Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The Late-term Abortion Decision

By now every blogger from here to St. Johns in Newfoundland will be having something to say about the decision yesterday by the Supreme Court which allowed a federal law, enacted four years ago and which prohibits the procedure popularly called "partial birth" abortion from being performed. There is no explicit exception in the law. However, the Supreme Court decided that the procedure could be performed if a physician or a patient proved to a federal judge that the woman's health would be in danger unless the banned procedure could be carried out. That possibility of judicial review of extreme cases allowed some of the justices to approve the law and to decide that it did not impose an "undue burden" on a woman who needed an abortion.

The decision represents the views of a majority of the Court and of the President that the "right to life" of an embryo or a fetus equals the "right to life" and health of a pregnant woman or a patient who might be cured by the results of research on embryonic stem cells. This equality is based on a religious belief or superstition.

We should congratulate ourselves on the circumstance that our President and the majority of the Court do not subscribe to the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses. These people believe that we humans should make do with the organs that God has given us and should not defile the body with organ transplants, including blood transfusions.

The issue of whether abortion is a natural right or a mortal sin is one that has bedeviled politicians for decades. Recall that politics has been defined as the "art of the possible." When dealing with such a contentious issue, politicians try diplomacy. They try to defuse the issue by adopting measures that are grudgingly acceptable to both sides. The law in question is just such an attempt at a compromise. Congress chose a procedure that is used only in certain late-term abortions. Some gynecological experts contend that there are other procedures that can be used and that the particular one forbidden by the law isn't ever really necessary. Others contend that in certain circumstances the procedure poses the least risk to the woman's health and ability to have other children later.

Some of us are outraged that Congress would enact a law banning a particular medical procedure. What moral authority do 535 elected politicians have to dictate to the medical profession on such a matter? Others are overjoyed that at last there is one procedure used to perform abortions that has been outlawed. They see more of the same in the future.

What is a mere politician to do in this situation? Neither side accepts the compromise offered so far. I think we have to go back to the days of prohibition, particularly local option, to find a model. In the 1950's (and perhaps today, also) some States had provisions for local communities or counties to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages. A friend once recounted the experience in one county of Tennessee. At one time the county voters approved the legal sale of beer, wine, and whisky. After a year or two, the ministers started a program to persuade the voters to vote "dry." My friend noticed that the bootleggers gave quiet support to the ministers. Finally, the public was convinced, and the county voted "dry" in the next election. The ministers were happy because they had improved the moral climate of the county. The bootleggers were happy because they were back in business. Then the reformers started their campaign to put the bootleggers out of business by getting the voters to vote "wet." And so it went, election to election.

Another friend told me of making a trip to a city in Oklahoma, probably Tulsa. This friend knew that Oklahoma was a "dry" State, but he wanted to find a speak-easy. He asked a policeman. The policeman obligingly pointed one out for him. My friend asked if the policeman would like to join him in a drink. The policeman politely declined. Another friend told me that in the Christmas shopping season the newspapers ran large ads with the prices of certain favorite wines and whisky and brandy, the purpose being that the public would not be overcharged by their favorite bootleggers.

Perhaps that is the way to solve the abortion conundrum. Make it illegal, but don't enforce the law. The fundies will be happy that abortion is illegal. Fathers with sometimes wayward daughters will know that safe abortions are available. The political controversy will go away.

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