The Fetal Frontier


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.

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.