A bitter pill

I am opposed to abortion.

That simple statement will usually, especially among political progressives, end a conversation. But it should be only a beginning. And in a year when professed "prochoice" and "prolife" stances may be the only meaningful difference between the two leading presidential candidates— I say "professed" because Gore also, prior to his aspirations for national office, had an antiabortion record as a senator from Tennessee—an open and nuanced discussion of this emotionally charged issue is utterly necessary.

As I said, I don't like abortions. I don't think a fetus is a human being, no matter how viable an incubator makes it, until it leaves a woman's body when it's good and ready. But I believe all life, including potential life, is sacred. And I have never known a woman who had an abortion who did not agonize over the decision beforehand and grieve over it afterwards. One of the greatest failings of the left in general and the prochoice movement in particular is its insistence that abortion is simply another medical procedure, and its refusal (because we dare not think of a fetus as human) to allow parents and family to express their grief. We don't react that way to the loss of sperm or an unfertilized egg. Something precious and rare is at stake.

That being said, what I would like to see is an end to the demand for abortions— not their criminalization or the loss of their availability. There are several reasons for this:

* No government—let alone one overwhelmingly controlled by men—should have the right to legislate what a woman does with her own body. As for the fathers who insist that the decision pro or con should be their legal right too—well, in an ideal world, yes. But so long as we live in a society in which far too many men walk away from their responsibilities to the children they help bring into the world, in which our social and government safety nets are in tatters (the latter shredded in part by prochoice Democrats), and in which our economy still systematically discriminates against women in general and single mothers in particular, the final decision on whether to continue a pregnancy must rest with women. Sorry, guys, but that's a price you pay for male privilege.

* Laws do not stop abortions. They drive rich women overseas and poor women into the back alleys. They kill mothers as well as fetuses. They criminalize women and doctors who believe they are making a responsible choice. They only make a difficult time worse.

* The religious right calls for abstinence as a solution to abortion. In their sick, lonely dreams. They seem not to know what Hollywood and Madison Avenue figured out long ago. Sex sells everything from prescription drugs to boat motors because people like sex. Once you've tried it, you tend to try it again. And again. And, thanks in part to the same religious right, we still lack both safe reliable birth control and the knowledge to use it always if you wish to avoid pregnancy.

That, along with open discussion about sex, would do far more to curb abortion demand than any pulpit sermonizing or legislation. We need sex education, in the schools and in the homes. The same parents who object to ceding that role to the schools often haven't noticed that TV has been teaching their kids about sex since infancy, generally with all the wrong lessons. The right wing would accomplish a lot more— assuming their goal is saving fetal lives, rather than simply re-enslaving women— by discussing our culture's obsession with sex honestly than by simply condemning it. It would also help if we had a culture that didn't hate kids.

Why does all of this matter? Because abortion is a woman's right and in too much of this country, particularly in rural counties and among the poor, it is already lost. Access to abortion has steadily eroded over the last 27 years under Republican and Democratic administrations alike; it is now twice as difficult as it was eight years ago to find an abortion provider and they are available in only 14 percent of the nation's counties. Religious fanatics intent on imposing their concept of morality on the rest of us have intimidated lawmakers and health care providers. We are, despite the clear wishes of a majority of Americans, perilously close to being back to the days of back alleys.

RU-486 will completely alter the landscape of this debate. It allows women, in the privacy of the home, to abort a pregnancy within seven weeks of conception. The risk, of course, is that the widespread availability of a pill will make surgical abortion that much more difficult to obtain. Many women don't even know they're pregnant within seven weeks; they may have irregular periods or they may simply not notice. Some women will need more time to make a critically important decision. Some can't afford doctors (who are necessary to prescribe RU-486), or can't see one that quickly. The fight to retain the right to surgical abortions must continue.

Over the last decade, Republicans have talked less and less about the crusade to ban abortions—it costs them women's votes. Democrats, meanwhile, have calculated they can become Republicans in all but the name so long as women still consider them the party of choice. As a result of these trends, we get opportunistic moral relativists such as Al Gore, who opposed abortion when he courted the conservative voters of Tennessee, but who will parrot the party line to defeat George W. Bush. The problem is that with RU-486, many women will come to see the prochoice argument—and, thus, the Democratic Party—as no longer particularly relevant. And then, one wonders whether the Democrats, who under Bill Clinton have already demonstrated their contempt for the poor, will discard a woman's right to choose after seven weeks as the outmoded tactics of last year's election.

 
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