Looking to Agree On Abortion

The leaders of Harvard Right to Life and Students For Choice sort out differences and find common ground

While we both approached our dinner meeting with mixed feelings and some trepidation, we quickly found some overlapping ideas. However, after some discussion on common beliefs, we discovered several fundamentally opposed ideas and language, which--try as we might--could not be resolved.

The first and greatest point of agreement was the importance of supporting women. Both Harvard Right to Life (HRL) and Students For Choice (SFC) believe that pregnant women should be honored and supported if they desire to keep the child. Programs to help poor women, such as pre-natal care, as well as increased emotional support, are very important in this regard and deserve support from those on both sides of the abortion debate. Further, in cases of pregnancy, the father should be held more accountable for his share of the responsibility, and he ought to support the mother if she wants to keep the child.

While HRL would prefer that abortion clinics not be allowed to exist at all, and SFC would prefer that they be federally-funded, there are some measures both groups recommended. Most importantly, we both emphatically and unanimously denounce all violence against abortion providers or clinics. We also agreed that clinics ought to have better safety regulations and conditions. In addition, women who go to a clinic should receive complete and honest information about the abortion procedure, as well as on other options available, such as adoption.

Finally, HRL did agree that abortion to save the life of the mother is morally acceptable. HRL allows for such an exception because in that case there is not a direct intention to kill. The intent is to save the life of the mother, and the death of the fetus is an undesired consequence. For example, consider the situation of a pregnant woman with cancer who needs chemotherapy. Even if the chemotherapy will probably end the pregnancy, the aim is saving the mother's life. SFC supports abortion in this case, in addition to supporting a woman's choice of abortion for any other reason.

The emphasis on intent and on "killing," however, pointed our conversation to the areas in which HRL and SFC simply had to agree to disagree. On issues such as parental notification laws, waiting periods, late-term abortions and particularly the dilation-and-extraction procedure, the two groups could find no ground for compromise. SFC opposes any and all restrictions to a woman's choice. It does note, however, that some abortion-rights supporters may be more willing to compromise on these issues.

A fundamental area of disagreement between HRL and SFC is the definition of personhood. The two groups agree that the fetus is biologically human, but disagree on whether humanity automatically implies personhood, and whether this issue should be the focus of the debate. SFC views the fetus as a "potential life," in the words of Roe v. Wade, but not yet a full human person. Its position within the woman's body, and its status of complete dependency on her, situates it as part of her body rather than as its own separate entity.

SFC emphasizes the personhood of the mother first and foremost. It argues that because a fetus is not a fully human person, the conflict between its rights and those of the mother is a false construct. According to SFC's view, reproductive rights secure liberty while preserving quality of life by ensuring that every mother is a mother by choice and that every child is a wanted child. Their view is that governmental attempts to take away those rights will only send desperate women back to illegal clinics, where unlicensed doctors perform unsanitary abortions which can lead to severe bleeding or even death.

For HRL, all human beings are human persons because personhood is inherent in the nature of a human being. This status is independent of all external factors, including dependency, level of development, level of intelligence, and consciousness. While SFC strongly disagrees, HRL contends that any argument placing conditions on a human being's personhood bases human rights on an arbitrary decision and can be used to justify infanticide just as easily as abortion. Further, HRL believes that tying the value of human life to its "quality" is extremely dangerous and can justify the killing of the weakest and most defenseless members of society.

Naturally, there are greatly divergent moral and legal implications of these core value differences. Morally, HRL states unequivocally that abortion is equivalent to murder because it is the intentional killing of a human person. Legally, however, HRL believes that an agreement on personhood is not even necessary. It believes if there is any doubt about whether or not the fetus is a human person, then abortion should not be legal, because one cannot risk being wrong when human lives are at stake. SFC, on the other hand, states that a woman should never be forced into a pregnancy against her will, or be made to seek dangerous back-alley abortions. It relies on the important legal concepts of privacy, equal protection and consent to place abortion in the realm of every woman's right to choose.

Despite core value conflicts, however, HRL and SFC do have one final point of agreement: We strongly encourage each student, whatever his or her position on the issue, to come to tonight's IOP forum on abortion. Abortion is a crucial issue, and as voters and future leaders, students should invest the necessary effort to learn the facts and make an informed decision.

Melissa R. Moschella '02 is president of Harvard Right to Life. Shauna L. Shames '01 is co-chair of Students For Choice. Tonight's IOP forum, "Abortion: Can We Ever Find Common Ground?" is at 8 p.m. in the Arco Forum.