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Time Essay: Of Abortion and the Unfairness of Life

7 minute read
Lance Morrow

“Life is unfair,” John Kennedy observed at a press conference one day in 1962. The thought had a certain stoic grace about it: its truth was brutally confirmed the following year in Dallas. Life is unfair. Kennedy was talking about citizens’ military obligations, about the restive Army reservists who were being held on active duty even after the Berlin crisis had subsided. Now Jimmy Carter has brought up the unfairness doctrine to explain his policy on abortion. Somehow the dictum comes out this time with a mean-spirited edge, like something from the lips of Dickens’ Mr. Podsnap.

Abortion, of course, is a painful issue that has given rise to few ennobling ideas. Anyone who comes to an easy decision on the subject is probably a moral idiot. Four years ago, the Supreme Court declared it legal to terminate a pregnancy in the first three months, or up to six months in some circumstances. About a million legal abortions are now performed every year in the U.S.—a third of them paid for with Medicaid funds. But last month the Supreme Court decided, by a vote of 6 to 3, that the states and localities are free, if they wish, to deny Medicaid money for abortions. Both houses of Congress have made their contribution by passing provisions that forbid federal Medicaid payments for abortions, although the measures differ in severity.

In other words, abortions are fine for the women who, on the whole, have the least pressing need for them: women at least well enough off to buy their own way out of their fecundity. The women (often young girls) who cannot raise the money must presumably either bear their unwanted children—thus bringing many thousands of new customers to welfare—or find some way, however dangerous, dark and filthy, to kill the fetus more cheaply. Such methods have had the result of sometimes disposing of the mother as well.

When he was asked at a press conference about the logic of this, the President took up John Kennedy’s line. “Well,” said Carter, “as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t.” Anatole France in the last century appraised that kind of elegant fatalism: “The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

Certainly a principal purpose of human government must be to mitigate the unfairness that seems to be an integral part of human life—or, at the very least, not to compound it. The judicial system is meant to mediate, to knock the chaos of human behavior into a manageable pattern. The goal of fairness underlies American education, which has been regarded, sometimes more hopefully than accurately, as the way to give everyone an equal chance. Medicaid was meant to provide fairness in health care, so that if a poor man needs an $800 appendectomy or a $15,000 coronary bypass, he will, in theory, receive something like the same treatment as a character who arrives at the hospital by grossen Mercedes.

Some people believe, of course, that government has gone entirely too far in trying to make life fairer. The formula of best government equaling least government has vanished into the vast bureaucratic software that produces welfare, food stamps and unemployment benefits. But if government is indeed, for better or worse, promoting the health, education and welfare of the American people, why should federal help for those who seek abortions be excluded?

One answer is that abortion is morally wrong—even, some say, a blithely conducted form of infanticide. There are painfully compelling reasons to oppose abortion; philosophers and theologians have done so for many centuries. The Hippocratic Oath includes a stricture against aiding an abortion. (Many medical schools now use a rephrased version of the oath to circumvent the abortion issue.) The procedure involves the destruction of a form of human life—life in utero, but life nonetheless. By the sixth week, almost all of the human organs are in place; by the eighth, brain-wave activity can be detected. The right-to-life lobby displays pictures of those tiny hands and feet, those grisly fetuses pickled in jars; but bad taste does not disable their argument.

The other reality is just as disturbing. Without legal and affordable abortion, many lives in progress are hopelessly ruined; the unwanted children very often grow up unloved, battered, conscienceless, trapped and criminal. A whole new virus of misery breeds in the accidental zygotes.

Both technically and morally, the most difficult problem is to decide at what precise instant life occurs. Is it in the actual conceptive collision of sperm and egg? Is it only when the fetus “quickens,” at five months or so? The Supreme Court in 1973 simply said that abortion in the early stages of pregnancy should be a medical, not a criminal matter; it was best left to the judgment of the woman and her physician. Given the violence of warring moralities in the abortion debate, the law was unreasonably strained. The statutes forbidding abortion were a kind of Volstead Act, so widely (and often dangerously) violated as to be worse than useless. The court was therefore wise to send the question back to the privacy of individual consciences. The many who believe abortion morally wrong should honor their convictions. But the dilemma is too difficult to permit antiabortionists to impose their beliefs, no matter how deeply held, upon people who disagree.

What then of public financing for abortions? Should citizens have to pay for an operation they find morally repugnant? A few years ago, stores sold anihilistically spirited black box: when one pushed a button on its side, the box whirred and opened, a hand appeared from under a lid—and turned the box off. The Supreme Court’s latest decision— and Carter’s attitude toward it—has something of the same self-canceling effect. The court made abortion legal; now it has rescinded an important advantage of that legality by making it hard for the poor to obtain abortions. On narrow constitutional grounds, the court does have a point; states and communities should have the right to decide how to spend their tax money. But the refusal to spend it creates a new configuration marked by inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Carter did not contribute much with his reflections on how unfair the human condition is. Everyone knows that life is unfair. It is also, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Life’s unfair ness is so self-evident in, say, slums, or institutions for the retarded and insane, or in any cancer ward, that it needs no sad-but-true sighings from the White House. To be sure, the President did have other reasons; he fears, for one thing, that abortion may become merely belated contraception. Certainly, responsible people should take greater care to practice contraception in the first place. And surely it is too casual to say, as Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has said, that abortion “should be available [in the first two or three months] in the same way as, say, an operation for the beautification of a nose.” Besides, pregnancy is not a disease, except in a metaphorical sense, for those whose lives are blighted by it.

So Carter is correct in suggesting that abortion involves unique moral questions outside the simple rationale for Medicaid payments. Still, the ultimate morality or immorality of it need not be decided in order to judge the principle of fairness. The undoubted risks of making abortion too easily available are outweighed by the risks of making it too difficult or impossible to obtain. Since the only intelligent argument to be made for abortion is that it is a social necessity, fairness and logic dictate that it must be available especially to those who, wanting it, cannot afford it. To say that abortion, while legal, is immoral but that only the poor shall be saved from this immorality by a fastidious government is not only unfair but absurd.

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