When President Clinton vetoed a bill this spring that would have banned a specific method of late-term abortion, many people were outraged. People committed to the sanctity of life viewed the move as obscene and stupid.
Those outraged by the veto also included many people who otherwise believe women should have the legal right to choose an abortion. The bill had passed both houses of Congress because abortion opponents received the support of some Democrats and Republicans who have usually stood for abortion rights. While a broad range of Americans support some restrictions on abortion, the veto seemed to be symbolic of Clinton’s reluctance to support any restrictions. Some assume that it is proof that Clinton and the Democratic Party have ceded their position on abortion to the most extreme pro-choice factions.
The procedure in question is called intact dilation and extraction, also referred to as partial birth abortion because the fetus is removed feet first through the birth canal, sometimes requiring that the skull be crushed and the brain suctioned out. The disturbing nature of the technique is intensified by the fact that it can be used past the point that an infant would be viable outside its mother’s body. Even some with a pro-choice stand acknowledge that this procedure could fairly be called infanticide.
Regardless of one’s position on abortion, one cannot escape the clarity that it is indeed a human life destroyed in this procedure. From the perspective of a consistent life ethic, Clinton’s veto cannot be condoned (the proposed ban allowed the use of the procedure in cases where the mother’s life is in danger).
But the veto should not be the main focus for those who hold life as sacred and therefore want to do all that’s possible to turn away from abortion. The proposed ban would have been important as a symbolic statement of principle that as a country the United States does not stand for abortion on demand. But in and of itself, the ban would not make abortion rare. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the procedure accounted for less than 0.4 percent of the 1.3 million abortions performed in the United States in 1993 (the latest year for which there is complete data).
EVEN IF CLINTON had signed this bill into law, key groundwork to move away from abortion in the United States would need to continue on several non-legislative fronts: Teen-age pregnancy prevention programs, education on sexuality and responsibility, crisis pregnancy centers, and work to make adoption more available and accepted are some examples.
Also vitally needed—and perhaps most readily lost in the fray—is thoughtful attention to and engagement with our cultural and moral discourse about abortion. Because some on the pro-choice side are certain that any legal restriction on abortion will be the beginning of a slippery slope leading to a total ban, they insist on depersonalizing the fetus as little more than a tissue mass and argue that abortion never has a moral cost. It likewise can be said that some who hold a pro-life perspective dehumanize or deny the real dilemma that some women considering or choosing abortion find themselves in.
Last year Naomi Wolf, writing in The New Republic, described American society as being in a struggle “to find its way forward to a discourse of right and wrong that binds together a common ethic for the secular and the religious.” Wolf, who is pro-choice, strongly critiqued the “fetus is nothing” approach taken by many pro-choice feminists because it denies the loss, death, and moral cost intrinsic to abortion, and because those taking such an approach cede their right to participate in the moral debate. Wolf considers abortion to be an evil, albeit from her perspective a necessary one. She insists that it should “be faced and opposed in the realm of conscience and action and even soul.”
The majority of Americans find themselves in some similar middle ground in the debate on abortion, tangled up in matters of soul, flesh and blood, rights, responsibilities, and difficult questions. While they may not be at a place to argue for the total elimination of abortion, many might be challenged successfully to meet within the moral space described by Wolf and others, and to take up active work to begin reducing the numbers of abortions in this country. This might be through the aforementioned efforts at pregnancy prevention and abortion alternatives, as well as through the careful framing of legislative restrictions on abortion.
Clinton’s veto drew condemnation from eight U.S. Catholic cardinals, who vowed to lobby Congress to overturn the veto. His move was considered politically stupid because he very likely cost himself the votes of many Catholics, evangelical Christians, and others who cannot abide by his decision. There are many people of faith who don’t deny how agonizing the decisions faced by some pregnant women are, but who say that if we can’t say no to something as gruesome as this form of late-term abortion, then to what will we say no?
But the outrage generated by Clinton’s veto will not be best spent if it is solely focused on making him pay politically. That energy, outrage, and passion to protect all life are desperately needed in the form of thoughtful engagement with our cultural dialogue on the meaning and costs of abortion, and in creating a society where no one thinks that abortion is the only choice.