It will hardly be news to readers of this blog that many states are enacting laws to restrict later-term abortions. Formally, states cannot restrict access to abortion before a fetus is “viable.” Practically, abortion proceeds largely unrestricted, at the sole decision of the woman requesting the abortion, in consultation with her physician. (I will try not to revisit well-plowed territory here.) The Gosnell case, having grabbed the attention of anyone willing to pay attention, seems to be a reminder that it is reasonable to take the step of protecting, in law, the lives of unborn children as they approach the point at which our best current medical efforts are capable of giving them a chance at life. I am a bit reluctant to try to adjudicate too precisely the 20-week cutoff point in the recent Texas bill and others—legislating medical details is unavoidably problematic—but the impulse to establish a zone beyond which we agree we will not venture is appropriate, I think.
Such a step is a small one. If I have the statistics straight, a distinct minority of abortions—about 1.5% out of a total of about 1.2 million annually in the U.S.—currently occurs after 20 weeks. So it seems to me that in practice the “restriction” on abortion that we are talking about here would be limited indeed.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicates that a plurality (44% vs 37%, with 19% undecided) favor this small step. Interesting.
Perhaps more problematic is the move to require that all abortions be done in facilities that meet more stringent regulatory requirements, such as those for outpatient surgery facilities. I’ve been emailing with Susan Haack about this, and she points out that one might encounter a type of “slippery slope” in which other standard medical office procedures—that are similar in methods but do NOT involve terminating a nascent human life—become over-regulated. So the counter argument, to the effect that these new regulations by some states constitute, in a sense, an over-reaction to the Gosnells of the world, is not entirely unreasonable. (Again, however, the fundamental motive and stance behind abortion by choice must be unequivocally challenged.) The regulatory provisions looked appropriate to me at first blush, but maybe that’s because I spend my efforts in the highly regulated arena of pharmaceutical clinical research.
Finally, perhaps you have read of the recent dust-up (to put it mildly) between the Center for Bio-ethical Reform (CBR) and Biola University, over a student’s insistence to pursue the former’s agenda of aggressively displaying graphic images of abortion, and the University’s response. Again, I will not attempt to weigh in on the details of that confrontation, but just offer my 2 cents:
- Visit the CBR website and you are immediately confronted a graphic abortion video that turned my stomach—and I’m an M.D. who generally can stand the sight of blood. I think it is good that I had that reaction.
- I think that anyone in the medical field, especially someone contemplating performing abortions in any way, must confront images like this.
- I am ready to grant that there is a place, from time to time, for insisting that people deal with revoltingly immoral practices on a sensory level. (Consider William Wilberforce’s “dinner cruise” scene, past the slave ships, in the movie Amazing Grace.)
- Still, there is a time and a place and a way. Parading or posting revolting images in public, in general, can backfire, raising resistance in some who are otherwise sympathetic to the message, or communicating condemnation to individuals who, at that point in time, are better addressed more gently.
- Yes, images of abortion are revolting. So is watching an amputation. So is draining a liter of pus from an infected chest. So are a lot of things in medicine that must be done for the good of the patient. At issue is not the picture, but the underlying moral judgment.