For Women, Abortion Can't Be the Whole Story

JOAN BECK

April 08, 1992|By JOAN BECK

WASHINGTON. — The love-a-parade excitement and self-righteous euphoria of Sunday's abortion rights march in Washington will glow on for a while.

Old-guard feminists can boast fresh validation from the huge, celebrity-peppered crowd and the sense of intergenerational solidarity in the ranks.

Younger women can carry away the heady sense that battles remain for them to win, that victories still lie ahead for them to claim.

Stagnant women's organizations have new excuses for fund-raising appeals. Female politicians can command more clout.

And all the marchers can revel in the feeling that they have seized the nation's spotlight, shaped the nation's agenda, nudged the nation's political processes a little their way.

Many of the marchers have written off Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court as lasting protection for legal abortion. But they can expect their message to reverberate through the Congress as it considers the controversial Freedom of Choice Act that is intended to substitute for Roe. Pushing the legislation was a major purpose of the march.

That exceptionally brief bill would simply forbid states to restrict the right of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy before the baby is viable or at any time if her health or life is in danger. A state may, however, impose requirements medically necessary to protect the woman's life or health.

The legislation is intended not only to allow abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned but to prevent individual states from making abortion illegal after such a reversal.

Opponents of the measure argue that it would also wipe out the minor restrictions the Supreme Court has allowed states to put on abortion over the years. They say its brief wording would allow abortions for any reason through the second trimester of pregnancy.

But what the bill's precise effect would be remains controversial -- enough so to give lawmakers who oppose it an excuse to back away, however impressed they may be with the numbers and clout of pro-choice marchers.

In fact, many beleaguered legislators are not eager to go on record voting for or against abortion in this uneasy election year, especially when opinion polls show the public is deeply ambivalent about when abortion should be allowed and what restrictions should be placed on it.

Even if the marchers help move the Freedom of Choice Act to passage, it's not likely the Congress could override the expected veto by President Bush.

The marchers may have to settle for Sunday's euphoria, more political controversy and little else.

But in retrospect, even the euphoria may come to seem misplaced. There is a melancholy irony in the efforts of the women who leafleted so long and placarded so persistently and marched so far.

Eventually, it must seem sad to at least a few of them that the primary goal of many feminist groups for the last few decades has been to secure for women the legal right to kill their unborn children.

Put aside for now the moral and emotional controversy over terminating a pregnancy. Forget for the moment the critical question of when life begins. Ignore the public-relations triumphs in the contending labels of ''pro-life'' and ''pro-choice.'' Strip away the political agendas and the power plays.

What's left is the fact that what millions of women see as their primary political goal is abortion -- demeaning, uncomfortable, emotionally loaded surgery that destroys a beginning human life, however conveniently it is defined. It's a nasty price men don't have to pay for their sex lives. And it's not a burden women should accept -- let alone demand as their right.

Of course women must have control over their reproductive lives. Women can't have careers, make progress on jobs, limit their financial dependence on men or use their intellectual abilities to the fullest if they are constantly pregnant. The enormous progress in women's lives in the last 70 years would not have been possible if earlier child-bearing rates and burdens had not changed.

Family planning is essential for individuals. It is also critical for a nation that has doubled in population in a little more than half a century and for a world whose resources are increasingly strained by billions of people.

What's wrong is that women have focused on abortion as a major means to a necessary goal. They weren't marching for more funding for birth-control research. Or free contraceptives for poor and low-income women. Or changes in laws that would encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop more effective and reliable birth-control products.

The women weren't energizing themselves to try to change the sexual climate that puts millions of women at risk of unwanted pregnancy every year. They weren't demanding that men take equal responsibility for sexual activity and its consequences. They weren't mourning the fact that every year about 1.6 million women feel they must undergo abortion.

They simply were demanding -- proudly and enthusiastically -- the right to keep killing their unborn children. That is not equality. It is not progress for women. And it is deathly sad.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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