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To End This Plague, Immunize Against Conception

June 25, 1989|SAUL I. HARRISON and ROLAND C. SUMMIT | Dr. Saul I. Harrison is director of child and adolescent psychiatry and Dr. Roland C. Summit is head physician of the community consultation service, both at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center

Most Americans are simultaneously pro-choice and anti-abortion. The anti-choice movement justifies governmental intrusion into other people's private tragedies by asserting an unassailable, God-given "right to life."

The taking of human life is an abomination; one of the few exceptions is when that life is no more than putative, when it cannot exist without the vital support of another's life. A sperm and an ovum both contain the ingredients for human life, but each needs the other to generate life. Therefore, neither represents a human life because of their dependence on one another. After fertilization a similar, but not identical, relationship pertains to fetus and mother. The vital difference is that the mother can live without the fetus while the fetus cannot live without the mother. Hence, it is inaccurate biologically to consider an early fetus to be a human life. Accuracy requires calling it a putative life. Those are biological facts. Outlawing abortion would require ignoring those facts.

Such a prohibition of abortion would cross the line of establishing a national religion. Dialectics about when life begins--whether in theological or philosophical language--are nothing more than a biological charade in the 20th Century.

Immutable biological facts clearly conflict with many Americans' religious beliefs. Most Americans, however, share a diversity of religions and belief systems that encompass the biological reality that early fetuses exist at the discretion of the mother. That is not because most Americans are cavalier about murder. It is because most Americans know that themother's existence is independent of the fetus while the fetus' putative life is umbilically dependent on the mother.

To be pro-choice is not to be pro-abortion. The aborting of more than 4,000 fetuses per day is an abomination. But there is a humane, albeit theoretical, approach that would markedly reduce that appalling number.

The majority of Americans share beliefs and values that consider bringing unwanted babies into this world as more unethical than the abortion of a non-viable fetus that is unwanted. Our values will change as soon as our society implements reliable plans to care for those 1.5 million unwanted fetuses per year and backs it with support services for the significant percentage doomed to experience major problems. Suggesting adoption is an agreeable-sounding alternative. Unfortunately, it is totally unrealistic.

Until our society makes a valid commitment to those putative lives, is it not more moral to leave the choice to the mother?

If unwanted pregnancies and abortion represent a plague in our land, shouldn't we consider immunization against it? Why not challenge scientists at the National Institutes of Health to develop a reversible means of immunizing every infant against conception? Of course, reversal of the immunization would have to be readily available in response to a mature request. As draconian as this fantasy may seem, sober reflection underscores that its purpose is nothing more than to interject thought before passionate procreation. It would not interfere with any right other than the dubious right to thoughtless pregnancy. It would enhance rationaldecision-making. Nothing would be guaranteed other than each newborn would have been wanted at one time (which, when contrasted with the current circumstances, could markedly decrease the frequency of child abuse, neglect and a host of other psychosocial problems.)

Those under the banner of "right to life" argue that our perspective is biased in favor of the mother's rights as compared to fetal rights. True. The biological reality mandates that "bias." But with anti-pregnancy immunization there would be no one demanding fetal rights in potentially fatal conflict with the mother. Those fetuses that did develop would stand an infinitely better chance of an enduring and harmonious right to life.

In terms of the larger biological, psychological and social reality, we assign primacy to a newborn's right to be wanted and cared for. That stems from decades of trying to treat the results of the cruelty of bringing babies into a world in which there is no adult ready to care for a helpless baby. In that context, we join the President's goal of a kinder, gentler America.

Just as a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest, a belief system or religion can be judged by how it requires its adherents to serve its God and also by how it defends the rights of non-believers.

In light of the biological realities, the question facing the Supreme Court is whether it is willing to risk moving this country towards a theocracy in which the majority will not be permitted legally to offend others' beliefs by the freedom to elect to abort putative life.

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