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The Abortion Debate that Wasn't
April 24, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

Although the political dust has yet to settle, the pro-life movement has won the abortion debate by virtue of the fact that pro-choice advocates have refused to deal with the moral issues it raises. The preceding statement brings me no pleasure. I stand firmly by the principle of "a woman's body, a woman's right" but, like many pro-choice advocates, I have always had moral reservations about late term abortion. The reservations increase dramatically when confronted with partial birth abortions performed for any reason other than valid concern about the pregnant woman's health. Even with partial birth abortion, however, I believe the law must protect a woman's right to control her own body -- that is, it must acknowledge a woman's right to abort.

(No similar moral or emotional problem arises with RU486 and other means of early abortion because all that exists at that point -- to my mind -- is a potential human being. But, given that I value human life, I also value its potential. As the fetus comes closer to viability, the value I place on it increases as well...though its value is never so high as that of the pregnant woman.)

Why has feminism been conspicuously silent about the morality of late term abortion? My experiences may be indicative. Years ago, when I began speaking out in favor of abortion rights, I routinely included my moral reservations and followed up with a question. I asked, "What is the purpose of law in society?" and I answered, "It is to protect person and property," to protect individual rights. In other words, in my worldview, the purpose of law is to preserve the peace. This contrasts sharply with the view that law should preserve virtue: for example, that there should be laws against pornography, blasphemy, and sexual deviance because such activities constitute a breach of public morality. In drawing the distinction between "the legal" and "the moral," I argued that individuals have the right to do anything with their own bodies and property whether or not those actions are "moral" by some standard. Women have a right to undergo any medical procedure they wished to have performed upon their own bodies whether or not the morality of the procedure was questionable. Morality is a matter of individual conscience, not of law.

A more seasoned feminist took me aside and urged me to stop mentioning 'moral reservations.' Such statements, I was told, gave ammunition to the enemy and harmed "the cause." Since then, I have heard manifold versions of this argument regarding every controversial issue I've addressed. "You should be less than candid, you should quote this study and ignore that one, you should never acknowledge a good argument from the other side"... My response has remained basically the same. The minute you start ignoring facts, refusing to address arguments, and being anything less than candid, you have lost the debate. And you deserve to. The pro-choice movement has lost the debate on abortion because it has refused to grapple with the moral issues that have come to define this matter.

When is a human life present? When does an individual with individual rights exist? Is it wrong to destroy the potential for life even though it may be lawful to do so? In answering these questions, I remain pro-choice and have a clear conscience besides. In refusing to deal with these questions, feminism has become an ally of the pro-life movement. The mainstream feminist movement has surrendered the moral high ground to pro-life forces: it has refused to enter into honest debate.

In the early days (the '70s), when abortion opponents still spoke to each other, I remember how vigorously pro-choice advocates objected to the pro-life tactic of propping blown-up photos of aborted fetuses against the dais of debate. (Ironically, the same women who strenuously objected often tried to prop up the worst S/M photos from pornography during debate on that subject.) The tactic was denounced as a raw appeal to emotions. Well...perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. Emotions are an integral part of every decision we make as human beings. By refusing to deal with the emotions surrounding abortion -- just as it refused to deal with the moral questions -- feminism has relegated itself to the sidelines of debate.

I want to look at the photographs of aborted fetuses. I want to see the pictures that result from partial birth abortions -- the same photos that have convinced some non-political nurses in attendance to become anti-abortion zealots. If feminists are not willing to look at the practical consequences of their policies, then we should retire from the political arena.

In fairness, however, I ask the pro-life movement to honestly confront their own difficult questions. For example, like many women of my generation, I had a first-trimester abortion that was entirely discretionary. By pro-life standards, I am guilty of first-degree, premeditated murder and the doctor who performed the procedure is guilty of the same -- a crime that has no time limit under law. I ask every pro-life advocate: are you willing to subject me to the maximum penalties being imposed for such a crime, up to and including a death sentence? If not, why not? Anything less constitutes an admission on your part that abortion is, in fact, less than the murder of an innocent human being.

According to pro-life doctrine, a substantial portion of an entire generation deserves a death sentence or its equivalent. By eschewing moral issues, feminism has allowed the hideous practical consequences of the pro-life position to stand without contradiction. I am not so generous. Let me repeat my question: are pro-life advocates willing to send police to my home, are they willing to throw me in prison and subject me to the maximum penalty for premeditated murder? If not, then feminists are not the only ones avoiding the difficult questions.

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