The Dying Debate

. The pro-life movement has failed to win over the middle.

"Keep your rosaries off my ovaries." So read one of the many buttons I spied on the backpack of a passing pedestrian. The button was surrounded by others, many of which supported a women's right to Cohoes an abortion (although they used more interesting phraseology.)

Buttons, bumper stickers and flyers often engage in hyperbole in an effort to catch they eye, and it would be silly to judge any movement by the slogans it slings.

But the idea on that button is one that carries a lot of weight in the pro-choice community; specifically, that personal morality should be kept out of the public sphere, certainly out legislation.

In fact, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of the prochoice movement to keep the debate away from the moral issue. Nisha Atre, co-president of Harvard Students for Choice, argues that the debate should be framed in terms of "the tangible effects that illegality [of abortion] might have," rather than in terms of morality.

There is much to be said for this argument; most people would agree that it is not the role of the government of legislate morality. The separation of church and state is one of the foundations of our system, and the idea that morality is nobody else's business is not far behind. What makes the religious right-wing so frightening is that they don't seem to accept this.

But those in the pro-life (or anti-choice) movement do not only believe that abortion is immoral, they believe it is murder. That puts the debate in a whole new arena. Now, rather than being an issue of one group trying to impose it morality on others, the whole debate biols down to one central question: is the fetus a life?

In effect, the pro-life movement has made a claim that society can not ignore: a claim about life and death. Until its merits have been addressed, other considerations (like the rights of women) must come in second place.

Yet there is no empirical way to resolve the dilemma of the fetus. Our laws are, at root, based on societal morals, and those morals offer the only solution to the question. And slowly, very slowly, the country is reaching a conclusion.

The majority seems to be in the middle: uncomfortable with abortion but not willing to call it murder. Yet this very ambivalence is a victory for the pro-choice movement, albeit a victory of attrition. Those opposed to abortion need converts, not moral uncertainty.

Technology will also have a part to play. The inevitable arrival of RU-486 will make abortion a quicker, easier decision for many. For those in the middle, declaring abortion to be murder will be even harder when the procedure is little more than taking a pill.

The apparent failure of the pro-life movement leaves it in a precarious position. What can a group of people who believe abortion is murder do if they are unable to have their views reflected in legislation? Is it possible for these people to both be true to their consciences and abide by the will of the majority?

Without the people on their side, the movement's only course will be to rely on the techniques of desperation: blockades, protests and harassment. But these tactics offer no long-term hope for the movement; to the contrary, they will only push it further to the fringes. And once on the fringes, the movement may die altogether.

Pro-choice activists will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, but I don't think I'll join them. Though I count myself as one of those in the middle in this debate, the sound of principles dying always depresses me.

David L. Bosco's column appears on alternate Thursdays.