People will not willingly give up safe, legal abortion


ONCE ABORTION is legal, there's no turning back. Women who've had total control of their fertility -- after pregnancy, as well as before -- will not give it up. Neither will men, when it comes right down to it.

Last week, Pope John Paul II returned to his native Poland, one of the most Catholic countries in Europe and a country with one of the highest abortion rates. The pope urged Poles to outlaw abortion.

"You should not carelessly destroy anymore," he said. "Each and every child is a gift from God. That gift is always priceless, even if it is sometimes difficult to accept."

Because contraceptives are often unavailable in Poland, abortion used instead -- an estimated 600,000 abortions annually in a population of 38 million.

The Polish Senate passed an abortion bill that sets a prison term for performing an abortion, but after a poll showed that most Poles want legal abortion, the lower house sent the bill to a committee.

The church's heroic history doesn't seem to sway the Poles when the alternative is a baby a year. In a recent poll, 71 percent of Poles said they did not accept church doctrine on abortion or contraception.

Of course, the pope can't come out for the pill or Norplant or IUDs as an alternative to the massive use of abortion. This would be the standard American answer -- though not by many on the religious right, who fundamentally want to control women -- but modern contraception isn't exactly accepting God's gift.

Abortion and contraception allow men and women to have sex without childbearing, a significant control over the forces of nature, or God, if you prefer. This assertion of human power is a rejection of God's gift, as the pope says, but it is also an example of the natural human desire to control one's life, to fend off disease, hunger, cold, pain and death.

There are moral consequences to the easy availability of abortion, indeed to all aspects of human control over natural forces. But there are also moral consequences to forcing women to have children they don't want and can't support.

In Romania, when abortion and contraception were made illegal by the state, the result was an enormous rise in maternal and infant deaths, child abandonment and, of course, illegal abortion.

Researchers followed what happened to 220 children born to Czechoslovak women denied abortions in the '70s. Forty percent managed to end the pregnancy, with a high rate of "miscarriage."

Only 13 percent who became mothers gave their babies up for adoption. One-third of mothers admitted feeling angry and rejecting toward the child (not an easy thing to admit); compared with a control group, the unwanted children showed higher rates of unhappiness, sickness, emotional instability, school problems, inability to make friends, drug and alcohol problems, job problems, criminality and difficulty forming lasting relationships.

The pope told Poles that the newly conceived child "is a human being and has the right to receive from his parents the unstinted gift of their own selves, even if that would require sacrifice on their part." But in many parts of the world, the particular sacrifice is the lives of the born.

In most Third World countries, contraception is legal, but not always available. Abortion is often illegal, which means it's common but unsafe. Population groups estimate that 125,000 to 250,000 women die annually from illegal abortions; the World Health Organization says 500,000 women die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can refuse to use international family planning funds to support U.S. or foreign groups that use money from other sources to "actively promote abortion as a method of family planning" overseas -- that is, provide abortion counseling and referrals, perform abortions or campaign for legal abortion.

Planned Parenthood had challenged the ban as a violation of free-speech rights, not a strong argument. The problem with the government's policy, which has also cut off U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund, is not that it's unconstitutional, but that it's bad policy to burden international population policy with domestic politics.

The ruling followed the 5-4 decision that the government can require federally subsidized family planning clinics to deny pregnant women information about abortion. Many fear that this is the beginning of the end of legal abortion in the U.S.

I don't think so, though I expect the abortion right to be increasingly restricted. If the court does reverse itself, state legislatures will decide, and legislators are elected by people who have had the right to decide whether to accept God's untimely gifts or end a pregnancy.

Americans are fantastically ambivalent about abortion, but the bottom line is that they won't give it up.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. The Germond and Witcover column which normally appears in this space appears today on Page 1.

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