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Abortion The Clash of Absolutes : BOOK MARK: Positioning in the fight over abortion leaves no room for compromise. The intensity that sears both extremes prevents each from acknowledging there might be points of agreement. In "Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes," Laurence Tribe explains.

July 22, 1990|Laurence H. Tribe | Laurence H. Tribe's most recent book is "Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes" (Norton), from which this is excerpted. He is the Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Most people are torn by the abortion question. There is something deeply misleading about discussing the abortion debate solely in terms of a clash between pro-life "groups" and pro-choice "groups," as though each of us could properly be labeled as belonging to one camp or the other. For nearly everyone, the deepest truth is that the clash is internal. Few people who really permit themselves to feel all of what is at stake in the abortion issue can avoid a profound sense of internal division. Whatever someone's "bottom line"--whether it is that the choice must belong to the woman or that she must be prevented from killing the fetus--it is hard not to feel deeply the tug of the opposing view.

A story told in a recent newspaper interview by Dr. Warren Hern, director of the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado, demonstrates this. Hern recounts calling one of his closest friends, a "strongly pro-choice" physician who had "done abortions himself." When Hern told his friend that he was at work at his office, his friend asked, "Still killing babies this late in the afternoon?" Hern recalls: "It was like a knife in my gut . . . it really upset me. What it conveys is that no matter how supportive people may be, there is still a horror at what I do."

Something akin to horror must be felt by everyone involved in the question of abortion who has not become anesthetized to the reality of what is at stake. This feeling may be less intense with abortions performed in the beginning stages of pregnancy, when the embryo is a tiny, visually undifferentiated, multicelled growth without discernibly human features. But certainly by some point in pregnancy, as soon as abortion involves a fetus recognizably human in form, or involves a fetus one might imagine feeling pain, few can avoid the sense of tragic choice each abortion entails.

The "absolutes" at issue are the fetus' right to life and the woman's right to liberty. Neither "absolute" is really that. Whatever right a woman might have to choose abortion would be undermined if the fetus could be saved without sacrificing the woman's freedom to end her pregnancy. Most would intuitively sense the force of any such fetus' claim to life.

The principal case in the abortion battle is named Jane Roe vs. Henry Wade, where the Supreme Court said that, except in narrow circumstances, the U.S. Constitution does not permit the government to interfere with a woman's right to choose abortion.

Roe vs. Wade is many things. It is a legal decision by the Supreme Court; a rallying cry for both sides in the abortion debate. But it is also, and was at first, an entirely human story, one that has become by now familiar to many, a story similar to other stories repeated all over the United States every day.

"Jane Roe" is not a real person's name, but a pseudonym. "Henry Wade" is the real name of a Texas official, enforcing the criminal laws of a legislature that had decided to protect unborn lives.

Soon after the Supreme Court's decision in Roe vs. Wade, "Jane Roe" revealed who she was. Her name was Norma McCorvey. She explained that as she walked home from work late one summer evening in 1969, 25 years old and unmarried, she became the victim of a gang rape. Her anguish grew several weeks later, she said, when she learned to her dismay that she was pregnant.

Abortion was illegal--except to save the woman's life--in Texas where she lived, and she lacked the resources to travel to a place where a legal abortion might be obtained. McCorvey had little education, and did not realize the attention her case might receive. When her lawyer informed her that the case would be presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, McCorvey was dismayed. "My God," she said, "all those people are so important. They don't have time to listen to some little old Texas girl who got in trouble."

A decade and a half after the court handed down its decision in Roe vs. Wade, McCorvey said she had made up the story to hide the fact that she had gotten "in trouble" in the more usual way. Many reacted with dismay. How could the heroine of the most important abortion-rights case have deceived the advocates of such rights? Few asked why she had felt a need to deceive them. In a different sort of society, the life she would have faced as an unwed mother might not have been nearly so lonely. In such a society she might not have made up a story about how she became pregnant. In such a society she might not have chosen an abortion.

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