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A Decison Between a Woman and God

When Feminist Naomi Wolf Argued That a Fetus Is Indeed Human, Shock Waves Resounded on Both Sides of the Debate

May 24, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just when it seemed the debate over abortion was hopelessly deadlocked, along comes feminist author Naomi Wolf with a magazine article that has stunned supporters of legalized abortion and pleasantly surprised some abortion foes.

Writing in the New Republic, Wolf touched off an international uproar by suggesting that abortion-rights backers are guilty of "self-delusions, fibs and evasions" and that "the death of a fetus is a real death."

"By refusing to look at abortion within a moral framework," she says, "we lose the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity. . . . And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life."

If the words had come from another quarter, they might have been ignored. But Wolf, 33, holds impeccable feminist credentials, not only as the author of such seminal works as "The Beauty Myth," but as a strenuous advocate of unrestricted access to abortion, a view she hasn't abandoned.

So her article, seven months after its October publication, continues to make waves.

Newsweek, USA Today, "Firing Line" and various overseas media are among the print and TV outlets to have taken notice. And in recent weeks, the essay has been hashed out on a syndicated radio show, in a religious journal and at a conference of the National Abortion Federation, which represents clinics and doctors who perform more than half of the nation's 1.3 million annual abortions.

Some observers downplay the long-term impact, but a few predict that Wolf's commentary--along with several other magazine pieces published around the same time--might help dent the stalemate on abortion.

"Usually when I debate on this topic, I feel like I'm behind a podium speaking French and the other person is behind a podium speaking Finnish," says Helen Alvare, who represents the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the issue. "There's no common ground. But Naomi Wolf allows a conversation to begin."

Both sides, however, seem rattled by the direction Wolf wants that conversation to take.

To the dismay of those who favor liberal abortion laws, Wolf devotes the first part of her 6,700-word essay to a blistering critique of the rhetoric used to defend the procedure. In short, she contends that scientific advances since Roe vs. Wade--including "Mozart for your belly, framed sonogram photos [and] home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes"--have made it absurd to argue that a fetus is somehow less than human.

"What will it be?" she asks. "Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere 'uterine material'? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images [of aborted children] if the images are real?"

She also shreds the idea that women who choose to end a pregnancy do so only with the purest of motives or under the most dire of circumstances.

Too often, she says, the true explanation is laziness in using birth control (the "I don't know what came over me, it was such good Chardonnay" abortions) or, simply, selfishness ("not so unlike those young louts who father children and run from the specter of responsibility--except that [this] refusal to be involved . . . is as definitive as a refusal can be").

In the U.S., she notes, repeat abortions account for nearly half the annual total. And 11% of all abortions are procured by women in households with yearly incomes of at least $50,000.

"There are degrees of culpability, judgment and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy," she writes. "Pro-choice advocates tend to cast abortion as 'an intensely personal decision.' To which we can say, No: One's choice of carpeting is an intensely personal decision."

Abortion, on the other hand, is a good deal more than that: It's not just a matter between "a woman and her doctor," she insists: It's between a woman and God.

But the cartwheels and cheers from abortion opponents tend to stop here.

Because Wolf, despite calling the procedure "an evil," goes on to say it is a "necessary evil."

"Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die," she writes. And how does Wolf reconcile "the humanity of a fetus, and the moral gravity of destroying it, with a pro-choice position"?

Partly by urging acts of redemption.

"In all of the great religious traditions, our recognition of sin, and then our atonement for it, brings on God's compassion," she writes. In the case of abortion, proper atonement might mean donating money to prenatal care for the poor, providing contraception and jobs for young girls, or having feminists and abortion doctors hold candlelight vigils at clinics to "commemorate and say goodbye to the dead."

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