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Reframing the abortion debate: pro-choice activist calls on her allies to rethink assumptions.

In her groundbreaking article, "Is There Life after Roe? How to Think about the Fetus," in the winter 2004/5 issue of Conscience magazine, a quarterly publication of Catholics for Free Choice, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, attempted to mark out a path to resolve the present stalemate over abortion.

Many Americans, she acknowledged, are generally both supportive of, and uncomfortable with, legal abortion. They do not want to see women return to the days of coat hangers and back alleys, but their moral sensibilities are also acutely offended by late-term and partial-birth abortions.

Addressing advocates on both sides of this bitter controversy, Ms. Kissling argued that too much of the abortion debate has focused on rights: the rights of the fetus to life, and the rights of the pregnant woman to choose to have an abortion.

Beyond the matter of rights, she insisted, there are "at least three central values that need to be part of the public conversation about abortion and, as appropriate, influence behavior, if not law."

The first and primary value is that of "the bodily autonomy of women," which means that "nobody should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term without her consent." However, the "right to choose abortion is not absolute." In and of itself, abortion is "not a moral good."

The second value is "respect for life, including fetal life." She asked her natural allies on the pro-choice side: "Why should we allow this value to be owned by those opposed to abortion? Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time: of valuing life and respecting women's rights? Have we not ceded too much territory to antiabortionists by not articulating the value of fetal life?

"The precise moment when the fetus becomes a person," she continued, "is less important than a simple acknowledgment that whatever category of human life the fetus is, it nonetheless has value, it is not nothing."

While it is very difficult to develop an ethical formula for assigning value to fetal life and asserting the obligations that flow from that value, "the need to offer some answers from a pro-choice perspective is both morally and politically urgent."

Ms. Kissling countered the pro-choice slogan, "Every child a wanted child," with the observation that "if wantedness is what gives us value and a right to life, then who among the unwanted will be the next to be declared disposable the sick, the disabled, the poor or the unemployed? Such concerns should not be quickly dismissed."

The third value to be remembered and honored in the abortion debate, according to Ms. Kissling, is that of "avoiding a coarsening of humanity that can result from the taking of life. Pro-choice advocates may bristle at such a claim," she wrote, but they would do well "to present abortion as a complex issue that involves loss and to be saddened by that loss at the same time as we affirm and support women's decisions to end pregnancies."

She acknowledged that the pro-choice side "failed miserably" in the way it had opposed legislation to prevent partial-birth abortion, a procedure that appears to most people to be physically gruesome and morally repugnant.

"I am convinced," Ms. Kissling wrote, "that the negative reaction, for example, of some Catholics to Sen. "Kerry's candidacy for the presidency was based on his opposition to banning this procedure." Even those who are basically sympathetic with the pro-choice position, if not with abortion itself, were asking: Is there nothing after all that concerns pro-choice people about abortion?

Too many on the pro-choice side, she pointed out, worry that making concessions on issues like partial-birth abortion might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. "I believe the exact opposite is true," Ms. Kissling insisted. "The pro-choice movement will be far more trusted if it openly acknowledges that the abortion decision involves weighing multiple values and that one of those values is fetal life."

She concluded her remarkable article with challenges to her allies on the pro: choice side to reconsider some of their assumptions and rhetoric and to the antiabortion side to initiate a similar reconsideration of some of their own positions, if not at least their rhetoric.

"After thirty years of legal abortion and a debate that shows no signs of ending and has no clear winner is it not time to try and combine rights and morality to consider both women and developing human life?"

Frances Kissling and, more recently, Sen. Hillary Clinton know that the real objects of their outreach on the abortion issue are fair-minded Americans in the middle, not the hard-liners. The hard-liners generate the most heat, but the least light.

[Fr. Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.]
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Title Annotation:Column
Author:McBrien, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 4, 2005
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