A Chicago case tests the limits of right to choose

December 17, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

For those of you who find abortion a troubling issue, and maybe even for those who don't, there's a story out of Chicago that ratchets up the stakes considerably.

This story has something for everyone, including a fetus with its own lawyer.

It's about a woman's right to choose, about religious fundamentalism, about the role of the state in people's private lives, about medical ethics and, not incidentally, about whether a fetus, as the lawyer said, is "just a mass of human cells or a real life form being kept prisoner in a woman's womb."

It began innocently enough. Late last month, in what was meant to be a routine prenatal examination, the doctor found something troubling. He did some tests, and the results confirmed his fears. The fetus, then 8 months old, was not receiving sufficient nutrients or oxygen from the placenta.

The doctor did what doctors are supposed to do. He laid out the choices for the woman.

She could use drugs to induce labor.

She could undergo a Caesarean section.

If she did neither, the doctor explained, and kept the fetus until term, the baby would either die or suffer severe brain damage.

The answer, if difficult, is still obvious. You do what you have to do.

The woman saw it differently.

The woman and her husband describe themselves as Pentecostal Christians. The woman, as her lawyer would later explain in court, believes that God intended her to have a natural birth. She would trust, she said, in the Lord and in miracles.

Then it got complicated.

Upon the urging of the hospital, the state's attorney got involved. Cook County got involved. A public guardian was appointed for the fetus and argued that the court should force the woman to have a Caesarean section.

Meanwhile, the ACLU dependably rushed to the woman's defense, citing rights of privacy and religion. A woman has control, as the well-rehearsed argument goes, over her own body.

And on Tuesday, with the fetus then 37 weeks old -- a week and a half shy of full term -- the Illinois appellate court ruled for the pregnant woman.

The case was then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court where the lawyer for the fetus asked if the life of a nearly full-term fetus does not override any rights the woman might claim of privacy or religion. And yesterday, that court also ruled for the woman.

Which means, if the doctor is right, the ruling effectively sentences the fetus to probable death.

No one except a pro-choice absolutist would argue that a 37-week-old fetus isn't basically a baby. If that fetus were out of the womb, where it could probably survive easily, it would be a baby. And if that baby needed medical attention, the wishes of the parents would be overruled. States generally have laws against late-term abortions, except when the mother's life is endangered.

Of course, no one except a pro-life absolutist could argue that the state has the right to basically tie a woman down and force her to undergo an operation in which a doctor would cut open her body in order to rescue the "prisoner in the womb."

I'm pretty sure what most of us would want. We'd want to take the woman and talk to her. If that didn't work, we'd want to shake her. We'd want to shake some sense into her.

No country in the world is more tolerant of religious differences than the United States. We allow people to believe pretty much any weird thing they want to, but at some point we determined that parents did not have the right to allow their religious beliefs to endanger the lives of their children.

But, a fetus is not a child.

A fetus is a fetus.

If this fetus has rights independent of the mother, which fetuses do not have those rights?

The logic takes you places that no pro-choice person wants to go. If a fetus of 37 weeks has such rights, what does it mean for 24-week-old fetuses and 12-week-old fetuses and 2-week-old fetuses? What does it mean for the woman who takes the morning-after pill?

This is a woman who wants her baby, but who trusts her religious beliefs over science. She believes prayer will prevail. And she's willing to risk the life inside her for those beliefs.

In my head, I don't believe the court could -- or should -- force any woman to undergo an operation she doesn't want.

But in my heart, I can't help somehow wishing this court had.

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