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Untitled Document

The Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice,
By Robert M. Baird, Stuart E. Rosenbaum
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For at least twenty years now, the issue of abortion has grown increasingly difficult. Few issues have more thoroughly fragmented contemporary society. Operation Rescue and Rescue America, large anti-abortion organizations, have organized thousands of protest actions against clinics that perform or refer for abortions, against physicians who perform abortions, and against organizations that even indirectly are supportive of the practice of abortion. The people in these anti-abortion groups act with the fervor of absolute moral conviction. Likewise, women and men with equal fervor vow they will not allow abortion again to become a "back alley" activity requiring women to risk their fives to obtain what should be a safe and simple surgical procedure. So far as one can estimate such things apart from individual personal convictions, sincerity and integrity appear in equal measure on both sides.

Sometimes, however, the judgment that comparable integrity moves activists on both sides seems confounded by the facts. When Michael Griffin, an anti-abortion activist, allegedly shot and killed Dr. David Gunn, an abortion provider, at a clinic in Pensacola, Florida, on March 17, 1993, one could only wonder what acts of violence might be next on the activists' agenda, and what kind of moral or religious integrity could endorse killing to achieve its ends. Nevertheless, Michael Griffin, according to news reports, vowed to provide his own legal defense and to make the Bible its primary source. However much one might be baffled by Michael Griffin, the man himself apparently felt morally comfortable with his action. Furthermore, public statements offered by those commenting on behalf of Operation Rescue and Rescue America, while regretting Griffin's action, did not neglect to mention the millions of babies abortion providers like Gunn kill every year in America. They did not say Griffin was justified in killing Gunn, but they obviously thought Griffin's action was no worse morally than Gunn's regular abortion of living fetuses. Was Griffin morally justified in killing David Gunn? Was Gunn even more disreputable than Griffin because he regularly and without compunction dispatched living fetuses (what antiabortion advocates call innocent babies)? Was Gunn so blind, morally speaking, that killing him was the only responsible recourse? Or, was Griffin's idea of moral and religious integrity just badly misguided? The deep perplexity many people feel about these and related questions motivates this collection of essays.

The society Margaret Atwood describes in The Handmaid's Tale looks like one in which Michael Griffin might feel at home. Her imaginary society of the future is an orderly, authoritarian society founded on the Bible, a society in which women are slaves to the men who use them only for pleasure and reproduction, a society in which abortion is forbidden on penalty of death. Would contemporary societies be better if they were more like Atwood's society to the extent of being more "biblical" and, in the view of some, more respectful of fife? Or would today's societies be worse because they are less tolerant of divergent understandings of the "biblical," and less tolerant of diversity in individual efforts to put together meaningful fives? In particular, are contemporary societies better or worse to accord women free choice in a aspects of their reproductive lives, including free choice about unplanned pregnancies?

An interesting analogue of Atwood's anti-choice society appears in contemporary Communist China. Chinese society is also antichoice, but instead of requiring women to reproduce as much as possible the Chinese require women to reproduce no more than once. The one-child mandate is rigidly enforced, and women who become pregnant a second time face mandatory abortion. Most women in contemporary Western societies likely find Communist Chinese society no more desirable than Atwood's imaginary one. Most women want control over their own reproductive powers, control systematically denied in both of these anti-choice alternative societies.

"Pro-choice" individual might naturally find Atwood's imaginary society more objectionable than Communist China, while "pro-life" individuals might find Communist China more objectionable than Atwood's. What those alternative societies have in common is the requirement that women accept "external" control of their reproductive powers.

Different sorts of rationale seem to authorize external control of women's reproductive powers. A biblical rationale for an anti-choice position differs from a population control rationale for the same position. Michael Griffin, with his staunch biblical perspectives, would certainly not be tolerant of the Chinese one-child-per-family policy mandating abortion. Likewise, Communist Chinese planners would find Griffin's biblical perspective, at best, oddly unrealistic. Most women in contemporary Western societies would find both Griffin's and the Communist Chinese positions to be unacceptably paternalistic. Where on this confusing spectrum of alternatives is the view richest in moral integrity, the wisest view, the view most worthy of allegiance to be found? Again, these are the questions that motivate this collection of essays.

This revised selection of essays and opinions about abortion reflects the fact that the issue is now more divisive than it was four years ago when we first focused our attention on the topic of abortion. The social and political landscape now looks significantly different. We have tried in this revised volume to take into account the new look of that landscape. We have also segmented the collection into clusters of essays, each addressing a distinctively problematic aspect of the abortion issue.

An ideally "balanced" selection of essays on this topic, along with an ideally "balanced" introduction, is probably an impossible ideal. Anyone picking up a volume like this one will inevitably look to see how their particular predispositions are handled by the editors and authors. We, the editors, do have our moral, political, religious, and professional perspectives. We confess that those perspectives as a whole have guided our choices about what to keep from the original edition and what to add to create the present volume. In our opinion the selections included here are incisive and informative, and anyone who hopes to think coherently about the topic of abortion needs to become familiar with them.

The first cluster of essays presents a series of "snapshots." Richard Selzer focuses on the horror of the killing in abortions; Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May, followed by Anna Quindlen, call attention to the horrors of fife without safe, legal abortion.

The second cluster concerns the constitutional issue of abortion. Whether or not Roe v. Wade was a legitimate use of judicial authority is a question judges and scholars have debated extensively. We offer here edited versions of each of the three major Supreme Court decisions dealing with abortion: Roe v. Wade, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. The remaining selections mark out a route into the question whether or not the Roe decision was constitutionally legitimate. Robert H. Bork's brief essay deriding the "political activism" he sees in the Casey decision is set alongside Melvin Wulf's response, and Ronald Dworkin's applause for the decision.
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1 Abortion
Richard Selzer

Horror, like bacteria, is everywhere. It blankets the earth, endlessly lapping to find that one unguarded entryway. As though narcotized, we walk beneath, upon, through it. Carelessly we touch the familiar infected linen, eat from the universal dish; we disdain isolation. We are like the newborn that carry immunity from their mothers' wombs. Exteriorized, we are wrapped in impermeable membranes that cannot be seen. Then one day, the defense is gone. And we awaken to horror.

In our city, garbage is collected early in the morning. Sometimes the bang of the cans and the grind of the truck awaken us before our time. We are resentful, mutter into our pillows, then go back to sleep. On the morning of August 6, 1975, the people of 73rd Street near Woodside Avenue do just that. When at last they rise from their beds, dress, eat breakfast and leave their houses for work, they have forgotten, if they had ever known, that the garbage truck had passed earlier that morning. The event has slipped into unmemory, like a dream.

They close their doors and descend to the pavement. It is midsummer. You measure the climate, decide how you feel in relation to the heat and the humidity. You walk toward the bus stop. Others, your neighbors, are waiting there. It is all so familiar. All at once you step on something soft. You feel it with your foot. Even through your shoe you have the sense of something unusual something marked by a special "give." It is a foreignness upon the pavement. Instinct puts your foot away in an awkward little movement. You look down, and you see . . . a tiny naked body, its arms and legs flung apart, its head thrown back, its mouth agape, its face serious. A bird, you think, fallen from its nest. But there is no nest here on 73rd Street, no bird so big. It is rubber, then. A model, a . . . joke. Yes, that's it, a joke. And you bend to see. Because you must. And it is no joke. Such a gray softness can be but one thing. It is a baby, and dead. You cover your mouth, your eyes. You are fixed. Horror has found its chink and crawled in, and you will never be the same as you were. Years later you will step from a sidewalk to a lawn, and you will start at its softness, and think of that upon which you have just trod.

Now you look about; another man has seen it too. "My God," he whispers. Others come, people you have seen every day for years, and you hear them speak with strangely altered voices. "Look," they say, "it's a baby." There is a cry. "Here's another!" and "Another!" and "Another!" And you follow with your gaze the index fingers of your friends pointing from the huddle where you cluster. Yes, it is true! There are more of these . . . little carcasses upon the street. And for a moment you look up to see if all the unbaptized sinless are falling from Limbo.

Now the street is filling with people. There are police. They know what to do. They rope off the area, then stand guard over the enclosed space. They are controlled methodical, these young policemen. Servants, they do not reveal themselves to their public master, it would not be seemly. Yet I do see their pallor and the sweat that breaks upon the face of one, the way another bites the fining of his cheek and holds it thus. Ambulance attendants scoop up the bodies. They scan the street; none must be overlooked. What they place upon the fitter amounts to little more than a dozen pounds of human flesh. They raise the fitter, and slide it home inside the ambulance, and they drive away. You and your neighbors stand about in the street which is become for you a battlefield from which the newly slain have at last been bagged and tagged and dragged away. But what shrapnel is this? By what explosion flung, these fragments that sink into the brain and fester there? Whatever smell there is in this place becomes for you the stench of death. The people of 73rd Street do not then speak to each other. It is too soon for outrage, too late for blindness. It is the time of unresisted horror.

Later, at the police station, the investigation is brisk, conclusive. It is the hospital director speaking: ". . . fetuses accidentally got mixed up with the hospital rubbish . . . were picked up at approximately eight fifteen A.M. by a sanitation truck. Somehow, the plastic lab bag, labeled HAZARDOUS MATERIAL, fell off the back of the truck and broke open. No, it is not known how the fetuses got in the orange plastic NM labeled HAZARDOUS MATERIAL. It is a freak accident." The hospital director wants you to know that it is not an everyday occurrence. Once in a lifetime, he says. But you have seen it, and what are his words to you now?
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He grows affable, familiar, tells you that, by mistake, the fetuses got mixed up with the other debris. (Yes, he says other; he says debris.) He has spent the entire day, he says, trying to figure out how it happened. He wants you to know that. Somehow it matters to him. He goes on:

Aborted fetuses that weigh one pound or less are incinerated. Those weighing over one pound are buried at a city cemetery. He says this. Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society.

There is no more. You turn to leave. Outside on the street, men are talking things over, reassuring each other that the right thing is being done. But just this once, you know it isn't. You saw, and you know.

And you know, too, that the Street of the Dead Fetuses will be wherever you go. You are part of its history now, its legend. It has laid claim upon you so that you cannot entirely leave it--not ever.

I am a surgeon. I do not shrink from the particularities of sick flesh. Escaping blood, all the outpourings of disease--phlegm, pus, vomitus, even those occult meaty tumors that terrify--I see as blood, disease, phlegm, and so on. I touch them to destroy them. But I do not make symbols of them. I have seen, and I am used to seeing. Yet there are paths within the body that I have not taken, penetralia where I do not go. Nor is it lack of technique, limitation of knowledge that forbids me these ways.

It is the western wing of the fourth floor of a great university hospital. An abortion is about to take place. I am present because I asked to be present. I wanted to see what I had never seen.

The patient is Jamaican. She lies on the table submissively, and now and then she smiles at one of the nurses as though acknowledging a secret.

A nurse draws down the sheet, lays bare the abdomen. The belly mounds gently in the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. The chief surgeon paints it with a sponge soaked in red antiseptic. He does this three times, each time a fresh sponge. He covers the area with a sterile sheet, an aperture in its center. He is a kindly man who teaches as he works, who pauses to reassure the woman.

He begins.

A little pinprick, he says to the woman.

He inserts the point of a tiny needle at the midline of the lower portion of her abdomen, on the downslope. He infiltrates local anesthetic into the skin, where it forms a small white bubble.

The woman grimaces.

That is all you will feel, the doctor says. Except for a little pressure. But no more pain.

She smiles again. She seems to relax. She settles comfortably on the table. The worst is over.

The doctor selects a three-and-one-half-inch needle bearing a central stylet. He places the point at the site of the previous injection. He aims it straight up and down, perpendicular. Next he takes hold of her abdomen with his left hand, palming the womb, steadying it. He thrusts with his right hand. The needle sinks into the abdominal wall.

Oh, says the woman quietly.

But I guess it is not pain that she feels. It is more a recognition that the deed is being done.

Another thrust and he has speared the uterus.

We are in, he says.

He has felt the muscular wall of the organ gripping the shaft of his needle. A further slight pressure on the needle advances it a bit more. He takes his left hand from the woman's abdomen. He retracts the filament of the stylet from the barrel of the needle. A small geyser of pale yellow fluid erupts.
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We are in the right place, says the doctor. Are you feeling any pain? he asks.

She smiles, shakes her head. She gazes at the ceiling.

In the room we are six: two physicians, two nurses, the patient, and me. The participants are busy, very attentive. I am not at all busy--but I am no less attentive. I want to see.

I see something! It is unexpected, utterly unexpected, like a disturbance in the earth, a tumultuous jarring. I see a movement--a small one. But I have seen it.

And then I see it again. And now I see that it is the hub of the needle in the woman's belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing fine nibbled by a sunfish.

Again! And I know!

It is the fetus that worries thus. It is the fetus struggling against the needle. Struggling? How can that be? I think: that cannot be. I think: the fetus feels no pain, cannot feel fear, has no motivation. It is merely reflex.

I point to the needle.

It is a reflex, says the doctor.

By the end of the fifth month, the fetus weighs about one pound, is about twelve inches long. Hair is on the head. There are eyebrows, eyelashes. Pale pink nipples show on the chest. Nails are present, at the fingertips, at the toes.

At the beginning of the sixth month, the fetus can cry, can suck, can make a fist. He kicks, he punches. The mother can feel this, can see this. His eyelids, until now closed, can open. He may look up, down, sideways. His grip is very strong. He could support his weight by holding with one hand.

A reflex, the doctor says.

I hear him. But I saw something in that mass of cells understand that it must bob and butt. And I see it again! I have an impulse to shove to the table-it is just a step--seize that needle, pull it out.

We are not six, I think. We are seven.

Something strangles there. An effort, its effort, binds me to it.

I do not shove to the table. I take no little step. It would be . . . well, madness. Everyone here wants the needle where it is. Six do. No, five do.

I close my eyes. I see inside of the uterus. It is bathed in ruby gloom. I see the creature curled upon itself. Its knees are flexed. Its head is bent upon its chest. It is in fluid and gently rocks to the rhythm of the distant heartbeat.

It resembles . . . a sleeping infant.

Its place is entered by something. It is sudden. A point coming. A needle!

A spike of daylight pierces the chamber. Now the light is extinguished. The needle comes closer in the pool. The point grazes the thigh, and I stir. Perhaps I wake from dozing. The fight is there again. I twist and straighten. My arms and legs push. My hand finds the shaft--grabs! I grab. I bend the needle this way and that. The point probes, touches on my belly. My mouth opens. Could I cry out? All is a commotion and a churning. There is a presence in the pool. An activity! The pool colors, reddens, darkens.

I open my eyes to see the doctor feeding a small plastic tube through the barrel of the needle into the uterus. Drops of pink fluid overrun the rim and spill onto the sheet. He withdraws the needle from around the plastic tubing. Now only the little tube protrudes from the woman's body. A nurse hands the physician a syringe loaded with a colorless liquid. He attaches it to the end of the tubing and injects it.

Prostaglandin, he says.

Ah well, prostaglandin--a substance found normally in the body. When given in concentrated dosage, it throws the uterus into vigorous contraction. In eight to twelve hours, the woman will expel the fetus.

The doctor detaches the syringe but does not remove the tubing.

In case we must do it over, he says.

He takes away the sheet. He places gauze pads over the tubing. Over all this he applies adhesive tape.

I know. We cannot feed the great numbers. There is no more room. I know, I know. It is a woman's right to refuse the risk, to decline the pain of childbirth. And an unwanted child is a very great burden. An unwanted child is a burden to himself. I know.

And yet . . . there is the flick of that needle. I saw it. I saw . . . I felt-in that room, a pace away, life prodded, life fending off. I saw fife avulsed * -swept by flood, blackening--then out.

"There," says the doctor. "It's all over. It wasn't too bad, was it?" he says to the woman.

She smiles. It is all over. Oh, yes.

And who would care to imagine that from a moist and dark commencement six months before there would ripen the cluster and globule, the sprout and pouch of man?

And who would care to imagine that trapped within the laked pearl and a dowry of yoke would fie the earliest stuff of dream and memory?

It is a persona carried here as well as a person, I think. I think it is a signed piece, engraved with a hieroglyph of human genes.

I did not think this until I saw. The flick. The fending off.

Later, in the corridor, the doctor explains that the law does not permit abortion beyond the twenty-fourth week. That is when the fetus may be viable, he says. We stand together for a moment, and he tells of an abortion in which the fetus cried after it was passed.

What did you do? I ask him.

There was nothing to do but let it five, he says. It did very well, he says. A case of mistaken dates.
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2 The Bad Old Days
Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May

Caroline is a forty-four-year-old woman who is a librarian at a college in a small rural town.

For a long time I think I drank to avoid the feelings. And it wasn't until quite recently, five years ago, after I had stopped drinking for a while, that I went through a whole period of really reliving the terror of this experience. It was in the summer, between my junior and senior years of college. I was going to college in Cleveland, living there for the summer. And somehow I just knew I was pregnant.

It was the first and only time that I was ever sexually intimate with this man. He was a young artist whom I had been seeing for some time. I wasn't particularly physically attracted to him, but he was pressing me, and I just finally got to the point where I couldn't struggle with it anymore. So I gave in. Somehow I immediately had the sense that I was pregnant.

I really didn't know what to do. I knew, though, that having a baby would ruin my whole life. The man involved felt responsible and wanted to marry me, but I thought it was a very weak reason for getting married. I spent a lot of time just seeing my life in a shambles. Things at that time in Cleveland were very tight. There had been several incidents reported in the paper. An abortion ring had been broken up. It was 1963, and when I followed up on the few leads there were, it seemed that it was absolutely the worst possible time in about five years to have an abortion in Cleveland.

In the meantime the weeks were going by and I was more pregnant all the time and it was really getting to the point that if I didn't do something soon it was going to be too late. Being raised a good Catholic girl, abortion was not a thing that I was very comfortable thinking about. But I didn't feel that I had any other option. I was getting pretty desperate by this time because I was nine weeks pregnant. I finally located an abortionist in Youngstown, Ohio.

This so-called doctor was a bookie and he was an abortionist. He was an elderly man in a ramshackle little house in a disreputable, shabby part of Youngstown. It in no way fit my image of a doctor's house and office. I think there was some actual gambling going on while we were waiting.

He had a room with a chair and stirrups set up. The money, one hundred dollars, had to be in cash, in certain denominations, and it had to be given to him in an envelope. He checked it very thoroughly to make sure it wasn't marked. He explained he was doing a saline injection and that there should be some cramping and the abortion would happen within twenty-four hours. Nothing happened.

I don't know how many days passed; I did a lot to block out this experience. But I do know that when I finally aborted I was alone in my room in the dormitory at school. I went through at least twelve hours of labor alone in my room.

It was more terrible than I ever imagined, partly because I was alone, partly because I was scared. I was timing the contractions and I just didn't think I could bear anymore. I didn't feel I could cry out for help, and I just remember thinking, "I'm going to get through this." I remember noticing that the contractions were getting more and more frequent, five minutes, then four minutes, then three minutes, and then there was a lot of blood and there was a fetus. I was really beside myself, and terrified. I didn't know what to do. There was more blood than I ever imagined. I used one of these metal waste baskets we had in the dorm rooms and I remember it being filled up. I think I had gone through a whole night and it was now midmorning, and there weren't many people around. I managed to get to the bathroom, very surreptitiously. I was terrified of someone discovering me, of being arrested.

I remember taking this fetus and not knowing what else to do but flush it down the toilet. And I was terrified that it wasn't going to go down, that they'd have to call a plumber and then there would be this hunt to find out who did this terrible thing in the dorm, and I'd be tracked down and prosecuted. Somehow I thought then it would be over, but it wasn't over. It went on and on. I kept hemorrhaging and it just wouldn't stop.

I had become pregnant in August, and the abortion was in early November. I remember going home for Thanksgiving and my mother kept saying, "I think you're anemic." And I remember being very drained and wiped out.

Early in December, I became friendly with a very gentle, brilliant but quite crazy college student who had been hospitalized while he was suicidal. I found myself confiding in him that I'd had this abortion, and was still bleeding. He talked to the rector of the Episcopal Church in Shaker Heights, and the rector, to whom I shall be forever grateful, called one of the doctors in his congregation. He was so appalled at my condition that he said, "Do you rearm you could have killed yourself?" He admitted me to the hospital.

After they built me up they did a D & C. I wasn't yet twenty-one, so the doctor called and spoke to my mother and said there was nothing to be concerned about; the D & C was just a routine procedure and would help. He said that I was quite anemic.

I must have been in the hospital five days. The Episcopal Church paid my hospital bill and the doctor never charged. I was very thankful, and totally done in at the end of that ordeal.

I didn't feel guilty. I was determined once I made the decision to go through with it, and I did.
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