Time Essay: Of Abortion and the Unfairness of Life

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"Life is unfair," John Kennedy observed at a press conference one day in 1962. The thought had a certain stoic grace about it: its truth was brutally confirmed the following year in Dallas. Life is unfair. Kennedy was talking about citizens' military obligations, about the restive Army reservists who were being held on active duty even after the Berlin crisis had subsided. Now Jimmy Carter has brought up the unfairness doctrine to explain his policy on abortion. Somehow the dictum comes out this time with a mean-spirited edge, like something from the lips of Dickens' Mr. Podsnap.

Abortion, of course, is a painful issue that has given rise to few ennobling ideas. Anyone who comes to an easy decision on the subject is probably a moral idiot. Four years ago, the Supreme Court declared it legal to terminate a pregnancy in the first three months, or up to six months in some circumstances. About a million legal abortions are now performed every year in the U.S.—a third of them paid for with Medicaid funds. But last month the Supreme Court decided, by a vote of 6 to 3, that the states and localities are free, if they wish, to deny Medicaid money for abortions. Both houses of Congress have made their contribution by passing provisions that forbid federal Medicaid payments for abortions, although the measures differ in severity.

In other words, abortions are fine for the women who, on the whole, have the least pressing need for them: women at least well enough off to buy their own way out of their fecundity. The women (often young girls) who cannot raise the money must presumably either bear their unwanted children—thus bringing many thousands of new customers to welfare—or find some way, however dangerous, dark and filthy, to kill the fetus more cheaply. Such methods have had the result of sometimes disposing of the mother as well.

When he was asked at a press conference about the logic of this, the President took up John Kennedy's line. "Well," said Carter, "as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can't." Anatole France in the last century appraised that kind of elegant fatalism: "The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges."

Certainly a principal purpose of human government must be to mitigate the unfairness that seems to be an integral part of human life—or, at the very least, not to compound it. The judicial system is meant to mediate, to knock the chaos of human behavior into a manageable pattern. The goal of fairness underlies American education, which has been regarded, sometimes more hopefully than accurately, as the way to give everyone an equal chance. Medicaid was meant to provide fairness in health care, so that if a poor man needs an $800 appendectomy or a $15,000 coronary bypass, he will, in theory, receive something like the same treatment as a character who arrives at the hospital by grossen Mercedes.

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