Civil Liberties

The Kinder, Gentler Abortion


The Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which the House is expected to vote on today, has provoked splits on both sides of the abortion debate. The National Right to Life Committee supports the bill, which would require doctors to inform women undergoing abortions at 20 weeks or later (counting from fertilization) that "there is substantial evidence" the fetus can feel pain and offer her the option of fetal anesthesia. Operation Save America, by contrast, says the NRLC is a bunch of pussies for implying that murdering unborn children is OK as long as you don't hurt them while you're doing it. Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation are predictably opposed to the bill, but NARAL Pro-Choice America has taken a "neutral" stance that sounds like an endorsement: "Pro-choice Americans have always believed that women deserve access to all the information relevant to their reproductive health decisions," says NARAL President Nancy Keenan. "For some women, that includes information related to fetal anesthesia options." NARAL's stance has provoked angry disappointment on left-liberal blogs. 

Given its moral premise, Operation Save America (an outgrowth of Operation Rescue) makes the most sense to me, opposing not only the fetal anesthesia bill but all other namby-pamby tenth-measures that stop short of a complete ban. If you believe abortion is murder, how can you in good conscience take any other position? The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, for instance, has always struck me as a cynical, unprincipled P.R. move built on a false moral distinction. It was effective at putting groups like NARAL on the defensive in the short term and perhaps at gaining legitimacy for national restrictions on abortion (except among the dwindling few who care about the Constitution), but at the cost of implying that "out of sight, out of mind" is the right approach to abortion: Sucking out a fetus's brain and crushing its skull when it's partly outside the uterus is beyond the pale, but dismembering it inside the uterus and removing it one piece at a time is A-OK. Promoting fetal anesthesia likewise could make abortion seem more rather than less acceptable, which may help explain NARAL's position.

Clarification: The constitutional problem with national abortion restrictions that I had in mind was the lack of congressional authority to pass such legislation, not a conflict with Roe v. Wade.