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Absolutism a losing strategy


Many of us are troubled by abortion, yet not at all sympathetic to pro-life politics.

This was brought home to me while I was in England in 2000, where the case of the Siamese twins from Malta was being hotly debated. Everyone from bus conductors to Oxford ethicists was having her or his say. The twins’ parents did not want their fused babies separated, as the one twin was certain to die. They believed that nature should take its course, which meant that both children would die in a matter of months. The British courts ruled otherwise and ordered the infants separated so as to give the one with a complete set of organs a chance for survival.

The Solomonic dilemma produced a few surprises. A number of people who viewed themselves as firmly pro-choice found themselves, in supporting the parents’ wishes, on the same side as the pro-life Roman Catholic church. Such was the position of my son and a friend; both are doctors in British hospitals. He is a specialist in general medicine, she a cardiologist.

After we had talked about the twins, the conversation turned to abortion. I asked them where they stood on the issue. While they were uncompromising about keeping abortion legal, both expressed abhorrence at the practice -- having witnessed it as medical students -- save in extreme circumstances. At the same time, they voiced considerable distrust of pro-life politics.

We recoil from the absolutism, the rigid certainties in a world of contingency. Here in the United States, the impasse over abortion has become something of a national scandal: No other country in the world is as polarized on the issue. Yes, I am often frustrated by those of my comrades on the left who are not always sensitive to the difficulties some of us have with abortion; but, to be fair, these same lefties are the first to advocate substantial social and financial support for impoverished women with children. They take seriously the need to educate women on the prevention of pregnancy. They strive for equality between the sexes and to demystify sex, making it both responsible and fun.

The blame for the abortion impasse has to be laid for the most part at the door of the pro-life constituency -- the consequence of its dogmatism and intransigence. I share its respect for fetal life, but I am perplexed by the refusal to find common ground with people outside the movement so as to ensure that, as far as is possible, pregnancy is always intended. The pro-lifer is almost always hostile to education that would help the hormone-driven young to protect themselves from random conception. Just think of the abortions that result each year from the urgent coupling of sexually naive, guilt-ridden teenagers. In the Netherlands, where young people are savvy and sexually informed, the abortion rate is a fraction of that in the United States. Moreover, those abstinence programs the pro-lifers called for seem to be doing more harm than good.

Last December, The New York Times published a report on a survey of the sexual practices of boys in the age range 15 to 19. The survey, undertaken by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, documents some of the bizarre and worrying consequences of these abstinence programs, particularly for girls. Abstinence has come to be defined as anything other than vaginal sex. So now, young women in high school are servicing their male classmates with oral and anal sex.

Health screening shows that some of these girls are contracting pharyngeal gonorrhea. Linda Alexander of the American Social Health Association had this to say: “We are seeing more evidence of anal sex in cultures with a high value on technical virginity, and it often causes lacerations and micro-abrasion that can lead to infections. You have to worry about AIDS. And we have also heard that some girls use muscle relaxants, which can also be risky.”

The contradictory nature of the pro-life movement shows up in other ways. Nowhere in the halls of Congress can one find lobbying on behalf of poor mothers and their children, or for increased foreign aid to combat high infant mortality in the Third World. Why, one wonders, is the concern for life not more all encompassing? Why the exclusive fixation on the fetus? However, nothing raises my dander more than the movement’s tin ear when it comes to dealing with the sexually abused woman.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, an organization calling itself The Human Life Alliance produced a glossy eight-page insert for Notre Dame’s campus newspaper. The propaganda was routine stuff, though the captious focus on saving pregnancies that result from rape and incest was new. Should the ejaculate find its way to the ovum, the fusion of cells takes immediate precedence over the violated woman. The argument advanced was that abortion after rape compounds the violence. There was a winning photo of a Marie Osmond look-alike, shown with a pretty daughter who was “conceived in rape.” They made it sound quite jolly. When dealing with a rape victim, the paramount concern should be pastoral -- designed to limit her trauma. No matter where we stand on abortion, every fiber of common sense ought to tell us that a pregnancy deepens the tragedy. Ask Bosnian women raped by the enemy during the Balkans conflict. To argue that the cells of an ovum fertilized by force have an instant nonnegotiable right to keep multiplying is a form of madness -- of the kind you might expect to find in a dystopia like the one described in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

If the pregnancy-to-heal-rape approach was offensive, the reason given for nonintervention in cases of incest was downright malignant. No matter if the incest victim was an 11-year-old, impregnated by, say, the father or grandfather, this propaganda sheet urged her to bear the child in order that the incestuous relative could be named and shamed after the birth. There was not an iota of concern for the state of mind of the child-woman or for the dangerous ordeal of pregnancy for an immature body. Even more telling, the issue of male violence was not even touched upon.

I am painfully aware of the futility of appeals to the pro-life mentality to cede some ground, to meet halfway those of us who are pro-choice but troubled by abortion. Absolutism does not yield, by definition. Moreover, the pro-life movement appears to have gone too far down the path of demonizing the pro-choice position for any cooperation. So we continue to waste time fighting the unwinnable abortion war when we could be talking constructively about strategies for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, thus reducing the incidence of abortion.

Let me close with a story that suggests that the pro-choice position can be more effective in preventing abortion. I have only once been approached for money to pay for an abortion. The young woman had been raised in a conservative, strictly pro-life Catholic family. She had terminated a pregnancy the year before. Frightened and desperate she turned to me because she had never heard me take a hard-line, pro-life position. All she needed was reassurance that she was not going to be coerced into continuing with the pregnancy. I gave her my word that I would stand by her, but suggested that it would be imprudent to rush headlong into an abortion. I advised her to see a doctor. The upshot was that the examining physician recommended continuing with the pregnancy as she was into her fourth month. Together we found an agency that arranged the adoption, which is what my friend wanted. The baby, now a young man, would not have been born had I been a pro-life absolutist.

Ann Pettifer is publisher of Common Sense, an independant newspaper circulated at Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001