There are those who hold that contraception unfairly manipulates the workings of nature, and others who cannot see the fetus as a child until the umbilical cord is cut. Invoking an almost religious fervor on both sides of the issue, abortion is one of the most emotionally potent present political controversies. Motherhood is a powerful institution in American life, and both the "Pro-choice" (supporting a woman's right to choose) and the "Pro-life" (anti-abortion) forces see the other as attacking the foundations of the mother-infant bond.
Social analysis argues forcibly for the need for safe, legal and affordable abortions. Approximately 1 million women had abortions annually until the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, and abortion had become the leading cause of maternal death and mutilation (40 deaths/100,000 abortions compared to 40 deaths/100,000 live births according to National Abortion Rights Action league.) An estimated 9000 rape victims become pregnant each year (FBI 1973); 100,000 cases of incest occur yearly (National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, 1978). Two-thirds of teenage pregnancies are not planned, because many do not have adequate access to contraceptives (NARAL). And the taxpayer price of supporting a child on welfare is far greater than that of a Medicaid abortion. But the issue that provokes such anger surrounds the fetus's right to life--its status as a potential human being. Anti-abortionist proponents usually take the position that conception is life and therefore abortion is murder and violates the rights of the unborn, or that there is an inherent value in life and abortion is murder because it destroys that value.
The Supreme Court decided in 1973 that the unborn fetus had no constitutional rights until the third trimester (24-28 weeks), as it is incapable of functioning independently from the mother until that time. Right-to-Lifers claim that because the fetus will develop into a human being, it demands the same paternalistic protection that is extended to animals, children and others subject to exploitation and maltreatment. The fetus must be accorded the same constitutional rights as its mother.
Two arguments delineate the problems in giving the fetus these equivalent rights. The first looks at individual rights as the products of a social doctrine. Animals and children are unavoidably present within a society, and to ensure that they remain functioning members of that society they must be protected from exploitation by other societal members. Different political platforms advocate different rights--the right to free medical care, the right to minimal taxation--but all demarcate the interaction of the individual within the group. A person's rights protect him from future harassment, but to actually obtain those rights he must already be a member of the group providing him with those protections. An Australian cannot lay claim to American rights until he is on American soil (or its equivalent). He may have a guarantee that should he enter the United States, he will be accorded many of those protections. But the guarantee depends on his entrance onto American territory. In analogous fashion, until the fetus is actually, not potentially, a member of society, it does not have constitutional rights.
One could object that the fetus in the womb is as signally present in society as the child in the crib, that each are equally members of society. Yet surely the conception of "member" involves some minimal interaction. The fetus reacts to society of the outside world solely through the medium of the mother. Strictly speaking, then, society has no legal responsibility to the fetus, but rather to the mother.
This seems like a rather harsh position, but we can distinguish between the rights of the fetus and the action that a mother might feel morally compelled to take. Consider the following situation: suppose you were to return home one day and find a stranger camped out in your living room and peacefully eating the ham sandwich you saved for dinner. You would be tempted to throw him out in the street. Almost everyone could agree that you had the right to eject him.
But suppose he told you that he could not live outside of your house; perhaps one of his enemies waits outside your door. Moreover, he informs you that he needs food and clothing and someone to talk to--he needs your presence much of the day. He becomes more demanding: you must work less, earn less, give up jogging.
Introduce a complication: your food is strictly rationed, or perhaps your heating, on subsistence level for a single person. If the stranger stays with you, your life will be seriously endangered. You might be very upset, but if it came down to the wire you would probably kick him out of the house. Again, most people would agree you were within your rights to do so.
The difficulty of course arises when it would be possible for you to support him and take care of him, but you would rather not. You might agree if the demand were only for an evening, but hesitate if it were for the rest of your life. Do rights then depend upon the time factor? You could claim a certain moral responsibility towards another human being. But it is hard to say that he has the right to force you to support him. You are not legally required to help an old lady across the street.
One counterargument declares that willing intercourse implies acceptance of a possible pregnancy--that in effect you invited the stranger in, that you knew what you were in for and that he now has the right to demand your help. But faulty contraception is like a broken window. When you return to your suite and find your stereo missing, do you accede the thief's right to take it because your window is easily pried open? The abortion issue thus forces a clarification of the nature of the individual and his social rights. Although we may feel morally constrained to protect the future child, the fetus does not have the right to force us to do so. In the traditional dichotomy of church and state, to restrict abortion is to legislate morality.
The staunchest opposition comes from those who hold absolutely that conception is life. But belief in the inherent value of life is not a trite axiom: it avows some faith in the quality of existence beyond the moral injunction "Thou shalt not kill." It becomes easy to see as hypocritical those anti-abortionists--particularly men--who condone extra-marital intercourse (or even intramarital intercourse) yet would refuse to financially and emotionally support the child conceived because of faulty contraception. The only morally consistent value-of-life position is to have intercourse only if one is willing to accept a child as a possible consequence, and participate in the quality of the child's life. This in part lies behind the Catholic prohibition of premarital sex.
As a personal doctrine few would reproach those who follow it. But pragmatics belie its application to all society, rape being the prime instance where the woman is not free to choose to become pregnant. The restriction of federal support to cases of rape, incest and probable death of the mother suggests an interesting quality-of-life argument: that potentiality is not absolute but must be prorated. Due to society's dread of incest, such a mother and her child would be spared a psychologically unbearable life. In case of danger to the mother's life we do not hear that the 'child' has potentially far more years of happy, productive life than the mother. Rather, the argument runs that the mother's life should not be sacrificed for the child who would bear such a tremendous burden.
Yet an unwanted child may be born into a household with an equally heavy psychological toll. If the potentiality of life thesis rests on an understanding of the inner qualities of life, then abortion is a necessity rather than a crime. Those who deny the right to an abortion under any circumstances fail to see that their argument undercuts itself. Abortion provides a unique understanding of the "inherent good" of existence. It is morally irresponsible to believe that a pregnancy must be brought to term even in case of the mother's death simply because it is a matter of nature and out of our hands when we have the medical means to save the mother. The case involves a comparison of the life-value of the mother and the child: the final decision must evaluate the process of existence--the value of life as it is lived. The inherent value of life cannot be an a priori constant if a choice is to be made between two lives.
Once the quality of life-as-it-is-lived is introduced into the argument, we can say that abortion provides the possibility of improving that quality. Motherhood is a remarkably special bond between mother and child, perhaps the most important relationship we ever have. It requires tremendous emotional capacities, and raising children should be one of the most conscious decisions we make. Many of those who have abortions when young have children later in life, when they are more emotionally and financially equipped to handle them. Contraception is at most 99 per cent safe, and abortion must be available to allow women the freedom to provide the optimum conditions for their child's growth.
According to a 1978 Clark University study, 83 per cent of Massachusetts supports the woman's right to choose. But the trend of recent legislation is distinctly anti-abortion, the result of an extremely well-organized and funded "Pro-life" movement (which some link to the New Right). On the federal level, the 1976-7 Hyde Amendment, a rider on the Labor-HEW appropriations bill, cut off federally funded abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and "medically necessary" instances, defined by the Supreme Court as long-lasting physical or psychological damage to the mother's health.
In 1977 this clause cut 99 per cent of all reimbursements (250,000-300,000 annually prior to the cut-off); this year "medically necessary" has been replaced by probable death of the mother. Military women are similarly restricted under the Dornan Amendment; the Young Amendment funds no abortions at all for Peace Corps women. Employers may refuse to include abortion coverage in their company health plan under the Beard Amendment. Fifteen states have called for a constitutional convention to introduce the prohibition of all abortions: 19 more would fulfill the requisite number of 34.
In Massachusetts the Doyle Bill would cut off state funds in the same manner as the Hyde Amendment. Formerly an adjunct to the budget it was passed and signed as a bill this year. Appealed by MORAL (the Massachusetts Organization for the Repeal of Abortion Laws), the bill is under injunction and pending review by the Federal District Court on the basis of a Supreme Court decision that all medically necessary services must be available to the poor. As of last May, hospitals are no longer required to perform abortions upon demand except in case of probable death to the mother. Legislation restricting abortions to hospitals with full obstetrical care (rather than women's health clinics), now before the Massachusetts House, could place the woman in a double bind. Also under Massachusetts debate is an "Informed Consent" bill which essentially amounts to harrassment: the bill requires spouse and parental notification, with consent of parents or courts for minors, full information concerning the viability and appearance of the fetus, description of the aborting technique, anad a 24-hour waiting period after the 'information session' before the abortion could be obtained.
There is a real danger that anti-abortion legislation could become increasingly more restrictive. It already discriminates against women in lower economic brackets. The power of the pro-life people should not be underestimated: they have targeted 12 Congressmen for defeat in 1980, among them Morris Udall and Birch Bayh. We need to inform our politicians of their pro-choice constituency and reverse the further tightening of the over-restrictive and discriminatory legislation.
Tanya Luhrmann '80-3 is working for Abortion Rights Action Week.