Matters of Life and Death

The Right to Lifers: Who They Are, How They Operate, Where They Get Their Money

by Connie Paige
Summit, 286 pp., $14.95

Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion

by Beverly Wildung Harrison
Beacon Press, 334 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood

by Kristin Luker
University of California Press, 324 pp., $14.95

In August 1982, Hector and Rosalie Jean Zevallos, the owners of a clinic that carried out abortions in Granite City, Illinois, were abducted. They were threatened with death unless they closed down their clinic, and were held for eight days before being released. Connie Paige describes this early episode in the wave of antiabortion violence in her book. She also tells of the partial burning down of a Planned Parenthood clinic, in St. Paul, Minnesota. One director of the clinic needed constant police protection, while others were threatened with the kidnaping or death of their children. A year after the fire, a bomb was thrown through the window of the clinic. And after a similar firebombing of a clinic in Omaha, a letter sent to a local newspaper is said to have ended: “You’d bomb a concentration camp—why not an abortion clinic?” By comparison, the harassment of Geraldine Ferraro over her views on abortion in last year’s election campaign seems almost civilized.

It is not surprising that abortion arouses such passion. The debate raises issues about feminism, about the relations between religion, morality, and law, and about the social control of medical technology. Underlying all this are questions about what it is to be a parent and about the right to life. With these matters at stake, how could abortion not cause deep and conflicting emotions? Yet it is hard not to be struck by the contrast between the complexity of the issues and the simplicity of the emotional responses.

Emotionalism and simplification lead to implausible claims on both sides. Some take it to be an obvious fact that an abortion is just something done to a woman’s body, comparable to the removal of an appendix. Others take it to be an obvious fact that a newly fertilized egg is as much a person as any teen-ager or adult. Opponents on either side are accused of supporting either the oppression of women or murder. It is sad that the debate is like this, since its outcome will affect even larger issues than the ones now seen to be at stake.

The distinctively modern voice in the abortion argument is the feminist one. For too many centuries the discussion, conducted by male theologians and philosophers, centered entirely on the fetus. The issue has been transformed by those prepared to say, as Beverly Wildung Harrison does in her book, that “the controversy over abortion is but one dimension of that far broader world historical struggle to enable us to ‘become the subjects of our lives.”‘ She argues persuasively that procreation is so central to women that having a choice over it is a condition of their having proper control over their lives. Her case for the right to choose is partly utilitarian, based on the unhappiness of those forced to bear unwanted children. She also deplores the injustice of denying women the ability to make decisions that will deeply affect their lives.

One benefit of the change in consciousness brought about…

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