End this prohibition

June 04, 1991

Opponents of legal abortion claim they are within easy reach of the necessary 33,373 petition signatures to place Maryland's new abortion law before the voters in 1992. That's good, because there is every reason to be confident that Maryland voters, speaking en masse, will ratify the measure already approved by their elected representatives in the General Assembly this year.

But by the time the referendum takes place, the abortion issue could well be on its way to resolution -- not by laws or great moral debates or even by popular votes, but rather by women exercising free choice in determining whether to bear a child. The resolution is likely to come in the form of the medication called RU-486, which greatly simplifies the abortion procedure in its early stages. The medication has been in use for two years in France and a few other countries. It has a solid record as a procedure that is safe, effective, inexpensive and can even can be taken in the home without medical supervision and with minimum danger. (The medication was discussed at some length Sunday night on the popular CBS-TV news program "60 Minutes.")

Like the Reagan administration, the Bush administration, cowering under the threat of political retribution by the anti-abortion zealots, still insists upon mixing medicine and politics and is attempting to block the introduction of RU-486 to America and, for that matter, to the Third World where out-of-control population growth means simply bringing children into the world for a few years so that they can starve to death or be swept from the face of the Earth by hurricanes.

No doubt the Bush effort to forestall the introduction of RU-486 will continue to make mischief for a time, but can anyone seriously doubt that the day is at hand when RU-486 will be available in the United States? The only question is whether it will be available under a doctor's supervision or through the black market, with the attendant risks of any self-medication.

The anti-abortion forces have long sought to analogize their crusade to the anti-slavery movement. But the comparison is wholly specious; the proper analogy is to the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, from 1919 to 1933. That notorious episode of governmental busybody-ness proved one thing only: If a sufficient number of people reject a law, there simply is no way to enforce it, and attempting to do so inevitably leads to hypocrisy, spotty prosecution and injustice.

When Prohibition ended, people who didn't want to drink didn't have to; people who did could do so by choice. It should be exactly the same with abortion. In the last analysis, it is no less reprehensible to compel a woman to have a child she doesn't want than to compel her to have an abortion she doesn't want.

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