Inadvertently Stirring Our Conscience on Abortion
by Jerome F. Winzig
Last month a proposal to install a bust of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court came before the state House of Representatives. Under the proposal, Blackmun's bust would have joined one of the late Chief Justice Warren Burger, who grew up in the same neighborhood and attended the same school as Blackmun.
However, the proposal ran into controversy. While Blackmun had a distinguished legal career, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), a pro-life organization, lobbied against the proposal. MCCL pointed out that Blackmun was also the justice who wrote Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared there was a constitutional right to abortion. After a floor debate, the proposal failed on a 69-58 vote.
After the vote, the Minneapolis daily newspaper published a startling editorial that claimed the proposal was defeated because there were "so many lapdogs in the Minnesota House panting to do the group's [MCCL's] bidding." The editorial went on to say "it's hard to justify a vote against the Blackmun bust as anything other than a show of servility to MCCL." "Panting lapdogs" and "a show of servility" are pretty harsh words.
Such language does more than express disagreement with the pro-life movement. It paints the pro-life position as extremist. It implies that, even if one believes that killing an unborn child is murder, it is uncivilized to challenge honoring the author of the court decision that made abortion legal. It suggests that pro-life views are not deserving of respect. Hence, legislators could not have been voting their consciences on this issue, but instead had to have been controlled in some mysterious way by MCCL. The editorial concluded by saying "it's hard to imagine how silly or outrageous an MCCL decree will have to be before a Minnesota House majority will dare to disobey." Since when is the opinion of a citizen organization a "decree?"
That editorial is a wakeup call for those of us who have taken a middle road on abortion, believing that abortion is wrong but hesitating on efforts to make it illegal. The editorial reminds us that many in the media seem to believe there is no anguish about abortion. For these media types, there are only two possible positions. Either one supports a woman's absolute "right to choose" and ignores the moral issues involved in abortion, or one is a pro-life nut.
Much the abortion debate centers on the use of language that tries to force us into one of these positions. "Pro-life" advocates insist their opponents are "pro-abortion" instead of "pro-choice", while "abortion rights" advocates say their opponents are "anti-abortion" instead of pro-life." One side uses terms like the "right to life" and "unborn babies;" the other side uses words like the "right to privacy" and "fetuses." While the words used in this debate do matter, we might make more progress on reaching ethical decisions about abortion if we let both sides choose their own words and then discussed the meaning of those words.
Let one side use the term "pro-choice" and the "right to privacy." Then ask what those words really mean. How much choice and how much privacy, and why just on this issue? Should people, including minor children, be free to choose prostitution or the use of illegal drugs under the guise of a right to privacy?
During the Republican presidential debates, Alan Keyes challenged John McCain's responses to a reporter's hypothetical question, in which he was asked what he would do about abortion if his teenage daughter got pregnant. McCain's answers varied, but he seemed to say they would first have a family discussion about the matter, and then let their daughter decide. Keyes asked, what would you do if your daughter proposed killing grandma to get her inheritance sooner? Would you have a family discussion about the pros and cons of that choice?
Let the other side use the terms "pro-life" and the "right to life" and ask them what their words really mean. Besides banning abortion, how do we respect life, including unborn life? Do we give children who bear children a state subsidy? Do we repeatedly return abused children to their biological parents? Do we acquiesce to parents who put careers and personal satisfaction ahead of their children? Or do we return to the common-sense notion that parenthood requires time, commitment, and sacrifice?
Many of us believe that abortion is wrong. In fact, it seems obvious that abortion takes the life of another human being. Parents and family fuss over an unborn child long before it is viable. Good mothers try to make sure their life styles don't harm their unborn children. We welcome medical advances that increase the chances of survival for infants born prematurely. But we are also troubled by the idea of imprisoning mothers who have abortions, so we do nothing.
The Minneapolis paper's editorial is a wakeup call that ethical concerns about abortion are being ignored. In spite of the editor's intent, its harsh words tell us we ought to work together to reduce the number of abortions and increase respect for life. We could start by combining into a single pro-child law two measures that would place limits on extreme kinds of parental behavior.
First, make it easier for courts to permanently terminate the parental rights of those who continually abuse their children. Second, ban partial birth abortions. We should stop making children suffer years of abuse while cycling in and out of foster care; such children should be adopted into families that care as soon as possible. We should also stop an abortion practice that delivers all but the head of a fetus through the birth canal and then collapses its head of a fetus because it is too developed to be aborted any other way. Neither of these practices is defensible, and we should not permit parents to act in ways that are detrimental to life itself.