The Fetal Frontier

Pro-choice advocates wrestle with the uncomfortable

Rather, Richards's colleagues and letter writers to the Times Magazine seemed uncomfortable with the way that she, a pro-choice activist, talked about paring down her fetal load. Richards openly expressed her concerns that having three babies would send her into a spiral of downward mobility. And when she found out she was pregnant with three, she asked her doctor bluntly, "Is it possible to get rid of one of them? Or two of them?"

For her part, Richards says women shouldn't need to justify abortion with grief. "I regretted that I got pregnant with triplets, not that I made my decision,"she told the Voice. "We can't be in the business of determining what scenario is right, which women are entitled to have this procedure."

According to Kissling, the sense that women like Richards are callous about ending their pregnancies costs the movement supporters in these perilous political times. The right wing's focus on the fetus has caused some on the pro-choice side to qualify their support. "It made people on the fence go further into the other side," Kissling says of the piece. "They saw Amy's decision as selfish." Similarly, she and others on the pro-choice side have expressed discomfort with T-shirts distributed by some Planned Parenthood affiliates that read, "I had an abortion." Turning that personal decision into a wearable slogan, Kissling says, diminishes the seriousness of abortion.

Whether or not a heartfelt acknowledgment of the value of fetal life—or a stifling of honest ease or happiness about having an abortion—might actually win over anyone in the ambivalent middle, most in the pro-choice world agree the debate over strategy is overdue. With an anti-abortion president, the likely departure of Supreme Court justices, and a decline in the number of pro-choice votes in Congress, the old approach appears ripe for an update.

"We desperately need a paradigm shift in the reproductive rights movement," says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a New York–based organization devoted to protecting the rights of pregnant and parenting women. "We've done a terrible job of articulating our beliefs in terms of values." For Paltrow, those values include protecting women from the consequences of being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies as well as preserving the rights of women who do have children to make decisions about how they bear them.

Laws designed to protect the fetus are already being used to force women to have C-sections when they don't want them. And in Missouri, a woman was charged with with child endangerment for smoking pot while pregnant. Meanwhile, abortion opponents have portrayed pro-choice folks as the enemy of the fetus. President George Bush put this strategy to use during the campaign with an ad that painted John Kerry as "out of the mainstream" for voting against "Laci's Law," legislation named for a woman killed in the eighth month of her pregnancy. That bill made it a separate federal crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.

It's on this legislative front that Kissling may find herself most out of step with other pro-choice leaders. While they saw Laci's Law as a backdoor way to erode a woman's right to abortion, Kissling says opposing it made advocates seem "heartless."

And though pro-choice lawyers won lawsuit after lawsuit over the Partial Birth Abortion Act, which banned some of the tiny percentage of abortions performed later in pregnancy, Kissling saw the tussle as a grave loss in the court of public opinion. The bans were repeatedly judged unconstitutional, in part because they didn't include exceptions for the life or health of a woman. But as long as the cases were in the courts and in the news, pro-choicers found themselves forced into public discussion of a procedure that their opponents described in terms of skull crushing, brain siphoning, and dismemberment.

While she says she supports a woman's right to have the procedure, Kissling says an honest emotional reaction to it would have helped the pro-choice effort. "It's gruesome," Kissling says of abortions performed late in pregnancy. "I think we serve ourselves well by saying that. We are so clinical and abstracted from these realities in our public presentations, it turns people off."

With the bill requiring doctors to warn about fetal pain and offer fetal anesthesia coming down the pike, Kissling sees another opportunity to show that people can support the right to abortion and care about the fetus at the same time. The standard approach for pro-choicers would be simply to shoot down the bill. But since there's the real possibility that fetuses feel pain (there's no scientific consensus on it yet), Kissling suggests instead trying to change the legislation to say that fetal anesthesia should be respectfully offered as an option.

It's a way, she says, of honoring both law and morality. "And whether I'm going to be considered less pro-choice by my colleagues because I said this, we'll see."

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University.

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