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The Need for Ethics Debate

Kris Schnee

The 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade established the current law of the land on abortion: that the decision of a woman to terminate her pregnancy is her “right to choose,” and may not be forbidden even by act of Congress. As is proclaimed by many Physics Department T-shirts, “That is the law. The rest is commentary.” It is basically immutable unless the Supreme Court changes its mind, barring an unlikely constitutional amendment. And yet the “commentary” has been heated and extensive lately, both in Massachusetts and in the country at large. It may seem that the people debating abortion now are only nibbling at the edges of the issue, but their conflict will help to define the way we turn ethics into politics in the years to come.

The ‘MIT Pro-Life’ organization has a permanent poster in the Infinite Corridor -- permanent, that is, despite suspiciously frequent damage. One day, the board was found vandalized: where it asked rhetorically how many abortions there were at MIT per year, someone had torn the paper and scrawled, “None of your business.” Is this the way we want political debate to be held -- with one-liners and vandalism? Regardless of what any of us thinks of abortion, it is surely a better idea to debate -- to put forward ideas -- than to simply lash out at those we disagree with. If some students feel strongly enough about the issue, why don’t they start a ‘Pro-Choice’ group?

Last month, the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled that a 25-foot “buffer zone” could be created outside abortion clinics, barring protesters from the area, without violating the First Amendment. The ruling clears the way for a proposed state law, and is a victory for free debate and individual liberty. The clinics’ customers want abortions, and the law says they can have them. People are also free to travel to and from the clinics without being threatened. The anti-abortion protesters outside the clinics want to make a public statement of their beliefs, and to try to change the minds of the women entering. The patients’ and protesters’ goals are compatible. The potential law limits protesters’ ability to physically intimidate clinic patients and prevent them from entering; it restricts bullying, not freedom of speech. One caveat, though: this legislation must be carefully watched, lest a buffer of 25 feet become 25 miles. The potential for abuse is something we have to deal with.

George Will reported in a recent Washington Post column on an ongoing side story to abortion: the use of aborted fetuses in medical research. Such research with federal money is restricted. Though the National Institutes of Health has been revising its rules on that point, private researchers have more leeway. Will cited a movement in Nebraska to end the state university’s ties to an abortion clinic that supplies its medical center with fetuses for research, and he commented that the university has “an obligation of citizenship” to respect the beliefs of “a substantial portion of the taxpaying public.”

Note this proposed way of dealing with ethical issues: restrict any public research that a substantial minority objects to. (How ‘substantial’?) Possible alternatives include legislative action or a public referendum with majority rule. And how will we deal with private research -- leave it free, or try to restrict it even if the money does not come from taxpayers? Whether or not we agree with Will’s position on embryo research, his is the best way we have to settle the tough issues surrounding abortion -- not vandalism or intimidation, but laying out the facts and our options.

This particular debate over embryo research may soon become obsolete. The research company Geron announced just days ago that it has a new method for cloning human tissue without creating embryos; while the process still starts with embryonic cells, this limitation will probably soon be overcome. It will be possible to grow replacement organs without creating embryos to use for spare parts.

But the ethical issues technology creates are going to get much more complex and numerous in the next few decades, and we would do well to prepare for them. Practical ethics is about choices and consequences, not abstract obligations: what will happen if we allow or forbid something? What kind of restrictions on abortion protesters will protect clinic patients without violating anyone’s legal rights? Do we value human embryos enough to live without the benefits public research on them may bring? These are valid and important questions, and we need open debate on them, now. The way we handle them will affect the next hundred ethical issues down the line.