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Medical advances enliven stalemated abortion debate


So much acrimonious debate. So little conversation.

Thirty years after Roe v. Wade, is there anything left to say about abortion?

Interviews with women who are engaged with abortion issues as scholars and mediators suggest yes. Public attitudes are shifting; new developments in medical technology are causing some of the controversy over abortion to shift to other areas such as stem cell research and the use of genetic tissue.

According to M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, the abortion debate is increasingly connected to the status of the fetus and the issue of genetic tissue. “It’s one thing to say that abortion should not be punished by law, it’s another to view the unborn as a source material for all sorts of products from cosmetics to curing Parkinson’s disease. People are still considering the individual issues, but they’re also considering, How do we consider this class of being? Does it have any kind of claim on us? Are there appropriate boundaries on how we can make use of it? Does it deserve a level of respect?”

In the public sphere the arguments about deriving stem cells for research repeat the arguments against abortion, said Margaret Farley, the Gilbert Stark professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School. But Farley notes that greater knowledge about embryology is causing an ongoing change in Catholic moral discourse about the status of the very early embryo.

“The embryo prior to implantation is thought by many not to have the moral status of even a potential person and the reason for that is that it isn’t sufficiently individualized to become a person,” Farley said. “Increasingly, there is a recognition of the arguments for a 14-day period of time after fertilization which would allow use of embryos for research. That argument and analysis is becoming more persuasive among moral theologians within the Catholic community.”

If greater scientific knowledge has led to increased understanding of the fluidity of early embryonic cells that can develop in many different ways, medical advances in reproductive health such that premature babies can be sustained are also giving some people second thoughts about late-term abortions.

Kaveny argues that in American society today there’s a schizophrenic notion of the status of the unborn. In one operating room, fetal surgery is going on; in another, an abortion. “It’s a baby if you want it, and it’s not a baby if you don’t want it,” she said.

Kaveny said that within the pro-life movement there is an increasing recognition that more must be done to help pregnant women in crisis situations.

“What we’ve learned since the debate began is that when it comes to the very, very vulnerable, be it the unborn, the sick, the old, it’s not just the matter of an exceptionalist moral rule against killing,” Kaveny said. “That just takes you so far. What’s necessary in the case of anyone weak and vulnerable is that people extend themselves positively to protect them. We’ve gotten a much more vivid sense of what it costs women to carry babies to term, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and we have an obligation to assist them and make sure that it’s not just them who bear that cost.

“Pro-life groups have increasingly realized they can’t say don’t kill. They have to provide assistance,” Kaveny said.

A dubious decision

Kaveny called the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade “problematic” on legal grounds. Though she and others concur there is no real likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, alterations have occurred in different states, with the imposition of mandatory waiting periods, parental involvement laws, informed consent laws and restrictions on federal funding for abortion.

Christine Gudorf, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University and the author of Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, said there is increasing recognition among feminists that the basis for Roe v. Wade was made on the wrong grounds -- of privacy rather than a woman’s welfare.

A pro-choice Catholic, Gudorf came to her support for abortion rights through personal experience. Twenty-eight years ago she went to her doctor to get fitted for a diaphragm and was told she was six months pregnant. She had just adopted a terminally ill child and had been recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Although Gudorf eventually decided to go forward with the pregnancy, she said the experience led her to support the pro-choice position.

“It would not have been right for me not to have a choice at that point. Making that choice was an important part of choosing who I was going to be. And that had to be my choice,” Gudorf said.

Despite the official teachings of the Catholic church against abortion, Catholics are just as likely to have abortions or to support women’s legal right to abortion as the general population. Indeed, polls show greater support among Catholics for abortion rights than among evangelical Protestants or Orthodox Jews. Gudorf said individual Catholics don’t readily adopt the church’s position on abortion both because it sometimes conflicts with women’s own personal experience and because the absolutist view of the Catholic church today is itself a departure from Catholic teaching.

“The more people know, the more they know that the absolutist position is a recent position that runs in the face of 1,800 years of Catholic history where the church believed that personhood developed, whether under the Aristotelian formula that Thomas Aquinas used, that the soul was not infused until 40 to 90 days after conception, or whether the soul was infused at the time of quickening,” said Gudorf.

Polls indicate that most Americans want women to have access to abortion, but are uncomfortable with abortion in some circumstances.

“Nobody has been able to make abortion illegal. At the same time it is restricted,” said Mary Jacksteit, who conducted dialogues between pro-choice and pro-life supporters for seven years for a conflict-resolution group called Search for Common Ground. “It’s more restricted than the pro-choice people want and less than pro-life people want. That has been the effective stalemate for years.”

In recent years, abortion has become aligned with party politics, with opposition to abortion a litmus test for those wanting to run for office in the Republican Party and support for abortion rights the party line for politicians running in the Democratic Party.

Farley said it is possible to be both pro-choice and antiabortion.

“I wrote an article back in the 1970s that you had those who favor women’s choice, ignoring almost altogether the reality of the embryo and the fetus, and you had those opposed to abortion, ignoring the concerns of many women on the other hand. It was at an impasse,” Farley said. “The impasse is still there, but the lines are softer. On both sides there is a recognition of the importance of the arguments of the other side. There are a lot of persons, particularly feminists, who do take account of the reality of the fetus but who also take account of the terrible tragedies for women with an antiabortion policy.”

Farley said there are many Catholics who see abortion as wrong but who do not consider it so outrageously intolerable that they would want to criminalize it. “The uncertainty of the moral status of the early fetus is one reason for that. Another is the unfeasibility of enforcing a prohibition against abortion without bringing about greater evil. Another is the recognition that women do have a right to bodily integrity. It doesn’t mean that every woman who makes a choice about her body is making a morally good choice but that doesn’t justify somebody else violating her bodily integrity,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003