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Untenable Unborn Child Dichotomy

Adam C. Kolasinski

Yesterday, President Bush signed into the law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which treats as a separate crime the harming of a fetus by anyone committing a federal crime. The national law would mirror the laws of 29 states, which treat the killing of an unborn baby, except during an abortion, as any other homicide. In perhaps one of the most highly publicized cases of this sort, Scott Peterson is being prosecuted for both the murder of his wife and unborn child under California’s law.

Predictably, the anti-abortion lobby has come out strongly in favor of the act. The case against abortion rests exclusively on the notion that the unborn child is a human being who deserves the full protection of the law. Therefore, even though the bill explicitly excludes abortion from its definition of violence against the unborn, the anti-abortion side wants to set the precedent that an unborn child is entitled to some legal protection. Abortion rights activists have come out just as strongly against the act, but their opposition forces them to use rhetoric that will undermine their position.

Abortion rights groups typically use language that hides the reality of what they are supporting. Their main slogan, “pro-choice,” fails to indicate what choice they wish to protect. The Web site of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation’s premier abortion rights lobbying group, contains countless essays about reproductive freedom and privacy, but one is hard-pressed to find anything that mentions the unborn child or what happens to her during an abortion. Basing the case for abortion on such things as privacy and reproductive rights is illogical because no one on either side of the debate is against women having control over their bodies. If abortion did not involve the dismembering and killing of an unborn child, no one would be calling for its prohibition. It is the notion that abortion does violence to someone other than the woman that motivates abortion opponents. Yet instead of explaining why they believe unborn babies do not deserve protection against such violence, the abortion rights lobby mostly ignores them.

In arguing against the unborn victims act, however, the abortion rights lobby cannot avoid exposing the premise underlying their position, which they normally take pains to hide. The act has no direct bearing whatsoever on reproductive freedom, privacy rights, women’s rights, or anything else that abortion rights supporters use to argue their case. It merely grants legal protection to unborn babies in instances where they are attacked against their mother’s will. In cases where the mother chooses an abortion or any other activity that would harm the child, it continues to treat the child as her property. By fighting this bill so vociferously, abortion rights advocates reveal that the basis of their position is nothing more than the notion that an unborn baby has no rights. To quote Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, “The dangerous reality of the bill ... is that it would elevate the legal status of the fetus to that of an adult human being” (“Prenatal Politics,” www.TomPaine.com). She’s actually wrong. The bill would elevate the legal status of an unborn child to that of a baby, but only in certain circumstances. It does not give unborn babies the right to vote or drink.

Whether unborn children deserve the protection of the law is outside the scope of this article, which merely seeks to highlight the importance of this question. To be sure, when pressed, as they are now, abortion rights activists will admit that it is the central question. However, their reluctance to make the notion that an unborn child has no rights the centerpiece of their case for abortion indicates that they are afraid to directly confront the public with it.

Their fears seem well-founded. As the science of fetology progresses, the humanity of an unborn child becomes more apparent. In an age where a first trimester sonogram is a child’s first picture in the family album, I suspect that when forced to confront the question of whether unborn children deserve legal protection, most Americans will answer “yes.” New ultrasound technology now allows expectant mothers to view real-time three dimensional images of their unborn baby, even in the first trimester, kicking, moving around, and sucking his thumb. Crisis pregnancy centers with access to this technology report that after viewing such images, women who were previously considering having an abortion almost invariably choose not to. Even more telling is that the abortion rights lobby fought an appropriations bill that would allow the government to help non-profit crisis pregnancy centers purchase such technology. If abortion rights advocates are so secure in their conviction that an unborn child deserves no legal protection, why are they so opposed to helping low-income women to view their unborn children before they decide whether to kill them? Directly arguing that an unborn baby deserves no legal protection looks like a losing proposition for NARAL and its allies in the long run.

But the abortion rights lobby has, ironically, little choice. They cannot fight the unborn victims act without arguing that unborn babies deserve no protection, yet they cannot afford to allow it to become law. Now, federal law has become self-contradictory: it will simultaneously recognize the unborn child as a person and as property. Such a contradiction will not last long. As more and more criminals are prosecuted for violence against the unborn, Americans constituting the majority who have no clear opinion on abortion will be forced to confront the question of whether the unborn deserve legal protection. Maintaining that they do in one circumstance but not in another is logically untenable, so no longer will rhetoric about choice and reproductive freedom be able to distract the argument from this central question.

Is not, however, the mother’s welfare as important as that of her child? Definitely, and the abortion rights lobby will argue that care for a woman’s welfare demands treating her unborn child as her property, whether or not such a treatment is justified in and of itself. Most people, however, will not buy the false dichotomy between the welfare of the mother and child. If treating newborn babies as persons does not compromise the welfare of women, why should the same not apply to unborn babies? Yes, there are the rare cases where a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, and saving the mother necessarily leads to the death of the child, but even anti-abortionists agree that the mother should be saved in such instances. In every other instance where abortion is contemplated, there exist non-violent solutions that serve the welfare of both mother and child. It is only a matter of time before Americans embrace them, if present trends continue.

Adam C. Kolasinski is a graduate student in financial economics.