Flashbacks May 2006

A Moral Wrong or a Fundamental Right?

Articles from the 1960s onward illuminate the many facets of the abortion debate

The idea of racial equality came into play six years later in the case of Kenneth C. Edelin, an African-American doctor who performed a late-term abortion on a minority woman in a Boston hospital. Abortion was by this time protected by Roe, but Edelin’s case highlighted the fine semantic line between abortion and murder. According to a May 1975 Atlantic article by Seth Mydans, Edelin cut open the uterus of a seventeen-year-old girl after less-obtrusive abortion methods failed. The fetus later turned up in the hospital morgue, and local investigators pressed the case, arguing that the baby had been technically “born” the moment it was peeled from the wall of the womb.

In the trial that followed, medical professionals offered conflicting testimonies about the twenty- to twenty-four-week-old fetus’s ability to live on its own. A witness for the prosecution testified that the fetus could have drawn breath outside its mother, even as defense witnesses looked at slides of lung tissue and concluded the fetus had breathed no air. Although the doctor denied charges that he had held the fetus motionless for three minutes and watched it struggle and die, he readily conceded that his aim had been to end the pregnancy, not deliver a live baby, an act that “would have been contrary to the wishes of the mother.”

After the jury found him guilty of manslaughter, Edelin reiterated his belief that as an obstetrician, particularly one serving a minority population, it was his duty to respect abortion as “a woman’s right” and make it available to women of all races and backgrounds. “The only humane thing we can do is make sure that when they make that choice they have the opportunity to make it under the best conditions possible.”

Due in large part to articles like Mydans’s, the Edelin case attracted nationwide sympathy, and an appeals court overturned the conviction at the end of 1976. Edelin went on to become the chairman of Planned Parenthood, a dean at Boston University School of Medicine, and a leading figure in the pro-choice movement.

Over the next two decades, the idea that all women had the universal “right” to terminate their own pregnancies provoked a significant backlash. In April 1990, a piece entitled “Feminism and Abortion” challenged this notion. “The obvious objection to this argument is that a fetus is not just part of a woman’s body,” writes author Martha Bayles. “Equal rights are not enough when it comes to abortion, a decision that must balance a woman’s rights against those of others, such as fetuses and family members.”

Bayles rejected the idea that the phrase “women’s freedom” has any place in the abortion debate. She asked readers to consider a scenario in which a pregnant teenager defies her mother by terminating a female fetus. “In the one instance, she is depriving an older female of a grandchild. In the other, she is depriving a younger female of life. Compared with such deprivations, the idea of striking a blow for women’s freedom seems pretty abstract.” The real problem, she insisted, is that the rallying cry of “gender equality” had been supplanted by the idea of female superiority.

In a September 1995 article, George McKenna challenged Roe from another angle, taking issue with the Court’s decision that abortion was a private matter as opposed to a public one. He likened the abortion question to the debate over slavery that played out during Abraham Lincoln’s presidential race against Stephen A. Douglas. During the campaign, Douglas told voters that slavery was a matter best judged by moralists and theologians, not by courts or lawmakers. “I do not discuss the morals of the people of Missouri, but let them settle that matter for themselves,” Douglas proclaimed in an 1858 speech. “…It is for them to decide the moral and religious right of the slavery question for themselves within their own limits.”

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