Abortion: Freedom and Responsibility in the 21st Century: A Roundtable Conversation

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IN LATE FEBRUARY, CATHOLICS FOR CHOICE SPONSORED a roundtable conversation on recent political, ethical, moral and social developments in the abortion debate.

DRAWING A PARALLEL TO JOHN Muir's environmental writing that purports everything in the universe is related to everything else, moderator Denise Shannon initiated the conversation with the thought that abortion too is related to a multitude of issues. More than the termination of a pregnancy, she said, abortion relates to sex, women's rights, politics, medicine, health, health care and developing human beings.

Asked by Shannon how abortion is thought of in a political context, Donna Crane of NARAL Pro-choice America said that in the US, "Abortion is a cultural touchstone--the center of a constellation of issues that range from abstinence-only policies to teenage pregnancy to Internet content. The abortion conversation brings a lot of baggage." The context of abortion conversations depends on the audience, she noted. You might be talking about abortion, but your audience is hearing a different conversation, such as how abortion relates to the content their kids are accessing on the Internet.

"In the abstract, abortion also is a moral touchstone issue," explained Ann Furedi of bpas. "The abortion conversation is linked to our attitudes about sex and morality." Abortion is used as a coded reference to suggest something is wrong with society, she said, to suggest a need to move back to more careful times.

Will Saletan of Slate.com affirmed that numerous topics swirl around abortion. "When I ask people what abortion is about, everyone answers differently," he said. Coalitions that form around the abortion issue have different ideas about sex, parental authority, life, religion, the dehumanization of life, sex crimes, medicine, and doctors and how they are regulated.

"Politicians, clergy, and social interest groups have used abortion as a weapon to achieve their goals, from feminists promoting their ideas to those pushing the antichoice agenda," said Dr. LeRoy Carhart. In the end, abortion is no different as a medical procedure than a radical mastectomy or other life-saving procedure, he said. "A woman has the moral responsibility to bring into the world a child she can care for and who will be a benefit to society," explained Carhart. "She has the same responsibility to try to avoid abortion and to not bring a child into the world if she is not ready."

In questioning how to adjudicate among the different abortion coalitions, Saletan noted the significance of Carhart's statement about a woman's responsibility. "The choice is up to the woman and so is the responsibility that goes with it," he said. "Freedom and responsibility are essential, linked concepts, not just freedom alone."


Treating abortion as a moral issue tacitly assumes abortion is wrong and cannot be present in a morally conservative framework, noted Furedi. Pragmatists say the need for abortion is not preventable so it must be provided. "I look at it in a slightly different way in that there is good in providing abortions," she explained. "It is morally wrong for a woman to be denied the ability to end an unwanted pregnancy because of someone else's value system. Women have the right to decide how to exercise their reproductive life choices."

"We need to reframe the moral discussion so the antichoice lobby isn't the only player to occupy the moral framework," she continued, noting the moral frame-work must focus on what constitutes a good society, such as justice and fairness. "I want my child to grow up in a society that allows people to have sex without fear of consequences. People should be able to have sex for fun, love or intimacy without fear and with the knowledge that if contraception fails abortion is available as a backstop."

Asked by Shannon if abortion is something that is part of a good society, Crane said, "The government has the responsibility to leave people alone. …