Women's Health At Risk In Abortion Debate


Cartoon Copyright The Philadelphia Inquirer.AUTH © The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved.

by Ellen Goodman, the Boston Globe

You cannot hear it in the cacophony of outraged voices arguing about the so-called "partial-birth abortion" ban. But it is there, just under the din. The theme song of the abortion controversy is being repeated, the soundtrack replayed:

Just how much are we willing to require of a woman for the sake of having a baby? Just how much can the government force a woman to sacrifice for a fetus?

The Senate debate has not really been about banning an abortion method. It's been about permitting exceptions to that ban. Senators led by Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum have refused to allow an exception even to protect the woman from serious harm to her health. President Clinton has refused to sign a bill without it.

So the push for a veto-proof majority to ban this rare procedure has drawn a line as clear as possible in this unrelenting and murky struggle. A line around a woman's health.

From the beginning abortion opponents have said that "health" is nothing but a loophole for women who would abort a pregnancy to fit into a prom dress. But pro-choice supporters have countered with real women whose bodies were at serious risk. Underlying it all has been the issue of women and sacrifice.

[In May,] pro-lifer Kristi S. Hamrick argued against any exception saying, "Any woman who has ever been pregnant can tell you that every pregnancy carries potential risk." Indeed, women once died in pregnancy and childbirth with appalling frequency. There is surely something atavistic about the prolife linkage between motherhood and self-sacrifice.

But while the focus is on health, is it fair to ask whether the law can force pregnant women to sacrifice more for "unborn children" than it can force parents to sacrifice for those who are born?

Imagine a different bill going through Congress. This one requires mothers and fathers to give up a kidney for their child. Or maybe it allows the government to extract bone marrow against their will for an ailing son or daughter.

If such a bill got to the Senate floor would Santorum decry "the selfishness, the individual self-centeredness" of its opponents? Surely, we expect a parent to eagerly exchange bone marrow for a child's life. But we would not assume the state's right to go in and take it.

"No case has ever been upheld that says you can intrude on the body of a genetic parent to protect a born child," says Eileen McDonagh, who raises such matters in a provocative book on "Breaking the Abortion Deadlock." Indeed in Illinois, a court ruled that the law could not even require a blood test to see if a relative could be a potential donor.

Can the law then require a woman to suffer "serious health effects," for the sake of a fetus? A central question in the abortion debate, says McDonagh is: "What are the means the state can use to protect the fetus? One benchmark is to ask what the means are the state can use to protect a born child."

The issue is government intrusion: who decides. How much more serious is this decision when we are talking, not about extracting bone marrow but losing a uterus or a kidney. Is it up to the Congress to overrule the doctor? To overrule the "selfish" woman defending her health?

An outraged Santorum screamed that this procedure "is killing a little baby that hasn't hurt anybody!" But the whole point of a vote about a health exception is that this fetus -- however unintentionally, well or deformed -- is hurting someone. The pregnant woman.

This is a tough-minded argument about those few pregnancies that have gone most tragically awry. Pregnancy is risky. Many women embrace heroic procedures to have children.

But the bill is not really about banning one abortion procedure. If dilation and extraction is the first method banned without exceptions, it won't be the last. The goals of abortion opponents are unequivocal.

Nor was the Daschle bill voted down [in May] a true "compromise." Allowing late abortions for physical, "real," health reasons but not mental health? What would that distinction mean to a woman forced to carry an anencephalic (brainless) baby to term?

We already have compromises. The Supreme Court decisions weigh the interests of the woman with those of the developing fetus. The law allows states to severely limit abortion after viability. But at no point does it give the government the right to seriously damage a woman s health to protect a fetus.

This is at the primal heart of the matter. No Congress can be allowed to legislate a new flock of sacrificial women.

Editor's note: This column is reprinted with permission from the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Goodman's column.


Return to October 1997 newspaper / Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW