Along the Tracks

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Finding a new path in the abortion debate

I’ve had several good responses on my Bryan Times (Subscribe to the Times!) column of Saturday, concerning the abortion rights debate and my attempt at a sensible alternative to the all-or-nothing polarization which now dominates. In many ways, I am indebted to Andrew Sullivan, who has written substantially and intelligently on the subject. I hope my piece offers some unique arguments and insights:

By Paul A. Miller
Leader Enterprise

Across the past 30 years, no debate in American society has been more consistently polarizing, acrimonious and unproductive than the question of abortion rights. Why can we not find our way toward a sensible resolution which would protect the privacy rights and health of women while eliminating a colossal gap in our appreciation of human rights?

The defenders of abortion refuse to consider the right to end a pregnancy anything but absolute. Those most vehemently against abortion negate any possibility of a “privacy right” which might constitute control over one’s own body. Nevertheless, if one sets aside the extreme voices and looks at abortion with less emotion and more sensibility, a path begins to appear out of the fog.

To begin, the innate value of a fetus - a human life - must be recognized. We are not dealing with an inflamed appendix or cancerous prostate here - these are, at a minimum, potential people. As such, they deserve some protection from injurious acts.

Further, unborn children in the third trimester differ from newborn babies only in their location. It is ridiculous to suggest a fetus may be aborted two weeks before term, while killing a two-weeks-early newborn is a crime. Make no mistake - third trimester abortions involve the taking of a human life potentially capable of independence from the mother.

When it comes to the question of rights, there are some important truths to note. First, no right is absolute - no right. Free speech is limited by slander and libel laws; assembly is curtailed by conspiracy and riot laws; even the exercise of religion runs up against the basic criminal code. You can’t perform an animal sacrifice deemed cruel, you can’t smoke crack in a service, and you can’t light someone’s hair on fire to chase away evil spirits. There are limits.

Limits hold - or should hold - in the abortion debate as well. The right to privacy, and the right of control over one’s body which emanates from privacy, is limited by its effects on others. Someone with a dangerous communicable disease can be quarantined and treated in the interest of protecting public health. A person who decides to perform his own plastic surgery in the mirror can be stopped.

Similarly, abortion should be limited according to its affects on both the woman and the unborn child. A woman who faces serious health consequences in continuing her pregnancy should have the right, in consultation with her physician, to terminate that pregnancy by the most safe and efficient means necessary - prior to the third trimester. In those final three months (as we have already discussed), there is inarguably a child capable of independence involved. Any medical procedure should attempt saving both lives; should that be impossible, the mother’s life (or more correctly stated, her choice) should take precedent, and once again, the most safe and efficient method of ending the pregnancy and saving the mother should be used.

Unfortunately, the drive toward open-ended abortion access has trampled all sorts of sensible boundaries. Abortion activists are pressing for over-the-counter designation for the abortion pill, RU-486, despite the major - and potentially life-threatening - effects the medication is meant to produce. A parent must sign a release form for a teen-age daughter to go on a field trip, but has no right to stop her from undergoing a major medical procedure: abortion. In many states, parents do not even have the right to notification.

It must be noted that the right to life is limited as well. A parallel can be drawn with self-defense, particularly in pregnancies which endanger the mother. And consider this: If you are suffering kidney failure and my organ matches, I have every right to refuse the minimal danger of a donation and allow you to die - the state cannot force me to save your life. I have control over my body in all but the most extreme circumstances.

So we reach the outlines of a solution which, while not completely satisfactory to anyone, would be found acceptable by the vast majority of Americans - something not true of the present situation or the situation prior to Roe v. Wade.

First trimester abortions would be legally protected - period. Third trimester abortions would be outlawed in all but cases of serious health consequences to the mother. Second trimester abortions would be legal or illegal locally based on community standards and continuing scientific discoveries. Minors would need parental approval prior to abortions, except in cases of medical emergency or special court orders. All abortions, whether in a hospital, office or through prescribed medications, would need the oversight of a physician.

And now that the pot is fully boiling, this final thought: Thirty years of unrestricted abortion has not increased responsibility or improved lives, any more than the previous 30 years of criminalization protected children or women. This should not be a battle over laws, but over lives - the lives of women uncertain they are prepared to raise a child, the lives of children born in poverty, the lives of boys and girls not properly educated on the responsibilities which come with sexual activity, and the options available when an unplanned pregnancy occurs.

It is safe to say no woman has ever wanted an abortion; the energies now focused on the trench warfare of legal debates should be instead be aimed at education and involvement, so that fewer women feel they need an abortion.

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