PERSPECTIVE ON ABORTION : Why Stop at the Third Trimester? : Logically, if partial-birth procedures are allowed, advocates must argue that life doesn’t start till the umbilical cord is severed.

Graham Walker is a member in political philosophy at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J

Faced with the need the defend the legality of an abortion procedure that nearly everyone recoils from, pro-choice advocates have resorted to an argument with disastrous consequences for their own cause. When she said that partial-birth abortions are no more “gross” or “revolting” than hip-replacement surgery, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) made a tactical faux pas that a good media consultant could have prevented. But her principal argument against the bill constituted a major strategic error. She insisted that doctors only use the procedure when a woman’s life is threatened or when the fetus is fatally deformed. And with television cameras rolling on the House floor, Schroeder asked repeatedly whether women ever agree to such a procedure for “frivolous reasons.” Answering her own question, she proclaimed passionately, “No, they do not!”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) picked up the same theme a few days later on ABC’s “Nightline.” This kind of abortion, Boxer said, is a “horrible procedure and terribly, terribly tragic.” But it nevertheless shouldn’t be outlawed because it is used only when the mother’s life is at stake or when “a mom and dad find out that this baby that they are so wanting to have in their family has gotten into a terrible circumstance.”

Although the Senate dealt a blow to pro-life forces by sending the measure to the Judiciary Committee Wednesday rather than voting, this delay is clearly temporary. Committee hearings will give even greater exposure to the gruesome photos and diagrams featured in the House debate. Thus the arguments offered by Schroeder and Boxer will come back to haunt the pro-choice movement, especially if the debate over partial-birth abortion is the first skirmish in a battle over the question of when life--or legally recognizable life--begins.

The problem with the argument is that it implicitly concedes the principles of those whom Schroeder called “anti-choice extremists.” It buys into the notion that a woman’s reasons are properly the object of public evaluation. Schroeder and Boxer didn’t stick to pro-choice logic. They didn’t oppose the criminalization bill on the grounds that a woman’s reason for choosing an abortion is no business of anybody’s except the woman and possibly her doctor. Instead, they opposed the bill on the grounds that the reasons women elect this particular abortion procedure are “good” reasons, not frivolous ones. But by this logic, women who resort to abortion for reasons most people consider “bad” or “frivolous” might well be criminalized. And polls seem to show considerable public support for criminalization or at least restriction of abortions that are not done for “good” reasons like rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.


Schroeder’s and Boxer’s arguments inevitably raise the question their opponents want raised: What is it about this procedure that would keep them from defending its use for “frivolous” reasons? What is it that is “horrible” and “tragic?” President Clinton’s triad of “safe, legal and rare” raises the same question more generically: Why should abortion be rare? Surely, it’s not because of the medical dangers to the woman, since those are covered under the term “safe” and since medical technology is constantly gaining on the dangers. In both cases, the answer is as obvious as our reluctance to state it: the human quality of the object of the procedure.

There is only one way to evade the problem of this inconvenient being. Pro-choice advocates must keep their logic pure. They must continue to insist that the fetus is an integral part of a woman’s own body, fundamentally no different from any other internal organ. They must insist that a woman is entitled to do whatever she wants with her body, for whatever reason she considers valid, and that no one else, not even Schroeder or Boxer or Clinton, is entitled to evaluate those reasons. Until birth--or as we must now say, until the birth process has reached its conclusion--this logic must be sovereign or else the pro-choice paradigm shatters under the weight of ordinary human sensibility.

This logic is the real reason for pro-choice opposition to the partial-birth abortion bill, and it is why the same people would be opposing it even if it offered generous exceptions for maternal health and fetal deformity concerns.

Of course, as the House sponsors of the legislation said, this reduces to about three inches the distance between our privacy rights and our homicide laws. And whatever their squeamishness about pro-life extremism, the majority of the public will never be persuaded that the fetus changes fundamentally between the moment when the first foot appears and the moment when the last bit of head pops through (as in the case of the footling breech presentation typically used in partial-birth abortion).

When some pro-choice purist without a media consultant gets around to proposing that legal personhood be delayed until the umbilical cord is severed, the game will really be up. Then even the mass public will have a hard time averting its gaze from the entire human developmental continuum. It would not necessarily follow to criminalize abortion from the moment of conception. But the new terms of the debate make it harder than ever to fudge the starkness of pro-choice doctrine: abortion by any means, for any reason, at any time, unhindered by legal, social or moral disapproval.

Extremism, anyone?