The Fetal Frontier

Pro-choice advocates wrestle with the uncomfortable

For 35 years, Frances Kissling has been at the forefront of the pro-choice movement. She directed an abortion clinic, got arrested protesting at the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., helped found the National Abortion Federation and the Global Fund for Women, and as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, has taken the pope to task and shouted down the likes of Jerry Falwell.

So the focus of her latest manifesto on the pro-choice cause may come as a surprise to people on both sides of the abortion debate: the value of the fetus.

Saying that she was merely making public what her pro-choice colleagues have been discussing in private for years, Kissling penned a provocative, more than 7,000-word opus in the current issue of Conscience, the journal of Catholics for a Free Choice, encouraging advocates to acknowledge the moral and emotional complexity of abortion.

That kind of discussion has been taboo in the movement until now. Faced with an unrelenting onslaught of anti-abortion efforts, few supporters of the right to choose have been comfortable acknowledging their own limits on that right or doubts about it, lest expressions of unease be used against them.

But as Kissling tells it, the knee-jerk mode in which pro-choicers slap down whatever the antis put forward is no longer serving the movement well. The strategy of relying only on legal arguments without showing emotion has faltered, she argues, especially as the political right has begun to focus on the very few abortions performed later in pregnancy. Rather than reflexively opposing activists on the other side, she urges, supporters of the right to abortion should consider their proposals seriously.

Among those is the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would require doctors to tell women considering abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy about the "pain experienced by their unborn child." Perhaps most challenging, Kissling wants pro-choice activists to grapple honestly with the moral significance of ending potential life.

"If we did that, people would be more trusting of all of us who are pro-choice," she says.

Kissling continues to share the goals of most of her colleagues. Though she sees abortion as a loss, she believes it can be justified by a woman's reasons for wanting to end the pregnancy. Yet the movement makeover she is proposing runs counter to many other activists' instincts.

"I don't buy it," says Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Smeal says that by talking about relatively late-term abortions when the vast majority of terminations—some 88 percent—take place in the first trimester, Kissling is letting opponents frame the debate. "While we're talking about all this, we could be putting the right wing on the defensive," says Smeal. "We have to put the dying and suffering of women who don't have access to safe abortion onto the table."

Rosalind Petchesky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and author of a seminal book on abortion rights, points out that many who get abortions after the first trimester are young teenagers who didn't act earlier because of the climate of fear, shame, and confusion created by anti-abortion extremists. Petchesky also insists that discussions of morality should include the violent, war-promoting, and uncaring policies supported by many who call themselves pro-life. She responded to Kissling's piece by sending her a three-page e-mail. "If and when those who dominate anti-abortion politics could for a minute take seriously the rights to a decent life and health of born children," she wrote, "maybe then we could start to talk about advancing respect for fetal life, early or late."

Others take issue with the idea that the pro-choice movement should "present abortion as a complex issue that involves loss—and to be saddened by that loss," as Kissling suggests in her piece. "I don't hear her saying that there's joy sometimes," says Smeal. "I think if an 11-year-old is pregnant, it's a great relief for her to have an abortion. I happen to think it's a moral good to allow people to decide when they give birth."

What's more, though their experiences aren't often picked up in the public discourse, most women already do experience their own abortions as very serious. "I have never seen a woman take the decision lightly," says Joan Malin, CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City.


The idea that women should have the right to choose not to continue an unwanted pregnancy is the very foundation of the pro-choice movement, of course. But as the political focus has shifted to the fetus, women's decisions have come under increased scrutiny from both sides. Consider the reaction to Amy Richards's story about her choice to "selectively reduce" two of her three triplets, which ran on July 18 in The New York Times Magazine. That article appears to have put off not just staunch abortion opponents, but also those more conflicted about the issue. Conscience ran five stories responding to the uproar over Richards's piece, one of them by Gloria Steinem.


The furor seems to have little to do with Richards's having opted for a selective reduction. That procedure—in which potassium chloride is injected into the hearts of early-term fetuses—has become fairly common as more couples seek fertility treatment, which carries an increased chance of ending in a multiple pregnancy. Trying to carry those triplets and quadruplets to term could threaten the health of both the mother and the fetuses themselves.

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