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PERSPECTIVE ON ABORTION : Make Childbearing a Real Option : We must eliminate those social and economic conflicts that pressure women to deny their desire for motherhood.

January 22, 1992|ROGER MAHONY | Cardinal Roger Mahony is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles

This week as we observe the 19th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe vs. Wade, abortion continues to agonize the conscience of America.

Indeed, it remains the single, most divisive and disturbing issue in society today. For women, the poor, youth, health-care workers and government, abortion is seen simultaneously as a reluctant choice and a cherished "right."

Experiencing an abortion is never a happy occasion: Even when chosen, it is nearly always complicated by sadness, guilt, loss and regret. Such feelings, often unspoken, seem to belie the proposition that abortion is a "solution" of any kind.

Framing abortion as a matter of the "rights" of women versus those of a fetus has too narrowly stated the issues at stake.

American society has traditionally thought of itself as valuing and protecting human life from pregnancy through death. Against such a background, the language of "rights" tends to polarize and, more critically, end meaningful debate in what some have called a clash of absolute values.

As we celebrate the Bill of Rights' 200th anniversary, is it not timely to discard a narrowly individualistic reading of these treasured guarantees in favor of a more inclusive view that supports the desire of women to marry and have children without threat of job loss, financial insecurity or social disapproval?

Is there not greater freedom--and hence, a better exercise in human rights--in more thoroughly protecting one of the deepest of human desires: marriage and family life?

As the current arguments about the "rights" of women to bodily privacy would have it, no social interest in the life of the unborn is possible, even for the father, except at the discretion of the mother. Obviously this is a contradiction. Either there is a compelling social interest in the life of the unborn because of its growing membership in society, or there is none at all. The "right" of a woman to bodily privacy can neither remove from nor endow upon the unborn any such status.

Oddly, our society acknowledges its social interest in the unborn, through effective health care one day, and destroys that same unborn life the next day, all at the discrete exercise of a "right" of bodily privacy.

The terms of the abortion debate must be re-thought. The first concern should be desirability of children and their protection in family life. What kind of society discourages creation and growth of families? How has choice for parenthood become so impossible that abortion is the only option for so many?

Have we diminished the attractiveness of motherhood by job conditions that pressure women into compromising between the need for secure employment and the natural desire to have a family? Why are many able women professionals implicitly told that childbearing is inconsistent with career goals?

When such pressures threaten the possibility of family life, it is no wonder abortion is chosen so regularly. Its frequency suggests it has established itself as a mistaken form of family and career planning.

Imaginative solutions must be found to the complex problems competing with traditional values of parenthood and family. Abortion is the most destructive of all alternatives.

The obvious task ahead is not only to address the unborn's right, but also to work for elimination of those social and economic conflicts that consistently pressure women to consider abortion.

Positive corporate, health-care and social structures that support the bearing of children--both for traditional families and for society's poor and marginalized--must be pursued.

We need the re-fashioning of a social ethic that allows parents to choose childbearing free of undue constraints--either on the number of children acceptable or a mother's ability to enjoy a creative professional career.

Lastly, support services must be provided to those unemployed who fear that childbearing will only deepen their own poverty. Without effective support for children of mothers in need, no truly free choice for the life of the unborn will be perceived.

Abortion as a social structure victimizes both women and the unborn: women, because their free choice for motherhood is discouraged or denied; the unborn, because their lives are discounted in favor of a false notion of personalized "rights" that exclude those who cannot speak for themselves.

Women must pause to consider whether the exercise of so exclusionist a "right" can be free of harmful effects throughout the balance of family life. For is this not the same thinking used frequently to justify the "right" of minors to choose abortions without parental consent or advice?

Surely such policies risk the creation of an abortion mentality passed on between generations, unstoppable because its absolutist character leaves no room for challenge.

Human life is sacred from beginning to end. Every stage of its growth must enjoy the protection of a society that values it immeasurably. Today we are confronted with a range of health-care choices that can frighten or disorient.

But whether it is connection with abortion, premature withdrawal of life support systems, rationed health care or euthanasia in its newest form--physician assisted suicide--the central question to be asked is the same: Is human life to be valued absolutely?

Respect for life demands of us careful, continuous vigilance to prevent its erosion in any direction. Especially urgent is the task to look behind assumptions of "right to privacy" arguments, so that no unintentional exclusion of life results for society's most indefensible.

Consistent with the sentiments of American society's founders, our family life policies at local and national levels must unabashedly promote "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--including those of the unborn.

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