Fetus versus mother Unresolved issues: Legal clashes reflect hostile environment of polarized public opinion.

November 19, 1996

WHEN A 19-year-old unwed mother aims a pistol at her abdomen to end a six-month pregnancy, society is clearly witnessing an act of tragic desperation. Kawana Ashley, the St. Petersburg, Fla., woman who was charged with murder and manslaughter when her daughter lived only 15 days after an emergency delivery, feared that her grandmother, who had custody of her 3-year-old son, would not accept another child. Ms. Ashley had just lost her job, and could not afford the $1,350 she needed for an abortion. So she tried to solve her problem with a gun.

As The Sun's Lyle Denniston reported recently, cases like this are becoming more frequent in American courts, as fetuses gain increasing rights that sometimes clash with the rights of pregnant women. The legal seeds of this clash stem in large part from Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman's right to seek abortion early in pregnancy, but allowed for states to assert an increasing interest in protecting the life of the fetus as the pregnancy progresses.

It is one thing to ask the courts to determine the guilt of women who endanger the lives of their own progeny -- along with their own health. It is a more difficult task for society to tackle the roots of the problem, not just the legalities of a specific case.

The deep divisions in this country over abortion have engulfed good sense about birth control and created a climate that is in many respects hostile to responsible child-bearing. Other countries seem able to say to young people: "Becoming a parent is a serious matter. Don't get pregnant until you are ready and able to assume the responsibilities of supporting and nurturing your child."

In America, popular culture celebrates sexuality, but public opinion politicizes alternatives to irresponsible child-bearing. Abortion opponents spend more effort trying to deny women access to the procedure than in trying to prevent pregnancies women cannot responsibly carry to term. The abortion controversy then spills over into birth control, creating a hostile climate for contraceptive research and hindering availability.

In short, American popular culture gives young women few reasons to say "No," yet political pressures conspire to deny her responsible alternatives to childbearing. Then, when a Kawana Ashley turns violent, we take her to court.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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