Making Abortion Private

June 07, 1993

A recent article tucked away in the New England Journal of Medicine may help speed the transformation of the abortion debate from a public, take-no-prisoners political brawl to the more intimate realm of private decisions -- where it belongs. For several years, RU-486, a pill developed in France, has given women in some countries the option of a non-surgical abortion. But until now, even that choice involved two visits to a doctor, one for the initial pill and a visit two days later for the injection of another hormone, prostaglandin, to ensure the abortion is completed.

Now doctors have found they can substitute a different form of prostaglandin, which is available in a pill commonly used for stomach problems. That makes an early abortion merely a matter of taking two pills, thus vastly reducing the need for surgical abortions. The new procedure neatly sidesteps two of the biggest problems in providing abortions; the vulnerability of health clinics where abortions are performed and the drop in the number of doctors trained to perform surgical abortions.

With an administration eager to see RU-486 available to American women, anti-abortion activists now face the real possibility of losing their most visible targets, the clinics where their pickets and protests have become a fixture. They also will have a more difficult time intimidating doctors who might otherwise provide abortions.

This development does nothing to change the arguments about when a fetus becomes a person. People who object to ending a pregnancy at any stage -- or even to preventing the possibility of pregnancy -- will not be persuaded to change their beliefs. But many anti-abortion activists will have to change their methods of acting on those beliefs.

When abortions are no longer performed largely in specialized clinics but can be prescribed in a doctor's office and carried out in the privacy of one's home, where will protesters target their message? And how will they keep the urgency in their message without gruesome pictures of surgical instruments and severed fetal limbs?

The advent of prescribed abortions may hasten the end of scenes like those staged so fervently by Operation Rescue and like-minded zealots. Let us hope so. Abortion is a moral issue, and satisfying answers to these dilemmas are never forged through harassment and intimidation, but rather through reasoned argument and quiet persuasion.

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