The Unborn Victims of Violence Act
President Bush recently signed into law federal legislation that designates as homicide the death of an unborn infant as a result of an attack on its mother. Seldom has any law provoked such ethically convoluted criticism. A Washington Post editorial condemned the law because it creates a seeming legal anomaly: the same act, intentionally terminating the existence of fetus, is now murder if it is done by an attacker, but remains a legal, private act enshrined as a Constitutional right if supported by the mother. The Post also noted approvingly that Senator Diane Feinstein had attempted to avoid this result with an Orwellian-worded alternative bill that made the violent death of the fetus a crime without calling it murder. The argument being put forth by the Post and others is breathtaking in its futility: it is more important to preserve the false illusion of legal consistency where a fetus is concerned than to shine the light of reality on a very difficult ethical problem.
An ethical problem: that’s what abortion is. It is not simply a battle between morality and ideology, though that is how the controversy has been framed for decades. It is a problem of balancing interests and outcomes to determine what is right. Both sides of the argument, and most of the variations in between, have gone to great lengths to avoid confronting the obvious, which the new law appropriately brings to the fore. A fetus is some kind of human life. When the fetus is desired by the parents, it is certainly an entity worthy of protection by the legal system. The question is, and has always been, to what degree a fetal life is subordinate to the right of a woman to be free to control her own destiny, body and physical health. Finding an answer means, as difficult ethical questions always mean, balancing rights, examining long and short term outcomes, assigning priorities, and making hard choices.
Finding an answer will not result from cynical efforts to avoid the difficult aspects of the question. If one assigns the unborn fetus the status of a wart, a tumor, or a button, there is no ethical dilemma; the answer is predetermined. If one asserts that the life of a fetus is the equal of any other human life, and then adopts the moral absolutist position that nothing can justify the willful taking of life, then that precludes any ethical argument as well. Neither position gives fair respect and value to the other very serious issues raised by the opposition: they are just defined out of the equation. Bumper stickers are so much easier to deal with than real arguments.
Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other pro-abortion groups (this is not meant as a pejorative term: See Cover Phrases) have claimed that supporters of the new law are really only interested in a long term goal of undermining Roe v Wade by finally giving a fetus legal status under the law. They may well be right about the motives of the law’s advocates, but it is irrelevant, just as it was irrelevant when the NRA complained that those seeking to ban police armor-piercing bullets also wanted to ban other firearms. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is rational and needed on its own terms, and a vast majority of Americans agree. If the logic of calling it two murders rather than one when a Lacy Peterson and her ready-to-be- born son are killed truly challenges the validity Roe v Wade, then so be it. The defenders of abortion rights had better to be up to the challenge.
Contrary to the objections of abortion activists, the new law will be a positive development in the abortion debate if it focuses attention on the central issues.
The statement of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is instructive. “By establishing the fetus as its own distinct entity,” organization president June Walker said, “this law potentially pits the rights of mothers against the rights of their fetuses.” Exactly. And that has always been the problem. Either the right of the fetus to live threatens the right of the mother to live the life she wants, or the right of the woman to control her own body threatens the existence and future of the fetus. Their rights are necessarily in conflict.
Ethical problems as difficult as the abortion issue need perceptive and balanced analysis, honesty, and clarity of language. No one should champion obfuscation, code words, or sacrificing truth for cosmetic consistency. The adversaries in this controversy both have right on their side, and both have real harm to justify. That’s the problem, not the wording of The Unborn Victims of Violence Act.