Time Essay: Of Abortion and the Unfairness of Life

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Some people believe, of course, that government has gone entirely too far in trying to make life fairer. The formula of best government equaling least government has vanished into the vast bureaucratic software that produces welfare, food stamps and unemployment benefits. But if government is indeed, for better or worse, promoting the health, education and welfare of the American people, why should federal help for those who seek abortions be excluded?

One answer is that abortion is morally wrong—even, some say, a blithely conducted form of infanticide. There are painfully compelling reasons to oppose abortion; philosophers and theologians have done so for many centuries. The Hippocratic Oath includes a stricture against aiding an abortion. (Many medical schools now use a rephrased version of the oath to circumvent the abortion issue.) The procedure involves the destruction of a form of human life—life in utero, but life nonetheless. By the sixth week, almost all of the human organs are in place; by the eighth, brain-wave activity can be detected. The right-to-life lobby displays pictures of those tiny hands and feet, those grisly fetuses pickled in jars; but bad taste does not disable their argument.

The other reality is just as disturbing. Without legal and affordable abortion, many lives in progress are hopelessly ruined; the unwanted children very often grow up unloved, battered, conscienceless, trapped and criminal. A whole new virus of misery breeds in the accidental zygotes.

Both technically and morally, the most difficult problem is to decide at what precise instant life occurs. Is it in the actual conceptive collision of sperm and egg? Is it only when the fetus "quickens," at five months or so? The Supreme Court in 1973 simply said that abortion in the early stages of pregnancy should be a medical, not a criminal matter; it was best left to the judgment of the woman and her physician. Given the violence of warring moralities in the abortion debate, the law was unreasonably strained. The statutes forbidding abortion were a kind of Volstead Act, so widely (and often dangerously) violated as to be worse than useless. The court was therefore wise to send the question back to the privacy of individual consciences. The many who believe abortion morally wrong should honor their convictions. But the dilemma is too difficult to permit antiabortionists to impose their beliefs, no matter how deeply held, upon people who disagree.

What then of public financing for abortions? Should citizens have to pay for an operation they find morally repugnant? A few years ago, stores sold anihilistically spirited black box: when one pushed a button on its side, the box whirred and opened, a hand appeared from under a lid—and turned the box off. The Supreme Court's latest decision— and Carter's attitude toward it—has something of the same self-canceling effect. The court made abortion legal; now it has rescinded an important advantage of that legality by making it hard for the poor to obtain abortions. On narrow constitutional grounds, the court does have a point; states and communities should have the right to decide how to spend their tax money. But the refusal to spend it creates a new configuration marked by inconsistency and hypocrisy.

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