A Step Backwards

IN THE MORE THAN FIVE YEARS that the state of Massachusetts has sanctioned legal abortions, not a single woman has died from the procedure. This statistic should not add fuel to the fire of either side of the moral debate; rather, it gives testament to the success of proper medical care in preventing desperate acts by panicked women. But while Massachusetts should be commended for being a frontrunner in the drive to provide quality care for abortion patients, its recent legislation belies the spirit of legalization and threatens to increase the death rate for pregnant women.

In early September, a U.S. District Court supported the constitutionality of a new state law that requires women who seek abortions to sign consent forms at least 24 hours in advance. Contending that the purpose of the form was to castigate women and frighten them away from abortion, pro-abortion advocates recently succeeded in delaying the effective date of the law, pending an early October appeal.

Opponents of abortion argue that the form--which outlines abortion procedures, risks and alternatives and uses the phrase "human-like" to describe an eight-week-old fetus--is educational and helpful to women who have questions about abortion. They also support the second part of the law, which requires minors to obtain the consent of both parents or a judge before undergoing an abortion. The purpose of the legislation, as Federal District Judge A. David Mazzone worded it, is to insure that a pregnant woman has "a full appreciation of the consequences and significance of her decision."

But to assume that women carelessly opt for abortion is both patronizing and paternalistic. The state should stay neutral in the moral debate between right-to-lifers and proabortionists--it would be equally wrong in insisting that all pregnant women read a statement outlining the difficulties of motherhood. Moreover, the law's lukewarm attempt at preventing abortions will not deter those intent on having them; the only effect will be to drive women--especially minors--away from reputable clinics.

Last year, Massachusetts doctors performed 40,000 abortions. Local clinics estimate that between 25 and 30 women of the women they operated upon each month were affiliated with Harvard, and more than 7500 of them were less than 18 years old. If pro-life advocates wish to try to reduce those figures, they are guaranteed the right to present their point of view under the Constitution. The U.S. Court of Apppeals, however, should prohibit the state from backing them.

Anti-abortion laws violate a woman's Constitutional right to privacy. We believe the state of Massachusetts is obligated to protect that right under any circumstances and at any time. If the U.S. Court of Appeals should decide to uphold this law, it will be sanctioning state interference in an area where the state manifestly does not belong. And it will be allowing Massachusetts to take one step down the road towards outlawing abortion.