Absolutism a Losing Strategy: Pro-Life Orthodoxy Bears Most of Blame for Impasse in Abortion War. (Viewpoint)

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Many of us are troubled by abortion, yet not at all sympathetic to pro-life politics.

This was brought home to me while I was in England in 2000, where the case of the Siamese twins from Malta was being hotly debated. Everyone from bus conductors to Oxford ethicists was having her or his say. The twins' parents did not want their fused babies separated, as the one twin was certain to die. They believed that nature should take its course, which meant that both children would die in a matter of months. The British courts ruled otherwise and ordered the infants separated so as to give the one with a complete set of organs a chance for survival.

The Solomonic dilemma produced a few surprises. A number of people who viewed themselves as firmly pro-choice found themselves, in supporting the parents' wishes, on the same side as the pro-life Roman Catholic church. Such was the position of my son and a friend; both are doctors in British hospitals. He is a specialist in general medicine, she a cardiologist.

After we had talked about the twins, the conversation turned to abortion. I asked them where they stood on the issue. While they were uncompromising about keeping abortion legal, both expressed abhorrence at the practice -- having witnessed it as medical students -- save in extreme circumstances. At the same time, they voiced considerable distrust of pro-life politics.

We recoil from the absolutism, the rigid certainties in a world of contingency. Here in the United States, the impasse over abortion has become something of a national scandal: No other country in the world is as polarized on the issue. Yes, I am often frustrated by those of my comrades on the left who are not always sensitive to the difficulties some of us have with abortion; but, to be fair, these same lefties are the first to advocate substantial social and financial support for impoverished women with children. They take seriously the need to educate women on the prevention of pregnancy. They strive for equality between the sexes and to demystify sex, making it both responsible and fun.

The blame for the abortion impasse has to be laid for the most part at the door of the pro-life constituency -- the consequence of its dogmatism and intransigence. I share its respect for fetal life, but I am perplexed by the refusal to find common ground with people outside the movement so as to ensure that, as far as is possible, pregnancy is always intended. The pro-lifer is almost always hostile to education that would help the hormone-driven young to protect themselves from random conception. Just think of the abortions that result each year from the urgent coupling of sexually naive, guilt-ridden teenagers. In the Netherlands, where young people are savvy and sexually informed, the abortion rate is a fraction of that in the United States. Moreover, those abstinence programs the pro-lifers called for seem to be doing more harm than good.

Last December, The New York Times published a report on a survey of the sexual practices of boys in the age range 15 to 19. The survey, undertaken by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, documents some of the bizarre and worrying consequences of these abstinence programs, particularly for girls. Abstinence has come to be defined as anything other than vaginal sex. So now, young women in high school are servicing their male classmates with oral and anal sex.

Health screening shows that some of these girls are contracting pharyngeal gonorrhea. Linda Alexander of the American Social Health Association had this to say: "We are seeing more evidence of anal sex in cultures with a high value on technical virginity, and it often causes lacerations and micro-abrasion that can lead to infections. You have to worry about AIDS. And we have also heard that some girls use muscle relaxants, which can also be risky."

The contradictory nature of the pro-life movement shows up in other ways. …