The Predicament

Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900

by James C. Mohr
Oxford University Press, 331 pp., $12.50

Abortion is, of all moral issues, peculiarly conducive to displays of bad taste. Anti-abortionists write autobiographies of week-old fetuses for Readers’ Digest and show slides of queerly inhuman creatures in sacs like spaceships. But their pro-abortion counterparts are little better: they wear T-shirts with coat-hangers printed on top of the word NO! and carry photos of botched abortionees, naked in motel rooms. The very language of both sides suggests the unease of the campaigners. Almost no one mentions the word abortion; one is prolife or pro-choice. And this jargon is effective, as all jargon is meant to be, in obscuring the issue, in bringing to one side or another the shy, befuddled partisan, unhappy with words that make the issue clear. Life and choice are, after all, not concepts anyone is likely to be anti.

These features, the excessively concrete image, the excessively abstract word, are both the result of abortion’s peculiar nature: it is a specifically physical issue which calls into question the most general moral issues. And so both physical and moral terms fall short in speaking to the questions. Is the fetus a human person or a bunch of cells with no particular significance? Is the act of abortion an act of self-determination or a crime? The terms are impossible because we have no way of thinking that describes the issue well.

The physicality of the fetus is perplexing because it is hidden; the unborn are invisible. One philosopher wonders what would happen to people’s positions on abortion if a mutation or technology made it possible for them to see a developing fetus in the womb, even perhaps to observe and to fondle it.1 The idea creates the sort of unease we feel when a beggar threatens to unwrap his ulcerated leg, and the discomfort points to the uniqueness of the issue. In what other context must one decide upon the very existence of a victim one cannot see, upon whose nature one can only speculate, whose value may be calculated only as potential.

Invisibility is not the only odd aspect of the abortion issue; there is, in addition, the question of time. In what other moral issue is time so crucial? The period of gestation is short, from beginning to end less than three hundred days. And the period in which a woman can get a safe abortion is even shorter. The decision to abort is made under doomsday pressure; there is a certain point after which it will simply be too late. Moreover, many moralists judge the seriousness of the crime by the advancement of the pregnancy; it is considered by some to be more heinous to have an abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy, most unspeakable of all to have one after the fetus is “viable.” The concept of “viability” or “quickening” has always been an important issue in the discussion of abortion. “Quickening” is the point at which the mother feels the fetus moving, and it usually occurs in the…

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