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Between the Poles: Views on Abortion

August 13, 1992|TIM RUTTEN

I hate the abortion issue.

I hate thinking about it. I hate writing about it. I hate the way in which the refusal to embrace one of the dogmatic poles at either end of this field of strife nowadays inevitably alienates me from people whose views and values are otherwise my own.

But, most of all, I hate the way in which the embittered contention over this question makes no room for the quality that--paradoxically--is indispensable to a democratic nation's consideration of fundamental issues: indecision.

I was reminded of that fact this week in conversations with friends: She is a professor at a prestigious university, a respected essayist on the history of science. He is a successful lawyer, an honors graduate of a distinguished Catholic university, a political liberal and a lifelong Democrat. Both are preoccupied with abortion these days.

"Frankly," she said, "I've become something I've always held in contempt--a single-issue voter. Choice--and I insist that is the only issue in what we call 'the abortion question'--is the single determinant of my vote this year. For me, this is a question of fundamental human rights, my rights. Any notion of social and political autonomy that does not grant me the right to determine the course of by own body's most intimate physical processes isn't worth spitting on.

"I am passionate in this, and the current climate has made me very, very defensive. In that connection, I'll say something I know is bound to offend, and I don't care. I won't vote for a Roman Catholic man anymore. I don't think they can be trusted on this issue."

What about Mario Cuomo, Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I wondered--three Catholic politicians who, while personally opposed to abortion, believe the decision ought to be made by the women involved? Their position--which happens to be my own--has been held at some cost. All three have come in for a battering from Cardinals John J. O'Connor and Bernard Law and the other boys in the bare-knuckle wing of the Catholic hierarchy.

"I think Cuomo, Kennedy and Moynihan are good people," she said. "But the truth is, I'm no longer willing to trust my fate--and the fate of other women--to people who are unwilling to acknowledge the fact that abortion is a fundamental and untouchable right. And if that makes me a single-issue voter, so be it. That's what I'll be."

He has at least one thing in common with her: He feels beleaguered and betrayed. He is by nature a supporter of institutions. But over the last month, he has watched as two organizations in which he as believed--the Democratic Party and the American Bar Assn.--told him, as he interprets it, to take a hike.

"I'm a pro-life Democrat," he says, "and I don't apologize for that. My religious convictions tell me that life begins at conception. To compromise on that belief is, for me anyway, to accept murder for the sake of fashion and social peace. I won't do it. And I don't respect the people who do. I don't even understand them.

"At the Democratic convention in New York, when they wouldn't even let a pro-life Democrat like Gov. (Robert P.) Casey of Pennsylvania speak to the convention, that told me my party had no place for me or my values. As far as I'm concerned, that decision represented the sacrifice of principle--free speech--to opportunism. Abortion on demand is, after all, the prevailing orthodoxy, and my party is lighting candles at its shrine.

"I feel the same way about the ABA (which Tuesday voted to take an official pro-choice position). Doing the expedient thing and endorsing abortion, they're going to do it without my dues."

If it strikes you that you have heard all these sentiments before, it probably is because you have. Had you been in San Francisco, where the ABA was hotly debating its traditional neutrality on the abortion question, or in Houston, where the Republican Party was tepidly reconsidering its dogmatic opposition to abortion for any reason, you'd have heard similar sentiments.

What you wouldn't have heard was an argument that incorporated the feelings of most Americans--that abortion is a question of fundamental values that arouses feelings ranging from the deeply troubled to the merely perplexed. What you won't have heard are sentiments like this:

Decisions regarding abortion require constitutional protection because they involve "the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime. . . . At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life."

Similarly, you won't have heard sentiments like this:

"What is at stake (in the decision to obtain an abortion) is the woman's right to make the ultimate decision, not a right to be insulated from all others in doing so. States are free to enact laws to provide a reasonable framework for a woman to make a decision that has such profound and lasting meaning."

Those, in fact, are the standards by which most of the West's democratic nations have already have decided this question. They were not written by some Western European Social or Christian Democrat but by three Republican justices of our own U.S. Supreme Court.

Those words were the product of indecision conscientiously resolved by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter in their recent decision in the case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania et al vs. Casey.

They have satisfied neither extreme in our never-ending abortion debate and, for that reason, point the way out of our current impasse.

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