Beyond Roe?

Politically, legally, and technologically, the 33-year-old court decision [Roe v. Wade] is increasingly obsolete as a framework for managing decisions about reproduction. —William Saletan, The Road from Roe, Slate, March 4, 2006

bey-roe123After years of relative quiet, the abortion wars have flared up again. South Dakota is the first of several state legislatures intent on challenging Roe. The Supreme Court will soon take another look at the congressional ban on partial birth abortion, and many expect the new, more conservative court to entertain other cases that might roll back the unrestricted abortion license that exists today.

A large number of liberal legal minds—Laurence Tribe and Alan Dershowitz among them—have said that while they support the unqualified right to abortion, Roe v. Wade is a shoddy piece of legal work that no longer makes much constitutional or scientific sense, if it ever did.

In The Road from Roe (March 4, 2006, Slate) William Saletan argues that Roe should be abandoned altogether. He believes technology has already made Roe obsolete.

Roe established a right to abortion through the end of the second trimester. The latter part of that time frame has always been the most controversial. Improvements in neonatal care have made fetuses viable—capable of surviving delivery—earlier than was possible in 1973. That’s why Justice O’Connor said Roe was “on a collision course with itself” and eventually led her colleagues to abandon the trimester framework. Meanwhile, sonograms and embryology have made people aware of how well-developed fetuses are while still legally vulnerable to abortion. We even do surgery on fetuses now, which makes aborting them seem that much more perverse. These developments may explain, in part, why two-thirds of Americans think abortion should be illegal in the second trimester—and why pro-lifers targeted partial-birth abortions for legislative assault.

But if medical technology has helped to expose this moral problem, it can also help us solve it. Second-trimester abortions are becoming not just harder to stomach, but easier to avoid. In 1973, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, fewer than 40 percent of abortions took place before the ninth week of gestation. By 2000, the latest year for which data have been analyzed, the percentage was nearly 60 and rising. The same high-resolution ultrasound that makes you queasy about aborting a 12-week fetus has made it safer to perform abortions at four or five weeks instead of waiting, as women were once routinely told to do. In 1993, only 7 percent of abortion providers could end a pregnancy at four weeks or earlier; by 2001, 37 percent could do it. And by 2002, two-thirds of clinics belonging to the National Abortion Federation were offering pills that abort pregnancies in the first seven weeks.

Better yet, technology is helping many women avoid unwanted pregnancies altogether. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “emergency contraception”—high-dose birth-control pills that you can take after sex to block ovulation, fertilization, or implantation—was almost unheard of a decade ago. By 2002, however, about 10 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 had used such pills. Pro-life activists are fighting these pills in many states and at the Food and Drug Administration, but polls suggest that even most people who oppose legal abortion would tolerate the pills.

Saletan realizes what the pro-life movement has known for a long time: if a woman can take a few pills in the privacy of her home to induce her own abortion, everything changes. Surgical abortion will become a rarity. Abortion will become a truly private matter, largely hidden from public view.

Saletan sees this as a good thing. He assumes, and he may be correct, that the public will be more “accepting” of abortion if it is largely limited to the first trimester and is practiced in a less barbaric manner—chemically, rather than surgically.

But Saletan and others who celebrate the abortion pill may have put too much faith in technology. We are not wise creators. All technologies have unintended consequences. We already know that the abortion pill has severe risks, including bleeding and the possibility of death. But that’s not the worst of it.

I have to wonder if women will have the stomach for self-induced abortion? I have to wonder what the emotional toll will be for women who no longer have an abortion done to them, but take the entire procedure into their own hands?

In some ways, it seems we are returning women to the days of the bent coat hanger.

An abortion is hard enough in a clinic where the brutal realities are carefully hidden from the patient. Studies show solid links between elective abortion and guilt, shame, sorrow, even depression.

Imagine the emotional damage women will suffer when they self-abort their babies in the quiet of their own bathrooms, flushing the remains of a living fetus down the toilet? Will they ever be able to forget what they did there? Will the terrible memories haunt that place every morning as they dress for work?

Technology will make abortion cheaper, easier, and more available, but it cannot relieve our guilt. In fact, self-induced abortions may scar women in ways we have never seen before.

Life is a glorious affirmation that God still pours out his Spirit on creation. Human beings start out as a few fragile cells in a woman’s fallopian tube and grow over many years into autonomous and independent persons. What a miracle. What a sin to do harm to that miracle.

I grieve for the women who will weep over that lost miracle as they flush the toilet. Technology will end their pregnancies, but it won’t erase their guilt.

Update: The Associated Press reports that two more young women have died from taking Mifeprex (RU-486), bringing the total to seven deaths so far. It is a terrible thing. These women bought into the no-consequences sexual ethic of our time and paid a very high price for the right to be proudly and actively pro-choice. Do you suppose Planned Parenthood will help pay for their funerals?

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  1. Charlie,

    What a well-thought-out, well-written post. I have several friends who had abortions–the sterile, clinical kind–and each one of them has had the effects linger through their adult lives. The effects are different for each one of them, but they’re very real.

    You’re absolutely right that technology won’t erase anything. God help us all, as a nation, if we go this way.