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Why must we moralize about abortion?

THE CONTROVERSY STIRRED BY AMY Richard's public acknowledgement that she chose to have an abortion shows how successful the antiabortion movement has been in shaping the terms of the debate in the US. Antiabortion activists, in their 30-year war against the rights enunciated in Roe v. Wade, have managed to persuade many people that the early fetus is a life worthy of great concern. This has elevated abortion to the status of a "grave moral issue" and has often forced supporters of abortion rights to defend it as a "tragic" choice. As a result, when women like Richards admit that they had abortions because they found a pregnancy inconvenient or because they preferred to bring a child into the world under better circumstances, they are often without friends. Antiabortion activists vilify them as "selfish" and predict that they will regret their decision. Those who are pro-+choice tend to look away, embarrassed by the fact that many abortions are not occasioned by serious threats to the life or health of the woman.

This widespread moral embarrassment over having had an abortion and the ensuing silence about it is a fairly recent development. Before Roe, women were reluctant to admit publicly that they had an abortion, but this was usually because of its associations with illegality and sexual promiscuity. In an environment of legal prohibition, abortion was viewed in terms of social deviancy. Roe changed that. Many women had abortions, and sometimes viewed it simply as a right won and exercised.

Faced with these developments, those opposed to Roe had to find ways of persuading voters that the law should be changed. The heavy emphasis on "fetus as child" emerged in this context. During the 1980S and 1990s, it became a mainstay of antiabortion homilies in the proliferating conservative churches that, for complex reasons, chose to adopt this cause as a sign of their distinctiveness, moral superiority and resistance to social change. This casting of the issue was aided, ironically, by the expansion of prenatal diagnosis, especially the use of ultrasound that made fetal pictures widely available.

We are thus in a world where abortion is something that has to be justified in weighty moral terms. Teaching at Dartmouth, I have seen this development in my classes over the past 20 years. A generation of students prepared to defend abortion in terms of women's right to self-determination has been replaced by one that takes access to legal abortion for granted while simultaneously lamenting it as a "grave" and "difficult" choice that pits "life against life." Many of these students report that they acquired this attitude from the religious secondary schools that increasingly shape the backgrounds of students even at elite institutions.

Those who defend the right of people like Amy Richards to be open and comfortable about their decisions must not shrink from addressing this core issue of the status of the early human fetus. They must affirm that this is not a matter suitable for imposed social decisions. It is not just that women have the right to shape their own reproductive lives, although that is certainly true. It must also be said that early fetuses are not "babies" and that the weight of their claim is a matter for a personal decision best left to the woman. We must not stop by saying that abortion is a "difficult moral decision" that justifies a woman's right to decide. We must also affirm that it is a woman's right to decide to what extent she values the fetus and whether she wishes to regard abortion as a difficult moral decision at all. Finally, we should aspire to a public culture where some women are free to say they turned away from abortion because of their respect for prenatal life, while others are equally free to say that they regard continuing a pregnancy, as less important than resuming their career and giving whatever child they choose to have the best start in life.

RONALD M. GREEN is professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and director of the Ethics Institute at Darthmouth College, N.H.
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Title Annotation:Talking About Abortion
Author:Green, Ronald M.
Publication:Conscience
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2004
Words:685
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