Politics & Policy

Deciding Abortion

The key questions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 9, 2005, issue of National Review.

The pro-abortion and anti-abortion forces are warships passing in the night. Their slogans, “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” don’t engage the central issue that divides them, which is, what actually happens in an abortion. Neither group really disagrees with the other’s slogan. None of the opponents of abortion would object to a woman’s choosing to do what she wanted with a tumor or some other unwanted tissue growing on or in her body. On that issue they would be pro-choice. And no ordinary supporter of abortion would argue that a woman has a right to choose to do what she wants with her grandmother, or her infant daughter. In those cases, they would be pro-life, not pro-choice.

Nor was “choice”–understood as a woman’s right to choose to terminate the life of a person–authorized by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. What the Court decided in that case was that during the period before the fetus was viable (which the Court, writing in 1973, said usually occurred at 28 weeks but could occur earlier, even at 24 weeks) a woman could not be prohibited from exercising her “right to privacy”–which included choosing to have an abortion. The Court did not hold that a woman had an unqualified right to destroy something that was a person. “If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” The Court went on, in another decision handed down the same day, to define “health” so expansively as to put severe limits on states’ practical ability to protect fetal life after viability. But that holding does not alter the fact that the Court has never explicitly held that a woman has an absolute right to destroy something that it recognizes as a person.

What was particularly provocative in the Court’s decision was its “legislating” its own definition of life, i.e., “viability,” despite a disingenuous disclaimer (“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins”). By not calling the fetus “life,” the Court could pretend that it had not authorized the destruction of life.

Neither “life” nor “choice,” therefore, is really the issue in the abortion dispute. And when we talk about “life” or “human life” we really mean “human being” or “person,” as in Mother Teresa or Yasser Arafat–or “personhood”–i.e., the nature of someone essentially like us and entitled to the same protection of the law . . .

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