Lincoln and Abortion

George 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

In spite of the black-and-white positions taken by those on both sides of the abortion debate, the choice of an abortion almost always involves tradeoffs between greater and lesser negative effects. Very few people would refuse an abortion to a woman about whom the best medical opinion was that carrying the fetus to term would kill her and most likely the fetus as well. Few would refuse an abortion to a woman who was carrying a grievously deformed fetus. Probably a minority would refuse an abortion to a woman who was pregnant as the result of forcible rape or incest. On the other hand, probably the majority would prefer to refuse an abortion if a woman wanted a son but was carrying a female fetus. In every situation where a decision is made to have an abortion or not, the welfare of the woman must be weighed against the welfare of the embryo or fetus. Often the welfare of the man involved or of other family members must be taken into account.

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.

Grayce Booth

George McKenna claims that abortion advocates are afraid to speak of what they support, but he neglects the fact that many abortion advocates favor just what they say they favor, which is reproductive choice, broadly defined. This entails access to birth control, protection from rape and abuse by a spouse or partner, education about their bodies and human sexuality, and, yes--sometimes--access to safe, legal abortion. Any abortion advocate with any sense would rather prevent a pregnancy than end it with an abortion, but until a whole range of social changes come into being--including easy availability of birth control, a reduction in our consumer society's obsession with selling things with sex, and a significant reduction in the risk for many women of violent reprisal from their mates if they refuse sex--that will not be possible in many cases.

Colleen Carpenter Cullinan

The Netherlands has attained the lowest abortion rate in the Western world and, note this, also the lowest percentage of unwanted babies (two percent), thus making politicking superfluous. These results were achieved in good measure by introducing at the elementary school level the subject of sex organs as a "natural" within the biology sequence--at an age when undesirable reaction is not likely. In high school, as part of their brand of social studies, comes a look at sexual behavior and how to handle it. About thirty years ago Denmark took the lead in this matter, and a significant number of our own schools are following suit. If this does not show the desired results in the United States, we'd better find out why. One can argue that such a curriculum may lead to increased promiscuity. Even if that is so, it is for the nation's health the lesser, by far, of the two evils. I, for one, believe that promiscuity, in particular in our inner cities, can be successfully addressed in schools only after basic sex education.

Lucas VanHilst

George McKenna's analysis would be more profound if he acknowledged that abortion is morally quite different from slavery. Even if one believes that an unborn child has a right to life, is it just that that right (and the interests of society in protecting that right) should impose such a potentially devastating burden on the mother? Can we so clearly conclude that abortion is wrong--as we can indeed about slavery--when the impact of carrying an unwanted child to term can be as life-threatening and as abusive of the mother as slavery itself?

Dave Willner

Though probably right in principle, "tolerate, restrict, discourage" can work --and be remotely fair--only when democracy replaces hypocrisy. This country must enforce its statutory-rape laws, fund welfare and Head Start programs, track down deadbeat dads, and piece together its educational system. Until then I, for one, will continue to argue and vote strongly pro-choice, even though ideally I would support George McKenna's well-charted middle ground. Frankly, abortion is less wrong than the status quo, and is positively rosy compared with the status quo that would be born if abortion were illegal.

Avery Kolers

The moral premise of George McKenna's essay is that "abortion is troubling because it is a killing process." As a beginning of the candor and clarity McKenna calls for, it's worth trying to specify just why killing is wrong. What does it mean to say that life is sacred? Few people advocate compulsory vegetarianism; for most of us, only human life is sacred. What is the difference between human and nonhuman life? Human beings have ideas, passions, desires, hopes, memories, expectations, intentions--that is, feelings and mental experiences of a complexity and intensity apparently not found in other species. These feelings and thoughts are inestimably precious; they make life worth living. Having them is arguably what "being human" means. When a human creature stops having them--through brain death or some other irreparable calamity--we don't, in practice, consider him or her fully human any longer; and whether we deny or accord such creatures any further life depends not on their wishes--they have none--but on their families' and caretakers' wishes.

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.

George Scialabba

Nowhere in his article does George McKenna deal with the woman who is pregnant by mistake, through a contraceptive malfunction or as a result of rape or incest, or is carrying a genetically deformed fetus, is too young to mother, or is mentally ill. I have worked with mentally ill women who do not know they are pregnant, or by whom, and whose children are at very high risk for psychosis themselves. McKenna simply does not mention the many reasons for which a woman seeks an abortion, and his only reference to the woman as a person refers to widening "the range of choices available to women in crisis pregnancies." The reason abortion is a problem is that there are ethical reasons for abortion.

Henry Grunebaum, M.D.

George McKenna has missed the point. Abortion was made socially acceptable the first time a woman took a birth-control pill without knowing that one of its modes of action was to kill a tiny human being. From that point forward society strode down the treacherous path that today enables medical professionals to promote methotrexate/misoprostol and other chemical cocktails.

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.

Judie Brown

Although I cannot agree completely with George McKenna's suggestion on how best to address the moral catastrophe of widespread abortion in the United States, I would like to commend The Atlantic Monthly for having the courage to raise the issue at all. The mainstream media in this country are so unfailingly monotonous in taking a pro-abortion position that anyone who dares publish another point of view deserves to be recognized.

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.

Please pass along my thanks and appreciation to George McKenna for writing the best article on this subject that I have ever read.

Erik Peterson

After studying George McKenna's article, I have concluded that it is simply another round in the "pro-life" propaganda war, and not the thoughtful monograph that it purports to be.

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.

Imelda McKercher

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.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Letters; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 8-14.