A Turn in the Tide?


Abortion is being talked about in a whole new way.

Abortion has always been a tough subject for politicians whose natural inclination is to try to please everybody. Politicians try to signal their support to activists on one side of the debate or the other while not offending the “mushy middle” — the many voters who haven't formed strong opinions on the issue and are spooked by strident rhetoric from both sides.

But it seems that in the debate over Harriet Miers, there is a new willingness for straight talk on abortion. Straight talk was forced on President Bush. Facing a revolt of pro-lifers over his new Supreme Court pick, the White House had to make very clear where she stood. So the White House arranged for the right pro-family people to talk to the right people from Miers’ church, and the word was passed: Harriet Miers is pro-life.

Coincidentally, prominent journalists — female and male — have started talking about abortion in a new way.

Patricia Bauer is a former Washington Post bureau chief who has a Down syndrome daughter. She's starting to notice that many people see her daughter not as the beautiful person she knows, but as someone who ought to be dead.

Her Oct. 18 column asks, “Why … do we as a society view abortion as justified and unremarkable in the case of another class of people: children with disabilities?”

Mothers are given tests in pregnancy nowadays whose only purpose is to determine whether their child has Down syndrome so that they can abort them. The columnist is well aware of this — and so are the people she and her daughter meet.

“I know that most women of childbearing age that we may encounter have judged her and her cohort, and have found their lives to be not worth living. To them, Margaret falls into the category of avoidable human suffering. At best, a tragic mistake. At worst, a living embodiment of the pro-life movement. Less than human. A drain on society. That someone I love is regarded this way is unspeakably painful to me.”

Bauer remembers the tempting logic of death she heard from an Ivy League ethics professor who spoke at a party about women's “moral obligation to undergo prenatal testing and to terminate their pregnancy to avoid bringing forth a child with a disability, because it was immoral to subject a child to the kind of suffering he or she would have to endure.”

She compares America today to ancient Greece, where babies with disabilities were left outside to die. Her doctor says he used to have a steady stream of Down syndrome patients, but not anymore.

“They aren't being born anymore,” he says.

Bauer concludes: “I have to think that there are many pro-choicers who, while paying obeisance to the rights of people with disabilities, want at the same time to preserve their right to ensure that no one with disabilities will be born into their own families. The abortion debate is not just about a woman's right to choose whether to have a baby; it's also about a woman's right to choose which baby she wants to have.”

How is this sad state of affairs a turn in the tide? Well, for one thing, the problem is being acknowledged — the first step to recovery. For another, the voice of the mother is starting to be heard. Abortion thrives on silence — particularly the silence of the women involved. If women directly affected by abortion — those who chose it, and those who rejected it — are given a hearing, unrestricted abortion's days are numbered.

Of course, men need to be part of the conversation. Enter influential syndicated columnist Richard Cohen. In an Oct. 21 column that is sharply critical of the legal logic that led to the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion, he wrote:

“I no longer see abortion as directly related to sexual freedom or feminism, and I no longer see it strictly as a matter of personal privacy, either.”

He can now say, “It entails questions about life.” Exactly. Once women tell the story that abortion has not been good for them, life questions can be heard, too.

Where is the tide-change on abortion coming from? Cohen says he knows “plenty of people who no longer think of it as a minor procedure that only prudes and right-wingers oppose. The anti-abortion movement has made headway.”

Indeed it has — witness the new “straight talk” on a procedure previously spoken about in euphemisms and the increasing enlightenment of influential journalists. Which should give us confidence. And inspire us to redouble our efforts.