a world in which it was possible to remove fetuses prior to viability from women’s bodies and allow them to develop in a nonuterine environment. Perhaps they could be implanted in men or other women who want them; perhaps they could develop in a specially equipped nursery? In this world, medicine is so far advanced that this could be accomplished painlessly and without risking the health of either the woman or the fetus. Of course, this is at present largely a fantasy and by that time we would have found the ideal, risk-free, failure-free contraceptive; but let’s pretend.

What are the first five concerns and reactions that come to your mind? Is one of them the fact that this would mean fetuses need not die? My own experience in presenting this option to both advocates and opponents of abortion is that the fetus’s life is rarely a consideration. Among the most interesting reactions of those who are prochoice is a concern that some women might find the continued existence of the fetus painful for them or that women have a right to ensure that their genetic material does not enter the world. Abortion in this sense becomes the guarantee of a dead fetus, if desired, rather than the removal of the fetus from an unwilling host, the woman. To even offer women such an option is, some think, cruel. For some the right to choose abortion seems to include the right to be protected from thinking about the fetus and from any pain that might result from others talking about the fetus in value-laden terms. In this construct, it is hard to identify any value fetal life might have.

This level of sensitivity to protecting women from their feelings takes other forms. For example, some prochoice advocates have objected to public discussion of abortion that includes concern for the number of abortions that occur in the US or has as its goal reducing the number of abortions. Some bristled at President Clinton’s formula that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” If abortion is justifiable why should it be rare? Even the suggestion that abortion is a moral matter as well as a legal one has caused concern that such a statement might make women feel guilty. Words like “baby” are avoided, not just because they are inaccurate, but because they are loaded.

In a society where women have long been victims of moral discourse, these concerns are somewhat understandable, but they do not contribute much towards convincing people that when prochoice people say they value fetal life it is more than lip service. [...]

It has long been a truism of the abortion debate that those who are prochoice have rights and those who are against legal abortion have morality; that those who support abortion rights concentrate on women and those opposed focus on the fetus. After 30 years of legal abortion and a debate that shows no signs of ending and has no clear winner—is it not time to try and combine rights and morality, to consider both women and developing human life? Ultimately, abortion is not a political question and politics will not end the enormous conflict over abortion. Abortion is a profoundly moral question and any movement that fails to grapple with and respect all the values at stake in crafting a social policy about abortion will be inadequate in its effort to win the support of the majority of Americans.

Actually, the necessary acknowledgement that it is the taking of a human life makes abortion not a moral question but a political one. As this essay makes clear it's really just about giving women the political power to take lives with impunity.

-The Fetal Frontier: Pro-choice advocates wrestle with the uncomfortable (Sharon Lerner, December 7th, 2004, Village Voice)

Kissling continues to share the goals of most of her colleagues. Though she sees abortion as a loss, she believes it can be justified by a woman's reasons for wanting to end the pregnancy. Yet the movement makeover she is proposing runs counter to many other activists' instincts.

"I don't buy it," says Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Smeal says that by talking about relatively late-term abortions when the vast majority of terminations—some 88 percent—take place in the first trimester, Kissling is letting opponents frame the debate. "While we're talking about all this, we could be putting the right wing on the defensive," says Smeal. "We have to put the dying and suffering of women who don't have access to safe abortion onto the table."

Rosalind Petchesky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and author of a seminal book on abortion rights, points out that many who get abortions after the first trimester are young teenagers who didn't act earlier because of the climate of fear, shame, and confusion created by anti-abortion extremists. Petchesky also insists that discussions of morality should include the violent, war-promoting, and uncaring policies supported by many who call themselves pro-life. She responded to Kissling's piece by sending her a three-page e-mail. "If and when those who dominate anti-abortion politics could for a minute take seriously the rights to a decent life and health of born children," she wrote, "maybe then we could start to talk about advancing respect for fetal life, early or late."

Others take issue with the idea that the pro-choice movement should "present abortion as a complex issue that involves loss—and to be saddened by that loss," as Kissling suggests in her piece. "I don't hear her saying that there's joy sometimes," says Smeal. "I think if an 11-year-old is pregnant, it's a great relief for her to have an abortion. I happen to think it's a moral good to allow people to decide when they give birth."

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2004 8:08 PM

Why are they focusing on teen pregnancy?

Aren't the majority 30-40 y.o.????

Posted by: Sandy P at December 13, 2004 9:22 PM

Rosalind Petchesky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and author of a seminal book on abortion rights, points out that many who get abortions after the first trimester are young teenagers who didn't act earlier because of the climate of fear, shame, and confusion created by anti-abortion extremists.

If they were that amenable to shame, don't you think they would have avoided having sex to begin with?

I haven't seen any anti-abortion extremists for a long time. When was the last time an abortion clinic was bombed or shut down by protestors?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 14, 2004 10:03 PM