The Debate Over Abortion Goes Behind Bars

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Two weeks ago, Vice President Al Gore was thrown for a loop on "Meet the Press." Host Tim Russert asked him whether he would postpone the execution of pregnant death row inmates until after they had given birth, and Gore, after some hemming and hawing, finally came up with an answer: "The principle of a woman's right to choose governs in that case." Gore didn't want to alienate his pro-choice constituency, so he just went on autopilot.

Gore's response suggests that the woman's right to choose is global: She can elect to save her unborn child, or she can decide , in effect, to abort it by being executed herself. It's a grisly choice. Unfortunately for Gore (not to mention the pro-choice movement in general), his response set legislative wheels in motion. The tie-in was obvious: Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who sponsored a bill banning the execution of pregnant inmates, took to the House floor to lobby for her position, informing colleagues that unborn children had committed no crime, and did not deserve to suffer for their mothers' felonies.

The House approved the legislation Tuesday by a vote of 417 to 0. Ros-Lehtinen's bill represented a completely hypothetical situation; no such case has ever presented itself, but that didn't seem particularly important. Instead, the representatives went to town with the scenario that Tim Russert single-handedly introduced into the national consciousness.

And while on the surface, the vote seems like a no-brainer (not to mention a slap in Al Gore's face), there is a great deal about the bill that makes many abortion rights advocates very nervous. The logic of the bill (an innocent life should not end because someone else commits a crime) leads neatly into basic pro-life theory: If we suspend a pregnant woman's execution out of respect for the "innocence" of the fetus, how can we justify any abortion? Because after all, one fetus is as "innocent" as the next.

But there is an issue in play here that seems to have been ignored: Al Gore was right. He insisted on keeping the ultimate choice available to a woman, and refused to consider an alternative that would effectively render the fetus a ward of the state even against the will of the mother. The vice president clung to a fundamental tenet of the pro-choice movement: Until a woman gives birth, the burgeoning existence inside her must belong absolutely to her. No prison guard, and certainly no legislator, should be able to take away that autonomy.

The image of a pregnant death row inmate choosing execution strikes many in both the pro-choice and pro-life movements as too barbaric to contemplate. (Pro-life advocates would say that legalized abortion is itself a state-sanctioned execution.) But what is the alternative to allowing that choice? The continued chipping away at Roe v. Wade. Instead of stripping female prisoners of their identity as human beings and making decisions for them, we could avoid this awful dilemma by taking much more basic action and abolishing the death penalty altogether.