Letters & Op-Eds 2000

Easing a Difficult Moral Choice


A drug that allows early intervention simplifies the issue

News that the FDA has just approved RU-486, the medication that induces early abortion, is a welcome development for American women. Most women, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, take abortion seriously and most certainly would prefer to prevent pregnancy rather than have an abortion. That, at the present moment, is not entirely possible. Even women using contraception get pregnant. And some of those women decide to have abortions.

As part of taking the abortion decision seriously, my experience is that most women include in their moral conversation a reflection on what they believe about the fetus. In overwhelming numbers women reject the current belief of the Vatican and other conservative religious authorities that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. At the same time, they believe that early abortions are morally less complicated than later abortions. While fetuses are not persons, most of us believe they have value, which increases as a pregnancy advances.

Thus, to be able to have an abortion very early in pregnancy, which is what RU-486 makes possible, is a significant moral and emotional relief. While many applaud the medical advances and the modicum of privacy RU-486 offers – and put an end to the anti-abortion protesters who have become permanent fixtures at clinic doors – its greatest benefit is that women can now choose abortion earlier than ever before.

A Shift in Tactics

Of course, RU-486 will offer no respite from the abortion wars. It is not a panacea that will take abortion off the political agenda. These deep moral and religious divisions go much deeper than disagreements about the timing or method of abortion. For those who believe the fetus is a person from the moment of conception, early abortion is no better nor different from late abortion. To them, RU-486 poses both moral and political problems. In fact, the seeming ease with which women are able to have an abortion with RU-486, a process that has been described as akin to miscarriage, is a source of distress to those opposed to all abortions. The Vatican has already written that they are afraid that with RU-486, women will be able to pretend that they are not having an abortion.

The ready availability of RU-486 will be a spur to more anti-abortion activism, not less. New strategies and protest groups will be developed. At present, RU-486 will not be available in pharmacies but eventually, abortion foes believe it will. This explains Pharmacists for Life, a small, relatively new group that promotes legislation that would permit pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for pills they consider to cause abortion.

The pickets outside clinics providing abortion services will continue; the television debates in which those in favor of abortion and those opposed to abortion talk past each and commit the sin of boring the public will continue. Doctors will continue to fear that performing abortions, even by RU-486, run the risk of getting them shot. Presidential candidates will remind us that we are one Supreme Court justice away from losing the protections of Roe v. Wade, or from restoring family values.

All that will change – and it is a big all – is that a significant number of women who believe that abortion can be a morally correct choice will have another option – one with not just social and medical advantages but with moral ones.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an independent educational organization committed to reproductive health and rights.

This article courtesy of MSNBC.

Catholics for Choice