The public issue of private lives: deciding who has babies

Linda Cotton

January 11, 1991|By Linda Cotton

LAST WEEK Judge Howard Broadman, who presides over a courtroom in Visalia, Calif., found 27-year-old Darlene Johnson guilty of abusing her four children by beating them with a belt. When Johnson approached the bench, she was pregnant with her fifth child. Broadman thought enough was enough.

He sentenced Johnson to a year in prison and ordered the Norplant birth control device implanted in her arm for three years, during which time she would be on probation. Johnson's lawyer is appealing the case, which has the potential to find its way to the Supreme Court because it raises the politically salient abortion question in a different way: Not whether women have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, but whether they have a constitutional right to begin one, without government interference, should they so choose. As such, the California case presents an ideological conundrum for the so-called "right-to-life" contingent.

Norplant, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December, is the first major contraceptive breakthrough in a generation. It takes the form of six match-stick size tubes, which are surgically inserted beneath the skin of a woman's arm and release a steady stream of hormones that suppress ovulation for up to five years.

Norplant offers couples tremendous freedom from the rickety birth control methods that fail them roughly 50 percent of the time. Which is precisely what it is intended to do. Sheldon Segal, director of the international team of scientists that developed Norplant has said and written repeatedly since the FDA approved the drug that it was created to enhance reproductive freedom, not to restrict it.

Judge Broadman's ruling assaults that intent, but that is hardly its most insidious aspect. More frightening is the precedent such a decision sets. If Broadman can arbitrarily decide that Johnson should not be a mother for three years, what's to stop another judge from imposing a similar sentence if a woman is engaged in behavior that the judge deems risky or dangerous to a fetus?

An editorial in the Sacramento Bee recently suggested that Norplant was a more promising approach than compulsory drug treatment for women who bring addicted children into the world. Needless to say, the same case might well be made for women who drink too much or smoke cigarettes.

An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, for which the paper later apologized, went farther -- suggesting that poor, black women might be encouraged to use Norplant, perhaps by making it free and offering them increased welfare benefits for agreeing to temporary sterility.

There is, really, no end to the circumstances one can imagine in which women could be "encouraged" to use Norplant. In a case now before the Supreme Court, which comes to mind first, a company has been sued for refusing to allow women of childbearing age to work in an area of the plant because, it claims, high lead levels might damage unborn children, and there is no guarantee that females who work there wouldn't become pregnant. If Broadman's ruling stands, will other employers refuse to let women work at certain jobs unless they agree to use Norplant?

No one is yet suggesting widespread, mandatory use of the device, but once the precedent has been set, the fine line between promotion and coercion could be easily crossed.

No thinking person of any political persuasion could embrace this Brave New World scenario -- particularly pro-life purists, who rightly cringe at the notion of forcing a woman not to have children.

And so, while the Johnson case presents a political roadblock for those who call themselves pro-choice, it is a particularly mind-boggling conundrum for abortion opponents. Preventing the Broadman ruling from becoming precedent will require overturning it on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. That will mean, in essence, affirming the principle that the court established, first in Griswold vs. Connecticut and then in Roe vs. Wade -- that the constitutional right to privacy guarantees men and women the opportunity to have the number of children they want, when they want to have them, free of government interference.

The bottom line is that you can't have it both ways: If you accept the idea that government has no business telling poor women or young women or working women that they cannot have children, then you cannot logically embrace the notion that it has any business telling women they must.

Opposing abortion rights and opposing mandated birth control is an incongruous position which is not at all about the right to life, but rather about government's right to control procreation.

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