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Abortion: A moral quagmire

By Wendy McElroy
web posted June 17, 2002

Abortion. The word alone causes civil conversation to flee the room. This is largely because the pro-choice and pro-life positions are being defined by their extremes, by those who scream accusations in lieu of arguments.

More reasonable voices and concerns, on both sides of the fence, are given short shrift.

For example, pro-life extremists seem unwilling to draw distinctions between some abortions and others, such as those resulting from rape or incest with an underage child. They would make no exception in the recent real-life case of a woman who discovered in her fifth month that her baby would be born dead due to severe disabilities.

On the other hand, pro-choice extremists within feminism insist on holding inconsistent positions. The pregnant woman has an unquestionable right to abort, they claim. Yet if the biological father has no say whatsoever over the woman's choice, is it reasonable to impose legal obligations upon him for child support? Can absolute legal obligation adhere without some sort of corresponding legal rights?

The only hope for progress in the abortion dialogue lies in the great excluded middle, in the voices of average people who see something wrong with a young girl forced to bear the baby of a rapist.

Any commentary on abortion should include a statement of the writer's position. I represent what seems to be a growing "middle ground" in pro-choice opinion. Legally, I believe in the right of every human being to medically control everything under his or her own skin. Many things people have a legal right to do, however, seem clearly wrong to me: adultery, lying to friends, walking past someone who is bleeding on the street. Some forms of abortion fall into that category. Morally speaking, my doubts have become so extreme that I could not undergo the procedure past the first trimester and I would attempt to dissuade friends from doing so.

Partial-birth abortion has thrown many pro-choice advocates into moral mayhem. I find it impossible to view photos of late-term abortion the fetus' contorted features, the tiny fully formed hands, the limbs ripped apart without experiencing nausea. This reaction makes me ineffectual in advocating the absolute right to abortion. I stand by the principle, "a woman's body, a woman's right" but I don't always like myself for doing so.

It is difficult to remember how many times other feminists have urged me not to express moral reservations. "Abortion requires solidarity" is the general line of argument. Such voices do as much damage to the pro-choice position as the anti-abortion zealots who harass women as they enter clinics do to the pro-life one.

Fanatics on both sides are using reprehensible and deceitful tactics. An honest dialogue on abortion must start by re-setting the stage, by denouncing the approaches that block communication.

What are those approaches?

Many pro-choice advocates approve of using tax money to fund abortion. For example, starting in July, abortion training formerly elective will be required training for obstetrics and gynecology residents in New York City's 11 public hospitals. Those wishing to avoid the required training must provide religious or moral justification. The furor created by this use of tax money has been phrased as a battle over abortion when, in reality, it is about whether government should finance women's personal choices with the taxes of those who strenuously object. Government support of abortion must cease.

Pro-life extremists threaten the lives and safety of both those who provide and those who undergo the procedure. The murder of "abortion" doctors is in the news with the current trial of anti-abortion militant James Kopp, accused of murdering Dr. Barnett Slepian in New York and wanted for attacks on two doctors in Canada.

Recent concerns have been raised for the safety of the women involved. Anti-abortion zealots are photographing women as they enter clinics and, then, posting the photographs on the Internet. The women are identified as "baby killers." The pro-life movement must lead in denunciating this violence or no discussion can occur.

Pro-choice advocates should stop the attempt to silence those with doubts and cease their hypocrisy on issues surrounding abortion. Consider the National Organization for Women. NOW decries the anti-abortion stand as violence against women's reproductive rights. Yet it is mute (or much worse) on the greatest reproductive atrocity against women in the world China's one-child policy.

Pro-life leaders should start being candid about how they plan to enforce a ban on abortion. For example, if they believe abortion is premeditated murder, then they seem logically constrained to impose first-degree murder penalties including the death penalty, if applicable upon women who abort and those who assist her. Are they willing to do this while remembering that murder has no statute of limitations?

Those who shove posters depicting an aborted fetus into the faces of pro-choice advocates have an equal responsibility to confront the consequences of their own policies. How, short of totalitarian government agencies, can they control what is in a woman's womb, and when?

I don't know if good will is possible on this highly charged and divisive issue. Both sides may find themselves able to work together on measures that improve the situation, for example, by making adoption far easier. What I do know is that the extremes cannot be allowed to dominate debate. The stakes in abortion are too high.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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