Accepting Abortion Ambiguity


July 05, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

When the Supreme Court announced its abortion decision this past week, both sides were ready with their reactions. Alas, the rhetoric was numbingly familiar.

Those who want to keep abortion legal decried the court's acceptance of limits on access to abortion. Those who want abortions criminalized denounced the court for refusing to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Each side accused the other of extremism.

TC The divide between Americans on this issue is as vast as ever, and the court's attempt at compromise has been virtually lost in the shouting. As Roger Rosenblatt points out in his new book, "Life Itself," Americans have a hard time talking about abortion. Rather than discussing the issue, we just shout about it.

Mr. Rosenblatt attributes this to the fact that our feelings about abortion are too deep, too complicated, too close to the raw nerve of our feelings about the meaning of life and death. I think he's right. Americans have a hard time with ambivalence.

That makes it difficult for someone to say, in effect, that even though abortion is wrong and takes a human life (or at least the alive, growing potential for a unique human life), it is sometimes the lesser of two bad choices -- and that it should remain legal because such personal decisions should never be dictated by the state.

In religious terms, which are tossed around so freely in the shouting match, maybe abortion can be a sin without our turning it into a crime as well. If it deserves censure, then perhaps judgment and punishment should come not from the state, but from a higher authority.

That seems a sensible way to deal with an issue that can be so clear-cut until real life gets in the way. Unfortunately, it calls for more tolerance than many activists in the abortion wars are able to muster.

When I look at pictures of anti-abortion protesters, I always remember the story I heard several years ago from the director of a Planned Parenthood organization in the Midwest. Each day she crossed picket lines, often seeing the same faces. One day, to her amazement, she encountered one of those familiar faces inside the building, waiting in the reception room. She went over to greet the woman, who said she was waiting there for her daughter. The girl was having an abortion.

"But I thought you opposed abortion," the director said.

"I do," the woman replied, "but this is different."

The problem with abortion, of course, is that it's always "different."

Every woman who seeks an abortion does so for her own reasons. If each case were put up for approval by the rest of us, or by a legislature or court, there would be many heart-wrenching stories. Some would strike all but the most zealous abortion opponent as eminently acceptable reasons for abortion.

But in each case one fact remains: The woman making that decision will have to live with the consequences. If she decides to give birth, she -- not us, and not even the fetus -- will have to accept the responsibilities of pregnancy, the pain of childbirth and the bonds of motherhood.

If she chooses to give up the child for adoption -- a solution many abortion opponents suggest -- she must be ready for the life-long pangs of separation that many women regard as far worse than any guilt induced by abortion.

And if she chooses abortion, she may well find the procedure painful and the decision regrettable and still remain convinced that her choice was the right one for her.

In short, "convenience" is in the eye of the beholder. What may seem to an observer as frivolous grounds for a life-changing decision about bearing a child may feel quite different to the woman facing that choice.

Abortion opponents often charge that abortion is used as a form of birth control. Of course it is. Even the best methods of birth control can fail. Unless our society wants to decree that any woman who engages in sex must be prepared to give birth, we must admit there will be times when abortion is justified.

Look closely at the restrictions the Supreme Court has allowed ++ states to place on abortion and you see Big Brother acting on the assumption that women regard having an abortion as not much different from getting a haircut. There may be women who feel that way, but I would bet they are few and far between. And I'm sure that if such women exist, making them jump through hoops won't turn them into better people and good parents.

If we are ever to get beyond shouting about abortion, we'll have to come to terms with the fact that life does not always allow neat answers to clear-cut rights and wrongs. We will have to accept the fact that keeping abortion legal and safe is not the same as saying it's always right. In short, we will have to learn to live with ambivalence.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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