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Lincoln and AbortionGeorge McKenna's article "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position" (September Atlantic) accomplishes one important objective. It forces pro-choice supporters to acknowledge that abortion does involve the destruction of a potentially living person. It is a procedure that cannot be recommended lightly and should not be dismissed casually, even though McKenna's quotation from Christopher Hitchens that an abortion must "break some bones and rupture some organs" is a pro-life picture that does not apply to early abortions. I believe that pro-choice supporters should face the fact that we human beings, like all the other animals on this earth, are sometimes required to carry out distasteful, even immoral, actions if we are to survive. If we permitted cats, dogs, rats, mice, cockroaches, bacteria, and viruses to breed without limit, we could not survive. However, in using other living things for our purposes, we must always recognize, as Albert Schweitzer did, that the mosquito must be destroyed regretfully. Destroying a fetus may be necessary when birth-control methods are not available, but it should never be done casually.
Daniel L. Kline
I am unhesitatingly and unapologetically pro-choice, because I believe that women pay the major price for child bearing and child-rearing. As a society, we all pay the price for unwanted children--in the form of welfare payments, social efforts to assist abused children, the impact on society of dysfunctional adults who were poorly nurtured children, and much more.
Colleen Carpenter Cullinan
A fetus does not have ideas, passions, desires, hopes, memories, expectations, or intentions. As far as I know, no one claims otherwise, even those who are certain that a fetus is a person (whatever they may mean). A three-month-old fetus weighs one ounce. A six-month-old fetus weighs twenty-eight ounces. It does not have neurotransmitters, myelinated nerve fibers, or a well-articulated cerebral cortex. As a result, it has no sensations of any complexity and no awareness of itself. Late in pregnancy the fetus may perhaps feel pain, but certainly less intense and exquisite pain than many adult mammals, whom we annually slaughter by the hundreds of millions for reasons far less urgent than those of women seeking abortions. Why, then, might anyone believe that the life of a fetus is sacred?
I can imagine three reasons. First, its parents cherish hopes for it and would suffer greatly if it died. But these fetuses--they are the large majority--are not in any danger; on the contrary, they are cared for with all the resources the free market allows them. Second, it receives from God an immaterial, immortal soul at the moment of conception. McKenna should not underestimate how many people believe that this is why an unwanted fetus has a right to life, and thus to what extent the outlawing of abortion would be religiously motivated. Third, a fetus, though it is not a person, is a potential person. If it survives, it will eventually have ideas, passions, desires, etc.--will eventually become an actual person. Everyone can agree on this, but what follows from it? As far as I can see, nothing. It is arbitrary to restrict potential personhood to fetuses: every unfertilized ovum--for that matter, every sexual stirring--is, in strict logic, a potential person.
Henry Grunebaum, M.D.
Abortion is a crime, and because it kills someone each and every time it occurs, the vast majority of pro-life Americans do not desire that it merely be contained! As Americans, we want to see any act that takes the life of a fellow human being stopped--and abortion takes a human being's life.
The battle we fight as supporters of life is not only against abortion but, more important, a battle for the dignity of all human life. Human beings, whether young or old, healthy or infirm, completely sound in mind and limb or living with a handicap, deserve from every civilized nation the protection of at least the most basic of their human rights--the right to life. This is the highest and most essential of the truths that American leaders first declared self-evident, and yet America and other "modern" nations stand in dire danger of forgetting it. If the parties supporting abortion around the world win in this struggle, they will win a victory for the vilest of tyrannies; for if, as Lincoln argued, it is despotic for one human being to own the labor of another, how much more so is it for one human being to own the life or death of another?
Father Matthew Habiger, O.S.B.
As I do not care to subsidize the vicious fanaticism of this crusade, however delicately the language is couched, I am writing to request that you cancel my subscription.
I am impressed by the range of respondents to my article--all the way from Judie Brown, who apparently wants an immediate ban not only on abortion but on all birth-control pills, to Daniel Kline, who puts unborn children in the same category as "cats, dogs, rats, mice, cockroaches, bacteria, and viruses." Somewhere in the middle, closer to my position, is Father Matthew Habiger, whose supportive letter I appreciate. George Scialabba says that fetuses are not really human because they don't have "ideas, passions, desires, hopes, memories, expectations, intentions." It seems unlikely that an already-born baby could jump all those hurdles, and I fear the result if all Americans in sanatoriums and nursing homes were given such a rigorous test of personhood.
Some correspondents (Daniel Kline, Colleen Cullinan, Lucas VanHilst) stress birth control and sex education as the best means of making abortion rare. These have been widely available in this country for more than a quarter of a century, with meager results. Some sex-ed programs--those stressing abstinence--have had modest successes, but "comprehensive" programs, like the one adopted in New Jersey fifteen years ago, have produced no measurable effects, unless we consider as an effect the 16 percent increase in illegitimate births in New Jersey since 1980. (See Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "The Failure of Sex Education," October, 1994, Atlantic.) Condom-distribution programs have also had scant success. A 1991 study of school-based birth-control clinics by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood) concluded that "none of the clinics had a statistically significant effect on school-wide pregnancy rates." Similar results emerged from another Guttmacher study published in 1993.
These are facts. But facts may not be important to everyone in the abortion debate. Imelda McKercher apparently doesn't care how thoughtfully pro-lifers develop their arguments or couch their language--she just knows they are guilty of "vicious fanaticism." The facts are that pro-life organizations staff and support more than 3,400 pregnancy-service centers nationwide to assist women and children before and after birth, and the single largest private provider of social services to women and children in the United States is a pro-life organization called the Catholic Church.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Letters; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 8-14.