By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Twenty-six years after the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking ruling in Roe v. Wade, the ACLU and others continue to battle attempts in Congress and in the states to chip away at the right to abortion, contraception, and even information about reproduction. The proponents of this approach portray themselves as our moral standard-bearers. But what of the morality of the bans and near-bans they propose? What of an America without a right to reproductive choice?
Virginia is one of many states that has fallen prey to the new morality police who have recently infiltrated the legislative process. After fending off anti-choice bills for eighteen years, Virginia lawmakers in 1997 passed a parental notification law that requires a minor to notify certain adults prior to having an abortion. In 1998, reproductive freedom in Virginia took another hit with the passage of the ban on so-called "partial birth" abortions.
In the current legislative session, bills have been introduced to impose a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion and to require abortion clinics to comply with the same burdensome health and safety regulations as hospitals. The latter is particularly insidious legislation, as it is not based on any record of problems with physicians who offer abortion services, but would effectively close down every abortion clinic now operating in Virginia.
When abortion was a crime, its morality was more obvious. A generation ago, the public hospital wards were filled with women whose illegal abortions had led to systemic infection or blood loss so severe that many could not be saved. Preserving the "right to life" was our moral imperative, and the lives we saved were women’s lives.
Then, too, a mass movement for women’s equality was underway. Women were claiming an equal right to be sexual, along with the right to participate on equal terms with men in the economic, political, and social life of the nation. Even to begin to achieve these goals, women needed the freedom to make their own decisions about when and whether to have children. And they insisted on their capacity to make this moral choice for themselves, free of coercion from either the state or the church. "If you can’t trust us with a choice," the slogan went, "how can you trust us with a child?"
Yet today, women’s health, lives, consciences, and demands for equality are no part of the moral debate over abortion. Women themselves have been all but eclipsed by the transfixing image of a fetus suspended in liquid space sucking its translucent thumb. What, our opponents ask, could justify its destruction?
The difficulty of answering that question has led to a yawning silence about the morality of abortion rights, while our opponents continue to scream "baby-killer." We have forgotten that the alternative to reproductive freedom is government coercion and, if abortion opponents have their way, the recriminalization of abortion and the refilling of hospital wards with dying women.
The urgent needs of women are an inescapable part of any moral equation about abortion because, the images notwithstanding, a fetus does not in fact float alone in a bubble. A fetus lives inside a woman’s body and for most of the duration of a pregnancy depends entirely and exclusively on her for its survival. It can and should survive only for as long as she is willing to share her body -- her uterus, her blood supply, her oxygen, her nutrition -- with it.
To force pregnancy and childbirth on an unwilling woman is an act not only of brutality but also of immorality. No court in this country would order a father to donate an organ to save his child’s life, regardless of the judge’s or anyone else’s view of the moral imperatives involved. Yet state after state has enacted abortion restrictions, aimed at protecting fetal life, that have the effect of conscripting women’s bodies into continuing to support unwanted pregnancies.
When a woman can freely decide whether to end a pregnancy, she may make that decision well or badly. She may treat it with the seriousness it deserves or not. The decision to bear a child can be a moral choice, though often it is not. That’s why we have child abuse and neglect laws. The decision to have an abortion can be a moral choice, and often it is. A woman behaves responsibly when she decides not to have and raise a child she cannot welcome and nurture.
What can never be moral is the government’s forcing itself into that decision. What can never be moral is a law making a woman’s choice criminal. We have been there before and we know the consequences.