Can anything new be said about abortion? After more than a quarter-century of frenzied debate and denunciation (which began well before Roe v. Wade), one might think not. But there is at least one viewpoint that polls indicate is widely held but that is hardly ever heard amid the screams of ''Murderer!'' and ''Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!'' It deserves a full and reasoned exposition, however; it might even shed some light on the controversies about the confirmation of Dr. Henry Foster as Surgeon General and about harassment of abortion clinics. It is that abortion is justifiable only in extreme cases -- but that nevertheless the state must respect the right to receive and perform abortions. In other words, it is possible to be pro-life and pro-choice -- and as a matter of moral principle rather than political expediency.
As many people of both sexes instinctively recognize, abortion has to be looked at as a question not of law but of morality. Begin then with the position, common to most religions and many naturalistic systems of morality, of respect for life -- all life, but especially human. It seems impossible to deny that the developing fetus is a potential human being. Yes, from the moment of conception: in the early stages it may be a clump of cells, but that cannot be equated with the clump of cells that might be removed in an appendectomy. The fetus from the very beginning is endowed with all the genetic information that will enable -- in fact make inevitable, absent some violent interruption -- its development into a full human person. And this development is a continuum; there is no point before birth at which one may draw a line and say the nature of the developing fetus has changed totally -- no, not even between trimesters, Roe to the contrary. Abortion at any point snuffs out a potential human life and can be justified only by the gravest reasons.
Which is not to say never. A potential human person is not yet an actual human person. Thus abortion, if repellent, is not exactly murder. And in most legal codes and systems of morality there is such a thing as justifiable homicide. It might be helpful to look at the case from a perspective other than the orthodox Christian one -- a Buddhist viewpoint, let's say. Two great Buddhist principles collide here: reverence for life vs. the precept that the purpose of a human life should be to reduce suffering; any act that increases the total of human suffering is immoral, and any act that reduces suffering is moral. By those criteria, some births -- those that result from incest or rape, or threaten the mother's life -- would increase suffering, and the abortions that prevent them are, sadly, excusable.
But those are the easy cases. What of the pregnant 16-year-old, seduced and abandoned by an older man who refuses to take responsibility, disowned by her parents, with no prospects for anything but a life of poverty and welfare dependency? Does the suffering she and the child would undergo if it was born outweigh the horror of snuffing out a potential human personality? It is a close call -- and precisely the kind of tortured moral judgment that the government has no business making. A nontotalitarian state must leave such judgments to its citizens to make for themselves, according to their individual ideas of religion and justice. For that matter, my belief that abortion is usually, if not always, immoral is fiercely disputed by many people of great intelligence and high moral character -- and I am not so absolutely certain I am right as to justify asking the state to enact my ideas of morality into law rather than theirs.
Does that mean, then, that the state may never legislate on questions of morality? If it must not ban abortion, is it also foreclosed from banning murder, arson, rape, theft? Certainly not, but it should act only under two conditions. The legislation must express an overwhelming moral consensus of the community -- not 55% or even 75% but something like 95%. And the conduct in question must pose a serious threat to public order.
Murder meets both conditions; it is condemned by virtually every known system of morality, and civilized life would be impossible in a community that allowed citizens to kill one another with impunity. Prohibition might perhaps be justified on public safety grounds, given the fights, violence and fatal accidents resulting largely from alcohol abuse. But it fails decisively on the first ground: too many citizens refuse to regard the drinking of alcohol as immoral to make its prohibition justifiable -- or enforceable. Abortion fails on both grounds: public opinion about its morality is not just divided but fragmented into a thousand splinters -- of which the view put forth here is only one -- and any threat to public order comes not from the performance of abortions but from the extremists who try to prevent abortions by violence.
Must those of us who abhor abortion, then, reconcile ourselves to seeing it spread unchecked? By no means. We can refuse to practice it ourselves -- or, if we are male, beseech the women who carry our children to let them be born, and promise to support them, and mean it and do it. We can counsel and preach to others; those of us who are religious can pray. And we need not despair. Though some of our opponents may urge abortion on demand and without apology (an actual sign held up at one rally), by far the greater number of women facing the decision to abort or not treat it with the solemnity and tortured questioning it deserves. What we must not do is ask the state to impose our views on those who disagree.
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
Transmitted: 95-02-26 11:17:51 EST