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The Missing Issues in the Abortion Debate


As virtually every Maryland voter knows by now, a question regarding abortion will be on our ballot in November.

We will be asked whether we wish to ratify a law crafted by our General Assembly to protect abortion rights in the state in the event the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. The bill before us contains a parental-notification provision for cases involving minors, but no other restrictions on a woman's access to abortion during the first trimester.

The battle over the referendum is shaping up along the usual lines: those who advocate a woman's unrestricted right to abortion urging a "yes" vote; those who believe abortion is wrong under any circumstances urging "no." And that is both my dilemma and my grievance. I am neither pro-choice nor pro-life as those terms are commonly understood. I'm somewhere in the middle, and resentful at being asked to choose one extreme or the other. A middle ground on this issue has not even been recognized, much less defined.

I'm not sure whether abortion is immoral in the same way murder is; but I don't think it can be denied that there is a basic moral question involved in the issue, and I don't think it would be unreasonable for a society to decide that abortion should be illegal. I could live comfortably in that kind of a society, and more so than in one which regarded abortion as a medical procedure of no social significance.

I'm concerned about the effect of abortion on relationships, marriages and families. I feel that if abortion is not judged by a people to be immoral, and is a legal option, there ought to be more consideration given to the social factors involved, and probably more restrictions on abortion rights, than is currently the case anywhere in the United States. This consideration would include the circumstances under which abortion should be permitted and the matter of who should participate in the decision.

I think it is significant that two decades ago there was a relatively sudden change in our country's long-standing disapproval of abortion, and that this change occurred in a feminist intellectual climate in which the nation's discourse on "equal rights" focused almost exclusively on women's rights and men's responsibilities. In that context, the moral question aside, it is understandable how abortion could have been defined as a simple matter of women's reproductive rights, with a man's responsibility being the support of the woman in her decision.

But our political culture is different today, and the family rather than the individual occupies the social spotlight. Yet we continue to debate the abortion issue as we did 20 years ago. Except for those who believe that abortion is fundamentally immoral, the American public still sees the issue largely as a matter of a woman's right to control decisions involving her own body.

It seems that we have given almost no thought to the woman's responsibility in the matter of abortion -- as a consequence of the act which led to conception -- or to the man involved. We don't think it odd that she can decide that the conception was a mistake and end it; but that her partner, who would share legal responsibility for any child born, cannot. It has apparently occurred to few of us that a man might also have "privacy rights" with regard to a fetus he has co-created, or that the general subject of a man's reproductive rights might be worth serious examination.

Curiously and disturbingly, neither do we seem much concerned with the trauma experienced by men whose children are aborted against their wishes; and we haven't yet considered the possibility that our neglect of fathers in issues like abortion may be contributing to the much-discussed current problems of the American family.

I may be missing something fairly obvious, but it's not clear to me that abortion should be a matter between a woman and her doctor. I'm not sure that the presence of the fetus in the woman's body means that it is her property to keep or discard as she wishes. I think it's possible that we have built an entire structure of rules on abortion in this country on a bad premise. I think a case can be made that the fetus belongs to both people who created it, and that in a society which permits abortion, a decision to terminate a pregnancy should be made by both potential parents.

I also believe it can be reasonably argued that if the father-to-be does not wish to terminate the pregnancy and is willing to accept full responsibility for the rearing of the child from birth, the abortion should not be permitted. I'm not sure that "forcing" a woman to carry her child to term is a greater evil than forcing a man to abide the destruction of a life which he has fathered and is willing to accept and nurture after birth.

I think that in ignoring fathers and the vital role they play in healthy American families, the current rules on abortion may fail to protect interests of the society more fundamental than a woman's right to choose. I believe that just as the Supreme Court is now apparently on the verge of at least modifying its decision in Roe v. Wade, it could also some day conclude that it must modify or reverse another of its feminist-era rulings, in the Danforth case, that a father has no legal interest in the fetus during the first trimester.

So I will vote "no" to the abortion question on the Maryland ballot this November. My vote will not mean that I am against choice, but rather that I regard abortion as too important and complex a matter for the 20-year-old one-dimensional public policy being proposed. My vote will mean that if our legislature wants my support for abortion rights in Maryland, it will first have to spend some time on the subject of whether and how fathers should figure in the rules. In the bill before us they don't figure at all, and I'm afraid that's a big mistake.

Richard Haddad writes from Columbia.

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